A group of journalists attend a press conference held by the President's Office. Photo/President's Office

MPs slam bill on 'curtailing' journalists access to polling stations

The law allowing only Maldivian registered journalists to operate in the elections undermines the role of international media to cover the elections as well.

13 March 2023

By Mariyam Umna Ismail

MPs on Monday spoke out against the government's proposed amendment to the General Elections Act to allow only registered journalists to monitor elections.

During Monday’s parliament sitting, lawmakers debated a bill moved by Henveiru North MP Ibrahim Muizzu on behalf of the government. As the preliminary debate on the bill began, the members highlighted the amendments related to journalists in the bill.

Section 41(a) of the law

  • What is now in the law – in order to monitor the voting process as reporters on the day of voting, only reporters permitted by the Election Commission under this Act can be deployed at polling booths and counting places

  • How the amendment has been proposed – To monitor the voting process on the day of polling, only registered journalists allowed under the Act can be active in polling areas and counting places.

Section 41(b) of the law

  • The current provision in law – The Election Commission should issue permission to one representative from news agencies, registered or not, to act as monitors in an island or area before the day of polling

  • How to amend: The Election Commission shall permit registered journalists to enter each area where voting and counting of votes are done without discrimination, for requesting permission 10 days prior to the voting day, to act as monitors in an island or area , as per the number allowed in the regulation

If the amendment is passed as proposed, only those engaged in providing news at a designated media outlet or broadcasting service will be allowed to act as monitors in subsequent elections in the Maldives. Journalists and international media persons who work freelance will miss the opportunity to cover elections.

Henveiru West MP Hassan Latheef, while debating the bill introduced by the government close to the presidential election, said that some of the amendments in the bill were completely against the party's values.

"It [the law] has allowed the reporters appointed by the newspaper, a magazine, to inform the public about the conduct of elections. I am concerned about the purpose that the bill seeks to achieve by narrow the road," Hassan said.

Hassan, who is of the Nasheed faction within MDP, who is opposed to the government, said that by declaring that ballot boxes can only be monitored by journalists working in media registered with the Media Council, the role of journalists in covering elections can be curtailed by the law.

Pointing out that most of the media in the country operates with very few employees, Hassan said that by amending the law in this manner, the newspapers will not be able to bring to the people what is happening in all the islands. Therefore, there is room to question whether the government has proposed the amendment to misinform the people about the elections and finalise things as they want, he said.

"The purpose of the government is questionable, today is it the government's objective to complete such large-scale elections, like presidential elections, without giving information about the elections in such a way that they are visible to the people," Hassan said.

"Why so scared of the media? President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih is so scared of the media".

He said the law allowing only registered journalists to operate in the elections undermines the role of international media to cover the elections as well.

"For example, we are saying that people from major foreign media outlets such as Al Jazeera and CNN cannot attend the 2023 presidential election," said Saeed, who was the economy minister in former President Abdulla Yameen's government, which severely curtailed media freedom.

Saeed said that if the amendment is passed, no foreign media person will be able to cover the elections in the Maldives and they can do so only after registering in the country.

Naifaru MP Ahmed Shiyam, who represents the opposition PPM in parliament, said the amendment would prevent journalists working freelance from covering elections. It is also a matter of concern that such an amendment is being moved at a time when the government is influencing journalists, he said.

"So, in an era when the government has hired so many journalists, journalists sitting at the door of the ballot boxes are, unlike in the past, who are directly registered with the newspaper, and I don't know how to do this," Shiyam said.

Kudahuvadhoo MP Ahmed Ameer also believes that the government has no good intention behind proposing the amendment. He said there was "fraud" behind it.

Ameer, who represents the MDA, which recently decided to form an alliance with MDP for the upcoming presidential elections, said that as per the existing law, the Election Commission has not pointed out any problem with journalists acting as monitors in the previous elections and the question is whether the amendment was introduced for good purposes.  

"Therefore, I would like to describe the attempt to dilute it by having a system in place to look at it as widely as possible when people's elections are held in a transparent manner," he said.

Aamir said he was sure free elections would not be held in the country if the law was amended as per the government's wishes.