Thayyib Shaheem, a news editor and a political activist, was arrested on March 16 in the Maldives for criticizing a development project in the country on Twitter. Shaheem, who has about 22K followers on Twitter, was accused of “spreading panic and disinformation on social media” and now may face charges punishable by up to a year and 3 months in prison.
Shaheem is a vocal supporter of the Maldives Democratic Party (MDP), the opposition to the ruling Progressive Party (PPM). MDP promotes human rights and democracy in the Maldives.
According to the police, Shaheem’s arrest followed a series of tweets regarding the the recent swine flu outbreak in the Maldives. However, his arrest took place only hours after tweeting against the Faafu deal, the proposed large-scale development project in the country. The Maldivian government has been fighting rumours that Saudi Arabia’s royal family intends to invest over $10 billion in the project for touristic purposes. The development project has been widely protested against by opposition activists in the country due to the potential harmful impact on the environment and the Saudi involvement.
On 23 March, a court in Malé described Shaheem’s tweets as not ‘religiously acceptable’ and extended his detention by 15 days. He is facing charges under sections 122 and 610 of the Maldivian Penal Code regarding ‘spreading false information and disorderly conduct’.
According to the Freedom House’s 2016 Freedom in the World report, Maldives is marked as ‘Partly Free’. The country’s civil liberties rating has declined due to ‘the arrest and detention of hundreds of opposition demonstrators, a politically motivated Supreme Court case against the national human rights commission in connection with its submissions to UN human rights monitors, failure to implement critical gender-equality protections, and renewed enforcement of laws against same-sex sexual activity’.
In the 2017 unpublished report, Freedom House is also noting ‘the emergence of a massive corruption case involving the improper lease and sale of islands and lagoons, in which senior officials have been implicated’. The press freedom in the state is also marked as partly free.