The Maldives has fallen 21 places on Reporters Without Borders (RSF)’s press freedom index between 2010 and 2011.
The country is now ranked 73, level with the Seychelles and below Sierra Leone but still well above many countries in both the region and the Middle East countries, including Qatar, Oman and the UAE.
The Maldives took a giant leap in 2009 to 51 following the introduction of multiparty democracy – in 2008 it had been ranked 104.
RSF has however recently expressed concern at the rising climate of religious intolerance in the Maldives and its impact on freedom of expression.
“A climate of religious intolerance prevailed in the Maldives, where media organisations were subjected to threats by the authorities and had to deal with an Islamic Affairs Ministry bent on imposing Sharia to the detriment of free expression,” RSF stated.
In November 2011 the organisation reacted to the Islamic Ministry’s order to block the website of controversial blogger Ismail ‘Hilath’ Rasheed, stating that “the increase in acts of religious intolerance is a threat to the Maldives’ young democracy”.
“Incidents involving media workers are rare but that is only because most of them prefer to censor themselves and stay away from subjects relating to Islam. The government should not give in to the fanatical minority but must do all it can to ensure the media are free to tackle any subjects they choose,” the organisation said.
Rasheed was subsequently arrested on the evening of December 14 for his involvement in a “silent protest” calling for religious tolerance, held on Human Rights Day. The protesters had been attacked and Rasheed hospitalised after being struck with a stone.
On his release without charge three weeks later, Rasheed expressed concern for his safety.
“The majority of Maldivians are not violent people. But I am concerned about a few psychotic elements who believe they will go to heaven if they kill me – people who don’t care if they go to jail for it. Those people I am afraid of, and I will not provoke the country in the future,” he told Minivan News.
In September 2011 the government published new ‘religious unity’ regulations enforcing parliament’s religious unity act of 1994, with a penalty of 2-5 years imprisonment for violation.
Under the regulations, the media is banned from producing or publicising programs, talking about or disseminating audio deemed to “humiliate Allah or his prophets or the holy Quran or the Sunnah of the Prophet (Mohamed) or the Islamic faith.”
More recently several journalists with the Maldives National Broadcasting Corporation (MNBC) were beaten, threatened and tasered after protesters from the opposition and ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) clashed outside the station. Both sides blamed each other for the attacks, while MNBC said it would no longer cover the ongoing protests on scene.
The government meanwhile claimed that its commitment to media freedom is “absolute and unwavering.”
“President Nasheed’s administration never has and never will do anything to undermine the independence, integrity or professionalism of the media,” said President Mohamed Nasheed’s Press Secretary, Mohamed Zuhair.
Zuhair’s comments followed allegations that Communications Minister Adhil Saleem had intimidated journalists by threatening to withdraw broadcasting licenses, which Zuhair claimed was “merely” a reaction to “certain TV news channels acting unprofessionally when airing footage of recent protests.”
Despite the fall, the Maldives was still ranked significantly higher than many other countries in the region.
Sri Lanka fell to 163, continuing a steady decline over the last decade (it was ranked 51 in 2002).
“The stranglehold of the Rajapakse clan [has] forced the last few opposition journalists to flee the country,” RSF said in a statement on the release of the 2011 Index.
“Any that stayed behind were regularly subjected to harassment and threats. Attacks were less common but impunity and official censorship of independent news sites put an end to pluralism and contributed more than ever to self-censorship by almost all media outlets.”
Bangladesh fared poorly (129) – “despite genuine media pluralism, the law allows the government to maintain excessive control over the media and the Internet” – while Nepal (109) showed modest improvement with a drop off in violence between the government and Maoist rebels.
India’s position fell (131) after the government unveiled the “Information Technology Rules 2011, which have dangerous implications for online freedom of expression. Foreign reporters saw their visa requests turned down or were pressured to provide positive coverage.”
Pakistan (151st) meanwhile remained the world’s deadliest country for journalists for the second year running.
Finland, Norway, Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland were ranked as having the greatest press freedom, while North Korea and Eritrea fared the worst.