Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, except on religious matters, but the government imposed legal restrictions on this freedom and regularly obstructed this right.
Freedom of Expression: The Anti-Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act, enacted in 2016 and repealed November 14, criminalized any expression that “contradicts a tenet of Islam, threatens national security, contradicts social norms, or encroaches on another’s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 imposed fines of up to two million Maldivian rufiyaa (MVR) ($129,800) for violations and jail terms of up to six months for failure to pay fines. According to the law, journalists could 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.”
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 during the year police sought to limit free speech and expression by arresting and questioning individuals who participated in opposition political activities, while taking no action against those inciting violence against opposition leaders. According to media sources, the government directly and indirectly forbade civil servants from attending opposition political events, firing or transferring those who did so. 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 72 protests for violation of the Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Act as of July 31. 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.
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. Until repealed November 14, under the Anti-Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act, the government could impose heavy fines against media outlets that broadcasted criminalized content and could revoke licenses of websites and outlets that failed to pay the fines.
Police routinely detained journalists covering protests and held them for several hours before releasing them without charges. During the February SoE, the MPS obstructed journalists from approaching or covering opposition protests, sometimes confiscating their equipment.
In August the Maldives Broadcasting Commission (MBC) issued two fines totaling MVR two million ($129,800) against independent news outlet Raajje TV for broadcasting an opposition parliamentarian’s speech at a rally the MBC claimed threatened national security and defamed President Yameen. Raajje TV alleged the fines were “a calculated and well coordinated attack to obstruct its efforts to make President Yameen’s government accountable ahead of presidential elections.” In March the MBC fined independent news outlets VTV and sister outlet VFM MVR 400,000 ($26,000) and Sangu TV MVR 100,000 ($6,500) for broadcasting a speech by an opposition parliamentarian deemed defamatory towards President Yameen. Independent and pro-opposition media claimed the charges and fines were part of the government’s systematic attempts to silence free speech.
Violence and Harassment: Authorities attacked, harassed, and intimidated media representatives. Approximately 20 journalists from various outlets that covered a February 16 opposition protest sought medical treatment due to manhandling and close-range pepper spraying by MPS officers. Hassan Hussain, a reporter from Raajje TV, lost consciousness due to police brutality and remained hospitalized for weeks. A statement from the PPM accused reporters of organizing the protest that preceded the crackdown on the media. The next day the MPS accused the reporters of spreading false information and “behaving like protesters.”
On February 8, Raajje TV preemptively shut down its operations for 56 hours following threats from both state and nonstate actors and in expectation of an imminent government order to close. Days before, PPM deputy leader Abdulla Abdul Raheem had repeatedly called on authorities to shut down the station, and on February 3, a small group of government supporters led by PPM MP Abdulla Yameen gathered near the Raajje TV office and led a chant calling to burn it down. Progovernment social media outlets continued to call for Raajje TV to be shut down in the first week of February. In April, Raajje TV said they had credible information that PPM officials paid a criminal gang to assault their chief operating officer Hussain Fiyaz Moosa.
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. Several outlets continued to avoid 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 January after all local mainstream media outlets covered a statement released by convicted former vice president Adeeb, the MCS issued a statement threatening to take action against any outlets that “promote” convicts by broadcasting their interviews or statements. In May as convicted opposition leader Nasheed campaigned in the Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) presidential primary, the MBC and the Ministry of Home Affairs issued statements with the same warning. In August, after the joint opposition began putting up presidential campaign posters with photos of convicted opposition leaders, the MPS released a statement threatening action against political parties and media outlets who “promote” convicts. Media outlets noted no legislation that prohibits the coverage of statements by convicts, but all outlets refrained from broadcasting statements, interviews, or campaign rally speeches by convicted opposition leaders following the warning in May.
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.
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, 63 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.
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 investigated two cases for unlawful content and one case related to anti-Islamic rhetoric as of August.
During the year the MPS charged opposition MP Ahmed Mahloof with two counts of reporting false information to law enforcement related to a December 2017 tweet criticizing lack of medical care provided to detainees and a January tweet claiming a senior police officer was demoted for attempting to leak information on an alleged plot to assassinate the former vice president. The government argued the fact that Mahloof tagged the MPS twitter account in both tweets amounted to reporting of the information. In September the Criminal Court dismissed the charges related to the January tweet. As of October 23, Mahloof remained on trial for the December tweet.
In April the MPS questioned local NGO Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN) executive director Shahindha Ismail on allegations of attempting to disrupt religious unity and create religious discord with a December 2017 tweet. Ismail had responded to a statement by President Yameen that he would not allow any religion other than Islam in the country by tweeting that other religions exist because God allows it. The MPS launched its investigation after a progovernment news website posted a series of articles December 28, 2017, about her tweet, accusing her of blasphemy for “indirectly calling to allow other religions in the Maldives” and branding her an apostate, and the Ministry of Islamic Affairs published a statement condemning anti-Islamic speech. Ismail received death threats online after the Ministry of Islamic Affairs’ statement. Although questioned three times since December 2017, Ismail remained uncharged as of October 23.
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. In August the government ordered the removal of statues presented in a private resort’s new underwater gallery, alleging they promoted idol worship contrary to Islam.
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The constitution provides for “freedom of peaceful assembly without prior permission of the State,” but the government did not respect this right. 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 of designated areas and from the Ministry of Home Affairs to hold protests within the designated area, which local civil society organizations condemned as unconstitutional. Opposition political parties expressed concern the amendment effectively banned protests in the city. Police reported they had dispersed 72 gatherings for violation of the Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Act as of July 31. In a March 12 statement, the HRCM said MPS had used disproportionate force in dispersing multiple opposition protests since February 1, causing injuries to protesters and journalists, and violating regulations on use of less-than-lethal weapons in their use of pepper spray. Opposition parties also reported that the police and Ministry of Housing routinely ignored requests to grant permission to hold opposition protests, while allowing and facilitating progovernment gatherings to proceed.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government imposed 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 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 registrar dissolved the Maldives NGO Federation, a registered network of 62 NGOs, after it released a statement calling for the enforcement of the February 1 Supreme Court order to release nine detained opposition figures.
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. The TM and the MDN 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 www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. During the year, however, the government confiscated the passports of several members of the political opposition, restricting their foreign travel.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
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.