The international media watchdog Monday slammed the government for its continued obstruction of critical and independent media after a court banned the archipelago's leading journalists.
Civil Court 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 verdict widely regarded as an attempt to close the Mihaaru newspaper launched by the staff following the forced closure of Haveeru.
The decision is “utterly absurd and unacceptable,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, head of Asia-Pacific desk at RSF.
“The court’s verdict not only violates the fundamental rights of all the journalists which it targets, but it also confirms, if need be, that the judiciary is serving the government’s policy to suppress critical and independent media in the country.”
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 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.
Meanwhile, in a fresh ruling on Monday the civil court reprimanded the Attorney General for insisting that the home ministry, by law would not be able to take any action against the Haveeru staff despite the court order.
“As far as I can see this a civil case. So the defendant has the right for appeal. But as the home ministry is now involved, all I can tell you is that in light of the constitution and the laws, we [home ministry] cannot take any action against the staff even if they work for any other media organisation,” Attorney General Mohamed Anil had said.
However, in a fresh ruling on Monday, the civil court countered the Attorney General’s statement ruling that it was null and void.
“All state institutions are obligated to comply and immediately enforce a court ruling until it is overruled by a higher court,” the ruling read.
-Closure of Maldives' oldest and only newspaper-
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.