The Maldives Journalist Association (MJA) has sent a letter to parliament asking for media subsidies to balance the “fragile” state of the country’s media.
The letter urged parliament to provide the subsidies “in a sensible way” to “vitalise” Maldivian journalism, in order for it to continue its “important role” of holding the government accountable.
Several newspapers have closed down while others have reduced staff numbers and salaries, it said, as a direct result of the government moving its advertisements to an in-house gazette.
“Moreover, MJA has been receiving complaints that there are many obstacles to practicing responsible journalism,” the letter read, adding that subsidies were necessary “to protect and preserve independent journalism in the country” and that failing to provide them “would have an adverse effect on this burgeoning democracy”.
President of the MJA and editor of the newspaper Haveeru, Ahmed ‘Hiriga’ Zahir, proposed that media outlets be given subsidies based on circulation, in a similar system to the way political parties are funded.
“A small community [like the Maldivian media] won’t survive unless we are given support,” he said, adding that this money would not compromise the media’s independence if it was allocated by the state rather than the government.
“We have 300,000 people [in the Maldives] and that’s not enough of a market for fully private enterprise,” he argued. On the other hand, “state TV should be privatised to ensure it has a commercial component. Until recently most of the time people relied on the 8pm news on TVM (Television Maldives) to get their information, and now so much of it is biased towards the current government.”
Hiriga said he was also concerned that fully privatising media ownership would consolidate control in the hands of a few wealthy individuals.
There are no provisions in the current budget for media subsidies, although this has yet to be passed by parliament which has stalled the process at committee level, citing various concerns and “confusions”.
Chairman of the budget review committee, MP Ahmed Nazim, told Minivan News last week that there were no subsidies for the Maldives National Broadcasting Corporation (MNBC) included in the budget.
“Can TVM [Television Maldives] and VoM [Voice of Maldives] finance their 2010 operations on their own? Surely not,” he said.
State Finance Minister Mohamed Assad said the government was “not closed to the idea of state-funded media”, but did favour corporatisation of the sector.
“The whole idea of corporatisation is to budget your own operation and not to rely on support,” he said, claiming this made the media less independent “as its income is hidden.”
He said he was concerned at the way parliament was interceding on the budget, and suggested that “we seem to be moving more to a parliamentary rather than presidential system of government.”
“We are proceeding with the budget and have not said otherwise,” he said, adding that there were contingency plans in place “because in the worst case scenario the government still has to operate. Parliament can’t bring the government to a standstill by not passing the budget.”
He dismissed the concerns of the review committee and said parts of the document were “highly technical and misunderstood, [for example] whatever is earned this year will [only] show up as next year’s income,” he said.
“I think Nazim just wanted a break, it was as simple as that.”