In early March Mohamed Nasheed, the new President of the Maldives, met with Frank La Rue, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression. In the meeting Nasheed expressed his government’s commitment to free speech and announced that Maldives will be made a haven for dissident writers from countries such as Burma. However, within a week writers from Maldives found their right to expression at risk as the government instructed the two Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in the country to ban several websites and a blog.
In October 2008 thousands of Maldivians flocked to polling stations in a historical election – the first multiparty election in the country – that ushered the first democratically elected government. Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who had ruled the country for 30 years since November 1978, was challenged and defeated by Mohamed Nasheed, a former Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience, in a run-off. Various political factions that competed in the first round of election backed Nasheed – a former journalist and acclaimed writer – in the run-off, hoping for a slice of the cake after a new government was formed. While structuring the new government, a Ministry of Islamic Affairs was created, and assigned to Adhaalath Party, a conservative religious party in the ruling ‘coalition’. It is the Ministry of Islamic Affairs which is issuing instructions to block websites.
Even though some pornography websites are among the list of blocked sites, there is a website with information on Christianity and another website consisting of information on Islam, raising fears that faith-based websites that offer a different view than the one interpreted by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs are targeted. Moreover, the banning of Random Reflexions, a popular blog by the blogger Simon, who discusses a variety of issues and topics, has led to many Maldivian bloggers to examine this new assault on free speech.
Shaari thinks that Internet should be open for healthy dialogues and discussion and to foster tolerance:
this is a sad day for democracy.
i'm a believer of islam & i've good friends who arent. they have their basis for disbelief & i've no problems with that. in any case the debate between faith vs science should prevail cos it's a healthy one & it remains a firm test of humankind's ability to accept & tolerate.
Thadu describes the blocking of websites as turning “the internet into an intranet”:
Converting the internet to an intranet for Maldivians seems to be what the Islamic Ministry is trying to do. And this action is in contrary with the efforts and hard work of the several people who tried and who are trying to make Maldives a pure democratic country. There are 12 countries marked by the Reporters Without Borders as enemies of the internet. And if the Islamic Ministry continues its barbaric style of protecting people, Maldives is going to be on that list as well, putting in vein the work of several people.
In a new development the ban on Simon’s blog has been lifted after he approached Communications Authority of Maldives (CAM) and he shares his thoughts on the blockade:
I admitted to Mr. Nasih that some of my writing may contravene this reservation in the constitution. But this too is debatable. What the tenets of Islam are to some might not be the same for others. It is susceptible to interpretation. I could, for example, argue that the sale of alcohol in the Maldives is against the tenets of Islam. What then?
In any case, I did make a compromise. I promised to look through my posts and review past entries for any that may contravene this clause. So I have reviewed and taken the necessary actions. If CAM or MoIA still finds anything that they think does indeed break the law then they can always contact me directly.
If however they ban this blog again, I will take the matter to the court.
I want to thank all the blogs that have voiced their disdain towards this crackdown on websites/blogs by president Nasheed’s government. Ideally, I believe no websites should be banned and no one should have to make compromises on freedom of speech.
The ban on the other websites is still enforced and at least for the moment Maldivians have to live with a censored version of democracy.