Freedom of the Press 2009 - Maldives
|Publication Date||1 May 2009|
|Cite as||Freedom House, Freedom of the Press 2009 - Maldives, 1 May 2009, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4b27420529.html [accessed 18 September 2014]|
Status: Partly Free
Legal Environment: 19 (of 30)
Political Environment: 20 (of 40)
Economic Environment: 17 (of 30)
Total Score: 56 (of 100)
(Lower scores = freer)
Covers events that took place between January 1, 2008, and December 31, 2008.
Status change explanation: The Maldives' status improved from Not Free to Partly Free due to a new constitution protecting freedom of expression, the opening of additional private radio and television stations, the release of a prominent journalist from life imprisonment, and a general loosening of restrictions after the country's first democratic presidential election in October.
While modestly eased media restrictions have been offset by crackdowns on journalists in recent years, the media environment improved significantly in 2008. By year's end, according to the U.S. State Department, most outlets were able to "report largely unfettered by government censorship or interference."
A new constitution passed in August protects freedom of expression, but it also places restrictions on speech deemed "contrary to the tenets of Islam." Consequently, foreign publications containing pornography and other material deemed objectionable to Islamic values remained prohibited.
Despite the improved constitution, the overall legal framework protecting free expression was weak. A series of media reform bills had yet to be passed by year's end, and defamation remained a criminal offense.
In October, the parliament passed a bill for the establishment of a Maldives Media Council, and it was ratified in November by outgoing president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. The council's mandate will reportedly include the development of a code of conduct for media workers, as well as the authority to receive complaints from the public and conduct inquiries. Although the council is to consist of media workers and members of the public who would ostensibly be independent, critics argued that the body's powers could be used to improperly punish journalists and that a purely self-regulatory mechanism would be preferable.
There was a loosening of government control over the state-run media, especially the main television station, TV Maldives, which prepared to transform itself into a more editorially independent public broadcaster. Such reforms yielded unprecedented coverage of the opposition and its presidential candidates, though observers also noted a pro-Gayoom bias in the run-up to the October presidential election. Opposition candidate Mohamed Nasheed nevertheless emerged victorious.
Journalists were less subject to arrest and harassment in 2008 than in past years. There were no new prosecutions of journalists, and the only arrest was that of a Minivan Daily photographer detained in March after allegedly receiving threats from a police officer who demanded video footage of police beating a lawmaker in 2006. A court reportedly dismissed the charges against the photographer in November.
In another indication that the judiciary may be moving toward greater protection for free expression, a court struck down a dubious drug conviction against Minivan Daily writer Abdullah Saeed in November. He was subsequently released from life imprisonment after spending nearly three years behind bars.
The reduction in assaults and intimidation of journalists and the loosening of editorial control over government-owned outlets reportedly contributed to an atmosphere of reduced self-censorship.
Though some print publications are still owned by Gayoom allies, the number of private radio stations increased during the year. The country's first private television channel, DhiTV, began operating in July, while several others prepared to open. In total, an estimated 200 private broadcast outlets and publications operated at year's end, according to the U.S. State Department. However, these were authorized through individual agreements with the government rather than new broadcasting legislation, limiting their legal protections. In an unexpected development, the Dhivehi-language Minivan Daily, which had played a key role in the democratic transition as one of few publications that was openly critical of the Gayoom government, announced its disbandment upon the inauguration of Nasheed as the new president.
The government did not generally interfere with the internet, which was accessed by 8.6 percent of the population in 2008. Previously restricted opposition-oriented websites, such as the Dhivehi Observer, were unblocked in 2008. In November, the website's editor, Ahmed Moosa, returned to the country after five years in exile. However, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs announced in late November that Christian websites would be blocked, arguing that they could negatively affect belief in Islam.