New York, April 11, 2016--Maldivian prosecutors should drop charges against journalists and an executive from a pro-opposition television station, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. The charges come amid a mounting crackdown on press freedom in the country.
Mohamad Wisam and Leevaan Ali Nasir, journalists for the pro-opposition Raajje TV channel, were among 18 journalists arrested on April 3 who were either covering or participating in a protest against a series of measures that would constrict press freedom in the Maldives, according to press reports. Police held all the journalists except one overnight before releasing them, according to Zaheena Rasheed, an editor at Maldives Independent who was among those arrested. Police released Mohamed Shanoon after one hour, she told CPJ by email.
No one has been charged with any crime in connection with the April 3 protest, but on April 7, Wisam and Nasir were served summons to answer charges of obstructing police when they were arrested while covering security officials' attempts to defuse a bomb near the presidential palace in November 2015, according to press reports. On April 10, Raajje TV reported that prosecutors had brought charges of assaulting a police officer against its chief operating officer, Mohamed Fiyaz Moosa, in connection with that incident as well. Prosecutors also charged Wisam and opposition member of parliament Ahmed Mahloof with obstructing police in connection with a March 25, 2015, protest they were covering, according to reports.
In an April 8 statement, Raajje TV said that video of the protest exonerated Wisam and Naseer, and "clearly show[ed] these... journalists were vigilant in their duties as reporters to bring facts to the public." If convicted the journalists could face up to a year in prison, according to reports.
"The timing of the criminal charges against Raajje TV's staff suggests that they are retaliation for covering the government's mounting crackdown on press freedom," said CPJ's Asia program senior research associate, Sumit Galhotra. "Authorities' continuing pressure on journalists in the Maldives threatens to undermine the country's democracy."
The other journalists arrested during the April 3 protest included: Shafaa Hameed; Xiena Saeed; Hassan Mohamed; Hassan Moosa, of the Maldives Independent; Fazeena Ahmed; Aminath Shifleen; Asima Nizar; Ali Nafiz; Mohamed Sharuhaan; Hussain Shayah; Amaanee Ahmed, of Haveeru newspaper; Asward Ibrahim Waheed of Sangu TV; Mohamed Abdulla Shan, of V News; and Ahmed Haidhar, of Channel News Maldives.
They were protesting legislation proposed last month that would impose fines and potentially prison time for reports a judge rules defamatory, a March 2016 court order to suspend the print edition of the daily Haveeru, and the lack of visible progress in the investigation surrounding the abduction of journalist Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla, among other concerns, according to press reports.
The detained journalists were strip-searched before spending the night in what some of them said were rat-infested cells, and some of the female journalists among them were strip-searched a second time, according to press reports.
Authorities have singled out Raajje TV for harassment repeatedly in recent years, according to CPJ research. In October 2013, masked men set fire to its offices. The station's journalists have been assaulted repeatedly in recent years. No one has been held accountable for the attacks, according to the broadcaster.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This text has been updated to reflect that Ahmed Mahloof is a member of parliament and to correct the spelling of Leevaan Ali Nasir's name.