For the past few years, Maldives has been on a downward spiral in the annual press freedom index publicized by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), having slid five slots down in 2017 alone, and three more since the slaying of blogger Yameen Rasheed. The country has been deemed a terrible place for media which is shunned from broadcasting anything but what the government wants the people to see.
With the surging of restriction on press freedom, journalists have remained stifled for the past few years. Intimidations and uncalled-for violence have forced reporters to stretch the truth for the sake of select superiors and hide in furtive caves.
RaajjeTV itself has been victimized by the toxic environment created by the former administration. Two months into the year, Maldives had fallen into a pit of political crisis which erupted in the beginning of February, through which RaajjeTV was targeted the most.
The ultimate shut down of RaajjeTV due to freedom restriction.
The year started for RaajjeTV with its journalists being barred from covering then ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) rallies during the beginning of the year.
Then, in early February, the station and its staff began receiving threats from pro-government members and supporters following the Supreme Court ruling issued on the 1st of February. The threats intensified following February's State of Emergency.
Following the wave of threats to burn down the station and intimidation, the station ultimately shut down its broadcast on the 9th of February, the police having stopped providing protection for the station premises also being one of the reasons to halt its broadcast.
Deemed the most popular television channel among the citizens, RaajjeTV released a statement asserting that the decision was made to “ensure the safety and security of the station and its staff”.
Following this decision, the United State’s State Department has expressed concern along with the public. A statement released by Spokesperson for the Department, Heather Nauert read that the decision was taken “due to harassment, threats and intimidation since the state of emergency”.
Although the station resumed its regular broadcast after 56 hours off air, the threatening messages, beckons to burn down the station and phone calls were never ending.
Throughout the entirety of the year, RaajjeTV has received threats to burn down the station by several pro-government supporters and members. A group of pro-government members had even assigned an individual to stab RaajjeTV’s Chief Operating Officer Hussain Fiyaz Moosa in late April. The individual was allegedly offered MVR 140,000 for the job.
Time for a dollop of police brutality
RaajjeTV’s journalist Hussain Hassan was then violently arrested from a rally held by then opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) on the 16th of February. Throughout the protest, police targeted media covering the rally, with officers having used extreme measures in an attempt to disperse the crowd. During the rally several employees from the RaajjeTV crew were heavily pepper-sprayed, some having been rushed to the hospital for treatment. Journalist Hussan’s violent arrest left him in dire need for treatment as he had been assaulted by police officers. While Hussain had attained several internal injuries, he had been taken abroad for further treatment as well.
RaajjeTV stressed that despite press freedom being guaranteed by the Constitution, even during a state of emergency, “police officers continue to target media crews covering rallies; obstructing journalists and crew purposely, manhandling and pepper spraying them at close range”.
While RaajjeTV filed the case against the police force for violating the Anti-Torture Act in Hussain Hassan's case, Human Rights Commission of the Maldives had on the 23rd of December, concluded that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to confirm the police brutality in the case.
RaajjeTV - a rebellion?
The following month, a video depicting three masked men dressed as police officers threatening to join the opposition’s protests to call for the overthrowing of Yameen’s government, was uploaded on social media.
Following the publication of the video, senior PPM members rushed to pin accusations of having a hand in creating the videos, on RaajjeTV following which the police service arrested a number of the station’s employees. Journalist Mohamed Wisam and Head of Programmes Amir Saleem were arrested under accusations of having staged the rebellious video.
Accusing the station of carrying out acts of terror, PPM called on authorities to shut down RaajjeTV.
RaajjeTV was quick to respond, condemning the ruling party’s allegations against the station.
Both Wisam and Amir were charged with identity theft following which RSF called on Maldivian authorities to ‘immediately’ free them.
“We urge the authorities to immediately release the two journalists, whose detention has been extended without any concrete evidence being produced to support a judicial investigation. Authorities must stop harassing Raajje TV on the grounds that it does not support President Yameen’s government.”
In late March, Criminal Court ordered the release of Wisam and Amir, over lack of evidence.
2018 brings more fines
Maldives Broadcasting Commission had in mid-February, fined the station by MVR 2,000 for halting its broadcast, asserting that it was against the code of conduct and citing violations of broadcast laws. RaajjeTV appealed the fine at the Civil Court later on having denied violating ay regulations set out by the commission.
RaajjeTV’s management also met with members of the Maldives Broadcasting Commission (MBC) to share their concerns regarding the threats and intimidation being faced.
By the time August rolled in, MBC was prepared to slap the station with yet another hefty fine. On 8 August, RaajjeTV was slapped with the fourth fine amounting up to MVR two million for broadcasting a live interview which the MBC alleged to contain content that defames then President Yameen. Following the fine, RaajjeTV released a statement saying that the latest fine was a targeted attack with zero legal basis.
RaajjeTV had been fined a total of MVR 3.7 million since the draconian anti-defamation law was introduced in 2016.
International bodies, such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), called on the administration of Yameen to ‘respect press freedom and freedom of expression’ and to immediately withdraw the fine.
Less than 48 hours after the station paid the fine, Yameen filed a complaint at the MBC against RaajjeTV for allegedly violating his electoral and personal rights.
RaajjeTV has appealed all the fines imposed on the station, at the Civil Court, and the stations managing director has announced plans to donate the amount- if reimbursed.
“If the hefty fines imposed on the station by Maldives Broadcasting Commission (MBC) are reimbursed, the station would use it to aid those with special needs” – RaajjeTV’s Managing Director, Ahmed Saleem.
Pleas for justice, ignored.
In November, a letter sent by the MBC to the security forces, requesting them to shutdown RaajjeTV was leaked. The same month, RaajjeTV appealed at the Prosecutor General’s office to review the arson attack on the station premises as well as to revoke the appeal case of journalist Mohamed Wisam’s acquittal. RaajjeTV made the appeal as Wisam was arrested on the 25th of March 2015 at a protest in the capital city Male’ under allegations of obstructing law enforcement officers, while he was carrying out his journalistic duties. Charges against Wisam were not proven at the lower court.
The same month, the Prosecutor General withdrew the obstruction charges against Wisam.
Dawn of enriched hope following the new government.
The year ended for the station with the Civil Court having ruled that there was nothing wrong with the MBC’s MVR 500,000 fine imposed on RaajjeTV. It would not be untrue if it was deemed that the bad weighed more for the station over the year, than the good.
With the expiration of a government that pushed the restriction of press freedom beyond its limits, media in the Maldives has heightened hopes for the new government that rolled in by year-end. Hopes for a better ambiance for reporters and press to work in the country flared with President Solih’s inauguration.
The first bill that the new president ratified was the one to repeal the anti-defamation law.
Prior to the election, Solih had pledged to do so, as well as to open investigations into missing journalist Ahmed Rilwan and murdered blogger Yameen Rasheed.
And to fulfill these pledges, President Solih established the commission on deaths and disappearances on his first day in office.
The incumbent president, having worked in the media years ago, understands what journalists were put through for the past five years, and guarantees a better future for the media.
At the journalism awards held earlier this month, President Solih stated, “having a free press without a government is more important to ensure the rights of the people, than having a government without a free press" - something that the journalists will always rememeber, and hold him to.