REPORT: Press freedom with a new administration in the Maldives

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It is believed that Maldives entered into the world of media and press on 5th June 1943, with the publication of “Sarukaaruge Khabaru”, which many historians believe was the first print news published in the country. Since then, Maldives has seen a growth and learning in the media industry, however, not without obstacles and setbacks.

OVERVIEW OF JOURNALISM IN MALDIVES

The Maldivian media industry is still a very centralized and Male’ focused industry, except for several online news outlets operating out of islands, and with reason. With Male’ becoming the financial, legislative, executive and administrative hub of the country, which was the result of decades of centralization over the course of various governments, the difference in growth potential of a media agency in Male’ and out of it was vastly disproportionate.

Media activity prior to the introduction of democracy to the Maldives was limited and press freedom was very restricted and controlled by the higher ups, resulting in private media companies reporting pro-government content.

However, media activity started to thrive with the introduction of democracy in the country, but still had a long road ahead. Maldives was crawling ahead through the infancy of a more liberated media environment until the regime of President Yameen Abdul Qayyoom, which saw the ratification of a draconian Defamation Bill, abduction of a journalist and murder of a blogger.  The dictatorship also blocked the local news agency adduLIVE, operating out of Addu City, among several other actions against the free press such as financial harassment.

WORK OF NEW GOVERNMENT

Current President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih came onto power with a whole array of pledges toward a more reformed administration, including decentralization, repealing of the Defamation Act, as well as proper investigations into the abduction and murder of the Maldivian journalist and blogger, along with more promises leading toward press freedom.

In order to investigate the death of Yameen Rasheed and abduction of Ahmed Rilwan, a commission on murders and disappearances was formed, mandated with conducting “a free, independent and trustworthy investigation” into cases between January 1, 2012 and November 17, 2018 that were “not properly investigated for various reasons.”

The commission comprised of former Attorney General Husnu Suood as chair along with Abdulla Munaz, Adam Ibrahim, lawyer Fareesha Abdulla and journalist Misbah Abbas, which concluded that Rilwan was kidnapped and killed by a local affiliate of al-Qaeda, and said that those who organized and financed the abduction of Rilwan and murder of Yameen Rasheed were the same. While the conclusion of the investigation has brought some hope for a better day of Maldivian press, justice still awaits.

However, the administration has seen a new height in decentralization of media and information available to the news outlets operating out of the capital. Although heavily driven by the Covid-19 pandemic and the physical distancing measures which followed, the national press conferences from the National Emergency Operation Center (NEOC) had to be shifted to online press conferences, which for the first time in Maldivian history allowed media from all across the country to participate. This diversified and some what shifted the centrally focused information to to a more distributed format, along with the representation of micro and small media from islands.

Although the government has not made any official promises on whether it plans to continue the utilization of video conferencing to allow equal participative opportunity and a wider range of accessibility, the fact is that the “new normal” has set a precedent and demonstrated the practicality of it.

POLITICAL HINDRANCE

Despite the positives of the government initiatives in moving toward a more media friendly environment, several ruling party lawmakers have publicly attacked media on multiple occasions, raising the questions on the genuineness of the government’s sentiments.

Glancing over at some of the comments, on March 18, 2020, MP Mohamed Nihad of Feydhoo constituency called for the shut down of local news outlets Channel13, Dhiyares and Vaguthu, citing “national security”.

In another recent incident, MP Ikram Hassan of Dhiggaru constituency stated in a Parliamentary sitting broadcasted on live TV,

“.. The other issue, Honorable Speaker, is that media will cover this incident. Media will cover this, and media will invite the MP and take his interviews. Media will be extremely irresponsible in carrying this out. This isn’t at all how it should be like in a constructive democracy. In a constructive democracy, this should be condemned and his worthlessness should be displayed. If the media doesn’t work like this, this country will never improve.”

MP Ikrams comments were following a physical altercation which took place inside the Parliament chambers where MP Ahmed Shiyam Of Naifaru constituency was physically assaulted on live television.

Apart from this subtle attacks such as referring to the mainstream media as social media and speaking in discrediting tones by prominent pro-government figures have become a norm, which in return results in media outlets criticizing the government being discredited in the public eye. With this, the question begs, Is the government really sincere in its effort to liberate the media?

MALDIVES MEDIA COUNCIL SURVEY

Maldives Media Council (MMC) is an “independent legal entity with a separate seal, possessing power to sue and suit against and to make undertakings in its own capacity” where the “main function of the council is to preserve, promote and maintain the freedom of press, within the legal frame work of the Country and to encourage the growth of a sense of responsibility, public service, ethics and a high standard of professionalism among all those engaged in the profession of Journalism”, according to the council’s website.

On 16th June, the council released a report made based on a survey conducted by the council, to determine the difficulties faced by media and journalists amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, and to report the findings to the relevant authorities of the state to facilitate a solution.

The findings of this survey showed that many media have cited that obtaining accurate information from government offices continue to be a trouble despite the existing viber groups being used by offices to convey messages, due to the delays in clarifying specific information requested by media, making the communication channels more “one way”.

The report also focused on pro-government political figures targeting specific media and attempting to discredit and influence the editorial policies of media. The findings of the report very specifically detailed the attacks on media by Members of the Parliament.

In addition to this, the survey showed that many media agencies face the issues of internet, securing finance, as well as favoring some media over the other by government senior officials in terms of providing information, special media agencies operating out of the Male’ region.

The overall reports suggested that there big issues faced by media in the Maldives, some which even spark fears of several smaller agencies being forced to shut down.

While such a report has been published by MMC, a common sentiment of the public and persons on in the Media industry is that MMC and Broadcasting Commission of Maldives do not deliver on their mandated tasks. Such statements have even been referred to in the survey, highlighted in the report.

GLOBAL RANKING OF MALDIVES 

With the overturn of former President Yameen Abdul Qayoom’s regime, Maldives has jumped up 19 positions in the World Press Freedom Index. Compiled by Reporters without Borders (RSF), the Index showed that out of the 180 countries, Maldives stood in the 103rd place in 2013, which dropped to 108 in 2014 and continued to slide down to 112 in 2015 and stayed in the 112th place the following year as well. In 2017, the ranking dropped again, to 117 and dropped by 3 rankings the next year.

However, the following year, Maldives jumped up 22 rankings and stands at a proud 79th ranking in the year 2020, an extremely impressive improvement in two years, all followed by a new administration.

RSF commented on the improvement stating that, “The government led by Abdulla Yameen, who was elected president in 2013, has been very hostile to press freedom and Maldives has fallen steadily in the World Press Freedom Index, from 103rd in 2013 to 120th in 2018. His defeat by challenger Mohamed Solih in the presidential election in September 2018 raised hopes because Solih had given some specific pledges on improving press freedom. One promise has been kept: two months after the elections, parliament repealed the draconian 2016 law on defamation, which had been widely used by the previous government to harass independent media outlets, especially Raajje TV, which had to pay a total of 215,000 euros in fines for allegedly defaming Yameen. Police violence against journalists increased sharply during the first half of 2018. The situation has since improved, but impunity is still a major issue. The police never found Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla, a journalist who disappeared in August 2014, nor have they identified his abductors. The murder of Yameen Rasheed, a blogger who was stabbed to death in April 2017, has also gone unpunished.”

According to the index which is “published annually by RSF since 2002, the World Press Freedom Index measures the level of media freedom in 180 countries and territories. It assesses the level of pluralism, media independence, the environment for the media and self-censorship, the legal framework, transparency, and the quality of infrastructure that supports the production of news and information. It does not evaluate government policy.

The global indicator and the regional indicators are calculated on the basis of the scores registered for each country. These country scores are calculated from responses to a questionnaire in 20 languages that is completed by experts throughout the world, supported by a qualitative analysis. The scores measure constraints and violations, so the higher the score, the worse the situation. Growing awareness of the Index has made it an extremely useful advocacy tool” the RSF website reads.

Considering this, it is evident that Maldives is undeniably progressing toward becoming a more press friendly country, however, the road ahead is long.