Following the attacks on media property during Monday’s unrest, Maldives Media Council (MMC) President Mohamed Nazeef has expressed doubt over whether a free media can flourish in the Maldives at the present time.
“We see that although we talk of democracy and freedom of media and expression, I don’t think society is ready to digest a free media,” said Nazeef.
After protests against the reconvening of the People’s Majlis turned violent, Villa Television (VTV) bore the brunt of the angry demonstrations. Projectiles aimed at the studio included bricks – and in one instance, a bicycle – while the Maldives National Defense Force (MNDF) personnel manned the building’s entrance.
The anger of Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) supporters towards VTV has been building since the events of February 7 when staff of the then-state broadcaster Maldives National Broadcast Corporation (MNBC) were ordered to patch through the VTV broadcast.
VTV is owned by Jumhoree Party (JP) Leader and MP Gasim Ibrahim, also a member of the Judicial Services Commission (JSC). Gasim’s chain of Villa Island resorts have been placed on a recent travel advisory of UK-based pro-democracy organisation Friends of Maldives (FOM).
“These are places linked to individuals or groups who we suspect to be involved in the subversion of democracy and in human rights abuses in the Maldives,” reads the advisory.
In a video aired on Raajje Television earlier this month, Gasim was seen celebrating inside police headquarters upon hearing of former President Mohamed Nasheed’s decision to resign.
MDP spokesman Hamid Abdul Ghafoor alleged at the time that the video proved “Gasim’s blatant complicity in the coup d’état.”
The nation watched VTV on state television before the feed was cut off and came back on, re-branded as Television Maldives (TVM), the name of the state broadcaster during Gayoom’s regime.
The MDP have since alleged that the national broadcaster is “being blatantly used as propaganda outlet of the coup regime, while the ongoing peaceful political activities of the MDP are being sidelined with little regard to the MBC’s mandate and the nation’s laws under which the MBC is functional.”
When asked if the MNDF had been stationed outside the television studios in anticipation of an attack, Colonel Abdul Raheem responded, “We didn’t get any intelligence that there would be attacks. It was not only VTV [that was guarded], we had persons around all key locations.”
The camera of a photographer from the Haveeru paper was also destroyed by protesters during Monday’s unrest, although Editor Moosa Latheef said he did not believe this instance was politically motivated.
Latheef reported no increase in aggression towards his reporters during the recent political strife.
In January, journalists working for the then state broadcaster MNBC were badly beaten during a protest outside the corporation’s headquarters. Preceding these attacks MNBC reporters received death threats, an MNBC official reported at the time.
MMC President Mohamed Nazeef lamented the politicisation of media outlets and the animosity that this produced from sections of the public: “It is a very sad situation.”
The MMC consists of fifteen members elected to preserve, promote and maintain the freedom of the press.
“The media is owned by political and business leaders. Do journalists have freedom to report what they like?” asked Nazeef. “It doesn’t happen.”
Nazeef blamed a lack of financial independence for a dearth of balanced content. “Media organisations are not financially viable. They are dependent on the owners.”
Government subsidies have been used before to try and tackle this issue, but Nazeef argued that this method was not without its problems: “It goes into the pockets of the owners.”
Whilst deploring the violence that was directed at VTV on Monday, Nazeef was not surprised.
“It shouldn’t happen, but you see the media provoking it. [Media] know [they] are taking sides… Media should balance their content.”
Aiman Rasheed of Transparency Maldives was of a similar opinion: “The media situation is clear – different media are aligned behind different people… [We] see conflict extended to the media.”
Transparency Maldives conducted a study last year into the performance and potential bias of six media organisations of which VTV was included (as was Minivan News). The amount of coverage devoted to its owner’s JP was noted as “significantly high” and largely positive.
Fathimath Ibrahim Didi of the NGO Maldives Democracy Network agreed that a free media was a crucial concept but added, “What we want to stress is that, at the same time, it is very essential for the media to be responsible.”
“Most of the media stations in Maldives are owned by businessmen in who are somehow affiliated with a political party. Hence there is a very high probability for the media to be biased towards one side while reporting.”
Private station DhiTV is financed by ‘Champa’ Mohamed Moosa, a local businessman and political benefactor of the former opposition, while the recently opened Raajje TV belongs to Akram Kamaaluddin, state minister at Nasheed’s administration.
Among the most popular local news websites, newspaper Haveeru is owned by Dr Mohamed Zahir Hussain, who filled various cabinet posts under Gayoom’s administration and has now been appointed as chancellor of the Maldives National University by Dr Waheed, replacing his former party member Dr Mustafa Luthfy.
Sun Online belongs to Meedhoo MP and resort tycoon Sun Travel Ahmed Shiyam.
Minivan News was itself often been accused of MDP bias due its inception as a party news source. Following the change of power in 2008, all funding from politically-affiliated sources was removed. Since then the site has relied on income generated through banner advertising and has passed to a succession of foreign editors who have attempted to establish it as a credible and objective source of news in the Maldives.
Despite the ownership of media, Fathmath thinks reporters can play a crucial role in maintaining neutrality.
“Reporters themselves should also maintain neutrality at all times. We as citizens would like to see non-contradictory information or interpretation regarding one incident from all the media outlets of the Maldives,” Fathimath concluded.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that DhiTV was owned by Hassan ‘Champa’ Afeef. DhiTV is financed by Mohamed ‘Champa’ Moosa. Minivan News regrets any confusion caused.