New York-headquartered public relations firm Hill & Knowlton (H&K) was responsible for recommending – and in some cases implementing – most of the pre-2008 democratic reform in the Maldives, according to details in a leaked 2003 report commissioned by then-President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.
The company – one of the two largest PR companies in the world, representing groups as diverse as IBM, the Church of Scientology and the Ladies’ Home Journal – has come under criticism for working to improve the reputations of governments accused of human rights violations, including Indonesia and Turkey.
However, H&K’s report on the Maldives, titled ‘Issues audit and communications strategy for the Government of the Maldives’, reveals that the firm was responsible for much of the human rights and governance reform that paved the way for the country’s first democratic election in 2008.
The vast majority of recommendations in the report were subsequently implemented, portraying Gayoom as mellowing in the lead up to 2008 following the autocratic excesses of his 30 year rule.
H&K’s recommendations included the separation of the security forces into police, military and correctional institutions, constitutional reform and the introduction of multi-party democracy, strategies for the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM), reform of the Majlis, reform of the criminal justice system, including an end to the practice of flogging, and even the introduction of religious freedom.
The report opens acknowledging that the events of September 19, 2003 – unprecedented civil unrest sparked by the custodial death of Evan Naseem – were a “watershed” moment in Maldivian history, “and one after which nothing will ever be the same.”
“Perceptions of its significance are more diverse. Some believe it is a signal that the seal has now been broken and that further unrest could well follow. Others believe it was an understandable and genuine outlet of anger, yet one which can be avoided in the future, should meaningful reforms be introduced. Yet others, point to an orchestrated event influenced by shadowy forces seeking regime change and which are backed by religious fundamentalists,” H&K stated, in 2003.
“Despite such divergences in views, what is clear, though, is that expectations have now been raised and presidential promises made; the delivery of meaningful reform is now required.”
The report, produced by H&K consultants Andrew Jonathan Pharoah, Timothy Francis Fallon and Biswajit Dasgupta following extensive meetings and consultations across Maldivian society, contains both a situational analysis of key issues and recommendations for Gayoom’s government on how to address them.
Human rights abuses
Stakeholders consulted by H&K were “almost unanimous” that human rights abuses were occurring in the Maldives. However, these abuses were in many cases believed “to be individual, not institutional.”
Outside the then nascent Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), complaints about arbitrary arrest and freedom of expression “were dismissed as being the hyperbole or outright lies of malcontents and trouble makers”.
H&K summarises the concerns of three institutions: Amnesty International, the UN Commission on Human Rights, and the US State Department.
“Critics of the Government continued to be detained, or imprisoned following unfair trials and should be regarded as prisoners of conscience. Government portrays convictions as being a result of criminal activities, but the real reason is as a result of political opposition,” H&K notes, citing Amnesty. The human rights organisation’s report is “littered with a number of individual case-study examples underpinning the accusations,” H&K adds.
The Maldives had meanwhile provided almost no information to the UN Commission on Human Rights, when challenged on issues such as racial discrimination.
“The Maldivian response had been to state that ‘no form of racial discrimination exists in the Maldives based on race or any other differences among the population’, and that ‘therefore, no specific legislation is required to implement the provisions of the Convention,” H&K cites.
The US State Department noted “unconfirmed reports of beatings or other mistreatment of persons in police custody during the year”, but noted that food and housing conditions at Maafushi prison were “generally adequate”.
The State Department’s opinion of the country’s media – which reflected few concerns other than politicisation of ownership – was “overly generous”, H&K suggested.
“Our own verdict was that the local media appeared to be uncritical, lacking any desire towards investigative journalism and averse to producing hard-hitting stories.
“Perceptually, the media was regarded by some as a Government mouthpiece and the close connections / ownership by the same did not help its cause in portraying itself as being an independent scrutineer. A kinder view may be that the media has limited resources and did not regard its job as doing the country down.
“ It was also suggested that negative perceptions were exacerbated as a result of the profession not being seen as a desirable career to enter. Consequently, the career did not attract the cream of the crop it is questionable whether there are many graduates in the profession.”
To address human rights issues, H&K recommended that HRCM be given a “clear and transparent mandate” with specific objectives and benchmarks, audited “by third parties such as Amnesty.”
“The Commission should play a key role in responding to the individual cases outlined by Amnesty International and others,” H&K suggested, and show a “clear and comprehensive communications structure” with “findings/initiatives widely publicised.”
“Although the Maldives would like to be described as a young liberal Muslim democracy, the perception in the outside world perhaps not match this description,” H&K suggests.
“Critics have begun voicing disgruntlement. They describe an autocratic, six-term President, who does not allow any challenge to his leadership and who presides over a Parliament formed through bribery, corruption and fear.”
The agency urged Gayoom to allow multi-party democracy, stating that his existing position “is untenable, unsustainable and causing significant damage to perceptions of democracy.”
“To the external world there is an idealistic consensus that those who are willing to sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither liberty nor security. Moreover, the process gives the impression of a political elite which feels that it knows best,” H&K writes.
Parliament was meanwhile considered manifestly corrupt, as particularly on the islands H&K “got the impression that the process of candidates buying votes was commonplace and expected. Indeed, the agency heard some concern that the price of votes was going up and candidates had to spend way more than they did previously to secure the same votes!”
H&K urged “comprehensive reformation of the single candidate Presidential election system, with the adoption of a multi-candidate process”, and “a comprehensive reform of the Maldivian constitution to the extent whereby any political party can operate with complete freedom.”
The role of the Majlis was to be reviewed and given “more independence with greater powers of scrutiny”.
A further H&K recommendation – which was not implemented, and now seems somewhat prescient – was that “the office of an independent ombudsman should be introduced to investigate accusations of wrongdoing on the part of Majlis and Ministers.”
Criminal justice system
H&K called for “fundamental reform” of the criminal justice system, in which it said “there was little to no faith”: “Corruption is viewed as embedded, or alternatively justice is seen as being dispensed arbitrarily.”
“Structurally, there is concern at the signal sent out in having the President as the highest figure within the judiciary and also the executive. Similarly, there is also concern that the President has responsibility for the judicial appointments system and indeed the ages and experience of judges, who are all young and deemed inexperienced,” H&K wrote.
The consultants also noted that “despite his position, the President is not supposed to involve himself directly in the affairs of the judiciary. Yet, the President does review decisions – albeit through a three-man commission. Whilst this may have been established with the best of intentions, that the Commission has been described as ‘slow and lethargic’, ‘lacking in transparency and having no clear mandate’ only adds to the concerns.”
Basing the legal system on a combination of Sharia Law and 1968 Civil Law did not cause issues “in and of itself”, noting that it did not include punishments “which would be considered unacceptable in liberal democracies, such as stoning to death or amputations.”
Nonetheless, an end to the practice of flogging “would be an easy win”, H&K suggested.
As for judicial procedure, the accused “are often not given access to pen and paper and do not have enough time to prepare their case”, and “perversely, we also understand that neither are the police required to keep a police diary. It has also been claimed that the accused are not made aware of the full extent of the charges levelled against them (until they are in court) and that often they will not be informed of the date of their trial until the day itself. Anecdotal evidence also exists that prisoners have been in court charged with one offence and then convicted of another.”
The justice system was based on confession, “and the the police service believes that prisoners need to be held longer in order that they can extract a confession which is necessary to obtain a conviction – even when they believe forensic (and other) evidence may suffice.
“There is the perception that the police make clear to suspects that until they deliver a confession they will be held in prison indefinitely. There are also concerns that the need for a confession is one of the driving forces which leads to torture and or police brutality against prisoners.”
As a result, 90 percent of the prison population had confessed to their crime, H&K observed.
Recommendations for the reform of the criminal justice system included ending flogging and asking HRCM to review the practice of banishment: “Amnesty believes persons banished often have to undergo hard labour with an insufficient daily allowance for more than one meal a day. Women are also said to be easy targets for harassment and sexual abuse by village men.”
Furthermore, “the President must remove himself completely and permanently from any direct or indirect control or influence with regards to the Criminal Justice System, and that this position must be open to review/audit at any time by third party agencies.”
Police, NSS and correctional forces
There was, H&K said, “a common perception that the police considered themselves to be above the law – albeit, the general consensus was that abuses were considered individual rather than institutional. Moreover, that corruption exists amongst correctional guards was conceded at the highest levels.”
“In particular, there were a number of accusations of abuse of power. Amnesty, for example, points to a failure to return equipment after searches (which then leads to a loss of livelihoods), and also of widespread torture, ill treatment in prisons and the forcing of confessions.”
Joint training and the use of the same uniform at the time led to a crisis of identity among the security forces and, for the police, “a martial mindset which whilst suited to an armed forces, was felt not appropriate for policing.”
H&K recommended a “clear separation of duties and responsibilities assigned to the both the National Security Service and the Police Force”, with separate training facilities and “visible differences” in “look and operational style”. It also called for an “urgent review” of the competency of correctional officers.
H&K’s most controversial recommendation was “that the Maldivian Government move as a matter of urgency towards a society and constituency whereby there is complete religious freedom.”
“One of the first – and most striking impressions – visitors to the Maldives receive is given to them when filling in the arrivals card. On the back, amongst hard hitting warnings about bringing drugs, spearguns and pornographic materials to the islands, stands further warnings forbidding ‘items of idolatry’ and ‘items contrary to Islam’,” H&K observed.
“The agency has seen reports in the media of bibles, effigies of Christ, Buddha and Krishna, being taken from visitors during baggage searches on arrival. Yet, through discussions we understand that, whilst the country is keen to preserve its Muslim traditions and forbids public worship of other religions, private worship is allowed. In this context, we were told, such items should not be being confiscated,” H&K stated.
The Maldives was in contravention of article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights concerning religious freedom, H&K noted, suggesting that “ordinarily [we would] make the recommendation that the Maldives change its laws and practices accordingly. However, we are aware that, regrettably, there is unlikely to be any appetite for this. Indeed, it could be argued that such a move could further encourage the Islamic fundamentalists who would regard as it as sign that the Government had sold out.”
Noting the US State Department’s concerns over freedom of expression, detention and counselling of potential apostates and detention and expulsion of foreigners for proselytising, H&K said it “ believes that this attitude is untenable and unsustainable alongside any claim to be in accord with human rights.”
“Notwithstanding the very clear infringement of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the situation is manifestly unfair to the citizens of the Maldives who may wish to practice other religions. Indeed, it is worth noting that the Maldives has not always been a Muslim country,” H&K stated.
“Whilst the agency can accept that the Maldives is keen to maintain its Muslim traditions, some form of compromise – perhaps along the current lines – should be adopted.”
Following the government’s unfavourable response to this suggestion, and noting “significant resistance”, H&K subsequently offered supplementary recommendations, including replacing hostile warnings on boarding cards with a notice “that private worship is permitted” – noting that “these will only be seen by foreigners”, “Take steps to make clear to diplomatic channels and holiday tour groups and reps that private worship of other religions is permitted”, and “Encourage authorities to turn a blind eye to incidences of Maldivians worshipping other faiths in private – be it individual or group worship.”
H&K outlines a strategic program “to achieve balanced coverage of the Maldives and recognition for the very real changes which are being made by the Government.”
“In this regard, we need to be prepared for people to be critical of what we do and we must recognise that there are a number of people who will be implacably imposed to whatever the Government does.”
H&K proposes a “reactive, rapid rebuttal” strategy, “to ensure that no inaccuracies are allowed to stand without an attempt at rebutting them having been made.”
“There is also undoubtedly also a need to change the culture of communications. At present, we have witnessed a desire to engage only on the Maldives’ own terms,” H&K observes.
“We acknowledge concerns that journalists may twist stories and perhaps include comment from critics. However, if the journalists are intending to do this – they will go ahead regardless of whether or not they are proactively engaged. Better then at least to have the opportunity to put the story across with our own messages.”
“Second, not giving interviews will not help in demonstrating openness and transparency which are prerequisites for messages communicated to be believed. Third, from our experiences we have seen that changing perceptions is a case of turning the proverbial oil tanker; it takes time and results are not immediate. In any event engagement will need to take place at some stage – at least if we start now, we can begin to draw a line and at least try tackling the issues on the front foot.
“Fourth, even if journalists were to misreport the story, it provides us with a platform with which to go higher up the ladder and take issue with managers or editors. In this way, even were stories not to be retracted, corrected or the Maldives given a chance to respond, it nevertheless helps to ensure that in the future greater care and attention will be given to reporting.”
H&K puts forward a number of journalists to specifically target, and offer press visits to the Maldives.
“In organising the itinerary for such a trip it is important that we enable those attending to get a balanced picture of what is going on and therefore we must be prepared for them to meet with people who are to some extent critical of Government,” H&K stated.
“This is often quite a difficult step for Governments to overcome but unless we do this we believe journalists may feel we are trying to hide the truth from them. We should not expect that a journalist will not ask us difficult questions nor have relations with others who are critical.”
The journalists included: Dilip Ganguly (Associated Press), Krishan Francis (Associated Press), Zack Ijabbar (The Island, Sri Lanka) Warren Fernandez (Foreign Editor, Straight Times), Sunday Leader, Sri Lanka, Scott McDonald, (Reuters Colombo), Lindsay Beck, (Reuters Colombo), Chris Lockwood (Asia Editor, Economist), Catherine Philp (Times South Asia Correspondent in New Delhi), Alex Spillius (South-East Asia Correspondent, Daily Telegraph/Sunday Telegraph), Randeep Ramesh (Guardian, Delhi), Kathy Marks and Mary Dejevsky (The Independent/Independent on Sunday), Tom Walker (The Sunday Times), Tracy McVeigh (Observer), Khozem Merchant (Financial Times) and Rita Penn with BBC World.
Minivan News was not among the media targeted. The edits of H&K’s inaugural ‘e-newsletter’ in 2005, also obtained by Minivan News, described Minivan News as a “clandestine newsletter”.
“The peaceful and positive tone of the President’s address was in stark contrast to the incendiary language of certain sectors of the Maldivian press over the past week, who were calling for and even encouraging violent demonstrations to coincide with our National Day,” H&K’s newsletter states.
“If we could rephrase this,” reads the edit. “Many locals do not attach legitimacy to Minivan News; they only recognise as press what is in circulation in the country under registration. Hence, it may cause an uproar. ‘Clandestine newsletter’ maybe, your call.”
The H&K report corroborates comments made by former Foreign Minister Dr Ahmed Shaheed in a Q&A with Minivan News in June 2011, following his appointment as UN Special Rapporteur on Iran.
“I do not know the motives of Gayoom in hiring Hill & Knowlton,” Dr Shaheed told Minivan News at the time.
“But my links with them were on the basis that they would contribute to reform in the Maldives. So I agreed to be a liaison person with them, but only if they would work on a governance reform project,” he explained.
“Their first task was an audit of governance in the country: meeting various stake-holders, gauging public perception and making recommendations on what ought to be done. Their recommendation was that we needed to implement rapid political reforms, including political pluralism.”
Based on the 2003 report, Gayoom engaged H&K on a longer-term basis, Dr Shaheed explained.
“This entailed assisting him with reforms internally, and projecting those reforms externally. It was not purely a PR function and it did entail real policy prescriptions for Gayoom,” he said.
Dr Shaheed confirmed that H&K was not just making recommendations, but actively writing policies for Gayoom’s government.
“When you are in office for 30 years and your ministers and associates make recommendations to you, you don’t believe them. But if you have a posh firm from London making recommendations, you tend to believe them,” Dr Shaheed said. “And Gayoom did.”
“Things that Gayoom did on their recommendation included separating the army from the police, a whole raft of reforms on judicial function, prison reform, constitutional reform – all these things were done at their request.
“The only H&K recommendations he left out – Hill & Knowlton wanted [Gayoom’s half brother and STO Chairman] Yameen and the then Police Chief (Adam Zahir) sacked, and they also suggested that freedom of religion was something that was internationally demanded,” he said.
“Of course, there’s no way any government here can introduce freedom of religion, and H&K’s usefulness finally ended when they recommended Yameen be removed – at that point Gayoom stopped listening to them.”
Download the full H&K 2003 report (English)
Download the H&K recommendations (English)