The government has continued to criticise opposition politicians, including representatives of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, for “misleading” international media over the scale of protests in Male’ last week.
The protests were today labelled by the Washington Post as one of the 29 largest crackdowns of the last decade, eclipsing the riots following the death of Evan Naseem.
After seven days of demonstrations across Male’ last week, purportedly in protest against the government’s decision to implement a managed float of the rufiyaa – police on Wednesday (May 4) announced that any protests not held in the open artificial beach or tsunami monument areas would be immediately dispersed.
The opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) has insisted the protests are ‘youth-led’ despite the apparent leadership of its MPs, and tried to replicate the ‘Arab Spring’ protests across the Middle East by branding President Nasheed as a despot to the international media and dubbing a busy Male’ intersection ‘Youth Square’.
In the Washington Post piece, photos were published of 29 protests that have occurred around the world and were deemed to be among the biggest demonstrations and crackdowns of the decade – including the recent unrest in the Maldives.
“Syria, Libya and other Middle Eastern regimes aren’t the only ones to use force against protesters. Here are some of the major crackdowns since 2000,” wrote the paper in a picture story on its website.
The Maldives is listed at 28th, placed between the riots in Uganda last month over rising fuel costs – where protesters were shot at by police – and Egypt’s anti-government uprisings that ended the thirty year reign of President Hosni Mubarak in February.
“In recent weeks, hundreds of anti-government protesters took to the streets of Maldives to demonstrate against soaring prices and demand the resignation of President Mohamed Nasheed,” the article wrote, alongside a photograph of a local protester who appeared to have been knocked down by Maldivian police carrying batons.
Responding to the Washington Post article, Press Secretary for the President Mohamed Zuhair said he was suspicious that international journalists from established publications like the Washington Post were speaking to representatives of the former president or opposition politicians, who in some cases had provided false information in an attempt to “tarnish” the government’s image.
“We have received alleged reports that former President Gayoom’s spokesperson – Mohamed Hussain ‘Mundhu’ Shareef – has been contacted by international media and has perhaps given the impression he remains as the spokesperson for the current President Mohamed Nasheed,” said Zuhair.
“There appears to be misconception that there has been a higher turnout at these protests than were actually there,” he said.
Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP ‘Reeko’ Moosa Manik, who is currently on an official visit to China, has also accused Gayoom’s spokesperson of giving interviews to Chinese journalists who were under the impression he was the spokesperson for the current administration.
‘’Most of the foreign papers have his [Shareef’s] number as the spokesperson of the President, so when they contact him he says he is [the President’s] spokesperson,’’ Moosa claimed on the MDP’s website. “He has told foreign papers that there is severe civil unrest in Male’ and that it is not safe to send tourists here.’’
Moosa alleged that Shareef was “intentionally” seeking to destroy the tourism industry of the Maldives and “to mislead the international community.”
Minivan News contacted Shareef to refute the allegations, but he refused to comment on the matter.
Zuhair said that the week of protests had represented the involvement of only a small part of a voting population that in Male’ alone numbered tens of thousands of people.
“This is the case of the picture telling the story,” Zuhair said. “After the first few nights of protests the numbers [of participants] began to dwindle to just a few hundred people on the final night [Friday, May 6],” he claimed.
Zuhair claimed that he believed that there had been a deliberate attempt to try and tarnish the image of President Nasheed internationally through the supply of information to foreign media that he said had led to travel warnings being issued to Asian travel markets like Hong Kong.
The government reported today that the President’s Special Envoy, Ibrahim Hussain Zaki, had been sent to China in the wake of several travel warnings issued in the region that are feared to have begun harming one of the fastest growing tourist arrivals markets presently coming to the Maldives.
Speaking last week following criticisms by Foreign Minister Ahmed Naseem of the manner in which some politicians had been courting international media attention, leader DRP Ahmed Thasmeen Ali hit out at suggestions of media manipulation.
Thasmeen said at the time that he was “utterly surprised” that a member of the current government, which has vocally supported freedom of speech and democratic reforms, would find protests “unreasonable” on the basis of protecting tourism.
“We have seen them try to stifle protest through using excessive police force,” he claimed. “We are peaceful protestors and are not impacting tourism in Male’.”
Thasmeen added that he believed the government had not made attempts to initiate a dialogue on the issue of living costs, although the opposition said they were willing to negotiate on the matter even though they did not agree to the current devaluation strategy being pursued.
“Obviously there are a lot of protesters here, but the government does not want to listen,” he said. “Lots of people are suffering.”
Thasmeen said that accusations that the country’s political opposition had been “misleading” international media was an “oversimplification” of the issues behind the protests.
“The international media are professionals, many of who will already know the facts of the protests, I don’t see it will be possible to manipulate them,” he said.
Thasmeen claimed that reports of excessive force against protesters had been accurate, adding that MDP supporters led by their parliamentary leadership had been “violently charging” protest crowds while police were attempting to disperse peaceful protesters.
The Maldives Journalists Association (MJA) has meanwhile issued a statement to international media and groups such as the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF), alleging “infuriating and agitating conflict by the police”, urging authorities to “bring to a halt the atrocities targeted towards journalists.”