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Relatives of disappeared Maldivian journalist Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla hold a silent protest during International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances in Colombo, Sri Lanka, August 28, 2018.  © 2018 AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena

After years of ignominy as one of the worst countries in Asia for media freedom, the Maldives has risen to 72nd place in the latest rankings of the World Press Freedom Index, up from 120th place three years ago. That improvement reflects how far the island nation has come since President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih took office in November 2018.

The previous president, Abdulla Yameen, had been openly hostile to the media. Threats and attacks against the media increased after the August 2016 enactment of the draconian Defamation Act, which criminalized “defamatory” speech and action as well as comments against “any tenet of Islam” or comments that “threaten national security” or “contradict general social norms.” The law came into effect amidst reports of a corruption scandal that the Yameen government tried to bury. The media crackdown sparked widespread condemnation from the Maldivian media, donors, and human rights organizations.

After his election, President Solih followed through on a campaign pledge to repeal the Defamation Act. Journalists in the Maldives have told Human Rights Watch that they no longer worry about facing hefty fines and criminal charges for doing their jobs.

But much more is needed for genuine media freedom. The government’s failure to successfully investigate and prosecute the murders of journalist Ahmed Rilwan and blogger Yameen Rasheed illustrates the deeply entrenched impunity for such crimes. Although Solih established a commission to investigate these and other cases of murder and attacks on activists and journalists, the investigations have stalled, and no one has been prosecuted.

In December 2019, the government banned the Maldivian Democracy Network, the country’s leading human rights organization, for allegedly “insulting Islam” – a move that has had a chilling effect on other civil society organizations.

The Solih government should repeal the 2016 Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Act, which has been used to crack down on protests. It should also investigate extremist Islamist groups for targeting the media and social justice activists, and prosecute those responsible instead of capitulating to their outbursts that criticism is “anti-Islam.”

Rather than celebrate making 72nd place, the Maldives government should strive to create a climate in which all journalists and activists can carry out their work without fear of reprisal.

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