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Maldives: Journalists' prison

The repression on independent media in Maldives continues unabated. Not surprisingly, the South Asia Press Commission (SAPC) in its 2006 Annual Report described Maldives as a “journalists' prison”.

In a latest repression, on 19 January 2007, Minivan News journalist Phillip Wellman was expelled and banned for two years from returning to Maldives on the fictitious ground that he did not have “proper authorization” to visit the country. Phillip Wellman was summoned by the immigration officials three days after his arrival in Male on a tourist visa which was valid for thirty days. But the immigration authorities reportedly refused to give him the reasons for his expulsion in writing. Phillip Wellman's expulsion is the latest in a series of attacks on the freedom of the press in Maldives. Earlier on 4 November 2006, he had been expelled from Maldives along with Graham Quick, a photographer with Britain's Observer newspaper.

I. Absolute denial of press freedom

The government of Maldives claims that it is enhancing the role of media and upholding the protection and promotion of human rights in consonance with the “Roadmap for Democratic Reforms” announced in March 2005. But on the ground the government of Maldives has been suppressing press freedom.

Many independent media journalists have either been facing trial or have already been convicted. Abdulla Saeed (Fahala) of Minivan Daily was sentenced to life imprisonment on 19 April 2006 on alleged trumped up drug charges, and Ahmed Abbas, a well-known political cartoonist, is serving a six-month sentence for a quote he gave to Minivan Daily.

Minivan Daily's sub editor, Nazim Sattar is currently facing trial for “disobedience to order” over an article that appeared in Minivan Daily on 2 August 2005. On 17 January 2007, the trial of Nazim Sattar was postponed and no date for next hearing was given.

Minivan Daily journalist Mohamed Yooshau was arrested on 9 April 2006 in Gaaf Dhaal, Thinadhoo prior to an opposition protest. He was initially charged with “terrorism” but the charge was later reduced to “disobedience to order” under the Penal Code for allegedly thumping his fist on the Atoll Chief's desk on 25 January 2006. He was released from police custody on 24 July 2006 following the Westminster House Agreement between the Maldivian Democratic Party and the government of Maldives, but was summoned to court again on 12 December 2006 and the trial continues.

Many other journalists have been victims of continued harassment and intimidation by the State for writing or publishing articles expressing dissent. On 27 November 2006, the editor of Sandhaanu Magazine, Mohamed Rilwan, was summoned to Male police station for publishing an article by a contributor which appeared in the 33rd edition of the publication that referred to President Gayoom as a “despot.” Mohamed Rilwan was questioned about the author of the article.

The government has also denied licenses to the private broadcasting media.

II. The Defamation law: New Singapore

In an attempt to bankrupt the media by filing defamation charges, the Ministry of Justice sought to bring a draconian “Defamation Bill” which proposed a compensation of Rf. 1,000,000 to be paid by any newspaper to the defamed party, and had allowed defamation cases to be tried up to four months after an offence had been committed. While in the Defamation Act adopted on 21 January 2007, the compensation was reduced to Rf. 5,000, the media personnel could still face the music.

Earlier, defamation was a criminal offence under the Penal Code. The government claimed that the Defamation Act will improve the quality of reporting in the country and provide “the right to the protection of the law against unlawful attacks on a person's honour and reputation”. But in reality, this law is nothing but a tool to further suppress the freedom of expression and the right to dissent in Maldives.

Under the Defamation Act, defamation has been defined vaguely and in broadest terms to include “honour” or “reputation” of a person whether living or dead or such person's family members. A defamatory statement has been defined as “a statement made … by a person using spoken words, written words, sounds, printed words, gesture, signs or bodily movement which portrays, may be interpreted or conveys a defamatory message”. Going by this definition, it is conclusive that the law will be misused as a blanket cover against any criticism of the misdeeds or misrule of the government authorities, and virtual ban any kind of reporting about maladministration.

On 21 January 2007, Attorney General Dr. Hassan Saeed stated that two more new press regulations - one on press freedom and the other on access to information – will be implemented under a Presidential Decree within a week.

III. Where are the reforms?

Some of the key components of the “Roadmap for the Reform Agenda” were strengthening the system of governance, promoting and strengthening the protection of human rights, enhancing the independence of the judiciary, developing multiparty political system and enhancing the role of the media, among others. But none of them has been realized. Till date no step has been taken to separate the judiciary from the executive. Although political parties were allowed to register in June 2005, there is little political freedom in the country as any anti-government protest is crushed with force and the political leaders continue to be arrested and imprisoned in politically motivated trials. Since the government does not tolerate any dissent, all claims of providing freedom of the press and expression stand exposed.

The continued crackdown on the free media and opposition political party activists, and the enactment of the defamation law and proposed press regulations through Presidential decrees show that President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom has put the socalled reform process in the back burner.

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