Ratification of limits on freedom of assembly won’t affect ‘revolution’: MDP

The ratification of the Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Bill is a “direct response” to the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP)’s proposed revolution, the party’s Spokesperson Hamed Abdul Ghafoor has alleged.

Yesterday (January 11) the President’s Office website announced that President Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik had approved the controversial bill, which enforces limits for protests in the Maldives.

Parliament passed the bill on December 25, 2012 with 44 votes in favour and 30 against – a decision which attracted criticism from NGOs within the country who warned the bill could “restrict some fundamental rights”.

Ghafoor told Minivan News that the MDP stood against the principles of the Freedom of Assembly Bill, alleging its ratification is a response to the ‘Ingilaab’ proposed by former President Mohamed Nasheed last month.

“We are not happy with this bill, and on principle alone we are against it. The current government feels the need to restrict freedom of expression and unwind the democratic gains of this country,” he alleged.

“The whole intention of this bill was to respond to our popular uprising. But when the time comes [for the revolution] the bill won’t matter. We will still go out onto the streets,” Ghafoor claimed.

Among the key features of the Freedom of Assembly bill is the outlawing of demonstrations outside private residences and government buildings, limitations on media covering protests not accredited with the state and defining “gatherings” as a group of more than a single person.

One of the main stated objectives of the legislation is to try and minimise restrictions on peaceful gatherings, which it claims remain a fundamental right.

Under the legislation, demonstrations will be outlawed within a certain distance of the residences of the president and vice president, tourist resorts, harbours utilized for economic purposes, airports, the President’s Office, the courts of law, the Parliament, mosques, schools, hospitals and buildings housing diplomatic missions.

NGO concerns

In a joint statement from local NGOs Transparency Maldives (TM) and Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN) this month (January 2), it warned that the bill posed “serious challenges to the whole democratic system”.

The statement claimed that the bill could restrict the constitutional right to freedom of assembly (article 32), freedom of expression (article 27) and press freedom (article 28).

As article four of the constitution states that “all the powers of the state of the Maldives are derived from, and remains with, the citizens,” both NGOs warned that narrowing the fundamental rights guaranteed by the second chapter of the constitution would “facilitate taking away from the public the powers that remain with them.”

Media “accreditation” on protest coverage

Last month, the Maldives Journalists’ Association (MJA) expressed concern over certain clauses in the ratified Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Bill, claiming that it will directly impact reporting by local and international media organisations.

In regard to the media’s right to cover demonstrations, the bill states that the Maldives Broadcasting Commission (MBC) must draft a regulation on accrediting journalists within three months of the ratification of the bill.

Only those journalists who are accredited by the MBC will be granted access to cover and report on gatherings and police activities in the vicinity.

MJA President and board member of the Maldives Media Council (MMC) ‘Hiriga’ Ahmed Zahir claimed last month (December 29) that the MBC – appointed by parliament – would not be able to accredit media persons in an independent manner free from any influence.

“We are seeing the MBC failing to address many existing issues even now, so we cannot support handing over additional responsibilities like this to such a body,” he added.

Zahir also raised concerns that foreign journalists coming to the Maldives would also be required to obtain additional accreditation. He said that international media was already faced with having to meet specific visa requirements and obtaining state approval.

“For example, [international reporters] cannot really cover events if they are just here on a tourist visa, that won’t be allowed anywhere in the world,” he said.

Speaking on the matter of media accreditation, MDP Spokesman Ghafoor alleged to Minivan News today that it was the current governments “intention” to control the media coverage of protests.

“When the incumbent government took over office, they took over the state media too. We have noticed this trend continuing today,” he claimed.

President’s Office Spokesman Masood Imad was not responding to calls at time of press today.

However back in November last year, Imad previously defended a case submitted to Supreme Court by the Attorney General that claimed causing a public disturbance in the name of political protest is against the constitution.

The case, submitted in September, requests the Supreme Court to rule that such protests are against some articles of the constitution. This includes disturbing the public, using foul language and “protesting in a manner that instills fear into the hearts of children and the elderly”.

Speaking back in November regarding the case, Imad said: “A protest should be about changing something. A protest conducted in residential areas has nothing to do with parliament. Public protest and public nuisance are two very different things.”

The President’s Office Spokesman further stated that the government “fully” supports the right to protest, but added that it should not be conducted in a way that negatively affects the lives of others.

Minivan News attempted to contact MPs and spokespersons from Progressive Party of Maldives, Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party, Dhivehi Qaumee Party, Jumhoree Party, People’s Alliance and Maldivian Development Alliance to speak on the matter, however none were responding to calls at time of press.