One of the largest TV stations in the Maldives, Raajje TV, says authorities are using newly recriminalized defamation law to try to shut it down by levying exorbitant fines.
The regulatory Maldives Broadcast Commission (MBC) has fined the opposition-aligned 24-hour TV news channel for defamation three times in the past seven months, for a total over 1.7 million Maldivian rufiyaaa (more than US$100,000). Employees at the station, citing the large fines imposed over a short time frame, say authorities are targeting it for critical reporting. In a statement emailed to CPJ, Raajje TV said these actions "are politically motivated and with the aim of muzzling free media in the Maldives."
On March 7, MBC fined Raajje TV and a former Raajje journalist 200,000 rufiyaa and 50,000 rufiyaa, respectively, for allegedly damaging a city worker's "reputation and character." On April 6, Raajje TV paid its fine. Hours later on the same day, the MBC fined Raajje TV again, this time for 1 million rufiyaa, for airing an opposition rally speech live on October 26, 2016, that it "deemed defamatory towards President Abdulla Yameen," Aishath Shaany, head of the English department at Raajje TV, told CPJ. On October 8, as Raajje TV was commemorating the four-year anniversary of an arson attack on the station, the MBC fined Raajje TV for 500,000 rufiyaa for a parliamentarian's comments aired live on July 28, Shaany told CPJ. MBC said airing the comments threatened national security, but the parliamentarian was not fined for defamation, Shaany said. CPJ was unable to find contact information for the parliamentarian.
Mohamed Shahyb, president of the MBC, denied that the fines were imposed arbitrarily and told CPJ that MBC only adjudicates complaints, without targeting any specific station. Shahyb said incidents of on-air broadcasts with unsubstantiated allegations toward individuals "affecting their human dignity" were on the increase because of political turbulence. The regulator bills itself as independent, but all seven members are nominated by the president and approved by the parliament.
The defamation act allows the regulator to investigate and take action against media outlets and reporters on its own initiative and at the same time individuals can also lodge a complaint, Ibrahim Riffath, a lawyer in the Maldives who is not involved in the Raajje case, told CPJ.
The fines levied on Raajje TV come amid a broader crackdown on free speech and journalism in the Maldives.
The Defamation and Freedom of Speech Act became law in August 2016, after President Abdulla Yameen Abdulla Gayoom and the ruling party came under intense scrutiny for allegations of corruption, which the president has denied. The Act re-criminalized defamation after prosecution was suspended in 2005 and former President Mohamed Nasheed formally repealed defamation from the penal code in 2009, Riffath said.
Riffath expressed concern over the "draconian nature" of the act and said it could be used to silence freedom of expression and "eliminate the pivotal role media plays in holding the government accountable."
During the law's draft phase, Yameen said it was necessary to put some limits on fundamental rights such as freedom of expression, according to news reports. At the time, CPJ said the law would "further stifle the beleaguered press and marks a significant step backward from press freedom in the Maldives." Criminal defamation laws are often used as tool to jail journalists and silence dissent, particularly by authoritarian governments, CPJ has found.
Miuvaan Mohamed, a senior video journalist at Raajje TV, said authorities are targeting the station because it regularly reports on corruption. He said the government wants to shut Raajje down with presidential elections upcoming in 2018.
"People clearly understand that Raajje TV is the most watched TV station in the Maldives, and therefore the government is very, very scared about it," Ahmed Saleem, managing director at Raajje TV, said. "This is one way to [shut us down]--torture, torture, torture, and then finally we come to our knees and say okay this is not possible at all."
Maldives' law criminalizes any speech that can be deemed "defamatory," including comments deemed anti-Islam and comments that threaten national security or contradict general social norms--vague terms that, combined with arbitrary implementation, can make practicing journalism extremely risky. Additionally, the regulations and guidelines under which the MBC can impose fines have not been published, Mohamed said. In its statement, Raajje TV alleged that the fines were imposed without proper investigation.
Under the Act, journalists can be fined between 50,000 and 5 million rufiyaa and media organizations can be fined between 50,000 and 2 million rufiyaa. Individuals who do not pay the fine could face a three to six month jail term, while news organizations that do not pay could have their licenses revoked. Fines must be paid within 30 days, Shaany said. The fines cannot be appealed until they have been paid in full, Riffath said. The appeals process is handled by civil courts, according to Saleem and Riffath.
The exorbitant size of the fines strengthens the argument that the Act is a political tool to silence criticism of the government, since media outlets and journalists are unlikely to be able to bear the financial burden, Riffath said.
Once the fines have been paid, the appeals process moves extremely slowly, Saleem said. There has been no progress on the appeals Raajje has filed in civil court against the two defamation cases from earlier this year, he said.
Shahyb said Raajje's first appeal was cancelled by the civil court and that the second appeal was in progress. He said MBC could not comment further on the process of court proceedings.
Raajje employees said they fear the worst-case scenario--that they may not be able to pay the fines and their license will be revoked, so the station will be forced to shut down. They worry about the precedent this would set.
"You can imagine the psychological impact that will have on our staff, on the station, on the business, on supporters," Saleem said. "This is a very serious issue ... If Raajje TV can be shut down, then maybe other things can be shut down."
For now, the entire Raajje TV staff is on the ground to help raise enough money to pay off the latest fine due November 7.
"We have gone to almost every island, we have crossed oceans...we have run a door-to-door campaign on the streets," Saleem said. "This is what our staff is doing right now--they are not doing journalism, they are begging for help and assistance just to keep it alive."
EDITOR'S NOTE: The seventh paragraph has been updated to correct former President Mohamed Nasheed's role in decriminalizing defamation.