Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, except on religious matters, and the government generally respected this right.
Freedom of Expression: Ministry of Youth, Sports, and Community Empowerment 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.”
The constitution prohibits utterances contrary to tenets of Islam or the government’s religious policies. In September the MPS arrested a local citizen for “criticizing Islam” on his twitter profile, days after he reported receiving death threats online after he claimed he was an atheist and would encourage prosecular activities on his island. As of September the MPS was also investigating the death threats made against him.
On October 10, the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Community Empowerment ordered the human rights-focused NGO Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN) to “suspend all activities” for the duration of an MPS investigation into “anti-Islamic” rhetoric used in the MDC’s 2015 “Preliminary Report on Radicalization in Maldives,” which explored institutional practices such as teaching of Islam, enforcement of laws, public awareness and education, social media and the work of religious organizations. The ministry cited Article 39 of the Associations Regulation in their suspension decision, which authorizes the Registrar of Associations to suspend associations for no more than a year in cases in which they “engage in any activity that under the laws and regulations of the Maldives is specified as an act that undermines national security or societal harmony.” In a press statement defending the suspension, the government argued the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights noted freedom of speech and expression could not be exercised “maliciously, in the form of hate-speech, or in a manner that contributes to public discord and enmity.” The investigation was initiated at the request of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs following an online campaign calling for the government to ban the MDC. Local media reported the MPS issued summons to the report authors and MDN Executive Director Shahindha Ismail to submit to police questioning. After the MPS found that the report mocked Islam, the government removed the MDC from the registry of associations on November 5, formally banning their activities.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: 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.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The Parliament Privileges Act allows 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 on religion due to concerns about harassment and threats. Several outlets continued to avoid publishing bylines to protect their journalists from possible punitive actions or harassment. NGO and journalist sources stated media practiced self-censorship on matters related to Islam due to fears of harassment from being labeled “anti-Islamic.”
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 August, the Maldives Customs service confiscated 109 books from a public book fair in Male organized by a private bookshop for content that “violated the principles of Islam,” but no charges were pressed.
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.
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. Although CAM did not proactively monitor internet content, it accepted requests from ministries and other government agencies to block websites that allegedly violated domestic laws on anti-Islamism, pornography, child abuse, sexual and domestic violence, and other prohibitions. The MPS reported it was investigating one website for unlawful content as of September. The MPS also reported receiving 15 complaints over online content posted on social media and closing seven of these cases due to lack of evidence while the remaining eight cases were still under investigation as of September.
In a January press statement, the MPS announced it was “meeting with” individuals posting online content that “disrupts public unity and peace” and those responding to such content “with verbal attacks that encourage violence and hatred.” The MPS went on to question former member of parliament Ibrahim Ismail to “clarify information” after he received online death threats following a report from an online news website claiming one of his tweets “insulted Prophet Muhammed”; independent reporter Aishath Aniya, who received death threats online for criticizing the design of a new mosque in Male City; Mohamed Siruhan, who allegedly operates a Facebook page that profiles citizens who the page claims are apostates; and religious scholar Sheikh Ali Zaid. The latter two had criticized Rasheed and Aniya over posts they believed “insulted Islam.” As of December, the MPS did not report any updates to this activity. Also in January, President Solih formed a ministerial committee to “find solutions to the issue of increasing criticism of Islam and related incidents,” but the committee had not revealed details of their activities as of December. NGOs reported an increase in online death threats and attacks against those perceived to be critical of Islam since January with little action from authorities.
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.
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
The constitution provides for “freedom of peaceful assembly without prior permission of the State.” A 2013 law on peaceful assembly restricts protests outside designated areas, and a 2016 amendment to the law further restricts the designated areas for lawful protests in the capital city. Protesters must obtain prior written permission from the MPS to hold protests outside designated areas and from the Ministry of Home Affairs to hold protests within the designated area. Local civil society organizations continued to condemn the restrictions as unconstitutional, but noted permits were regularly issued and not used to stifle opposition viewpoints. In March the MPS dispersed a small gathering at the Artificial Beach in Male City after the Male City Council revoked their permission to use the area. The city council noted it had granted authority for opposition People’s National Congress (PNC) to use the area but argued there was no PNC presence at the gathering. Since November the MPS took action to disperse nonpreauthorized nightly protests in Male organized by the opposition in support of former president Abdulla Yameen.
In February the MPS deployed pepper spray to disperse opposition protestors gathered in a corridor near the cardiology center inside Indhira Gandhi Memorial Hospital in Male in support of former president Abdulla Yameen. The MPS’ “Use of Force Review” committee announced they were investigating the incident but had not shared a final report as of December.
The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government imposed some limits on this freedom. The government allowed only clubs and other private associations that did not contravene Islamic or civil law to register.
NGOs reported that although sporadically enforced, a 2015 associations regulation threatened their freedom of operation. The regulation requires human rights and other NGOs to seek government approval before applying for domestic assistance above MVR 25,000 ($1,630) or for any foreign assistance. The regulation also requires organizations to submit a membership registry to the government and grants the registrar of associations sweeping powers to dissolve organizations and enter organizations to obtain documents without a search warrant.
The Political Parties Act restricts registration of political parties and eligibility of state funds to those parties with 10,000 or more members. A 2016 amendment to the act requires all political parties to submit fingerprints with each membership application, legalizing a 2011 Elections Commission requirement. Forms without fingerprints would be considered invalid, and those persons would not be counted as members of a political party. Transparency Maldives (TM) and the MDC raised concerns the law and subsequent amendments restricted the constitutional right to form and participate in political parties.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. Authorities reported, however, that migrant workers who overstayed their visas were held in the Hulhumale Detention Center for weeks or sometimes even years while awaiting the necessary travel documents from their respective governments prior to deportation. NGOs also reported concerns with a September High Court ruling declaring migrant workers who are arrested cannot be released until they identify a local national who will take responsibility for monitoring them until the conclusion of a possible trial.
Refoulement: The law obligates the state not to expel, return, or extradite a person where there is substantial evidence to believe the person would be in danger of being subjected to torture. The HRCM’s sixth annual antitorture report investigating one case involving the government violating the principle of nonrefoulement in the case of one foreign detainee. HRCM reported the case remains under investigation and the foreigner remained in the country as of September.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees.