Closure of news outlets signals further erosion of media freedom in the Maldives

News outlets in the Maldives are closing down, one after another. The story at each publication is different, sometimes complicated, but the outcome is the same: journalists are facing a tougher time doing their jobs.

On July 3, a Maldives court barred journalists from the paper Haveeru, which is involved in an ownership dispute, from seeking employment at other media organizations until February 2018, news accounts reported. The court said Haveeru had suffered damages after mass resignations. Dozens of journalists had flocked a few months earlier to Mihaaru, a new paper and online news website set up in the wake of the dispute that led to Haveeru, the country’s oldest and most widely circulated newspaper, being closed.

If these journalists continue working they face possible arrest, and if they leave they face the prospect of lengthy unemployment. “If we continue, the Home Ministry can enforce the order and take back the operating license of Mihaaru. If we still continue, we can be arrested and charged individually,” assistant editor Ali Naafiz told the Maldives Independent. Mihaaru staff said they plan to appeal the ruling.

Some journalists believe the court decision was intended to deal a blow to Mihaaru, which in the past few weeks has attempted to fill the void left by shuttered outlets. In a statement shared with CPJ, Mihaaru said that the court decision “is part of a much wider and unprecedented crackdown by the government on media freedom.”

Haveeru was closed in April following an ownership dispute in which a court in March ordered the outlet to halt its print edition. On April 2, a judge ordered Haveeru to involve new shareholders in its management, including in editorial decisions, reports said. The Haveeru Media Group, the paper’s parent company, instead shut Haveeru and took its website offline.

The closure, along with other concerning press freedom issues, including proposed legislation on defamation, led to protests that month during which 18 journalists were arrested. Most were strip-searched, some twice, Zaheena Rasheed, an editor at The Maldives Independent, who was among those arrested, told CPJ.

Some journalists said such moves are politically motivated. One journalist, who was not named, told The Maldives Independent, “It’s not just the civil court order, everything that’s been happening for over a year now shows that this is planned, targeted and politically motivated.”

Also in April, regional news website AdduLIVE was blocked by the country’s telecom regulator on the orders of the home minister, reports said. The Home Ministry said the online site was blocked for not complying with registration requirements, but AdduLIVE staff said they believe they were blocked over the site’s critical reporting on allegations of corruption against the First Lady. A complaint about the article was filed with the regulator Maldives Media Council, reports said.

Last month, the independent news website Channel News Maldives (CNM) was shuttered. One of the owners, who has majority shares in the site, attributed the closure to business reasons, but the website’s co-owner and editor-in-chief, Ismail Rasheed, told reporters he believed that government pressure aimed at stopping CNM’s reporting was behind the closure. He told the Maldives Independent, “Influential government officials […] have been trying to erase this paper’s existence when their first attempt at making us sing their praises failed.”

The Department of Information did not immediately respond to CPJ’s request for comment on claims of a crackdown on the critical press.

On July 18, Ibrahim Hussain Shihab, the international spokesperson at the President’s Office, responded to CPJ’s request for comment about the recent spate of news outlets being closed. He said, “Rumors and allegations continue to be reported online, however should you inquire of regulatory bodies, the owners of the organizations or consider recent events and trends you would get a clearer picture of why the organizations chose to shut down operations.”

In June, CNM reported on allegations that a charity founded by First Lady Fathimath Ibrahim had distributed packets of dates, which the government had received as a Ramadan gift from Saudi Arabia, under the charity’s name. The government denied the allegation and the First Lady’s office did not respond to requests for comment from the news site, reports said. The Maldives Independent described CNM as “a thorn in the side of the government, exposing corruption and human rights abuses” since it began publishing in 2011.

Shihab, from the President’s Office, told CPJ on July 18 “The allegations of corruption against the First Lady are allegations alone, they have not been proven and additionally have been refuted officially on her behalf.”

Meanwhile, four journalists from the pro-opposition Raajje TV are on trial on charges of obstructing law enforcement officers while covering anti-government protests and a security threat. One of journalists also faces a charge of assaulting a police officer. The trials are ongoing, according to Rasheed, who has been tracking the cases.

These developments do little to instill confidence in the country, which became a multiparty democracy in 2008 after decades of authoritarian rule. The closure of one outlet after another and the growing challenges for journalists there risk compromising the vital free flow of information.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This blog post has been updated to include responses from the international spokesperson at the President’s Office.]