The Maldives Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) this week announced a temporary halt to all political programming on state media outlets, amidst debate over the need for more independent and informative public broadcasting.
Speaking to local media, MBC Chair Ibrahim Umar Manik claimed that all political programmes on Television Maldives (TVM) and radio broadcaster Voice of Maldives (VOM) would be stopped until both organisations better understood their public service role and could provide “intellectually debatable programs”.
Manik, who was unavailable for comment when contacted by Minivan News at the time of going to press, told Sun Online that “foreign groups” were currently training TVM and VOM staff to overcome challenges in operating as a public service broadcaster. Both broadcasters are reportedly set to instead air dramas and other “social programs” in place of political content, though the “Raajje Miadhu” evening show is still expected to deal with the day’s major headlines.
Local media bodies, as well as politicians, have complained that state broadcasting under both Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Mohamed Nasheed and Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan’s administrations had been traditionally run for political and commercial benefit rather than as a public service.
The MBC has been previously involved in a protracted legal battle against former President Mohamed Nasheed’s administration over whether the executive – via the Maldives National Broadcasting Corporation (MNBC) – or parliament should have responsibility for overseeing state media.
The MNBC was established by Nasheed to run the state media, removing its employees from the jurisdiction of the Civil Service Commission (CSC). In 2010, the then-opposition majority parliament created MBC and demanded the transfer of MNBC’s assets to the new body, which Nasheed’s government refused to do, alleging political partiality on behalf of the MBC board.
Following the controversial transfer of power that saw President Mohamed Waheed Hassan take office in February, MBC was granted control of TVM and VOM.
Despite this politicking over the control of state media, Maldives Media Council (MMC) President Mohamed Nazeef told Minivan News today that he hoped the MBC’s initiative to rethink public service programming would ensure greater informative and education programming on social issues.
“They [the MBC] are trying to do this, but I believe we need a change of mind set,” he said. “The problem they [state media] has is not so much about politicised thinking, but in having a proper knowledge of how public service broadcasting functions,” he said.
Taking the example of commercial broadcasters in the Maldives, Nazeef said that programmes were focused almost entirely on providing entertainment rather than informative and educational content – something he believed was also the case for the country’s state broadcasters as well.
He claimed that as a result of this focus on entertainment, political programs in the country had traditionally focused on bringing together two rival politicians to confront each other rather than on informing the public about issues such as democratic reform, human rights or public health.
From the perspective of the MMC, Nazeef claimed that local public service broadcasters did not presently have sufficient training to operate under a manner expected of non-commercial media organisations, such as providing a greater emphasis on educational content.
He therefore urged caution over the reforms, adding that the MMC hoped to see a greater focus by the MBC on providing training for finding stories and issues concerning social development.
“Democracy came overnight [following the presidential elections of 2008]. People really needed to be educated on what exactly this meant for society,” he said. “ State media should pay much more of a role in informing people.”
Nazeef said he believed that since its inception, state media, whether in the guise of TVM, or the re-branded MNBC during Nasheed’s presidency, was continuously run more as a “propaganda machine” and commercial outlet than a state broadcaster.
Beyond covering political developments, Nazeef said he hoped that more training and focusses would be provided to cover issues related to health and human rights.
“At present, you do not find awareness programmes in the Maldives media,” he claimed. “Training is definitely needed in how to find these kinds of stories.”
The Maldives Journalist Association (MJA) President Hiriga Ahmed Zahir concurred that training was needed to help both TVM and VOM adapt to becoming more public service-orientated broadcasters, as well as opting for political impartiality. However, he claimed that deep rooted partisan thinking posed significant challenges in allowing for more independent coverage on the issues affecting the public.
To this end, Hiriga said he understood that the MBC had temporarily suspended political programming in an attempts to try and have more issue based programming on both TVM and VOM, particularly for important national issues like dealing with dengue fever.
He claimed that he was therefore broadly in favour of the proposed move by the MBC to adopt a more public service-orientated broadcast model.
“I believe it’s not bad actually. At the moment there is no choice to see any other kind of programs, so there should be much more of a focus on public issues,” he said. “My point is that public broadcasters should not just have programs about politics.”
Hiriga accepted that in the long-term, public broadcasting needed to deal with political issues affecting the nation, but this needed to be handled in a different way to how he believed the state had informed its citizens in the past.
“Certainly there should be more independent and liberal minded people in state media,” he said.
However, Hiriga claimed that ensuring independent political coverage in the country was extremely difficult for journalists in the Maldives due to the partisan politics that often divides the nation down party lines on many issues.
“Most journalists are strong believers on either side of the country’s political divide. This makes it difficult for them to produce stories independently and more training is needed in this area,” he said.
Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) spokespersons Hamid Abdul Ghafoor and Imthiyaz Fahmy could not be contacted by Minivan News at the time of press regarding the party’s view of the proposed changes to state broadcasting.
However, on March 11 this year, the party announced its intentions to lodge a complaint against the current practices of the Maldives Broadcasting Corporation’s (MBC) state media outlets, alleging that it was broadcasting “blatant propaganda”.
In the letter, the MDP accused the MBC of violating the agreements mandated by the Public Broadcasting Services (PBS) Act of August 2010 by producing biased content and not giving adequate exposure to all political groups.
Last month, Minivan News reported on some of the challenges said to be hampering independent reporting and free media in the country.