Raajje TV destroyed in arson attack

Additional reporting by JJ Robinson

A group of masked men armed with machetes, iron rods and petrol set fire to opposition aligned TV station Raajje TV shortly before 4:45am today, destroying its offices and control room as well as cameras, computer systems, broadcasting and transmission equipment.

The attack comes days after Raajje TV broadcast a report titled “Forum 15” detailing a plan, including arson, to destroy the station.

According to Raajje TV’s Head of News, Ibrahim ‘Asward’ Waheed, six men forcefully entered the seven story building after stabbing the security guard with a machete.

The guard has been hospitalised and is receiving care for two stab wounds to his back.

The men then damaged the elevator and cut off the building’s electricity. The group continued to break through a reinforced steel door to access station’s offices on the second floor of the building, before covering all equipment in the building with petrol and setting it alight.

A crew member from the airport ferry – docked opposite the building – said he witnessed a group of masked men leaving the building, and the bleeding security guard run to police officers on the corner of the block.

“We were docking at around 4:40 am when I saw about eight masked and gloved men leaving the building. They were wearing jeans and t-shirts. I saw the security guard run out, he had blood on his back,” he said.

“There were policemen on the corner, he ran to them and it looked like they did not help. I say this because he ran back to the building and then ran back to them when people gathered there started shouting,” he told Minivan News.

“At the time there was smoke coming from the offices. Many people there told me they called the police when they saw what was happening. But the police did not answer the phone. and only answered once the whole place was ablaze,” he said.

Station staff were unharmed, although the Maldives National Defense Forces’ (MNDF) Fire and Rescue Services said they had rescued one woman who was trapped on the terrace.

According to the MNDF, the fire was reported at 4:45 am and was put out at 7:00 am. A computer store on the ground floor was also completely destroyed in the blaze.

The station was destroyed on the same day as the Supreme Court’s much-anticipated ruling on whether to allow elections to go ahead.

Station had requested police protection

The station’s reporters had all gone home by 4:00am after providing live coverage of the Maldivian Democratic Party’s (MDP) ongoing protests against the indefinite suspension of elections by the country’s Supreme Court. Eyewitnesses had reported that the license plates of the arsonist’s motorbikes had been concealed, Asward said.

Raajje TV CEO Yamin Rasheed said the station had received reports at 8:00pm on the previous evening that it was in danger of being attacked that same evening, warnings which forwarded to police along with a written request for police protection.

“[The report] was very suspicious, and did not look like a joke. I wrote a letter to police asking for security and requested them to protect us from this attack. But there was no response,” he said.

Police Spokesperson Chief Inspector Hassan Haneef confirmed to Minivan News this morning that police had received Yamin’s letter “and took action by patrolling the area.”

Yamin said Raajje TV has extensive CCTV footage of the arson attack: “It will be very easy to investigate. But we’ve handed it over in past attacks and nothing has happened,” he said.

“We will resume our service as soon as possible. Our directors are very courageous and are willing to try again,” he added.

Vice President of the Maldives Broadcasting Commission (MBC) Mohamed Shaheeb has harshly condemned the torching of Raajje TV.

“This is a cowardly act that violates vital democratic principles of freedom of expression and press. This commission calls for an investigation and prosecution of those involved,” he said.

Former President Mohamed Nasheed said in a tweet that he strongly condemns the attack on Raajje TV, asking the “Raajje TV team not to worry and come back on air as soon as possible.”

Maldives Media Council President Mohamed Husham spoke out against lack of protection to the media in a tweet:  “We have not seen any results from the discussions to provide protection equally to all media.”

The Maldives Post Services has suspended services from its main office, which is located next door.

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.

According to Raajje TV the station had an audience of at least 95,000 people, one of the largest shares of Maldivian media. It reached India and Sri Lanka, and is also streamed online.