An international press freedom group on Wednesday accused the Maldives government of harassing journalists ahead of a pro-democracy rally by the main opposition party.
"The government should be trying to defuse tension on the eve of a major opposition demonstration, but instead the police are intimidating, expelling or arresting journalists perceived as being sympathetic to the protest," media rights group Reporters Without Borders said in a statement.
It said Maldives authorities had expelled two foreign journalists and arrested an opposition political cartoonist ahead of the Friday's planned rally in the capital, Male.
"We once again point out that an opposition media has as much right to work freely as a pro-government media," the Paris-based group said.
The government acknowledged that two journalists had been asked to leave, but denied charges of intimidation or harassment.
"They were asked to leave because their activities were not in line (with what) could be attributed to journalism," Foreign Minister Ahmed Saeed said.
Cartoonist and opposition activist Ahmed Abbas was arrested in Male on November 3 after leaving the UN offices where he had requested asylum, Reporters Without Borders said.
But Saeed said Abbas tried to abscond after his November 1 conviction of inciting violence, and is now serving a six-month prison sentence.
The opposition Maldivian Democratic Party says the demonstration is aimed at forcing the government to speed up democratic reforms.
However, Saeed said the main aim of the Friday's rally will be "to create as much as violence and chaos as possible, with the ultimate aim to overthrow the government."
Phillip Wellman, an American reporter working in the Maldives for the online newspaper Minivannews.com, was arrested together with Graham Quick, a British freelance photographer working for the London-based Observer newspaper, on November 3 in the southern Maldives' Gaaf Dhall island, where they'd gone to cover opposition activists' arrests, the Reporters Without Borders statement said.
"They were held for several hours and questioned about the people they had met. The police officer interrogating them tried to erase their recordings and photos," the statement said.
It said that they left the island the next day, and that officials at Male airport told them they had to leave the country and put them on flights.
Maldivian Democratic Party Chairman Mohamad Nasheed denied government charges that the two foreign journalists were favoring his party.
"The two were legitimate journalists performing their duties, and in no way were they linked to us or to our proposed rally," Nasheed said by phone from Male.
The Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago, has a tightly restricted media with little independent journalism. President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom has governed firmly since 1978.
He promised political reforms in 2004 under international pressure sparked by anti-government riots and allegations of torture of political prisoners.
The Maldives' first multiparty legislative elections are planned for 2008, Saeed said.
He said work on reforms was underway. Four political parties have been allowed to officially set up in the country.