The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, except on religious matters, but the government imposed legal restrictions on this freedom.
Freedom of Expression: The Anti-Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act enacted in 2016 criminalizes any expression that “contradicts a tenet of Islam, threatens national security, contradicts social norms, or encroaches on another’s rights, reputation, or good name.” The act imposes fines of up to two million Maldivian rufiyaa (MVR) ($129,700) for violations and jail terms of up to six months for failure to pay fines. A fine can be appealed only after it is paid. According to the law, journalists can also be required to reveal the sources of alleged defamatory statements in direct contravention to Article 28 of the constitution, which states, “No person should be compelled to disclose the source of any information that is espoused, disseminated, or published by that person.” In August 2016 UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression David Kaye asserted the law limits the right to freedom of expression to such a degree that the right itself is in jeopardy. Political opposition parties and major NGOs condemned the bill as having an adverse effect on fundamental freedoms of expression.
Ministry of Youth regulations prohibit publishing literary material without first seeking authorization from the National Bureau of Classification. The regulations define publication of literary material as “any writing, photograph, or drawing that has been made publicly accessible electronically or by way of printing, including publicizing or circulating on the internet.”
On several occasions police sought to limit free speech and expression by arresting and questioning individuals who participated in opposition political protests. Journalists in particular were routinely detained while covering protests and held for several hours before being released without charges. According to media sources, the government directly and indirectly forbade civil servants from attending political protests, and some employees of public and private institutions were fired for similar reasons. Opposition parties reported difficulty conducting lawful rallies because of 2016 amendments to the Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Act that imposed additional restrictions on planning and execution of protests. Police and members of the military routinely monitored opposition rallies. Police reported they had dispersed six major protests and 30 smaller gatherings for violation of the Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Act, as of July 31. During the year police conducted several warrant-based raids on campaign headquarters of Maldives United Opposition coalition partners. Journalists reported police intimidation against protesters and journalists covering the raids and protests, including physical assault, use of pepper spray, and deliberate damage of equipment.
The constitution prohibits utterances contrary to tenets of Islam or the government’s religious policies.
In a March 21 statement, Amnesty International called for the immediate release of opposition social media activist Thayyib Shaheem, who was arrested on March 16 on suspicion of spreading false information and “creating panic” through his tweets about a flu outbreak. Amnesty International believed he was detained for his criticism of a proposed large-scale development project and declared him a prisoner of conscience. Thayyib was released on April 17 following a month in Dhoonidhoo custodial center and had not been charged as of October. The Criminal Court had conditioned his release on his stopping criticism of the government on social media and his remaining in the country for 60 days. On March 13, police confiscated the telephone of another prominent social media activist, Shamoon Jaleel, who had also been critical of the proposed development project.
Press and Media Freedom: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. Criticism of the government and debates on societal problems were commonplace, but media did not question Islamic values or the government’s policies on religion. Under the Anti-Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act, the government can impose heavy fines against media outlets that broadcast criminalized content and can revoke licenses of website and outlets that fail to pay the fines.
Between January and February, three journalists from independent news outlet Raajje TV were convicted and issued fines for obstruction of law enforcement officers after being arrested while covering an opposition protest and a bomb scare in 2015; a fourth reporter from the same outlet was fined MVR 50,000 ($3,240) in March under the Anti-Defamation Act. The Maldives Broadcasting Commission (MBC) said the reporter had slandered a government official by publishing a rape victim’s allegations that the official had covered up her case. The MBC also fined Raajje TV MVR 200,000 ($13,000) in the same case. Days after Raajje TV paid the fine, the MBC issued another fine of MVR one million ($64,850) against the outlet for broadcasting an opposition rally deemed defamatory towards the president. Other news outlets that also broadcast the rally were allegedly not fined. In October the MBC issued a fourth fine of MVR 500,000 ($32,475) against Raajje TV for broadcasting an opposition politician’s criticism of President Yameen deemed a threat to national security. Media claimed the charges and fines were part of the government’s systematic attempts to silence free speech. They also reported media outlets and journalists could not afford the fines. Raajje TV sought public donations to pay off its fines.
Violence and Harassment: Authorities allegedly attacked, harassed, and intimidated media representatives.
The most significant incident of violence was the killing of Yameen Rasheed, blogger and social media activist, as cited in section 6. Some observers claimed police did not investigate the case thoroughly, nor did they respond to or investigate the multiple death threats Rasheed had previously reported to the police, according to Rasheed’s social media accounts and his friends and family. After Rasheed’s killing, several journalists and social media activists fled the country and took up self-exile in Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom due to threats of arrest by the government or fear of vigilante justice by religious extremists. Journalists believed the government used the investigations as an intimidation tactic to pressure media into not criticizing the government. During the year the government took statements from 11 journalists from three media stations.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The Parliament Privileges Act and the Anti-Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act allow authorities to force journalists to reveal their sources, but authorities did not routinely take advantage of this provision. Media reported higher levels of self-censorship in reporting political news following the passage of the Anti-Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act. During the year several outlets stopped publishing bylines to protect their journalists from possible punitive actions. Members of civil society organizations and journalists said crackdowns on political opposition members led them to self-censor.
In August 2016, one day after the ratification of the Anti-Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act, the MBC ordered Medianet, the only private cable television provider in the country, to be more careful about self-censorship to avoid broadcasting “content which breaches social norms.” During the year the commission claimed that it continued to receive complaints of inappropriate content from some viewers. In June the MBC issued a fine of MVR 500,000 ($32,425) against Medianet for rebroadcasting an al-Jazeera documentary that exposed alleged systemic corruption, abuse of power, and criminal activity by the Yameen administration. The MBC also ordered Medianet to issue a formal apology over broadcasting the content that it said, “threatened national security.” The fine imposed on Medianet was the fourth punitive action taken under the defamation act.
NGO sources stated media practiced self-censorship on matters related to Islam due to fears of harassment from being labeled “anti-Islamic.” Journalists also practiced self-censorship in reporting on problems in the judiciary or criticizing the judiciary.
There were no known restrictions on domestic publications, nor were there prohibitions on the import of foreign publications or materials, except for those containing pornography or material otherwise deemed objectionable to Islamic values, such as Bibles and idols for worship. The restriction applies only to items for public distribution; tourists destined for resort islands were not prohibited from carrying Bibles and other religious paraphernalia for their personal use.
In March the MBC warned that it would take action against media outlets allegedly violating the antidefamation law, claiming that outlets spread falsehoods and slander that encouraged terrorism and harmed the nation’s ties with other countries. The Criminal Court also issued a similar threat to take action against reporters who “write reports which threaten peace, sow strife among the public, create misgivings in the hearts of the people towards institutions and heads of the Maldivian state, bring the three branches of the state into disrepute and sow discord among the public, some of which encourage terrorism.” In May the Department of Judicial Administration appealed for media organizations to refrain from “misrepresenting” judicial rulings in their reporting in May. In July the MBC announced media outlets would be penalized for covering any public gatherings that had not received authorization from authorities. In August the MBC again issued a circular warning it would take action against media outlets allegedly violating the antidefamation law by spreading falsehoods about the government allegedly obstructing medical care to an opposition leader.
The government generally did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. According to the International Telecommunication Union, 59 percent of the population had reliable access to the internet in 2016.
The Communications Authority of Maldives (CAM) is the regulatory body mandated to enforce internet content restrictions on sites hosted within the country and to block domestic access to any websites. CAM maintained an unpublished blacklist of all offending websites. CAM did not proactively monitor internet content; instead, it relied on requests from ministries and other government agencies to block websites that violate domestic laws on anti-Islamism, pornography, child abuse, sexual and domestic violence, and other prohibitions. The MPS reported it did not investigate any websites for unlawful content related to prohibitions on anti-Islamic rhetoric, pornography, child abuse, sexual and domestic violence, or other violations as of September. In May police issued a statement calling for four liberal bloggers who lived abroad to appear for police questioning on unspecified charges and warned they would be prosecuted if they failed to return to the country within two weeks. The bloggers reportedly feared they were being targeted for promoting secularism in their blogs and did not answer the summons.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The law prohibits public statements contrary to the government’s policy on religion or the government’s interpretation of Islam. In response to the law, there were credible reports that academics practiced self-censorship. The government censored course content and curricula. Sunni Islam was the only religion taught in schools.