Maldivian riot police clash with supporters of ousted President Mohamed Nasheed in Male in March. (AFP)
Maldivian riot police clash with supporters of ousted President Mohamed Nasheed in Male in March. (AFP)

The Maldives backslides on press freedom

CPJ has been watching the Maldives with concern since its first democratically-elected President Mohamed Nasheed relinquished power in February following what he describes as a military coup. New President Mohamed Waheed Hassan says Nasheed’s resignation was voluntary and refuted criticism that his rule marked a return to the ways of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a dictator notorious for jailing his critics, according to CPJ research.  Yet press freedom is deteriorating under Hassan with the rise of partisan political strife and religious conservatism. 

Hassan has delayed elections until July 2013, leading to chaotic pro-election demonstrations by Nasheed’s party, the Maldivian Democratic Party, according to Agence France-Presse. Police detained private TV station Raajje TV’s news chief Asward Ibrahim Waheed and Cable News Maldives journalist Ali Naseer during protests on Monday, according to local independent news website Minivan News and international news reports.

The Maldives Journalists Association reported that the two had been participating in the protests as activists, in what they cited as a breach of ethics, according to Minivan. But Raajje TV gave the website a statement which described Waheed’s arrest as part of a pattern of police harassment. “The Maldives Police Service were discriminating against Raajje TV journalists and cameraman,” the statement said, according to Minivan. “Raajje TV journalists have been forced to live in fear as they have increasingly become targets of attacks by the national security forces, particularly the police service.”  Waheed told Minivan after his release, “[Police] were very verbally abusive. They said we have been waiting to get hold of a Raajje TV journalist, arrest him!”

The day of Mohamed Nasheed’s ouster, religious activists raided the National Museum in a destructive attack on the Maldives’ pre-Islamic heritage, destroying all but two or three valuable Buddhist artifacts, according to international news reports. That act set the tone for the rise of Islamic conservatives who had strongly opposed Nasheed’s more secularist leanings, according to international news reports. This, too, has had an impact on the media, with journalists increasingly likely to self-censor on religious issues.  

They have reason for concern. Ismail Rasheed, a secularist who blogged about gay rights, survived having his throat slashed by unidentified assailants in June, according to local and international news reports. Rasheed also broke news on his now-defunct blog, including a July 2009 piece on an underage girl being kept as a concubine that resulted in death threats, he told Minivan. “You have to make a public announcement that you are a Muslim. Otherwise we will kill you,” a gang threatened him days before he was knifed, according to Minivan News. He has left the country for his safety, international news reports said. President Hassan’s office denied the attack stemmed from Rasheed’s advocacy, telling AFP the blogger and former journalist was a gang member attacked by his rivals.

Reports of police brutality against journalists amid political chaos, and a vicious attack for writing about religious tolerance, are disturbing signs that the Maldives is backsliding on press freedom.  President Hassan must ensure that journalists are free to report if he wishes to distance himself from Gayoom’s legacy and stabilize the nation for elections.