This blog post is based on key highlights from the South and Southeast Asia Digital Rights School, held last April 2022 under the Greater Internet Freedom program. Read the rest of the posts here.
There are currently minimal laws protecting Maldivians when it comes to cybersecurity, although progress is underway. A recently proposed amendment to the penal code and a new government initiative to increase accessibility might just be the answer to some of the digital rights issues in the country.
During the South and Southeast Asia Digital Rights School and Gender and Digital Rights Fellowship hosted by EngageMedia under the Greater Internet Freedom project, the following issues and related concerns were highlighted.
Online Freedom of Expression: Critics face safety threats. The risk for speaking out against the government goes beyond criminal penalties; local human rights groups have reported relocating social media users who received death threats for exercising their freedom online. Criticism of government actions is often met with threats, and it has been reported that 60% of Maldivian journalists experience online violence including gender-specific threats for female journalists. Self-censorship is often the pathway opted for by online media to continue operating due to the severity of the threats.
Online Privacy: Residents vulnerable to scams. With no existing provision specifically penalising cybercrime activities, the Maldives is experiencing a surge of digital financial scams. Bank of Maldives reported 1,360 cases worth a loss of US$2.2 million in 2022 alone. The government is proposing to amend the penal code and add cybercrime provisions to remedy the existing legal gaps. However, proposed amendments would exempt the government from consequences when accessing a user’s device and digital information through a court order. This, without adequate safeguards, may further infringe on people’s right to privacy online.
Digital Inclusion and Connectivity: Challenging geographic landscape. Despite a high percentage of internet users, the Maldives still struggles with the digital divide, with only 51% of households residing in remote islands having internet access, and with only half the speed of the capital’s internet services. The government’s initiative to build a submarine cable to bridge the digital divide is expected to significantly reduce the gap, but the project is still in its initial stages.
Online Gender-Based Violence: Online abuse against prominent figures. Women in Maldives reportedly face online abuse and harassment such as insults and threats mostly due to their opinion being perceived as an affront to religion. Prominent female figures such as politicians experience the brunt of the abuse. According to research looking at the candidates of the 2014 election, women politicians are often subject to character assassinations online, with most forms of abuse related to societal norms and beliefs surrounding women in politics.
Online Disinformation and Hate Speech: Organised hate campaign steering public opinion. The “India Out” online campaign, which called to decrease India’s presence in the Maldives, reportedly harmed public perception regarding bilateral relations between the two countries, and it has been continuously used as a political campaign tool. Propaganda regarding religious extremism is also rampant online, and the government’s anti-terror efforts are often done reactively rather than proactively.
Digital Hygiene: Demand for digital education increases as online incidents arise. The ‘Cyber Safe Maldives’ campaign will be at the forefront of the Maldivian digital roadmap, as the government prioritises education on digital literacy. Maldivian police have also issued a warning to the public regarding the importance of internet safety and security after they revealed that a large amount of personal data is being leaked online.