With the Maldives’ presidential elections looming on September 23, media criticism of President Yameen Abdul Gayoom and his government is proving to be a costly affair – quite literally.
Just ask broadcaster Raajje TV, which the authorities consider pro-opposition. It has already been fined four times since 2016 by the official Maldives Broadcasting Commission (MBC) for content that was allegedly defamatory of the president and “a threat to national security.” This has cost the station nearly four million rufiyaa – over US$250,000, said Raajje’s operations chief, Hussain Fiyaz: “The fines are certainly a political decision made by a commission that is fully under the control of the government.”
The fines were leveled under the Maldives’ Defamation and Freedom of Speech Act, a broadly worded law that permits criminal penalties for defamatory speech and comments against “any tenet of Islam” or that “threaten national security.” It gives wide discretion to authorities to target media critics.
Raajje TV launched a public appeal to help pay the initial penalties, going door-to-door asking for donations. Of the two million rufiyaa (US$130,000) owed, some 800,000 came from public donations; another 100,000 was raised by selling Raajje t-shirts, and the rest from individual donors.
On August 8, the network was fined another two million rufiyaa for allegedly broadcasting content that was defamatory of the president.
Human Rights Watch has documented the Maldives government's use of decrees and vaguely worded laws to silence dissent and to intimidate and imprison critics. Religious extremists and criminal gangs – including many that enjoy political protection – have assaulted and at times murdered outspoken critics.
Government pressure on the media particularly affects small, private broadcasters like Raajje TV, forcing it to self-censor. During a recent opposition rally, for instance, the station decided against broadcasting speeches by some opposition leaders.
Although Raajje TV has paid its latest fine, more may come. The broadcasting commission immediately launched an investigation after the station broadcast a recording of a press conference by opposition leaders, in which they submitted allegations against President Yameen to the Anti-Corruption Commission.
Fiyaz believes there will be other attempts to obstruct the station’s coverage before election day, causing Raaije TV to rely on the kindness of strangers. “With the elections just around the corner, people don’t want to let the government deter us from doing our work,” he said.
If only the government were listening.