Press freedom. Media Freedom. Right to Information.
Several years ago these were taboo words in the Maldives. Now they have become the mantra of the local media. Ironically it is coming from those people who resisted the introduction of these democratic instruments into Maldives.
The chant now is ‘self regulation’. And that coming especially from the Maldives Journalist Association (MJA) is worrying.
The MJA has become the grand mufti of the nation’s media. They have become the sole experts to assess the media. But in a country like the Maldives where everyone is familiar with each other, the views of MJA are like that of a serial killer calling for human rights.
If MJA claims to be a voice for free media they are a bit late for this. Such freedoms have undoubtedly been established. The noble deed was done by some others who started the process almost twenty years ago. They risked their lives like those doing a massive clean-up while the storm was blowing. By now, they have stashed their tools and dumped the garbage and are busy with more clean-ups.
Rumor has it that MJA is synonymous to Haveeru – the oldest daily of over 30 years and supposedly with the largest audience. The President of MJA – Ahmed ‘Hiriga’ Zahir has been the editor of Haveeru for most of its life.
For me, MJA’s credibility has always been questionable; among many other contexts is its representation of local media. I asked the President of MJA for a list of its membership. But sadly, he ignored my request. That was from the very person who calls for freedom of information.
I logged onto the MJA website. The executive committee members were disclosed there. To my disappointment, they turn out to be the silent forces that resisted the movement to establish the very freedoms that the Maldivians enjoy today.
Now these forces are busy producing the media junk that Maldivians are exposed to, every time they turn a radio or a TV on.
I cannot say such trash is entirely due to the lack of professional training of the local journalists. In the current scenario, the security of your job as a journalist in private media depends on your willingness to attack the government. The editors discount the ethics of their profession when it comes to imposing their views on the general public and violate the average person’s right to information.
I have always had deep suspicions about those who change their tune overnight and take multiple forms. Haveeru was definitely not advocating freedom of expression and press freedom in 2007.
My experience with them dates back to March 20, 2007, when one of my articles was published in a local paper.
In relation to that, I remember Haveeru was way ahead of others in portraying me as an ignorant apostate of Islam. I saw no wrong on my part as I was merely expressing my opinion. However, Haveeru was quick to twist my opinion as the view point of my employer. Further, they spiced up their story with quotes of those who shared their views.
On May 3, 2007, on World Press Freedom Day, the police chased me on the road and finally carried me to the police station. At the station, on live TV, I saw the official functions to mark the day. Soon I was delivered to the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs, to have the views I expressed in the article “corrected”. Still Haveeru never mentioned that I was exercising my right to expression.
The election of the Maldives Media Council (MMC) held on 28th March 2010 is a case in point for assessing the credibility of the MJA.
I ran for a seat in the MMC. I was one of the two women shortlisted along with 13 men competing for seven seats to represent the public there. Two other women competed with nine men to represent the registered media in the council. The voters consisted of 20 registered media outlets.
MMC was formed with a blatant gender gap – a consequence of MJA’s attempt to ensure that the MMC is their subsidiary branch. MJA’s preferences unfortunately represent my loss.
A press release from the MJA on 18th March 2010 reads:
“While there is no room for us to deem the procedure was not politically motivated, our Association has noticed that the announced candidates include former frontline members of political parties.”
Six months ago, I worked as a purely administrative, senior secretary of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). I am certainly proud that I contributed to the social and political reform of my country through my work there. Especially when MDP represents the leaders who brought us not only the freedom of expression but all the freedoms that Maldivians entertain today.
I found it surprising MJA failed to look beyond my one identity.
I have several identities. I was a school teacher who taught primary school kids, college kids, adults. I was a coordinator for UN funded projects on areas such as Population Education, Empowerment of Women, Reproductive health and Life skills. I have received government’s pension for 20 years of public service. I was a reporter and an editor for a local daily with an adequate level of professional training. I wrote many articles on social issues for the media including Haveeru and their English magazine ‘The Evening Weekly.’ I am a graduate of social science – one of the very few who ran in the MMC elections who had a university degree. Most importantly I am a mother of three grown up children.
Despite the dragging complaints by MJA on the MMC elections, they did not see anything wrong with Haveeru casting three votes as separate sources – Haveerudaily, Haveeru online (they have the same news stories and articles) and Haveeru FM (a music channel). Yet they failed to field a single female candidate from their establishment. MJA’s President and Editor of Haveeru, Ahmed Zahir, told me the MJA does not work for gender equality.
So far, MJA has been busy lambasting the government. But they have never taken a look inwards at how their media is performing. The aggressive promotion of gender stereotypes, gender discriminations and extremist viewpoints are probably not something they comprehend.
The MJA has undoubtedly achieved their main objective, which is attracting the attention of the international organisations. MJA knows that international organisations, to complete their tasks, depend heavily on local groups. This means that one can work for the benefit of the other. The building blocks for the MJA’s powerbase have started streaming in, in the form of training opportunities, local and international platforms and scholarships. MJA knows that the work plan of international organisations does not always include close scrutiny of people to whom they hand over funds.
The World Press Freedom Day was celebrated in Maldives last week. A two day consultation on Freedom of Information was held. The event was organised jointly by the Maldivian government and UNESCO. The local media personnel and representatives of the regional media participated at this workshop.
I watched the inauguration of the event live on TV. I also made some notes as distinguished people gave their speeches. One of them urged to deliver democracy with responsibility. Another pointed out that right to information is not the journalist’s right to information, but the right to information of the ordinary person on the street. The UNESCO Director General stressed the importance of quality of information and its dependence on the availability of accurate and up-to-date information for the journalists. The keynote speaker touched on a core value of the profession. He indicated that right to information is less satisfied by law than the desire, ability and choice of the journalist to choose the right information for the job.
The point leap of Maldives in the Press freedom Index was mentioned before the event was over. I did not find anyone there who helped bring that leap. No faces and no mention of names of those who over the past twenty years, at their own behest, struggled and made sacrifices to bring the media freedom we witness in the country today. Paradoxically, the hall was full of those locals who vehemently obstructed media freedom and freedom of expression in the country.
I ask myself why I wrote what I’ve written here. Is it worth? Or is it a waste of time?
At its worst, my readers will view me as a disgruntled person, taking it out personally on the MJA.
At its best, my readers will view my comments in a broader context.
As the Maldives transforms from a society of consensus – a condition forced by political repression – into a society of conflict, caused by the newly acquired freedoms, the role of media now, could never be more critical for the future of this nation.
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