CIVICUS speaks to human rights and climate change activist Thilmeeza Hussain about current restrictions in the space for civil society in the Maldives. Thilmeeza is the Former Deputy Permanent Representative of Maldives to the United Nations.
1. What is the current state of human rights in the Maldives?
We have seen a steady increase in the deterioration of human rights in the Maldives over the last few months. In August 2016 the authorities passed the Defamation and Freedom of Speech Act, which severely restricts the freedom of expression. The law criminalises speech deemed defamatory, and sets hefty fines and jail terms for journalists and individuals found guilty of slander. It empowers regulators to close newspapers and other media platforms if they fail to pay such fines.
In addition, new amendments to the Freedom of Assembly Act state that protests, marches, parades and other such gatherings can only take place with prior written permission from the police and only in designated areas. The challenge is that we all know that permission will not be granted for peaceful demonstrations that focus on issues considered sensitive by the government. The law will be used to pre-empt public assemblies and prevent them from taking place. The Act is at variance with Article 32 of the Constitution, which guarantees the right to assemble without prior notification.
Other restrictions on human rights are imposed by the police, who use administrative decisions to restrict and prevent rallies by the political opposition. The judiciary is compromised and the right to a fair trial is not respected. Independent institutions are defunct.
In general, the government has systematically restricted civil and political rights through administrative decisions and through the passage of undemocratic and unconstitutional legislation.
2. Tell us about recent raids on the offices of the Maldivian Democracy Network and Maldives Independent
Following the broadcast of a documentary, ‘Stealing Paradise’, which was released by Al-Jazeera on 7 September 2016, the Maldivian authorities embarked on a new wave of intimidation and harassment of civil society. The documentary alleges that many senior government officials, including the President of Maldives, are involved in corrupt practices, money laundering and acts of bribery. Soon after the documentary was broadcast police raided a building in the capital, Malé, that houses the Maldives Democracy Network (MDN), which is a human rights organisation, and the Maldives Independent, an English language media outlet. The police’s search warrant stated that these institutions were attempting to create discord and unrest in Malé and instigate hatred between the public and state institutions.
3. What effect will these actions have on civic space?
I would say that the intent of the government and the reason behind the raids is to intimidate citizens and force them to desist from speaking out about against ongoing corrupt practices. Particularly now that the documentary ‘Stealing Paradise’ has exposed the high levels of corruption internationally we are likely to see further restrictions placed on the freedom of expression and assembly and on fundamental rights in general. State agents will also continue to target civil society and citizens who speak out, buoyed by high levels of impunity, as they are not held accountable for their actions.
The recent promulgation of the restrictive defamation law and the raids on MDN and the Maldives Independent will have a chilling effect on those who advocate for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and will likely lead to increased levels of self-censorship. Already some journalists who were interviewed for the documentary have fled the country to avoid reprisals from the government.
4. How are recent changes in the laws affecting fundamental freedoms?
Freedom of expression and media reporting have already been affected by legislative changes. One TV station has shut down. Private television channels and media outlets have resorted to self-censorship and all live programmes are delayed before broadcast to enable private media outlets to edit them. We have seen instances where people have been arrested and placed under remand simply for tweeting. In general, media personnel work in an environment of fear and intimidation.
5. What are three major things that need to change for democracy to return to Maldives?
For democracy to function effectively, there has to be a separation of powers. The judiciary must be able to function independently without any influence from senior government officials. In addition, both the judiciary and independent state institutions need to be reformed. Most importantly, the rule of law must be upheld.
Follow her on Twitter @Thilmeeza