The latest protest by a group of journalists in Male has attracted widespread international attention, forcing the authorities to release 19 journalists who were detained for 10 hours.
On Sunday, the journalists took out a demonstration against “crackdown” on media freedom. Pepper spray was used to disperse them and the agitators, who were arrested for “obstruction of Police duty, disobeying Police orders and committing illegal actions,” were released later in the day.
According to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the principal Opposition party, Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), the issues included the proposed law to criminalise defamation; the reported recommendation of members of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPP) to be considered for nomination to the broadcasting commission; the Criminal Court’s ban on reporters from several media outlets and the protracted investigation into the disappearance of a journalist, Ahmed Rilwan, in 2014. The MDP spokesperson, Hamid Abdul Gafoor, described the “crackdown: as “yet another blow to press freedom in the Maldives.” He wanted the government to recall “repressive legislation” against the media.
The Maldives High Commission in Colombo said the protest was held near the President’s Office, “which is a high security zone.” The international spokesperson of the President’s Office, Ibrahim Hussain Shihab, contended, quoting police, that pepper spray was used when [the] protesters obstructed them from carrying out their duties and scaled the security barricades put in place.”
However, the Western countries were swift to express their solidarity with the journalists. On Monday, the United States’ Ambassador to Sri Lanka and Maldives, Atul Keshap, during his visit to Male, met the journalists. Juergen Morhard, German Ambassador for Sri Lanka and Maldives, tweeted: “Journalism is NOT a crime- very disturbing to hear about the many arrests of peacefully demonstrating journalists,” while UK’s Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Hugo Swire and Canada’s High Commissioner for two Asian countries, Shelley Whiting, expressed their concerns.
On the legislation regarding defamation and the nomination to the broadcasting commission, Mr. Shihab replied that the issues had to be addressed through Members of Parliament and the Majlis. On the journalist’s disappearance, he said the police’s investigation revealed that Mr. “Rilwan was targeted, through surveillance, and abducted.” As for the Criminal Court’s ban, he termed courts in his country as “independent state institutions” and said judicial oversight bodies and the courts themselves could be approached by professional bodies to represent the case of the media.