The questioning of two Haveeru journalists by police over a report on the alleged blackmail of MPs and other high profile figures through indecent images has been criticised by the Maldives Journalist Association (MJA) as a step to suppress free media in the country.
MJA President Ahmed ‘Hiriga’ Zahir said that the action taken by police in questioning Haveeru’s Ahmed Hamdhoon and Ismail Naseer was unprecedented under the current constitution.
The questioning represented a serious challenge in the country to investigative journalism and a denial of rights outlined under Article 28 of the constitution relating to freedom of the press.
Police confirmed that Hamdhoon and Naseer were questioned in relation to reports they had written on the police investigation into the use of false Facebook accounts to coerce hundreds of Maldivians into recording nude videos and pictures of themselves – material that would later be used to blackmail them.
The case has already led to the arrest of 14 people across the country. Hundreds of photos and videos claimed to be taken from a number of fake Facebook profiles were said to have been found by law enforcement officials on hard drives and laptops of the arrested suspects that were then alleged to have been used to blackmail figures from across Maldivian society, including government officials, MPs and senior businessmen.
It was these files and the case surrounding them that formed the basis of an article that Haveeru published on February 22 regarding the possible identity of those involved, which police have said was the basis for the questioning of the two journalists.
A media officer for the Maldives Police Service said they were unable to confirm what sort of questions the journalists were asked and if they may be called in for further questioning at a later date.
However, Ahmed Zahir at the MJA questioned why the police needed to summon the journalists about a story and images already thought to be in the public domain.
“I don’t think this was simply a case of police asking journalists to help them with an enquiry,” he said. “I personally believe it is an attempt to censor and suppress the Maldives media, which has been free.”
Minivan News this week reported that police have said that they would potentially prosecute any figures found to be genuinely featured in the material accrued through the Facebook profiles if they contravened laws.
Police say they have already arrested 14 persons including a minor – reportedly a 17 year old girl – for alleged involvement in acquiring the nude pictures and videos through profiles thought to have used the same image of a young blonde woman wearing sunglasses.
The false profiles – the front for an alleged blackmailing ring that netted incriminating photos of those who signed up – had netted a combined 2500 ‘friends’, most of them Maldivian, making the scope of the blackmail operation potentially massive.
The ring is expected to pose a “security risk” for politicians in the Maldives, according to Deputy Speaker of the People’s Majlis Ahmed Nazim told Minivan News, but was unlikely to lead to parliamentary censorship in the future on how the internet was used.
Police have not yet confirmed whether any figures thought to be featured in or affected by the Facebook scam may be serving MPs or government figures.