Harassment of journalists, activists as well as anti-protest decree erodes freedoms in the Maldives

Harassment of journalists, activists as well as anti-protest decree erodes freedoms in the Maldives
Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, the president of the Maldives

The state of civic space in the Maldives remains ‘obstructed’ in ratings published by the CIVICUS Monitor.

In recent months, journalists have faced harassment for covering protests while a right to information activist was threatened. Human Rights Watch released a report that highlighted how the authorities were failing to protect freedom of speech and association while the de-registration of human rights group the Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN) violated due process. A UN expert who visited the country raised concerns around the constriction of civic space and the digital harassment of women. The government has issued a decree restricting anti-India protests undermining the right to peaceful assembly.

Expression

Harassment against journalists covering protests as press freedom ranking drops

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and its affiliate the Maldives Journalist Association (MJA) reported on 23rd May 2022 that police allegedly harassed journalists at a protest on 18th May 2022. According to the groups, a police officer named ‘Solih’ threatened and harassed journalists and media workers during their coverage of an ‘India Out’ protest.

The ‘India Out’ campaign began in 2020, led by opposition leader and former president Abdulla Yameen of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), against the alleged presence of Indian military personnel in the Maldives.

The Maldives Media Council (MMC) condemned the reported harassment by police and called for an investigation into the incident. The MJA and Transparency Maldives urged the authorities to protect the right to freedom of expression enshrined in the Maldives’ constitution, in response to “concerning police conduct”.

IFJ said: “Harassment and threats to journalists in the field contravene the right to freedom of expression enshrined in the Maldives’ constitution. Journalists must be allowed to operate in the field without fear of attack or persecution. The IFJ urges the Maldivian government to act swiftly to investigate the case and arrest the perpetrators.”

In a separate incident, on 1st June 2022, a video journalist from VNEWS was pepper-sprayed in the face by police as he was filming police action during an opposition protest.

Maldives dropped 15 spots from 72nd to 87th place in the latest Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) published in May 2022. The group said that intractable impunity taints the press freedom situation in the Maldives. Meanwhile, the issue of sexual harassment of women journalists is slowly emerging.

Mob forcibly enter news outlet to harass journalists

On 29th May 2022, a group of people forcibly entered the office of Maldivian news outlet Mihaaru and threatened journalists and media workers, accusing the news outlet of publishing a fabricated news report. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and its affiliate, the Maldives Journalists Association (MJA), condemn the attack and urge the Maldivian police to expedite the investigation.

The group expressed dissatisfaction with one of the outlet’s recent news articles and harassed and threatened the journalists and media staff present in the office. Mihaaru’s managing editor, Ahmed Hamdhoon, said the group was targeting a single reporter, who was not present at the office at the time. The unidentified assailants continued to harass the news outlet on social media, citing misinformation with several Mihaaru articles.

The MJA said: “An attack on journalists and media-persons on any pretention is not acceptable. We urge the police to take necessary actions.”

Threats and intimidation against right to information activist

In April 2022, the Association for Democracy in the Maldives released a press statement calling on the police to investigate the direct threats and intimidation received by civil society activist Aiman Latheef on 6th April from a person from the Male City Council after he filed a Right to Information (RTI) application. Latheef is associated with the Association for Democracy in the Maldives and is a RTI practitioner. However, the organisation reported that the police said there was not enough information to investigate the case.

Association

Authorities failing to protect freedom of speech and association

A recent report by Human Rights Watch in April 2022 highlighted how authorities have not credibly addressed threats to free expression by religious extremist groups. HRW said that the Solih administration has not fulfilled election promises to reform the criminal justice system to address threats to free expression. The government has also often relented to pressure from politicians and powerful religious groups instead of upholding free speech and association.

HRW also found that when clerics and social media activists label their critics as anti-Islam and threaten violence, the government has frequently failed to prosecute those responsible for the attacks. Those targeted include women’s rights activists, defenders of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, journalists and bloggers.

De-registration of human rights group MDN violated due process

Human Rights Watch also highlighted the arbitrary de-registration of the Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN), which evidenced the deeply rooted extremism and the influence of fundamentalist ideologies in state institutions.

As previously documented in September 2019, MDN and its staff became the target of a social media campaign because of a 2015 report the organisation had published on the rise in violent extremism in Maldives, which their opponents claimed included language insulting Islam. In October 2019, MDN publicly acknowledged that some of the language in the report could be misunderstood and said it would incorporate revisions. HRW reported that this, however, did not quell the campaign and in November 2019 the government yielded to pressure from religious leaders and political opposition figures and ordered the dissolution of MDN. The MDN leadership was forced into exile because of violent threats from extremist groups. The police failed to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the threats.

In May 2022, MDN stated that an investigative report compiled by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs - that the police and other state institutions relied on to persecute the MDN authors and arbitrarily shut down the group - was never shared with MDN or the authors of the 2015 report until one of the authors filed a lawsuit in 2020.

According to MDN, the report of the Islamic Ministry does not contain any information alluding to a joint investigation with the police, which demonstrates that the ministry conducted the investigation themselves. This violates fundamental processes such as right of reply and shows malicious interpretation of the authors’ intention in several instances, in addition to serving a death sentence on each of the authors before a judicial process has taken place.

UN experts raise concerns around constriction of civic space

In May 2022, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the UN Special Rapporteur on the protection and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism visited the Maldives. At the end of her visit, among other things, she expressed deep concern regarding the constriction of civic space and challenges faced by human rights defenders and civil society actors in the country, particularly the digital harassment of women.

She also urged the government to bring the Anti-Terrorism Act into full compliance with international human rights standards. She also called for judicial independence to be assured, that lawyers must be able to function effectively to defend persons charged with such offences, and the police must be accountable for any violations committed during investigations.

Peaceful Assembly

Decree issued restricting anti-India protests as a threat to national security

Protests linked to the ‘India Out’ campaign have persisted in the Maldives, alleging India’s military presence and political influence in the Maldives. Led by an opposition coalition comprising the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) and the People’s National Congress (PNC), the protests have been met with restrictions and arrests.

On 21st April 2022, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih issued a decree, ordering a halt to the ‘India Out’ campaign. The president, in his decree titled ‘Stopping Planned Activities to Incite Hatred Towards Specific Countries Under Various Slogans’, said the National Security Council had decided the campaign posed a threat to national security.

The council decided that political campaigns targeting a specific country posed a threat to national security, and that activities that incite hatred towards specific countries must be stopped by security forces. The president also said that the campaign was a deliberate attempt to hinder the longstanding relations between the Maldives and India, and international efforts to maintain security in the region.

Prior to the issuance of the decree, police issued a statement ordering the removal of all ‘India Out’ banners hanging from buildings in the capital. Police also reportedly stormed the opposition PPM headquarters and the residence of opposition leader, former president Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, to remove ‘India Out’ banners hanging from the buildings.

In May 2022, Amnesty International expressed concern over the decree issued by the Maldivian government banning the protests and the subsequent crackdown by authorities on peaceful protestors and journalists.

Amnesty International South Asia said in a tweet: “We are deeply concerned by reports and visuals of the crackdown on peaceful protestors and journalists in the Maldives and a recent decree restricting the right to protest in the country on the pretext of containing threats to national security posed by the "India Out" campaign”.

Human Rights Watch noted that among President Solih’s campaign pledges was a commitment to abolish laws that had been used to curtail citizens’ right to freedom of assembly. However, despite the ruling party holding a supermajority of 65 seats in parliament, in November 2020, the parliament rejected proposed amendments to the Freedom of Assembly Act that would have nullified provisions granting the authorities power to restrict protests. At least 56 MPs voted for the amendments to be sent back to the Parliamentary Committee on National Security and Foreign Relations. To date, the committee has yet to submit its review.