Civil Court on Sunday concluded a legal dispute over the ownership of the country's oldest newspaper Haveeru and associated media, barring all employees of Haveeru Media Group from working at any media outlet in the country for two years.
The controversial verdict delivered by Judge Mohamed Haleem could force the closure of Mihaaru newspaper, which was set up in May by former Haveeru journalists who resigned en masse after the Maldives’ oldest newspaper was forced to shutdown over an ownership dispute.
The two year ban on Mihaaru journalists was imposed in the final verdict of the ownership lawsuit who worked for Haveeru from February this year.
The verdict has sparked public outcry and condemnation and has been described as in violation of the constitution which provided further proof of the continued government crackdown on media freedom in the archipelago.
Haveeru shut down its operations in March following a Civil Court order to involve the plaintiffs in its management, including in the making of editorial decisions and financial transactions.
"The latest verdict by the Civil Court is in direct violation of fundamental human rights enshrined in the constitution. Barring anyone from working at a place of their choosing infringes on their right to work. The Civil Court, in issuing its verdict, has once again overlooked the rights as well as the plight of more than 50 employees and their families," Mihaaru said in a statement shortly after the verdict.
"The Civil Court’s verdict effectively shuts down the operations of Mihaaru, the only newspaper in circulation. This is an act of aggression by the state towards independent and free media in the Maldives, and is part of the government’s unprecedented crackdown on media freedom which has seen the shutdown of four newspapers and online news services over the course of six months."
The judge invoked a maxim in Islamic jurisprudence on preventing damage to justify the ban.
He also ordered the home ministry, the broadcasting commission, and other state institutions to take action against former staff working at other media organisations within seven days upon request by the majority shareholders.
The judgment did not specify the nature of the punitive action.
Haveeru was shut down in March after its three new shareholders sued the paper’s founder, Dr Mohamed Zahir Hussain, for a share of assets and profits for the past 35 years.
The lawsuit followed a controversial High Court ruling last year that split the paper’s ownership four ways. The appellate court awarded three former editorial staff a controlling stake based on a copy of a 1983 agreement.
After the lawsuit was filed in February, Haleem ordered the paper on April 2 to involve Farooq Hassan, Ibrahim Rasheed Moosa, and Mohamed Naeem in its management, including a role in making of editorial decisions and financial transactions.
However, in lieu of involving the new shareholders, the Haveeru Media Group – owned by Zahir’s three children – closed the paper and took its website offline.
In Sunday's judgment, the judge ordered the Haveeru Media Group and relevant state authorities to transfer the newspaper, its online version, archive, its printing press, and other business interests related to the brand to the majority shareholders.
He also ordered the registrar of companies to change the name of the Haveeru Media Group within seven days.
Zahir was ordered to revive and continue the Haveeru newspaper, website, and printing press in accordance with the wishes of the majority shareholders.
The judge also ordered Zahir to audit Haveeru and to offer the other three owners their share.