The government’s recent action to block three anti-government websites, including the registered news outlet ‘Furathama’, has escalated tensions in the country, sparking widespread criticism from rights organisations, opposition parties, and the public. This development marks a worrying trend in the Maldives, challenging the principles of media freedom and freedom of expression enshrined in the nation’s constitution.

Government Denial and Backlash

The head of ‘Furathama’, operational since November 2019, confirmed to local media that his website was blocked on Thursday. However, Government Spokesperson Mohamed Shahyb denied blocking access to the site, directing denunciation towards the Maldives Journalists Association (MJA), which released a harsh condemnation of the government’s actions. 

The MJA, backed by foreign cyber security experts, insists that the blocking of was executed directly by Maldivian service providers, discrediting the government’s denial. It has now been unblocked following the mass outpouring of criticism.

The Maldives Media Council joined the chorus of disapproval, emphasising that the blocked websites, despite being unregistered, are legitimate media outlets and no complaints have been received against them. They assert that this act poses a significant threat to press freedom in the country.

A matter of national interest against fake news

A key argument for justifying the government’s actions is to curb fake news.  Minister at the President’s Office for Strategic Communications Ibrahim Khaleel justified the government’s actions saying, “The nation will come first and the nation will be the most important element. The whole world is debating to solve the fake news problem. No standard says that blocking fake news is restricting freedom of the press”.

The newly formed political party, The Democrats, strongly condemned the government’s actions, highlighting the constitutional right to freedom of expression. They criticised the government’s justification of combating “fake news” to suppress media outlets.

In a statement, they noted that “both online papers are seen to frequently peddle in outright “fake news.” However, the government cannot use the pretext of combatting fake news as an excuse to muzzle the media. The Maldives, like many other societies, will have to find more responsible, and long- lasting means to combat the spread of fake news”.

Rights organisations in Maldives, including the MJA, Editors’ Guild of Maldives, and Transparency Maldives, have united in their condemnation. They criticised the lack of transparency in the government’s decision-making process and emphasised the established legal process involving the Maldives Media Council (MMC) for addressing issues with websites.

MDP’s Stance and Government Accountability

The main opposition party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), has been vocal in condemning the government’s actions. A press statement recalled the MDP’s previous administrations’ commitment to media freedom, even under coordinated disinformation campaigns, and urged the current government to lift these online restrictions to prevent democratic backsliding.

The MDP, with a clear majority in parliament, hinted at not approving the appointment of Adam Shareef as the local government minister. This position holds significant influence over the Communications Authority of Maldives (CAM), which is implicated in the website blockades. MDP chairperson Fayyaz Ismail expressed reservations about Shareef’s confirmation, citing concerns over his commitment to freedom of expression and referencing his past actions under former President Abdulla Yameen’s regime.