Media freedom has remained steady in the Maldives following significant gains in 2009, according to a report by Freedom House.
The country was found to be a “partly free” environment for media, with the constitution protecting freedom of expression “but also restricting freedom of speech ‘contrary to the tenets of Islam’.”
The report was published prior to the release of new regulations enforcing the Religious Unity Act, which bans 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’,” imposing a 2-5 year prison sentence.
Freedom House noted that the overall legal framework protecting free expression “remained weak, with many proposed media reform bills still awaiting passage”, however it praised parliament for passing an amendment to the penal code in 2009 decriminalising defamation.
The organisation noted that legislation to transform the state broadcaster, the Maldives National Broadcasting Corporation (MNBC), into the Maldives Broadcasting Corporation, a public broadcaster, “was passed in April 2010, but the government delayed implementing the handover.”
Increased media diversity had improved coverage of major political events, including by the state broadcaster, “though the [MNBC] still suffers from pro-government bias.”
Investigative journalism, Freedom House noted, “remains hampered by the lack of an access to information law and a culture of secrecy at government departments.”
While the formation of the Maldives Media Council (MMC) was “cautiously welcomed”, given the preference of advocacy groups for self-regulation, the elections process was criticised for not being sufficiently transparent, and former members of political parties were nominated as candidates to the Council.”
The MMC is currently facing criticism from the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) for the payment of almost a million rufiya in “living allowances” to Council members beyond their stipulated salaries.
On the advocacy side, Freedom House observed that the Maldives Journalist Association (MJA) “regularly made statements regarding media freedom issues and journalists’ rights during the year, accusing the government and political leaders of interference with the private media in a number of cases”, however it noted that “an alternate group, the Maldives National Journalists’ Association (MNJA), was founded in 2010, reportedly in response to the perceived politicisation of the MJA.”
Private print media had expanded and represented a wide variety of viewpoints, the Freedom House report noted, “however some publications are owned by allies of former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom or other political actors, who exercise considerable control over content. Most newspapers are not profitable and rely on financial backing from businessmen with strong political interests.”
The government had “generally” avoided interfering with internet access, used by approximately 28 percent of the population in 2010, however “the Ministry of Islamic Affairs announced in 2008 that Christian and anti-Islam websites would be blocked, arguing that they could negatively affect belief in Islam, and a number of websites were blocked by the Telecommunication Authority at Ministry’s request during 2009.”
Journalists meanwhile remained subject to “some harassment”, with incidents including an attack in August 2010 on the offices of VTV by “unknown assailants”, “and a police attack on journalists covering a political protest in October.” Verbal attacks included threats against media outlets from Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) MP Reeko Moosa, and repeated death threats against certain bloggers “from Islamist extremists”.