Media freedom in the Maldives

A look back at events around media, media freedom, during the year.

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MFR Images

In 2021, Reporters Without Borders ranked the Maldives 72nd in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index, a jump of seven places compared to 2020. The ranking was based on repealing the "draconian" 2016 law on defamation, as well as progress in investigations into the disappearance of Minivan News reporter Ahmed Rilwan in 2014 and the fatal stabbing of blogger Yameen Rasheed in 2017 — investigations which now appear to have stalled. On 7 March 2021, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih announced that the Presidential Commission on Unresolved Murders and Enforced Disappearances had requested for a year to issue a full report on Yameen's case.

On 3 May of this year, in his address on World Press Freedom Day, President Solih announced that the country was seeing a level of media freedom that had previously not even been envisaged by the media and the public. Although the Maldives' progress on the Press Freedom Index is commendable, it stemmed from a low starting point, given the alleged encroachments and obstruction of press freedom during the previous administration. 

Former President Abdulla Yameen recently announced that his administration had been a champion of media freedom, although ironically, the said "draconian" defamation law of 2016, had been passed, and used to stamp down on free media, during his administration. The Maldives had also ranked at 120th in the 2018 Press Freedom Index. 

So it appears that both Presidents have a worldview with their own blinders in place where each claimed to have been a beacon for media freedoms. 

Perhaps a look back at related events in 2021 might be more subjectively enlightening.

The Raajjé TV arson attack

On 16 December, the Criminal Court convicted and sentenced Mohamed Meeadh to two years in prison over his role in the arson attack on Raajjé Television in 2013. He had denied the charges. However, the court ruled that evidence proved he had, with five other individuals, set the station on fire. 

Police obstruction of media

On 19 November, opposition Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) alleged that the police had used inappropriate force and obstructed media at an opposition protest. The party said that police had assaulted two protestors, and that a reporter covering the protest had sustained a cut on his head. The Maldives Media Council (MMC) on 20 September, condemned the police attack on reporters at the protest, and called on authorities to investigate.  

Concerns over evidence bill

The Maldives Media Council (MMC) and the Editor's Guild, on 22 September, raised concerns over a government-sponsored bill on evidence that allowed the courts to mandate media to reveal sources. The organisations said that the constitution, in Article 28, ensured that no person shall be compelled to disclose the source of any information, and that passage of the bill with this clause, will erode press freedom. Speaker of Parliament Mohamed Nasheed on 28 September, in response to these concerns, said that press freedom must always be the country's first priority. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), Maldives' Editors' Guild, Transparency Maldives and Amnesty International have also called for this article to be removed from the bill.

India and the Maldivian media

The Indian High Commission in June sent a letter to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs requesting that action be taken against recurring articles and social media posts that attacked the dignity of the high commission and staff. The High Commission asked for action to be taken under Article 29 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. The parliament committee on independent institutions also asked the Maldives Media Council (MMC) to investigate the matter, in particular allegations against online news website Dhiyares. On 4 July, the Editor's Guild said that freedom of the press guaranteed under the constitution should not be obstructed, and also took issue with the parliament committee asking the MMC to investigate a media outlet. On 8 July, the MMC appealed to media to refrain from publishing news and information that denigrated the dignity of foreign diplomats in the Maldives.

On 16 March, Chief of Defence Force Major General Abdulla Shamaal said that he was looking into avenues for action against media for the spread of fake news and false information, over the alleged leak by former Minister of Home Affairs Umar Naseer of a draft of an agreement signed between the Maldives and India for the development of a naval dockyard and harbour at Uthuru Thilafalhu. The Maldives Media Council, on 18 March, also said that it was not acceptable for media to publish reports based on rumours, especially in matters of national security. 

Media and the rights of the child

On 24 June, the Ministry of Gender, Family and Social Services fined online news website Avas, and issued a warning to Adhadhu, One Online and Vaguthu, over reports on the murder of a 13-year-old. It said that the action had been taken under the Child Protection Act. The MMC condemned the Ministry's actions in a statement it issued on 24 June, stating that the ministry did not have the mandate to take action against media. It also expressed concerns over a government office taking action against media without discussing it first with the media regulator, and said that it was a step backwards in the gains in press freedoms achieved by the Maldives. On 24 June, the Minister of Gender, Family and Social Service, Aishath Mohamed Didi, clarified that action had not been taken against media per se, but for violating the rights of a child. Prosecutor General Hussein Shameem also said that the Ministry has the authority to take action against media in such cases. 

Parliament investigation into Mihaaru article 

On 29 May, the parliament secretariat announced an investigation by the Parliament Committee on security services into a report in Mihaaru, related to the security provided for Speaker of Parliament Mohamed Nasheed. The Maldives Journalist Association (MJA) and the Editor's Guild, on 30 May expressed its concerns over parliament announcing the investigation into a report that cited anonymous sources. On 30 May, chair of the Parliament Committee on Security Services Mohamed Aslam clarified that the committee was not investigating the report itself or the media, but the source of the leak of information from the Maldives National Defence Forces (MNDF), citing the Defence Services Act, which prohibits the sharing of information obtained by a defence officer during their term in service. 

Police obstruction of media

Both the Maldives Media Council (MMC) and the Maldives Journalist Association (MJA) issued statement on 20 February 2021, condemning police obstruction of Channel 13 reports covering an opposition protest held on 19 November. The organisations said that a policeman had pushed a reporter to ground and assaulted him, as a result of which he had had to seek treatment at hospital.

What it all adds up to

While all the political actors involved claim their stake in ensuring freedom of the media; it is decidedly clear that there are sections of the media that they benefit from. It is also clear that the current pursuit, and understanding, of press freedom stems from the political class and their perspectives — and the perspective of state agencies with their own agendas. It does not stem from global, nor even local, best practices. It does not stem from the need to keep the public informed and the public’s right to information. The agenda of image and politics are always at play — one needs only to look at the information tsars of key ministers, and ministries, to gauge how free administrations, and politicians, want “their” media to be.

So while this administration is more adapt at selling the image of press freedom better than their predecessor — and while they might have made some gains in creating a better climate for journalism — they should resist the temptation to pat themselves on the back unless they keep taking giant strides forwards. Also, if they are touting “leaps” in global indexes the administrations should also be heeding the advice of global watchdogs who work to shape best practices as far removed from political machinations as possible.

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