Journalists association calls on government to amend controversial regulations on publishing literature

The Maldives Journalist Association (MJA) has called on the government to amend controversial new regulations enacted this week that subjects prose and poetry published in the Maldives to government approval.

The MJA contended in a press release yesterday that the regulations were unconstitutional, noting that Article 27 guarantees “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.”

“The Article does not state that free expression could be restricted by law. Only expressions or opinions contrary to a tenet of Islam are restricted,” the MJA observed.

While the MJA urged a proper review of regulations before enforcement or publication in the government gazette, opposition MPs, civil society, and the information commissioner have also criticised the new rules.

The regulations prohibit publishing literary material without seeking authorisation from the national bureau of classification (NBC) – which functions under the youth ministry – and prescribes a fine of between MVR500 (US$32) and MVR5,000 (US$324) for violations.

The regulations define publication of literary material as “as any writing, photograph or drawing that has been made publicly accessible electronically or by way of printing, including publicising or circulating on the internet.”

Publicising poetry was defined as “publishing poetry in writing in any manner, recording it, selling it as a studio album, including it in a film or documentary, broadcasting or telecasting, publicising it on the internet, and or publicising it as a ringtone.”

Following an outcry on social media yesterday, the youth and sports ministry issued a press statement claiming that the rules would not apply to either social media or registered newspapers and online news outlets.

“We note that approving books, poetry and songs published in the Maldives is not a new rule but has been done by this bureau for many years as well as at present,” the statement read.

Information commissioner concerned

Information Commissioner Abdul Azeez Jamal Abubakur told Minivan News today that he met members of the bureau and senior officials at the youth ministry yesterday and expressed his concerns.

“They accepted [the concerns] and said they would release a press statement and would try to amend the regulations through [the People’s] Majlis,” he said.

Azeez suggested that the regulations had “slipped through their fingers” and ended up in a very restrictive or “difficult” form.

“If the regulations are enforced the way it is now, we can’t publish poetry on websites without using a small tactic,” he said.

Azeez referred to the regulations exempting publications from a political party, civil society group, company or state institution to disseminate information among members or staff.

“So we’re writing on our website that this poem is intended for members of this association. So we are able to publish now, but that is a very difficult way,” he said, referring to ‘Liyuntheringe Gulhun’ (Writers Association) website.

Azeez told local media yesterday that the regulations were “unlawful” and would “put a lock” on Maldivian literature, noting that half of literary output in the country was poetry.

“Having to seek approval for a poem in this day and age is a big joke. Paying 50 rufiyaa to approve a poem is also a joke,” he was quoted as saying by newspaper Haveeru.

The former Progressive Party of Maldives MP called the regulations “unacceptable” and questioned whether it could be enforced.


In a message sent to the media yesterday, former Speaker of Parliament Abdulla Shahid contended that the regulations violate the constitutional rights of freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and the freedom to acquire and impart knowledge, information and learning.

Condemning the government’s “decision to impose pre-publication censorship,” the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP said the move was characteristic of a dictatorship.

MDP MP and Spokesperson Imthiyaz Fahmy meanwhile told Minivan News that the government was “going back towards censorship as it had existed prior to the amended constitution of 2008.”

“Back then even a musician would be required to get approval of the government when they would want to release a musical record. That way the government would suppress freedom of speech and artistic works as well,” he said.

Imthiyaz said he was once summoned by a government official who demanded an explanation of the “implicit meaning” of a song he had written.

“Because as far as he was concerned it had an unacceptable and hidden meaning in it. And he further said he wanted my testimony in writing because he would be sending the case for criminal prosecution. Free speech and reporting and literature will be a bitter pill to swallow for this authoritarian government,” he said.

NGO Revive has also expressed concern with the negative impact on Maldivian literature as a result of the regulations.

The arts and culture NGO called on the Dhivehi language academy to review the regulations and “ensure that efforts to promote Dhivehi language could be carried out.”


MJA elections scheduled for September 21

The Maldives Journalist Association (MJA) has announced that elections for its steering committee have been scheduled for 9:00pm on Sunday, September 21.

In an announcement yesterday, MJA urged members to be present at the seminar hall of the youth centre ahead of time as entrance would be closed 15 minutes before the meeting starts.

Interested candidates have been told to submit applications before September 11. Candidates would also be able to put forward their names during the meeting.

Three previous attempts to hold the elections had failed due to disagreements among journalists. Heated confrontations took place at the last meeting of the MJA on August 24.

Former MJA President Ahmed ‘Hiriga’ Zahir announced his resignation the day after the disrupted meeting, citing the atmosphere as “not conducive” for holding elections.


Military deploys soldiers to protect Maldives media after arson attack

The Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) has taken to the decision to provide security services to various media outlets across the country following the arson attack on opposition-aligned private broadcaster Raajje TV.

MNDF Spokesperson Colonel Abdul Raheem told Minivan News that military officers were now manning “almost all” the country’s television stations as well as the premises of other media outlets.

Colonel Raheem said that, rather than being a reaction to a specific threat, the MNDF had decided to assign officers to guard a number of media stations immediately following the arson attack that destroyed Raajje TV’s offices in Male’ this morning.

“This was our own decision, although some [media] have requested they be provided protection,” he said, adding that officers had also been deployed to Raajje TV, which relaunched its broadcasting this afternoon.

He added that MNDF officers were acting as part of ongoing efforts to provide security for any areas deemed “vulnerable”, having previously provided similar support in the past for the Maldives’ electricity and water infrastructure.

The Maldives Police Service today said it was not involved with the MNDF’s security operation, with its own officers instead performing patrols outside the perimeters of media organisations.

Raajje TV was attacked by a group of masked individuals who doused the station’s computers, desks and main lobby with petrol. The office’s guard was later stabbed and hospitalised with critical injuries.

The attack took place despite the station having previously requested police protection following warnings of an impending attack.

Police Spokesperson Chief Inspector Hassan Haneef confirmed this morning that police had received the letter requesting security, and said they “took action by patrolling the area.”

Media violence

The attack is the second raid on the station’s building by masked assailants.  During the first attack – in August 2012 – assailants sabotaged equipment in the station and cut critical cables.

The main office of Villa TV (VTV), a private broadcaster owned by Jumhooree Party (JP) Leader – and third-placed presidential candidate MP Gasim Ibrahim – was attacked during anti-government protests on March 19, 2012.

Extensive damage was reportedly caused to VTV and its property, with the station briefly being brought off air – an act claimed by the station’s owner to be tantamount to “terrorism”.

The Maldives Media Council meanwhile today released a statement condemning the Raajje TV attack as an attempt to “eliminate” one of the country’s most watched broadcasters, calling for security forces to do more to protect media outlets and journalists.

“In view of that, MMC has continuously requested to investigate these cases and asked security providers to be more attentive to media security issues. MMC is consciously discussing all relevant stakeholders to ensure protection of journalists and media stations.”

The MMC last week declared its intention to file a no-confidence motion in the Majlis against Maldives Broadcasting Commission (MBC) members via Parliament’s Independent Institutions Committee.

The council stated its belief that the broadcasting commission had failed to create a healthy broadcast media environment, instead creating fear and discomfort, and that it was therefore unable to fulfill the Broadcasting Act’s mandates.

Media freedom

MMC member and Maldives Journalist Association (MJA) President Ahmed ‘Hiriga’ Zahir meanwhile today maintained that media should not cover live events and other developments in the country in a manner that would incite violence.

Zahir confirmed the MCC also published a statement yesterday (October 6) criticising any media found to be trying to incite institutions or individuals to perform violent acts.

The statement specifically condemned any media found to be spreading calls for “terrorism and unrest”, something it said was not permitted even in nations regarded as leading in international standards of press freedom.

Zahir said that the MCC were aware of a number of examples where numerous unspecified media outlets had been covering news in a way that could create unrest.

“Sometimes the language used by [these media outlets] goes beyond what is acceptable within democratic values,” he said.

Zahir cited one notable example of media inciting unrest was by covering the statements of certain politicians who encouraged people to “violate the law” and go against state institutions.

He added that all media had a responsibility to the nation to decide whether or not to cover statements that might lead to violence or unrest.

Asked if the MMC’s statements could infringe on constitutionally-guaranteed press freedom, Zahir argued that the media oversight body was responsible under law to ensure such media freedoms were used in the “right manner”.

“The point is media needs to work for a better society. Media freedom has to be for the betterment of society,” he clarified today.


Parliament could force journalists to reveal sources under new Privileges Act, warn police, MJA

The Maldives Journalist Association (MJA) and Maldives Police Service have both expressed concern over the recently passed Parliamentary Privileges Act.

The bill was forced into law last week after parliamentarians voted by a majority of 41 to overrule a previous presidential veto. The Majlis had originally approved the bill and sent it for ratification on December 27, 2012.

The bill was later returned by President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik.

In a statement released on Sunday (March 10), the MJA claimed the legislation posed serious challenges for free and independent journalism.  The association therefore urged parliament to “immediately” change the extra-constitutional clauses that it said compromised the rights and freedom given to journalists by the constitution.

MJA contended that stipulations stated in Section 17(a) of the act – which concerns the summoning of parties to give witness to parliament or its committees – meant that journalists could be forced by the parliament to reveal their sources. The association contended that such a clause to provide sources would undermine Article 28 of the Maldives Constitution.

Section 17(a) of the Parliamentary Privileges Act states: “[Parliament or a Parliamentary Committee has the power to] summon anyone to parliament or one of its committees to give witness or to hand over any information which the parliament wish to seek.”

However, Article 28 of the constitution states – “Everyone has the right to freedom of the press, and other means of communication, including the right to espouse, disseminate and publish news, information, views and ideas. No person shall be compelled to disclose the source of any information that is espoused, disseminated or published by that person.”

The MJA, in its statement, claimed that such contradictions gave “reason for doubt” on the legality of the stated article of the Parliamentary Privileges Act.

It also claimed that certain clauses of the act were too vague and ambiguous, and could leave questions as to how a person can violate the privilege of the parliament open to interpretation.

The association claimed former President Mohamed Nasheed’s administration had previously tried to limit instances where journalists faced criminal prosecutions.

However, in its most recent statement, the MJA said it questioned whether Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) had now changed its stand towards the issue.

The Parliamentary Privileges Act was passed with bipartisan support including that of the opposition MDP, which presently holds the largest number of elected officials in parliament.

Police concerns

Meanwhile, Commissioner of Police Abdulla Riyaz in an interview given to local media also expressed concern over the act, claiming the MPs are now “technically immune from the law”.

The commissioner of police stated that the act meant police would not be allowed to arrest a parliamentarian even if he was involved in severe corruption and bribery.

Section 3(b) of the Privileges Act states: “A member of parliament should not be arrested while he is on his way to execute his parliamentary duties or while he is inside the premises of the parliament or while he is on his way from the parliament. However, the section does not obstruct arresting a member of parliament who is found committing a crime and the due legal process involving the arrest.”

In the event that an MP has to be arrested under different circumstances, police must provide a court order obtained through an application by the Prosecutor General, according to the act.

Commissioner Riyaz claimed that the act gives enormous privileges to parliamentarians – privileges that are not even given to former presidents, which he said was “very concerning” and meant there would be no equality before the law.

“The [act] says that no person should indulge in an act that obstructs the work of the parliament. I really don’t comprehend what it is trying to say. I don’t think anybody would know beforehand what the parliament may decide to do. I don’t believe that is possible,” he said.

Riyaz further stated that he had requested Attorney General Azima Shukoor find a solution through the Supreme Court concerning the sections which obstructed the execution of police duty.

“The law even does not bar judges from being taken in for questioning. But according to this act, it seems to claim that MPs cannot be arrested at all,” he said.

He further criticised the bill for including the punishment of imprisonment for the offence of violating parliamentary privilege, stating that such criminalisation did not fit with modern democratic practices and standards.

According to the act, a person found guilty of committing offences deemed disrespectful towards parliament, or that interferes with the Majlis work, would face a fine or a jail sentence of between three to six months.

It further stipulates that members of the public found guilty of disruption while attending the People’s Majlis to view proceedings would either be fined between MVR 500 (US$32) or MVR 1000 (US$65) or sentenced to jail for three to six months.

Moreover, persons found guilty of providing false information to the parliament or any of its committees would be fined an amount between MVR 3,000 (US$195) and MVR 10,000 (US$650) or sentenced to three to six months in jail.

Parliament Counsel General Fathimath Filza was not responding at time of press.