The website of controversial Maldivian blogger Ismail ‘Hilath’ Rasheed has been shut down by Communications Authority of the Maldives (CAM) on the order of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. The Ministry made the request on the grounds that the site contained anti-Islamic material, a CAM statement read.
CAM Director Abdulla Nafeeg Pasha told Minivan News the Islamic Ministry has the power to regulate website content.
Pasha did not wish to comment on the procedures for closing down a website, but said “if the ministry tells us to shut it down, that’s what we do. We do not make the decision.”
Once closed, Pasha explained, a website can only be re-opened by order of the court.
Islamic Minister Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari had not returned calls at time of press, and Permanent Secretary of the Ministry Mohamed Didi had not responded to enquiries.
In a statement issued today Hilath defended his blog as an expression of his Sufi Muslim identity.
“I am a Sufi Muslim and there is nothing on my website that contradicts Sufi Islam. I suspect my website was reported by intolerant Sunni Muslims and Wahhabis,” he claimed.
Under the Maldivian constitution every Maldivian is a Sunni Muslim. The constitution also provides for freedom of expression, with Article 27 reading “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought and the freedom to communicate opinions and expression in a manner that is not contrary to any tenet of Islam.”
New regulations published by the government in September, enforcing the 1994 Religious Unity Act, bans the media from producing or publicising programs, talking about or disseminating audio “that humiliates Allah or his prophets or the holy Quran or the Sunnah of the Prophet (Mohamed) or the Islamic faith.”
“This also includes the broadcasting of material (on other religions) produced by others and recording of such programs by the local broadcaster, and broadcasting such material by the unilateral decision of the local broadcaster,” the regulations stipulate. Under the Act, the penalty for violation is 2-5 years imprisonment.
Hilath claimed he was being censored for expressing his version of Islam, and called for more freedom of interpretation within the faith.
“I call upon all concerned to amend the clause in the constitution which requires all Maldivians to be Sunni Muslims only,” his statement read.
“‘Unto you your religion and unto me my religion,’ and ‘There is no compulsion in religion’,” he said, quoting Qur’an 109:6 and 2:256.
Hilath believes the block of his website has a political edge. “If Sunni Muslims are the conservatives, then the Sufi Muslims are the liberals,” he told Minivan News. “I think this is a conservative attack on the site. They think if you’re not a Sunni, you’re an unbeliever.”
Hilath said he would approach the issue from its constitutional roots. “If I want to unlock my blog I will have to go to court, where they will say I’m an unbeliever which is illegal. So I will have fight the larger issue of the constitution,” he said.
The label of ‘unbeliever’ was tantamount to ‘enemy of the state’, he said, adding that bloggers such as himself were afraid of the consequences of being labelled as such. Hilath is one of only a few Maldivian bloggers who write under their own names.
In January 2009 the Islamic Ministry shut down several blogs for allegedly publishing anti-Islamic material. The action closely followed then-newly elected President Mohamed Nasheed’s statement that the Maldives would be a haven of free expression.
Hilath said he was ashamed of the government’s maintenance of its original declaration for a liberal democracy. “I know the President said this was a liberal democracy, but I am ashamed that the Islamic Ministry has assumed so much power,” he said. “I call upon the president to address this issue.”
A 2009 review endorsed by UNESCO’s International Programme for the Development of Communication defined freedom of expression in the digital age as dependent on “neutral” networks “in the sense that the flow of content should not be influenced by financial, cultural or political reasons.”
“In particular, in the case of filtering, the origin of filtering lists and the underlying criteria and processes should be publicly available,” read the report.
The report made three recommendations for the Maldives:
1) To stop blocking websites as was done in March 2009;
2) If blocking is necessary, it should only be pursued following a favorable court decision;
3) To foster open discussions on internet regulation among citizens, government members, NGOs and international parties.
To Hilath’s knowledge, this is the first time a websites has been blocked since January 2009. He believes his website is part of a “bigger conservative fight against the [ruling] Maldivian Democratic Party” and is only the beginning of a new wave of censorship.
“This time I think the conservatives behind the Islamic Ministry think they can put pressure on the government to see all these things as anti-Islamic, like with the SAARC monument issue. More blogs will probably be blocked. I think this is just the beginning.”
The opposition to Hilath’s blog “is a minority of the population, but it’s very vocal and active,” he said. By contrast the younger generation, which composes approximately half of the Maldives population, may take a different view, he claimed.
“The younger generation is educated and enlightened about religion and freedom and Islamic principles. I think the majority will support my move. But few feel free to speak out,” he said.
Mohamed Nazeef, President of Maldives Media Council (MMC), said he was not familiar with the blog in question. However he said that the media – even bloggers – were subject to the society it served.
“Even when you talk about democracy there are ethics, and you have to respect the prevailing culture of the country and the needs of its people. Even in the name of freedom there are boundaries. That’s why we have a media code of ethics.”
When asked whether a citizen’s blog could arguably represent or oppose the greater good, Nazeef explained that a balance between people and the law was important.
“The constitution must be respected because people are under the constitution. Nobody is above the law. If you want to do something that is not allowed you have to properly amend the law.”