In the second week of August, a 59-year-old resident of Vaavu, an atoll nearly 40 miles to the south of Malé, the capital of the Maldives, went missing. After preliminary inquiries, the police registered a case and the information was circulated on a Viber group for the local media.
That afternoon, at an editorial meeting at the office of private news broadcaster VTV, journalists found themselves in a fix. In ordinary circumstances, the tip-off would have been followed up by the usual routine of newsgathering: shots of the island the missing person lived on, an interview with a family member and a quote from an investigator. These details would then be aired along with those of the missing person: his name, age and circumstances of disappearance.
But the Defamation and Freedom of Speech Act, passed in the Maldivian Parliament on August 11, made this familiar drill rather tricky.
“Under the new law, we couldn’t report his name without his permission,” said a VTV editor on condition of anonymity.
The Act states that every citizen is allowed to protect her or his identity and that before the publication of any reportage there needs to be evidence that “adequate efforts” were made to contact the person named in the report. The law sets heavy fines, jail terms and even the closure of media outlets for violations of its provisions.
Such draconian provisions give ample scope for misuse by politicians, criminal offenders and even common citizens.
In India, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa is infamous for pressing defamation charges to suppress criticism and has filed over 200 cases against the media and political rivals over the past five years. On August 24, the Supreme Court pulled her up for “misusing state machinery”.
Within hours of the enactment of the defamation law, the Indian Ocean archipelago’s Opposition parties, the United Nations, the US State Department, the UK, and Amnesty International called it an attack on the freedom of speech and expression. Mona Rishwami, chief of the Rule of Law branch at the UN Human Rights office in Geneva, observed that the Act used religion, national security and social norms to cripple these freedoms.
At VTV, the editorial team grappled with a more fundamental question: how do you contact someone who is untraceable? If the person’s disappearance turned out to be voluntary and not the result of a criminal act, he was within his rights to sue for defamation. This could lead to a penalty equivalent to Rs 87.4 lakh, imprisonment of up to six months, or closure of the media outlet.
“The news we carried that afternoon was short,” said the editor, mildly amused. “A person is missing, the police are searching.”
The defamation bill was proposed in March 2016, a month after an audit report revealed that senior government officials stole nearly Rs 540 crore from government coffers. While there were allegations of the involvement of the highest office, President Abdulla Yameen dismissed the claims, and blamed his deputy Ahmed Adeeb instead. The former vice president had been arrested in October 2015 on suspicion of plotting to assassinate Yameen and was subsequently tried and jailed for terrorism and corruption. He is now serving a 33-year prison term.
The incarceration of Adeeb, however, has done little to change the perception of President Yameen’s involvement in the corruption case. The argument gained further currency when an invitation card announcing an upcoming screening of an Al Jazeera documentary about the scandal went viral on social media. The documentary, which refers to the President “hijacking a nation and stealing millions of dollars”, was criticised by the President’s loyalists, with one MP even threatening the channel with legal action.
Now that the Act has come into force, newsrooms across the Maldives have been forced to rethink their approach to journalism. Their main concern is the hefty fines allowed under the law, unaffordable to most. The VTV editor, a veteran with over a decade of experience, explained: “It is around 25 years of my annual pay, and 35 years if you speak of a cub journalist.” Interestingly, he added, the fine doesn’t go to the person pressing charges, but the state.
Opposition rallies censored
Since the last week of July, the main Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party has been holding rallies every night demanding the resignation of President Yameen. Raajje TV, a prominent news channel in the Maldives has been covering these rallies regularly, airing live feeds of the protests and speeches. The channel has now started self-censoring to avoid accusations of defamation. The rallies are aired with a delay of up to two minutes in case some parts needed to be bleeped out.
“The Opposition leaders are known to use words like vagu (thief) to describe the President,” said Abdulla Mohamed, prime-time news presenter. “We can’t air these words. In other programmes featuring Opposition leaders, we have told our journalists to control the guests.”
Documentaries that may show the country’s rulers in a bad light have also come to a halt. The channel has stopped production on a feature on the murder of Parliamentarian Dr Afrasheem. President Yameen has been accused of being involved in this case. Another documentary, featuring a black magician who claimed he helped the President win the 2013 election, has also been axed.
“It’s not that we are afraid,” said Mohamed. “We don’t want to give them room to shut us down.”
Maldives has fallen 61 places in the Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index since 2008. In 2013, masked men broke into the Raajje TV office and set the TV station on fire. In 2014, Ahmed Rilwan, a journalist with the newspaper, Maldives Independent, was abducted after he wrote a series of reports critical of the government. None of the suspects in either case have been punished. Rilwan has still not been traced.
Sangu TV, a channel owned by a ruling party MP, also admitted that it was courting trouble each time it broadcast an Opposition-led protest. “We have limited resources and can’t afford the technology that allows for the broadcast feed to be delayed,” said Ahmed Mohamed, deputy news editor. “Under this bill, all it takes is a phone call by a defamed person to get us to stop the live feed.”
The bill was approved with the support of 47 MPs in an 85-member Parliament. In spite of the differences in opinion, the owner of Sangu TV voted in favour of the bill. He had little choice, explained Mohamed. The ruling Progressive Party of Maldives had issued a three-line whip to force the bill through.
Mohamed cited a satirical video featuring clips of police beating up protestors on the streets of Malé as an example of the videos the channel will now think twice about airing. The montage, set to the tunes of the popular song Who let the dogs out?, was very popular among the channel’s viewers. “We cannot air such videos anymore,” said Sangu TV’s Mohamed.
Other videos such as those with clips of President Yameen’s public appearances, set to the tunes of a Bollywood song of heartbreak, will be difficult to find on Maldivian TV screens too.
State channel unaffected
The only channel that is seemingly unruffled is the government-funded broadcaster, TVM.
“TVM is a government mouthpiece,” said a senior editor with the organisation. “Even if we might not think like them, we can’t speak out openly against it or there will be disciplinary measures.”
In the days leading up to the vote, the channel was told to defend the Act by saying that it was in line with tenets of Islam regarding the protection of one’s name.
“We had several panel discussions and featured pro-government lawyers and MPs,” said the editor. “The brief was that there needs to be some restraint on these fundamental freedoms…When you use religion to promote something, people will easily believe you.”
Hours after the new law was enforced, the government-funded channel broadcast a two-minute news package criticising former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom over a tweet. The report raised questions about Gayoom’s sanity and accused him of aligning with exiled Opposition leader and former President Mohamed Nasheed. It was immediately termed derogatory.
The Opposition, however, refused to press charges. “This might have been a bait for the Opposition to use the law to its advantage,” said the editor. “This might give them room to accuse the Opposition of double standards.”
The airing of that particular package has given rise to speculation that the state-owned broadcaster would air more such “takedown pieces”.
The law doesn’t serve as a deterrent to TVM, explained the TVM editor. “We are funded by the taxpayer,” he said. “Even if penalised, the money will go straight to the government. It will be business as usual.”
A version of this article first appeared on Maldives Independent.