Reporters Without Borders voiced fears that 22 January elections in the Maldives had virtually no chance of being free and fair as promised by the government because of a striking absence of press freedom.
Control over both public and private media wielded by President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, his family and supporters was a flagrant violation of Article 25 of the Constitution that guarantees "the right to express ones conscience and ideas verbally, in writing or by any other method", it said.
The worldwide press freedom organisation strongly regretted that the government, which postponed elections after the tsunami disaster, had not taken steps to ensure free media coverage of the campaign for a new Majlis (parliament).
The Maldives were ranked, in October 2004, in 157th position out of 167, in Reporters Without Borders world press freedom index.
The organisation urged international observers currently in the Maldives, particularly those from the Commonwealth headed by the former president of Mauritius, to refer to the flagrant lack of press freedom in their final reports.
The opposition has since the start of the campaign been all but squeezed out from broadcasts on state-run Voice of Maldives radio and from public television.
The country has three privately-owned dailies and around a dozen magazines. Leading newspaper, Haveeru, is controlled by the former sports and youth minister. The daily Aafathis belongs to President Gayoom’s brother-in-law while the third, Miadhu Daily, is under the head of state’s direct control. Information minister, Ahmed Abdullah, heads up the editorial team.
The magazines and private-owned tabloid newspapers enjoy more freedom, even though presidential associates have positions on most of the management and editorial boards.
The government also maintains a tight grip on publication licences. The Information Ministry revoked 22 licences in March 2003, for "illegal publication", including the Monday Times which was already unable to appear since all the country’s printers had refused to print it since 2002.
Three cyberdissidents, Mohamed Zaki, Ahmad Didi and Fathimath Nisreen have been deprived of their freedom for launching an online newsletter Sandhaanu. They were found guilty of "insulting the president" and "attempting to overthrow the government (...) by creating the newsletter entitled Sandhaanu", even though the divehi-language site did not post any calls to violence. Mohamed Zaki and Ahmad Didi are under house arrest in Malé, while Fathimath Nisreen has just been banished again to Feeail Island. Another cyberdissident, Naushad Waheed, is under house arrest after being sentenced to 15 years in prison in October 2002. Reporters Without Borders repeated its call for the release of these four cyberdissidents.
The president on 31 December 2004 lifted charges of "treason" and "disturbing public order" against dozens of opposition supporters who were arrested for taking part in a demonstration in Malé in August 2004. The four cyberdissidents were unfortunately not included.
News websites, including maldivesculture.com and dhivehiobserver.com, are inaccessible in the Maldives while shortwave broadcasts on London-based station Minivan (Free Radio) are regularly scrambled in Malé. These media mainly give a platform to opposition figures and exiles.