Re-elected with 90.28 per cent of the votes in October 2003, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom is Asia’s longest-serving ruler. He cannot stand press criticism. Three people who produced an electronic newsletter are in prison. Several independent journalists were threatened in 2003.
Article 25 of the constitution guarantees all citizens the right to express their beliefs and ideas "orally, in writing or by any other means" but several laws restrict free expression. A 1968 law bans speeches and articles that are "hostile to Islam" or "contrary to national security" or "insulting." The press law restricts who can be given a licence to publish a newspaper. An editor or publisher must be at least 25 years old and a journalism graduate, and must have at least five years experience in journalism
But there is no faculty of journalism in the Maldives. And while it is up to the information ministry and the office of the president to grant the licence, the ministries of defence, justice and national security, the criminal court, the civil court and the family court must all give their approval. A journalist in the capital, Male, said several requests for licences had been awaiting presidential approval for more than a year.
Editors are responsible under criminal law for all the articles they publish and may be questioned at any time on the content of their news reports. Mohamad Bushry, the editor of the weekly Monday Times, was summoned and reprimanded several times before finally having his licence withdrawn by the authorities in March 2003.
The government radio station, The Voice of the Maldives, and the state-owned television accord a very limited space to opposition voices. But, as an official website recognises, there are no independent broadcast media in the Maldives. The most important daily newspaper, Haveeru, is controlled by the youth and sports ministry. The daily Aafathis is owned by President Gayoom’s son-in-law. The country’s other daily, Miadhu, is under the president’s direct control and the health minister heads the editorial staff.
The magazines and tabloids are freer, even if associates of the president are on most of their editorial boards. Journalists sometimes report certain governmental excesses. But the authorities are expected to take tougher line with the press in the run-up to the parliamentary elections scheduled for 2004.
The authorities responded angrily to criticism from international human rights organisations in 2003. An Amnesty International report on torture and arbitrary detention was deemed "false and baseless." The embassy of the Maldives in London categorically rejected a Reporters Without Borders report about the unjustified detention of the editors of the e-mail newsletter Sandhaanu. In September, the president ruled out any link between rioting that followed the death of a youth in detention and his dictatorial policies. In October, the government accused the BBC of trying to destabilise the Maldives after it carried a report which included interviews with government opponents. Following international pressure, the president agreed to create a national human rights commission in December.
Four journalists imprisoned
Mohamed Zaki and Ahmad Didi, two of the three people who were sentenced to life imprisonment in July 2002 for producing the electronic newsletter Sandhaanu, were still in prison serving their sentences at the end of 2003, but the third person, editor Ibrahim Luthfee, had escaped. Fathimath Nisreen, who as Luthfee’s assistant was given a 10-year sentence, was also still in prison. Her sentence was reduced to five years on 13 November.
Luthfee gave his police guard the slip on 24 May while in nearby Sri Lanka for medical treatment. He was suffering from chronic conjunctivitis, aggravated by poor prison conditions. After refusing many times, the authorities had finally given permission for him to go to Sri Lanka for an operation. He left for Sri Lanka accompanied by two policemen and his older brother, Mohamed Luthfee, on 19 May. The day he escaped, his brother was repatriated to the Maldives where he was arrested. He was freed a few days later without being charged. But one of the members of his brother’s police escort was placed in custody and faced a long prison sentence.
In a letter sent to the local media shortly after his escape, Ibrahim Luthfee said he feared for his safety. The Maldivian authorities contacted Interpol intelligence in an attempt to locate him. After spending several months in hiding in Sri Lanka he finally succeeded in leaving the island with UNHCR help.
Luthfee, Zaki, Didi and Nisreen were all convicted of "insulting the president" and of "trying to overthrow the government" by publishing a fortnightly electronic newsletter in Divehi, the local language, although it contained no calls for violence. They were arrested in January 2002 and charged in May. They were not allowed to appeal, after being convicted. Luthfee, 37, and Didi, 50, recognised during the trial that they had created Sandhaanu in 2001, while Zaki, 50, a resident in Malaysia, was in charge of distributing it by e-mail in PDF format to 6,500 subscribers. Luthfee told the judges that he was ready to prove, point by point, the accusations he had made against President Gayoom in the newsletter.
They were all imprisoned on Mafushi island in very poor conditions. After Luthfee’s escape, Zaki and Didi were punished by being transferred to the Dhoonidhoo island detention centre where they were placed in solitary confinement for six months. They were mistreated and were allowed no visits. After the September riots which were linked to the death of a detainee in Male prison, they were returned to Mafushi island.
After Nisreen’s sentence was reduced to five years, the prison department (an offshoot of the interior ministry) decided to banish her to Feeail atoll, south of the capital, Male. It is a common form of punishment in the Maldives to send someone to live on an atoll without any resources. Nisreen’s family was nonetheless allowed to visit her regularly there.
The police arrested about 100 people during the rioting in Male on 22 September, including Jennifer Latheef, a young documentary film-maker and free expression activist. The daughter of Mohamed Latheef (a journalist and pro-democracy leader living in exile), she was put under house arrest a few weeks later. Her freedom of movement was very limited and she continued to be charged with anti-government activities. But the exact grounds for her arrest were not specified. In the past, she has made documentaries about violence against women, she has protested against police violence and has defended her father’s political positions.
A journalist detained
Adam Haleem, a journalist with the daily Haveeru and an editorial assistant with the fortnightly Huvaas, was arrested by national security agents on the night of 3 July 2003. He was put under house arrest the next day and was finally freed a week later. He had reported in Huvaas that a foetus was secretly buried on a beach on the northern island of Dhiddhoo and that, while the Male authorities called for an investigation, a judge hushed up the case to protect the island’s governor, Adam Saeed. Haleem refused to identify his sources during interrogation although he was threatened with a long prison sentence for inciting "sedition."
Harassment and obstruction
In a release on 4 March 2003, the ministry of information, arts and culture announced the withdrawal of 22 newspaper licences for "irregular publication." Most of the newspapers were no longer being published or were appearing irregularly. They included the weekly Monday Times and the magazines Rankolhu, Faiymini, Koveli and Kokaa. Journalists speaking on condition of anonymity described it as a "black day" for the Maldivian press. The Monday Times had not been able to come out since 2002 when all of the country’s printers had refused to print it.
Dhanfulhi, another of the targeted magazines, had just brought out a new issue with an article by Mohamed Nasheed (a journalist who has been imprisoned many times in recent years) about the 1953 coup that overthrew the first president after independence. Some journalists viewed the withdrawal of licences as an "act of intimidation" by the Gayoom government. The same release also said the government had amended the press law. The amended version of article 29 allows the government to withdraw a publication’s licence if it skips three issues, while an editor or publisher whose licence is withdrawn must wait six months before applying for a licence for a new publication.