By Shihar Aneez
COLOMBO (Reuters) – The main Maldives opposition party said on Wednesday that President Abdulla Yameen’s government must ease “draconian” visa measures limiting the number of foreign journalists coming to cover a presidential election on Sept. 23.
Yameen is seeking a second five-year term in the Indian Ocean archipelago popular with tourists. But his main rivals have been jailed for charges ranging from terrorism to attempting to topple the government, leading to doubts abroad about the legitimacy of the vote.
The Maldives has been beset by political instability since a police mutiny forced its first democratically elected leader, Mohamed Nasheed, out of office in 2012.
The main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) said in a statement that visa rules were aimed at keeping foreign journalists out “in order to reduce scrutiny of (Yameen’s) unlawful and unconstitutional behaviour”.
It called for the regulations to be eased.
“The measures should be viewed as a pre-emptive cover-up of planned electoral fraud,” it said.
According to new measures, journalists must apply for business visas, for which they need a Maldivian sponsor, and submit forms giving details of previous employment, travel history, qualifications, bank account details and a police clearance certificate, the MDP said.
Previously, the Maldives gave journalists visas on arrival.
Opposition presidential candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih called on Twitter for the authorities to “reverse restrictive measures against international journalists”.
The government has said that journalists who try to cover the election on tourist visas will face punitive measures. In February, it deported two Agence France-Presse journalists working while on tourist visas.
The ambassador of the Maldives to neighbouring Sri Lanka, Mohamed Hussain Shareef, said the visa process was changed after some journalists misreported the country’s moderate faith and about the security of tourists.
The opposition call for easier access for foreign reporters came two days after police said they had received information of an “organised conspiracy” to commit serious offences aimed at convincing “foreign stakeholders” that the upcoming election “is not independent and fair”.
On Friday, president Yameen’s administration accused the United States of intimidation after it called for the release of “falsely accused” political prisoners and threatened action if the island’s election is not free and fair.
Former leader Nasheed, who is based in Sri Lanka, fearing poll rigging, has urged the international community to examine the election result in consultation with all political parties before accepting any candidate’s victory.
Yameen’s government has rejected repeated requests by the United Nations, rights groups and Western countries to release the president’s rivals.
(Reporting by Shihar Aneez; Editing by Hugh Lawson, Robert Birsel)