Maldives slides on Press Freedom Index for third consecutive year

The Maldives has dropped to 108th place in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Press Freedom Index for 2014, marking a decline in press freedom for the third consecutive year.

The index reflects the degree of freedom that journalists, news organisations and netizens enjoy in each country and the efforts made by authorities to ensure respect for this freedom.

In February 2013, opposition aligned broadcaster Raajje TV reporter Ibrahim ‘Asward’ Waheed was nearly beaten to death, whilst the station’s offices and equipment were destroyed in an arson attack in October.

Maldives is ranked between Fiji and the Central African Republic. Fiji, at 107, experienced a coup in 2006, and the Central African Republic, at 109, is in the midst of a civil war following a coup in 2013.

Speaking to Minivan News, the President of the Maldives Journalist Association Ahmed ‘Hiriga’ Zahir said he did not understand why the Maldives’ ranking should decline as compared to 2013, claiming there have been no “extra-ordinary” changes in media freedoms.

However, the ex Maldives Media Council (MMC) President Mohamed Husham said the Maldives has seen a sudden decline in press freedom following the ousting of the country’s first democratically elected government in 2012. Journalists have been experiencing physical and psychological intimidation, he said.

Husham accused the newly elected President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom and his administration of not being responsive to the press and said he had resigned from the MMC last week in protest.

Asward is the second journalist who survived a murder attempt in the country’s recent history. In June 2012, two men slashed freelance journalist and blogger Ismail ‘Hilath’ Rasheed’s throat with a box cutter. Hilath is currently seeking political asylum abroad.

Two men wielding steel bars on a motorcycle severely beat Asward and left him for the dead. He was airlifted to Sri Lanka to undergo major surgery, and returned to the Maldives after three months of medical treatment.

He has not yet regained full sight in his right eye. Two men have been charged with assaulting Asward in the ongoing case.

In October, six masked men set fire to Raajje TV’s headquarters and destroyed the station’s offices, control room, computer systems, broadcasting and transmission equipment. The attack came hours after the station sent a written request to the police seeking protection having received reports of an impending attack.

The RSF issued a statement condemning the Maldives Police Services failure to defend the station.

“This criminal act is a direct blow to freedom of information, and we deplore the attitude of the police, who failed to do what was necessary to prevent the attack although the head of the TV station requested protection a few hours before it took place,” the statement read.

The Police Integrity Commission has recommended charges be filed against two police officers for negligence in preventing the attack.

Further, the police and President Dr Mohamed Waheed’s administration continued a boycott of Raajje TV despite a Civil Court ruling stating media boycotts to be unconstitutional. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has ordered the police to launch an investigation against the station for alleged contempt of court.

Prior to the country’s first multi-party democratic election in 2008, the Maldives was ranked 104th – an improvement on its 2007 ranking of 129th, and 2006 – 144th. The country’s ranking in 2009-2010 reflected dramatic improvements in press freedom, rising to 51st and 52nd respectively. The ranking slipped to 73rd in 2011 and 103rd in 2012.

Despite its plunge in 2013, the Maldives is still ranked higher than regional neighbours India (140th), Sri Lanka (165th), Pakistan (158th), Bangladesh (146th), and Nepal (120th).

According to the RSF, the Indian sub-continent is the Asian region with the biggest rise in violence for journalists for the second year running.


Reporters Without Borders blasts “persecution” of Raajje TV

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has released a statement further criticising the “persecution” of Raajje TV, after the recent initiation of a Supreme Court ordered investigation into its content.

The station is currently under investigation by police after the court ordered they look into an October 19 news report which is alleged to have defamed the institution.

“Not only is the accusation spurious but the investigation has been assigned to the police, which has no competence in such a matter,” RSF said.

“As the Maldives Media Council, the Maldives Broadcasting Commission [MBC] and the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party have all said, such an investigation is the Council’s responsibility.”

Raajje TV CEO Yamin Rasheed told Minivan News yesterday that, whilst both himself and the station’s News Head Asward Ibrahim had been summoned to police, he was only only willing to cooperate with the MBC.

“I won’t co-operate with police, but if the police and broadcasting commission get together and find a solution, I am willing to cooperate – if the broadcasting commission direct us to do so,” said Yamin.

Yesterday’s RSF statement sought to remind the Maldives police of its duty to guarantee freedom of information and media independence.

“The police should concentrate on identifying and arresting the perpetrators and instigators of the arson attack that gutted the station’s premises on 7 October instead of worrying about the quality of its programmes,” read the RSF statement.

Following the destruction of the station’s main studios by masked men earlier this month, RSF strongly condemned the attitude of police who failed to prevent the premeditated attack.

The day after the attack, Chief Superintendent of Police Abdulla Nawaz suggested that protests conducted nearby by the Maldivian Democratic Party – with whom Raajje TV is aligned – had diverted police resources on the night of the attack, before arguing that Raajje TV staff had been negligent in not protecting the premises.

Police have today revealed that seven men and one minor have been arrested in relation to the attack.

“This unconstitutional order follows a failure on the part of the police to protect Raajje TV’s headquarters although they had been informed about the threats it had received, and it shows that the authorities are endorsing an offensive designed to silence Raajje TV by any means necessary,” read this week’s RSF statement.

After receiving fresh threats against its premises this week, Raajje TV has been advised by police to hire additional private security.

“The Police also responded to RaajjeTV’s request of Police security stating that there are difficulties in placing Officers for security but the building and the area will be specially patrolled,” read a police statement yesterday.

Since the controversial transfer of power on February 7, 2012, Raajje TV has faced increasing threats. In July 2012, the police and the President’s Office had said it would not cooperate with the TV station, blocking the station from President’s Office’s press conferences and police protection at protests.

The Civil Court has since ruled that the police and President’s Office’s decisions to ostracize the station were both unconstitutional.

In August 2012, critical cables in the station’s control room were cut, terminating the station’s broadcast. Several Raajje TV journalists have also reported arbitrary arrests and assaults.

In February 2013, men wielding iron rods on motorbikes assaulted Asward leaving him with near near-fatal head injuries.

“The same political alliance is behind the fresh threat, which says Raajje TV should be gone from the scene to meet their political needs,” Yamin told Minivan News this week.

The Maldives plummeted to 103rd in the RSF Press Freedom Index this year – a fall of 30 places and a return to pre-2008 levels.