COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Police in the Maldives used pepper spray to break up a protest by journalists and activists accusing the government of stifling press freedom, arresting and briefly detaining 19 of the journalists.
The Maldives, a South Asian archipelago nation known mainly for its luxury resorts, became a multiparty democracy in 2008 after decades of autocratic rule. However, democratic gains have been rapidly eroding in recent years.
About 50 protesters rallied near the president's office Sunday against the government's move to criminalize defamation, as well as other measures allegedly taken against the media. President Yameen Abdul Gayoom's ruling party has presented a bill in parliament that proposes heavy fines and jail terms for defamation.
The demonstrators also accused the government of having a part in a court order that suspended publication of the Maldives' oldest newspaper. Other issues raised during the protest included delays in investigating the disappearance of a journalist two years ago and some media organizations being barred from court reporting.
Police said in a statement that the protest was broken up because the demonstrators had gathered in a protected zone near the president's office and scaled the barricades. They said 19 journalists were arrested.
All 19 were released late Sunday, hours after being arrested. They were not charged, but police asked them to cooperate into their investigation into the protest.
Government spokesman Ibrahim Hussain Shihab said that police used pepper spray on the protesters. Shihab said he had misspoken earlier when he said that tear gas had also been used.
Meanwhile, police confirmed for the first time that Ahmed Rilwan, the journalist went missing in 2014, had been abducted. Rilwan worked for a pro-opposition website at the time of his disappearance.
Police said security camera video showed a man identified as a member of a criminal gang following Rilwan as he was returning home from work.
The motive for the abduction is not clear.
This story has been corrected to remove reference to AP photographer in 7th paragraph.