Long before Cameroon or Ethiopia cut off their citizens from the internet, a small south Asian country was pioneering the practice. Back in 2004, then-President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom shut down internet access in the wake of protests against his government. The incident was a mere blip in the news, occurring just a few years after the country gained access to begin with.
Since then, the island country, which has fewer than 400,000 residents, has had a contentious relationship with the online world. In 2012, a popular blogger was stabbed in the throat and forced to leave the country; the response from government officials was tepid at best. Despite its sophisticated communications infrastructure and a high rate of internet penetration, the political environment in the Maldives has led many users to self-censor. Others have left the country, seeking greater freedom.
Four such activists living overseas found themselves under threat last week, after Maldivian police issued warrants for their arrest, through public statements and via their Twitter account. Warrants were issued for the arrests of the bloggers and online writers Muzaffar ‘Muju’ Naeem, Hani Amir, Dr. Azra Naseem, and Aishath Velezinee via separate press releases and in public tweets. According to Global Voices, the arrest warrants “appear intended to silence voices that are critical of the government or deemed ‘irreligious.’”
I spoke to Muju Naeem, one of the threatened activists, via email. Naeem writes about politics, science and technology on his blog, but says the warrant for his arrest came after he spoke on a podcast about his secularism. He explained to me why he chooses to raise his voice despite the threats:
By all accounts I am definitely not the first Maldivian ex-Muslim in the country. And I am certainly not the first ex-Muslim to declare their disbelief publicly. But I maybe the first ex-Muslim who has chosen to be openly engaged in the Maldivian public discourse about civil and minority rights. I have chosen to do so knowing fully well the implications of my doing so. I hope to embolden others who are also in a similar situation to do the same. That's why I am speaking out. And when the police threaten to prosecute me, it is an attempt to silence the rights of minorities in the country in the name of religious harmony. There isn't going to be any harmony and social cohesion as long as minorities are oppressed.
Asked about the threats faced by Maldivian activists, Naeem wrote:
Writers in the Maldives always have self-censored themselves if they are based in the country. This is not to say that older generation of writers didn't express themselves freely. Former President Nasheed comes to mind as such a rebellious writer of the older generation. But since the initial democracy movement toppled the dictatorship of Gayoom,1 the topics of discussions had evolved over the years moving on to much more complicated issues such as universal human rights, minority rights including LGBT rights, anti-radicalization, even criticism of Islam and the mullah class. Very few brave people like Hilath, Rilwan, and Yameen, dared to break away from the culture self-censorship to write about these important social issues while remaining in the country. And they all ended up paying hefty prices for the risks they took. Myself, Dr. Azra Naseem, Hani Amir - all three of us were issued summons recently, and threats of prosecution by the police - and others had chosen a safer distance to do our writing unlike those that I previously mentioned for reasons of safety. Maybe we didn't have as much courage as the others. But the threats have always been there and real. Now the problem has been compounded further by belligerent government impunity and the rise of violent religious extremists. The Maldives is a very dangerous place indeed for those who want to express themselves freely.
For countries like the Maldives, the Internet offers the possibility of free and uncensored communication: but that freedom can only work if speakers are safe from harm and and the threat of arbitrary unjust legal prosecution. For more information on our support of jailed and threatened voices, see Offline.
- 1. The corrupt government of autocrat Maumoon Abdul Gayoom ended in 2008 with free and fair elections, following a de-legitimization campaign by civic activists.