The Maldivian majority party has threatened to use defamation laws to punish those involved in producing or broadcasting a documentary that uncovers corruption in the country, produced by Al-Jazeera.

The Maldivian government has warned, via a national TV statement, that all those involved in the broadcasting and production of the documentary Stealing Paradise will have to respond to the law.

The documentary, produced by al-Jazeera in collaboration with the former editor of local newspaper The Maldives Independent, seeks to disclose corruption affecting the island state, and in particular the political class currently led by the President Abdulla Yameen.

The project was not well received by the government, who decided to take severe measures. “Protecting your reputation is a religious and a human right,” said the MP Ahmed Nihan Hussain Manik. “I repeat that if there are falsities and if these people cannot prove in court what they have claimed is true, then they will have to bear responsibility for it.”

Those held responsible will have to be judged according to the new controversial Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act. Under this law, defamation is considered a civil as well as a criminal offence, thus those who are deemed guilty will have to pay fees of up to USD $135,000 and could be jailed for up to six months.

“Those who also assist in publicising such false information, those who produce it, broadcast and rebroadcast it – the Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act as well as other such laws provide measures to take legal action against them,” added Manik.

Lately, media professionals have been working in an unsettling atmosphere, especially after last week the police raided the offices of The Maldives Independent under the suspicion that the newspaper was partaking in a conspiracy to overthrow the elected government.

“To raid a newspaper on the preposterous pretext that it was plotting a coup because its editor appeared in a documentary alleging corruption is a transparent attempt at intimidation,” said Shawn Crispin, a senior representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in Southeast Asia.

The former editor, Will Jordan, who participated in the production of Stealing Paradise, has received death threats on social media, and Al-Jazeera has already taken away a few journalists from the country.

“We’ve had one of our journalists disappear, a machete attack on our door, and our security cameras vandalised, so we’ve had to relocate once before,” said the current The Maldives Independent editor, Zaheena Rasheed “It’s not a safe place for journalists at all.” Rasheed has already left the country because of fear of prosecution after she had been interviewed in the documentary.

Nonetheless, the Maldivian government has recently issued a statement expressing its shock and disappointed in knowing “journalists involved in the production of the Al-Jazeera documentary ‘Stealing Paradise’ have allegedly been subjected to intimidation. The government takes this allegation extremely seriously and under no circumstances condones such behaviour. The government is, and will continue to be, committed to a free and independent press.”

Meanwhile, some of the planned documentary screenings have been cancelled while working as a journalist in the island state becomes harder and riskier.

Header image: Bird’s-eye view of the central Malé island as seen from southwest. Credits: Shahee Ilyas/Creative Commons