A report on Press Freedom in South Asia published by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), entitled the ‘Battle for Democracy’, contains heavy criticsm of the Maldives’ commitment to free and independent media.
The glossy publication by the highly-regarded association, which also issues international press cards, cites President of the Maldives Journalists Association (MJA) and editor of newspaper Haveeru, Ahmed ‘Hiriga’ Zahir, as saying that President Mohamed Nasheed’s words in support of press freedom “were not being matched by deeds.”
“There have been overt and other more subtle efforts by his government to suppress the free functioning of the media,” the report claimed, referencing Hiriga’s comments.
The report also highlights “the potentially grave threat to independent media [in the] government’s decision to publish all press releases, announcements, tender notices and job advertisements in a specialised Government Gazette”.
Describing the recent attacks on media organisations, in which DhiTV was stormed by a gang of six men who threatened staff, and the stabbing of a Haveeru printery worker, the IFJ report notes the attacks “led to bitter exchanges between the MDP and DRP.”
“The following day a DRP official accused the MDP of instigating the attacks and questioned the ruling party’s oft-stated commitment to media freedom. Others spoke of strategies the government had introduced to kill the media.”
The report goes on to note that “government officials were known to be all too quick to use defamation laws to sue journalists and independent media outlets.”
However, no official of the new government has sued a journalist for defamation to date.
“The DRP and its allies as of 2009 had three criminal defamation suits pending against journalists, one by a former Chief Justice against Manas weekly, another by People’s Alliance President and MP Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom against Haama daily, and another by the President of the Poverty Alleviating Party MP Ahmed Saleem against Jazeera daily.”
The report also contained detailed criticisms of the country’s new media council, which it claimed would generate “an adversarial relationship between the media and the public.”
“[The media council] may be at variance with the general practice in media accountability legislation worldwide, which is to encourage self-regulation and promote a dialogue between the media and the public,” the report noted.
As a positive development, the IFJ mentions that “towards the end of his tenure as President, Abdul Gayoom signed in a set of regulations providing public access to information.”
The online version of the report is missing the section on the Maldives, although it acknowledges a contribution by the MJA.
Awards and Workshops
Following his address on Tuesday to mark UNESCO World Press Freedom Day, President Mohamed Nasheed launched the Maldives Journalist of the Year award, to recognise and promote quality journalism in the country.
Beginning in 2011, Nasheed explained that the recipient would be determined on a peer review basis, and not by the government.
“We want to have a free press and we want to do this because we strongly believe that freedom of press is important for consolidating democracy, and we also strongly believe that development can only be achieved through a free press,” he said.
In a further bid to improve the standard of journalism in the Maldives, the Commonweath Secretariat is holding a media development workshop June 14-17 in collaboration with the MJA.
Two senior editors from Singapore, including Bhagman Singh from MediaCorp News and Channel NewsAsia and Deputy Foreign Editor of English-language daily The Straits Times, will be leading the free seminar. Minivan News will also presenting a session on some of the challenges of reporting in the Maldives.
Topics will cover reporting and editing, as well as media law, ethics, media freedom, democracy and international relations.
Commonwealth Secretariat Deputy Spokesperson Manoah Esipisu said the workshop united two commonweath neighbours, Singapore and the Maldives, “in the sharing of expertise and experiences in media development.”
“This cross-cultural exchanges will help to broaden and deepen understanding on journalism and the influence of politics and governance, culture, tradition, environment, education and technology,” he said, adding that he hoped the workshop would lead to “greater consistency in the accuracy, fairness and balance of news reports.”
Maldivian nationals working in the news media are invited to submit an application form through the MJA’s website before June 1.