In a serious setback for media freedom, the Maldives parliament today enacted legislation allowing courts to force journalists and media outlets to reveal their sources.
While reiterating constitutional provisions guaranteeing freedom of the press, the new Evidence Act includes an exception that undermines those protections: judges can compel the disclosure of a source’s identity “if the court decides that there is no negative impact or not a significantly negative impact on the source if it were to be revealed,” or “if the impact of revealing a source does not significantly impact the ability of journalists to find sources.”
Human rights groups in the Maldives criticized the bill, saying, “The vagueness of the criteria set out in the exceptions … will lead to a significant reversal of press freedom,” and “will have a dramatic impact on the work of journalists, including losing access to important sources, who might refuse to talk to journalists due to fear of being exposed in a court of law.”
The Maldives Media Council (MMC), Maldives Journalist Association (MJA), and Transparency Maldives all condemned the law, saying it contravened constitutional protections for the media.
In May, the Maldives dropped 15 places in the World Press Freedom Index, with the proposed Evidence Act one of the main reasons for the decline. Only a year ago, government officials had boasted about their progress in rising to 72nd place from 120th place in 2018.
While the Maldives had made some progress reversing restrictions on the media imposed by the former government of President Abdulla Yameen, journalists also face increasing threats from extremist Islamist groups who advocate violence against those deemed “anti-Islam,” and from politicians who seek to quash any reporting on corruption.
In a February 2022 email, Attorney General Ibrahim Riffath told Human Rights Watch that the government was committed to resolving public and media concerns before submitting the bill to parliament. If the administration meant that, current President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih should not sign this bill into law. The administration and parliament need to go back to square one and consult with journalists, media organizations, human rights lawyers, and other interested parties to amend the law regarding the revealing of sources and urgently restore the Maldives’ hard-won press freedoms.