The Maldives has fallen to 112th place in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Press Freedom Index for 2015, dropping four places and marking a significant decline for the fourth consecutive year.
RSF annually ranks the performance of 180 countries according to a range of criteria, including media pluralism, independence, respect for safety and freedom of journalists, and the country’s legislative, institutional and infrastructural environment for the media.
Last year saw numerous death threats sent to journalists, the disappearance of Minivan News journalist Ahmed Rilwan, and a machete buried at the door of the Minivan News office.
Speaking to Minivan News, Maldives Media Council (MMC) member Miusam Abbas contended that the decline in the press freedom index reflects the government’s restrictions on the media.
“The government has been pushing to restrain the media in so many ways,” he alleged.
“We have seen continuous threats to journalist where the government failed to investigate the matter and also the government has been biased in providing information to media as well.”
Miusam suggested Rilwan’s disappearance was the biggest factor in last year’s decline. Rilwan is believed to have been abducted at knifepoint at 2:00am outside his apartment in Hulhumalé.
Human rights NGO Maldivian Democracy Network released a report in September implicating radicalised gangs in Rilwan’s disappearance. Home Minister Umar Naseer has also acknowledged involvement of criminal gangs in the case.
“It is a shame that the government has absolutely done nothing of relevance to find the journalist Ahmed Rilwan. I interpret this as a threat to the media in Maldives. After all, how can a journalist truly be free of fear while reporting when one of their colleagues has been missing for months?” Miusam asked.
Miusam also accused the government of actively assisting newly formed pro-government media outlets whilst deliberately recruiting journalists from other independent news organisations.
“This is an act to deliberately ruin targeted media organisations,” he claimed.
An environment where journalists could report freely in news organisations that were not financially dependent on politicians is essential for press freedom to flourish in the Maldives, Miusam said.
“If we look at the big media organisations now we can see that they are either funded or owned by a politician. The only solution I see is for the media to run as normal business without the backing of politicians or politically influenced organisations,” he explained.
Following the attack on the Minivan News office last September, Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon expressed “deep concern” with the increasing intimidation and threats faced by journalists.
She assured that “the government remains strongly committed to create an environment that gives protection to media personnel to exercise their duties freely and responsibly.”
In April 2014, President Abdulla Yameen vowed that his administration would not take action against the media “no matter how far journalists take the freedom offered by this government.”
“Even now in newspapers and TV channels they are talking about various matters. Regarding the government or responsible officials in the government, they are saying there are people in the government who have committed various crimes,” he said, adding that the government would not order investigations or respond with litigation.
“So there will be press freedom in the Maldives under this government to an extent that journalists have never seen before. Criticism of the government’s actions is not that big a problem for this government. Talking about myself or my character is not a problem for me. So why wouldn’t there be press freedom?”
Yameen’s remarks came shortly after his administration faced criticism over the absence of either the president or a cabinet minister at a ceremony held to mark World Press Freedom Day, which saw the introduction of the first Maldives Journalism Awards.
Prior to the country’s first multi-party democratic election in 2008, the Maldives was ranked 104th – an improvement on its 2007 ranking of 129th.
The country’s ranking in 2009 and 2010 reflected dramatic improvements in press freedom – including decriminalisation of defamation – rising to 51st and 52nd respectively.
However, the Maldives slid to 73rd in 2011, 103rd in 2012, and 108th in 2013.
In February 2013, opposition-aligned private broadcaster Raajje TV reporter Ibrahim ‘Asward’ Waheed was nearly beaten to death, while the station’s offices and equipment were destroyed in an arson attack in October.
In June 2012, two men slashed the throat of freelance journalist and blogger Ismail Hilath Rasheed with a box cutter.
The Maldives was ranked between Nigeria and Zambia in the 2015 index. With a score of 34.32, the Maldives was listed among countries with “noticeable problems.”
Three Scandinavian countries – Finland, Norway, and Denmark – topped the RSF index while Turkmenistan, Eritrea and North Korea were the worst performers at the other end of the scale.
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