Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom has confirmed he is pursuing legal action against newspaper Miadhu, after it reported that the New York Times had published a story containing allegations he embezzled US$400 million during his time in government.
Spokesman for Gayoom, Mohamed Hussain ‘Mundhu’ Shareef, confirmed that Gayoom was also building a case against Finance Minister Ali Hashim, who was quoted in the NYT article, and former Auditor General Ibrahim Naeem, upon who’s 2009 report the article was largely based, as well as the proprietor and managing editor of Miadhu.
Contrary to earlier reports, Gayoom was not seeking to sue the NYT or the author of the article, Matthew Saltmarsh, Mundhu said.
“I think that’s been misinterpreted, we have no interest in Saltmarsh,” Mundhu said.
“We don’t know him but we’re sure he’s a good journalis, and the NYT is obviously reputed and widely circulated globally,” he said, adding that Gayoom’s response had been to send a letter the NYT editor.
Mundhu noted that according to the NYT article, the journalist Saltmarsh had claimed he attempted to contact Gayoom for his side of the story.
“Mr Gayoom was not in town, but has confirmed he received no calls, either to himself or his secretary,” Mundhu said. “I too was not in town, but my Maldivian mobile was switched on. Mr Saltmarsh says he could not get through, but there was not even an email or a message.”
Mundhu said he did not believe such an article was justified without a right of response, and that Gayoom had written to the NYT editor requesting a right of reply, or a correction.
“This is not the first time we’ve come across issue. We can only ask for the right to respond and the opportunity to put forward our point of view – our letter serves that purpose and there is no need to take Saltmarsh or the NYT to court.”
Mundhu said Gayoom was more concerned with the story being reported in the local media.
“We want to address [the matter of] the ruling party’s engineering of the article for political benefit,” he said.
The foundation of the NYT article was the former Auditor General’s report, he said, “and the Auditor General has been discredited – by the Anti-Corruption Commission, not just us. The report doesn’t stand to scrutiny.”
But he added that comments made by Finance Minister Ali Hashim in the NYT report did not come from the Auditor General’s report – “this US$400 million [alleged embezzlement] is something he’s conjured up in the Haruge (MDP headquarters),” Mundhu said.
“The issue is that whether as a former president or an individual, Mr Gayoom has rights, a family and a reputation to protect.”
Miadhu’s Managing Editor Abdullah ‘Gabbe’ Latheef said he would “be glad to go to court”, and that “already three international journalist associations have offered support and want to send observers to the hearings.”
“Until a court rules that the Auditor General’s report was fabricated, the media has a right to report it – it is a public document. Until then, the media can write about it five times daily if they wish,” he said.
Latheef added that he was looking forward to the opportunity the court case would provide to open the orginal audit reports to public review.
“Then everyone will understand where the US$400 million has come from,” he claimed. “Some people misunderstand the government budget – when you include the private-public companies, such as STELCO, Dhiraagu and MIFCO, US$400 million is nothing.”
Latheef said he believed the local media had done a “responsible job” in reporting the NYT story, “as the NYT is the number one newspaper in the world and is a credible source. There’s no obligation on us to clarify all the facts that the NYT has reported, because it is such a credible source. What about when the Israelis attacked the aid flotilla recently? Should we have gone to Israel to check all the facts for ourselves? No – we have to rely on credible sources, and the NYT is not an anonymous blog.”
“Gayoom is used to attacking people who speak out against him. They used to be taken to jail, now they are taken to court. Maybe one day he will invite them to coffee on the beach,” Latheef said, adding that “there are a lot of diplomats here who are very scared the media will die off because of threats like these.”
Speaking yesterday at the Commonwealth’s media development workshop, Attorney General Husnu Suood acknowledged that if an article was published in the Maldives, even if the source was from abroad, the onus was still on the particular journalist to prove its truth.
“But there are defences available,” Suood noted. “In the regulation on defamation there are certain defences – one is the the defence of truth. In this particular instance, if you are relying on figures given by the government’s Auditor General, then I think that might be a defense.”
Hashim had not responded to Minivan News at time of press.