Raajje TV has been charged under the Maldives’ new and tougher defamation law, which the international community has described as posing a threat to the media, opposition and freedom of speech.
New Delhi: Faced with a second heftier fine, a Maldivian 24-hour television station, which has been the only platform to showcase opposition voices, is staring at a financial crisis and is on the verge of closure.
On March 7, Raajje TV became the first Maldivian media organisation to be fined under the new and much tougher defamation law passed in August 2016.
The electronic media regulator, Maldives Broadcasting Commission (MBC) imposed a fine of 200,000 Maldivian Rufiyaa (about $13,000) on the opposition-aligned TV channel based on the complaint of a social worker that her view was not given in a piece accusing her of covering up a rape.
With the help of donations from the public in a special fund, the TV station managed to deposit the fine on the last day of the 30-day period given to it to pay.
But just as Raajje TV submitted the fine, it was slapped with another, heavier penalty on the same day (April 6) by the MBC. This time, the TV station has to pay one million MVR or around $65000 for ‘defaming’ Maldivian president Abdulla Yameen by broadcasting live a speech from an opposition rally on October 26 last year.
As per the translation of MBC’s statement by Maldives Independent, Raajje TV was charged because it “openly created doubts in the hearts of the people about the legal duties or responsibilities of the ruler of the Maldives and damaged his honour and dignity”.
For Raajje TV, the two fines could put the station on the verge of financial ruin.
Speaking to The Wire, Raajje TV’s development manager Simana Ismail said that the channel had been able to meet operational expenses through sponsorships, as it is the “most watched” TV station in the country – despite not being backed by a big business house.
“However with the recent series of fines from the so called media regulator, the Maldives Broadcasting Commission, we are currently in a financial crisis,” she said.
To meet the latest penalty, the Aburu (dignity) fund has been reinstated for public donations – but it may not be enough.
“The public is showing a lot of support to us. However given the little time we have to raise such a large amount small donations from the general public alone may not be sufficient to meet the required amount. Hence, we had to issue an urgent appeal calling for a wider support,” she said.
Ismail was referring to the appeal sent out by Raajje TV on April 16 seeking “urgent assistance, in any form, in moving forward with the case”.
The Maldives United Opposition is currently trying to challenge the government through the parliament – where it first brought a no-confidence motion against the speaker. The motion did not pass ultimately, but not before creating some drama and controversy, with the house witnessing uproarious scenes, including the summoning of soldiers to remove opposition members.
Meanwhile, the US, Canada, Norway, Switzerland and the EU issued a joint statement on April 9 over the arrest of opposition leader Gasim Ibrahim of the Jumhoree party on charges of bribery and attempting to remove the president.
On Monday (April 17), Gasim, along with other opposition leaders from the Maldivian Democratic Party met with Indian high commissioner Akhilesh Mishra. According to the local media, Gasim said that their concerns over “political, economic and social status of the country” were shared with the Indian envoy.
Last week, Indian foreign secretary S. Jaishankar was in Male, but it is not clear if there was a discussion on the political situation in the Maldives with the leadership. Jaishankar did not meet any opposition leader during his trip. So far, India has refused to make any public statements on the political developments.
“I think I would refrain from commenting on those developments at this stage,” said Indian external affairs ministry spokesperson Gopal Baglay to a question on the proceedings of the no-confidence motion in Maldives parliament.
For Raajje TV, the political motive behind the fines is crystal clear. “These latest “attacks” came at a time when the country is getting ready for the delayed local council elections and next year we will have the presidential elections. There are rumours that government’s target is to force Raajje TV to shut down through these heavy economic penalties,” Ismail said.
According to the rules, an appeal against the fine cannot only take place after the fine is paid. If the fine is not paid within 30 days, Raajje TV’s broadcasting licence could be revoked.
When the defamation law was enacted last year, there was criticism from the international community. “The penalisation of defamation and the high penalties prescribed in the Bill pose a direct threat to media, political opposition and civil society in the Maldives. The penalisation of such acts, in a country where the independence and functioning of the judiciary is not in compliance with international standards, is aggravating the situation further,” said the EU spokesperson on August 11.
Similarly, the US and UN had also issued statements, expressing worry that the new legislation would be a “serious setback” for freedom of expression in the Maldives.
The opposition had claimed that the MBC could be used to shut down any criticism of the government. Their apprehension was fuelled by the fact that after the Bill was introduced, two former journalists who had worked at the re-election campaign office of the president were appointed to the commission, Maldives Independent reported last April.
Not mincing words, Ismail described the MBC as a “political organisation consisting of members who are loyal to the regime”.
“Their role is to block free media and not allow broadcasters to bring voice of the opposition,” she asserted, adding that the media group has also launched a public petition against the MBC members for submitting to parliament for a potential no-confidence vote.
The fine is not the only challenge facing the TV station. Three Raajje TV journalists were recently found guilty of obstructing policy duty and penalised. Raajje TV’s chief operating officer Hussain Fiyaz Moosa is under trial for allegedly assaulting a police officer in November 2015.
Four years ago, during the controversial 2013 presidential elections, Raajje TV was set on fire by masked men. That same year, a reporter was beaten till he was unconscious and had to be shifted to Sri Lanka for medical attention.
When asked whether paying the fine will be enough to stave off government action, Ismail said that it was necessary in order to keep afloat. “In order to keep up the fight against them we need to keep the broadcasting license valid which will only be possible if we pay the fine first. We don’t know if this will be the end of the fines. But so long as fines are paid they cannot hold the licence,” she said.