The Maldives Journalists’ Association (MJA) has expressed concern over certain clauses in the Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Bill passed this week that it says will directly impact reporting by local and international media organisations.
The bill, passed by parliament on December 26, includes a number of measures such as banning demonstrations outside private residences and government buildings, as well as establishing reporting limitations on media not accredited with the state.
MJA President and board member of the Maldives Media Council (MMC) ‘Hiriga’ Ahmed Zahir stated today that the association has appealed to Attorney General Azima Shakoor and President Mohamed Waheed Hassan to review some of the clauses in the legislation.
According to the bill, only journalists who are accredited by the Maldives Broadcasting Commission (MBC) will be authorised to cover and report on gatherings and police activities in the country. The bill would also require MBC to establish a regulation on accrediting journalists within three months of its ratification.
Zahir claimed that in view of existing laws and regulations, the MBC is mandated with the oversight of broadcast media, while it was the MMC that had been entrusted with regulating all media outlets in the country.
“For one thing, I do not believe that a body appointed by the parliament will be able to undertake the accreditation of media persons in an independent manner free from any influence. We are seeing the MBC failing to address many existing issues even now, so we cannot support handing over additional responsibilities like this to such a body,” Zahir said.
Zahir also stated that in principle, the MJA did not approve of the idea of journalists having to get accredited before being able to report on events like protests. The MJA has stated that events and gatherings should ideally be accessible to all media outlets.
Zahir also raised concerns that foreign journalists coming to the Maldives would also be required to obtain additional accreditation. He said that international media was already faced with having to meet specific visa requirements and obtaining state approval.
“For example, [international reporters] cannot really cover events if they are just here on a tourist visa, that won’t be allowed anywhere in the world,” he said.
However, due to the current political situation in the Maldives and allegations of some media personnel carrying out “irresponsible activities”, the MJA stated it could ultimately agree on some form of accreditation process.
Zahir nonetheless emphasized that even in such a case, accreditation should be done by a self-regulatory body with representation from media outlets in the country.
“From the existing bodies, we would prefer that the responsibility be handed over to the MMC. The council has representatives from all major media outlets in the country. Its members will respect individual rights and can do an independent job,” Zahir said.
On the back of the MJA’s concerns about the bill’s impact on media, Attorney General Azima Shakoor has been quoted in local media as accepting some form of review may be needed.
“Although the said bill regulates a different issue, one stipulation in this contradicts with the mandates of MBC and MMC. Hence, the best line of action may be to correct this through an immediate amendment. I feel that would be the most convenient solution now,” she was quoted as saying.
The bill further states that if an accredited journalist is suspected of being involved in a gathering’s activities, they would be treated in the same manner of those assembled as to the discretion of the police. The bill, however, does not define what could be considered such an act.
Commenting on the vague nature of the clause, Zahir told Minivan News that loose phrasing seen in the bill potentially left too much interpretation at the discretion of the police and their powers.
“The bill should more clearly define what exactly it means when saying a journalist is ‘seen to be participating in a protest’. They should set down specific actions. For example, it’s not a problem for a journalist to go into a crowd of people gathered, they do not necessarily have to stay behind police lines all the time. Just them walking into a crowd should not be defined as participation. It has to depend on a certain action they do alongside protesters,” Zahir explained.
Zahir stated that although media personnel – as individuals – are granted the constitutional right to participate in demonstrations, the MJA did not encourage such actions.
In the initial draft of Freedom of Peaceful Assembly bill, the accreditation of journalists had been put down as a responsibility of the MMC, as reported in local news websites. However, the responsibility had been transferred to the MBC by the time the bill had been revised at committee level and submitted to the parliament for final voting.
MBC Vice President Mohamed Shaheeb was not responding to calls at the time of press.