Reporters Without Borders (RSF) have issued a statement urging the government “not to give in to the fanatical minority” and to do “all it can to ensure the media are free to tackle any subjects they choose.”
The statement came in response to the Islamic Ministry’s ordering of the Communications Authority of the Maldives (CAM) to block the website of controversial blogger, Ismail Khilath “Hilath” Rasheed, on the grounds that it contained anti-Islamic material.
“The increase in acts of religious intolerance is a threat to the Maldives’ young democracy”, RSF said its statement, requesting the “immediate reopening of [Hilath’s] blog.”
RSF noted that there were harsh penalties for blasphemy under Maldivian law following new regulations enforcing the 1994 Religious Unity Act, which bans the media from circulating any material that “humiliates Allah, his prophets, the Koran, the Sunnah or the Islamic faith”.
Incidents involving media workers are rare in the Maldives, RSF observed, “but that is only because most of them prefer to censor themselves and stay away from subjects relating to Islam, unlike Ismail Khilath Rasheed.”
“According to Rasheed, the Islamic Affairs Ministry had his blog in its sights because he is a Sufi Muslim, not a Sunni like most Maldivians, and has always been highly critical of religious fundamentalism.”
RSF compiles the annual Press Freedom Index. The Maldives is currently ranked 52nd out of 178 countries.
President Mohamed Nasheed’s Press Secretary, Mohamed Zuhair, acknowledged that the decision would affect the Maldives’ reputation for press freedom.
“The government has a responsibility to protect the tenets of Islam,” Zuhair said, but urged Hilath to appeal the decision: “I believe there should be more dialogue and discussion before action is taken.”
“Blocking a website containing undesirable material is not an option for the Maldivian government. The Internet is larger than 1-2 Maldivian bloggers. Should we shut out all content deemed undesirable by Islamic scholars, and is it even technically possible with filtering?”
Zuhair noted that the Maldives had benefited from having one the highest rates of Internet penetration in the region.
According to Facebook statistics, one third of the Maldives population have accounts on the social network, the vast majority of them aged between 18-35.