The Maldives government is threatening and harassing the media over their reporting of a political crisis and the military's arrest of the nation's top criminal court judge, a journalists' group in the Indian Ocean archipelago said Thursday.
The Maldives Journalists' Association said in a statement that television stations are being penalized for airing opposition politicians' comments that authorities perceive to be lies.
An independent regulator, the Maldives Broadcasting Commission, accused Communication Minister Adil Saleem of threatening to withdraw frequencies of television and radio stations after he accused the commission of failing to monitor media. Though he denied allegations of harassment, Saleem said he told the commission that he may have to withdraw media frequencies until the commission works out a method for proper monitoring.
"We are for media freedom, we are for democracy. All we are saying is not to deceive the public," Saleem said. He said he believes some television stations were using old video clips to exaggerate crowds during live coverage of opposition protests.
Judge Abdulla Mohamed was arrested Monday after he released an opposition leader who had been detained without a warrant. He is still under military custody despite the supreme court and the prosecutor general calling for his release.
Police in the capital, Male, used tear gas Thursday night to disperse about 500 protesters demanding the release of the judge and a halt to arbitrary arrests. It is immediately not known if anyone was injured.
"No to dictatorship. We want justice," the protesters cried.
Ahmed Zahir, president of the journalists' association, said the government has been unhappy over reporting on alleged corruption, mismanagement and the arrest, and live telecasts of opposition protests.
"The responsibility of a remark or a comment made by an individual or a political party shall be undertaken by themselves, but not by the broadcaster or the publisher," the association said. "Media is only a vessel which carries comments and interviews of both the government and the opposition."
The broadcasting commission also said that the minister had no legal power to suspend or revoke a broadcasting license.
"We are concerned that the recent attempts to intimidate the media both directly and indirectly will result in grave consequences to the maturing process of an infant industry," the commission said.
Maldives, a nation of about 300,000 people, was under 30-year autocratic rule until the government of former pro-democracy political prisoner Mohamed Nasheed was elected president in the country's first free elections in 2008.
The current crisis arose after opposition politician Mohamed Jameel Ahmed in a television interview allegedly accused Nasheed's government of trying to undermine Islam with the support of Christians and Jews. Islam is the official state religion of Maldives, and practicing other faiths is banned, but the government has warned of rising Islamic extremism.
Police have brought Ahmed before court three times on allegations of hate speech but the court has freed him on all occasions.