New public media company is ‘a state mouthpiece’

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has condemned the new public service media law as an attack on press freedom with the creation of a “state mouthpiece.”

The Maldives Broadcasting Corporation, which operated the state television and radio stations, was dissolved last week after President Abdulla Yameen ratified the Public Service Media Act, which replaced the state-owned corporation with a new state media company.

“The Maldivian media have faced a number of challenges from the government in recent months and this Act is another attempt by the Yameen government to control critics,” the IFJ said in a statement.

“The concept of the public broadcaster is to ensure balanced and ethical reporting in the public interest, however with the government controlling this, it will only serve as a propaganda tool.”

The IFJ’s local affiliate, the Maldives Journalist Association (MJA), said the law is “not in line with best practices and fundamentals of a public service broadcasting or media” and accused the government of seizing control of public service broadcasting.

“MJA believes the Maldives has gone back to the 80s and we condemn the controlling of media, especially the removal of public service broadcasting in the country,” the association said.

The pro-government majority parliament passed public service media (PSM) bill on Monday amidst protests by opposition MPs and approved the president’s seven nominees to the PSM governing board on Thursday without conducting interviews.

At the first meeting of the public service media governing board, Ibrahim Umar Manik was elected chairperson and former VTV CEO Ibrahim Khaleel was made managing director.

Manik told Minivan News last week that the law was a “positive move” that will improve the public broadcaster. Manik was also chairman of the Maldives Broadcasting Corporation’s board.

“We were not influenced before and I am very confident that we will not be influenced by the government in the future as well,” he said.

Ibrahim Hilmy was meanwhile elected vice chairperson of PSM and former VTV presenter Mohamed Ikram and Aminath Shayan Shahid were appointed deputy managing directors.

During last week’s parliamentary debate, ruling party MP Riyaz Rasheed said one of the reasons the government had to form a new state media company was because the previous state broadcaster provided live coverage of an underwater protest calling for the release of ex-president Mohamed Nasheed.

However, TVM had not covered the event.

Riyaz also criticised the state broadcaster for not providing enough coverage of the government’s development projects, the president’s overseas trips, and state ceremonies.

Government officials were only invited to programmes because opposition politicians were refusing to appear, he claimed.

The new law also requires the state to distribute a printed daily newspaper and use social media to disseminate programmes.

The PSM board said in a statement on Thursday that Television Maldives (TVM) and the radio station Dhivehi Raajjege Adu will retain its brand names until the board decides otherwise.

The state broadcaster will also follow the former corporation’s policies until new policies are formulated, it added.

Parliament approved a monthly salary of MVR25,000 for the managing director in addition to an MVR15,000 living allowance and an MVR1,000 phone allowance. The chairperson and vice chairperson will receive MVR15,000 and MVR13,000, respectively, as living allowance, while other members will receive MVR10,000.


Foreign ministry, US embassy, international organisations condemn attack on Minivan News

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the US embassy in Colombo, and international press freedom organisations have issued statements condemning the attack on the Minivan News office.

A machete knife was buried in the door of the Minivan News building on Thursday afternoon (September 25) after a known gangster removed the CCTV security camera outside the premises.

Expressing “deep concern” with the increasing intimidation and threats faced by journalists, Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon “noted that the government remains strongly committed to create an environment that gives protection to media personnel to exercise their duties freely and responsibly.”

“Media freedom and freedom expression are fundamental human rights guaranteed under the Constitution of the Maldives and the human rights instruments that the Maldives is party to,” read the foreign ministry statement.

“At the ongoing Human Rights Council Session in Geneva the Maldives co-sponsored the resolution calling for the safety of journalist.”

The US embassy also expressed concern “about the recent attacks on media and political offices in Malé as well as continuing threats to media personnel.”

“Peaceful freedom of expression is a fundamental democratic right, and we strongly condemn these acts. The embassy notes the prompt Maldivian Police Service action to launch an investigation, urges the authorities to bring to justice the perpetrators, and calls for an end to all intimidation and violence,” the US embassy stated.

Press freedom

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) meanwhile noted that the attack came after an investigative report – commissioned by the Maldivian Democracy Network – on the disappearance of Minivan News journalist Ahmed Rilwan was made public.

“The fact that [Thursday’s] attack on Minivan came three days after the report’s publication is not seen as a coincidence,” RSF stated.

Citing the abduction of several young men in June by a vigilante group in a push to identify online activists advocating secularism or professing atheism, the investigation report found gang activity in Rilwan’s abduction to be a strong possibility.

“Reporters Without Borders condemns this latest attack and calls on the authorities to provide Minivan’s journalists with protection, especially as this is not the first time the website and its staff have been targeted,” the statement read.

Rilwan remains missing after 50 days and is believed to have been abducted.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) also called on the government to conduct a thorough investigation and expressed concern with declining safety for journalists in the Maldives.

“This attack is clearly intended to intimidate an independent news organisation for its editorial line,” said IFJ Asia Pacific Deputy Director Jane Worthington.

“It’s a lame and condemnable attempt that the Maldives government should investigate thoroughly to ensure the perpetrators are punished as soon as possible.”

The IFJs local affiliate, Maldives Journalist Association (MJA), also put out a press release condemning the attack.

“Minivan News is an established and active news organisation, and this attack is a clear attempt to threaten and intimidate journalists in the Maldives. MJA calls upon the authorities to investigate this incident with utmost urgency,” MJA said.

The MJA noted that institutions and mechanisms were in place to investigate complaints regarding the media, noting that “differences [of opinion] with regard to content published by news organisations do not warrant vandalism and intimidation.”

“While establishing an environment where journalists could work freely is a responsibility for all, we call on the relevant authorities of the state to do everything necessary to ensure [press freedom],” the MJA said.

After rising to 51st in 2009, the Maldives dropped to 108th place to pre-2008 levels in the RSF Press Freedom Index for 2014, marking a decline in press freedom for the third consecutive year.

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

In June 2012, two men slashed the throat of freelance journalist and blogger Ismail Hilath Rasheed with a box cutter.


IFJ and MJA again urge government to expedite Rilwan case

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the Maldives Journalists’ Association (MJA) released a further press statement expressing concerns over “the slow progress made in the search of journalist Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla”.

“Today marks one month since Rilwan was last seen yet the IFJ remains critical of the investigation and the release of information by the authorities,” the statement dated September 8 reads.

“The huge public response to Rilwan’s disappearance shows the strong desire for justice and answers, not only by his journalistic colleagues but the public at large,” the statement quotes IFJ acting director Jane Worthington as saying.

Rilwan was last spotted on CCTV footage at the Hulhumalé Ferry Terminal. Eye witnesses report seeing a man fitting Rilwan’s description being forced into a vehicle at knife point in front of his residence at approximately the time Rilwan would have reached his residence.

The IFJ states that evidence found by Minivan News – later corroborated by other media outlets – suggests Rilwan was abducted, while the authorities have so far not provided any information which links the reported abduction in Hulhumalé to Rilwan’s disappearance.

“One month on, the demand for answers remains strong and if the figures the police provide are correct, there is vital information that is not being shared with the media that might find the culprits behind his disappearance,” said the statement.

The IFJ previously released a statement last month calling upon authorities to undertake a full investigation with the “utmost seriousness, with all findings released to the public.”

“The disappearance of journalists is a serious matter and full support must be provided to the family,” read the August statement.

Rilwan’s family have resorted to lobbying the People’s Majlis in order to gain information about the investigation, noting last week that police updates on the investigation did not included evidence on progress.

The most recent police statement noted that they had questioned 318 individuals, interrogated 111, searched 139 locations in Hulhumalé and conducted dives to search 267,197.5 square meters of ocean.

“These are just statistics,” responded Rilwan’s brother, Moosa at the time. “We want to find him. We want the police to tell us if they have any leads, if there is progress”.

The Human Rights Commission of Maldives and the Maldives Democracy Network have also suggested the police should be conducting investigations more transparently. The UK government has this week expressed concern over the disappearance.

Speaking to Minivan News today, police media officials said  that there were no further developments in the investigation that could be shared with media or the public.

Meanwhile, Rilwan’s family and friends continue in their efforts to find him and spread awareness about the disappearance.

In a social media campaign dubbed ‘Find Moyameehaa‘ – referring to the pseudonym adopted by Rilwan on social media – friends and family have so far conducted various activities in the streets of Malé.

Efforts included the gathering of 5000 signatures on the Majlis petition in just over one week, and a gathering for families victims of violent crimes.

“Friends and family will once again be meeting the public on Friday afternoon from 4 to 6pm at the Artificial Beach,” Rilwan’s long time friend Yameen Rasheed explained.

According to Yameen, Friday’s event will be focused on addressing questions surrounding Rilwan’s suspected abduction, spreading information about Rilwan and the loss society will face in losing young minds like him, sharing various literary works he has produced, and conducting a special prayer in hope of his quick and safe return.


IFJ calls on government to speed up investigation into Rilwan’s disappearance

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) together with its affiliate the Maldives Journalists Association (MJA) has called on the government “to speed up investigation to clarify of whereabouts journalist Ahmed Rilwan Adbulla, who is missing since August 8.”

In a joint statement, the MJA called on “all relevant authorities to make an extra effort to clarify the whereabouts of Abdulla,” while the IFJ said the disappearance was “deeply concerning.”

“We call on the authorities to undertake a full investigation up to and including the time of his disappearance, conducted with the upmost seriousness, with all findings released to the public. The disappearance of journalists is a serious matter and full support must be provided to the family,” said the IFJ.

The MJA meanwhile expressed “grave concern over recent incidents of threats sent through text messages to local journalists.”

The MJA also called on “all parties to refrain from obstructing a free and independent media in the Maldives.”

The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) meanwhile put out a statement last night expressing concern with the police investigation and efforts to locate Rilwan, which it contended were “inadequate”.

The main opposition party noted that Rilwan disappeared at a time when journalists were facing intimidation and receiving death threats.

The MDP referred to the party bringing to the government’s attention the abduction of alleged advocates of secularism by a vigilante group in June.

“However, we note with regret that the government has taken no action concerning [the abductions],” the statement read. The party also referred to previous threats against journalists and the arson attack against the opposition-aligned private broadcaster Raajje TV.

At the time, the party claimed to have “received information that some religious extremists have kidnapped young people claiming they had committed irreligious acts.”

The MDP said the public was anxious following Rilwan’s disappearance due to the government’s failure to share information and updates regarding the investigation.

“And we note with concern that especially Rilwan’s family and independent journalists are facing extreme anxiety and sadness due to the [disappearance],” the party said.

The party called on the government and the relevant authorities to step up the investigation as well as efforts to find Rilwan with more focus and attention than at present.

The statement concluded with a prayer for success in the efforts by Rilwan’s family and friends to locate him.

Both the Human Rights Commission of Maldives and Home Minister Umar Naseer have expressed concern at his disappearance, while the police’s efforts to locate Rilwan are ongoing.

Police have launched an official appeal for assistance, requesting that anyone with further information call the Police Hotline 332 2111, or Serious and Organised Crime Department at 9911099.

A team of around 30 friends and family members focused efforts on the more isolated areas of Rilwan’s island of residence Hulhumalé yesterday.


IFJ condemns police investigation of DhiFM’s leaked exam paper story

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has questioned the decision by the Maldives Police Service to ask DhiFM news editor Mohamed Jinah Ali about the authenticity of a news story concerning a leaked examination paper.

The report, aired on December 29, 2010, alleged that an international standard O’Level examination paper was leaked and later found hidden in a fish container.

Police Sub-Inspector Ahmed Shiyam told Minivan News that police were asked to investigate the accuracy of the story by the Department of Public Examinations (DPE).

“They say the story was completely false,” Shiyam said.

Police had discussed the matter with the Maldives Media Council (MMC) which had not sought to block police from investigating the case, Shiyam said.

While defamation has been decriminalised in the Maldives, disseminating false information technically remains a crime under the 1968 Penal Code, and attracts a fine of between Rf25-200 (US$1.6-US$12.9) depending on severity.

Deputy Minister of Education Dr Abdulla Nazeer told Minivan News that the story published by DhiFM concerned an exam conducted by a private company and had no connection with the Department of Public Examination, as inferred in the story.

“There is no truth in it at all – we had a chat with the guy who reported it. It was a private company conducting the exam – it had nothing to do with the DPE,” he said. “The guy at DhiFM who reported it told us he heard it from a guy who worked at Sri Lankan Airlines. It was a sensitive issue fabricated for the sake of gaining publicity.”

Dr Nazeer claimed the DPE had approached police over the matter “because at the time there was no media authority.”

President of the Maldives Media Council (MMC) Mohamed Nazeef however expressed concern about the government’s request that police investigate a matter concerning media ethics.

“The complaint made [by the DPE] was about DhiFM’s story – there doesn’t seem to have been a crime committed,” Nazeef said. “So what are the police trying to investigate?”

He speculated that the DPE may have made the complaint seeking to identify the source of the story within its own department.

“The original story said that the information came from an informant inside the department. What they probably want to know is the name of the official,” Nazreef suggested.

“I don’t know whether the story is true – journalists report from their sources. If there is an issue with [a story] then the complaint should be sent to the media council, or the broadcasting commission. The constitution guarantees the protection of sources.”

Nazreef noted that the MMC had no role in the matter while it was being investigated by official authority, such as the police.

“We are waiting to see how this goes off. If it goes against the Constitution we will issue a statement,” he said. “It will take some time for us to digest new media freedoms. There is a long tradition in this country of going to the police and seeking the punishment of journalists for something they have published.”


Government invites IFJ to Maldives “to judge for itself”, after journalist body backs MBC

The Foreign Ministry of the Maldives has invited a delegation from the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) to the Maldives “to judge [for themselves] whether the local media is able to meet the needs of the public it serves, and of freedom of expression in the Maldives.”

The invitation was given after the IFJ issued a statement supporting the transfer of assets of the Maldives National Broadcast Corporation (MNBC) to parliament’s Maldives Broadcasting Corporation (MBC).

The MNBC is a 100 percent government-owned corporation that controls the assets of the former State Broadcaster Television Maldives (TVM) and Voice of Maldives (VOM).

In April 2010 the then-opposition majority parliament triggered a tug-of-war for control of the state broadcaster after it created MBC, appointed a board, and then ordered MNBC transfer the assets to the new body. Following a refusal to do so by the President’s Office, a Civil Court ruling last week ordered the transfer take place within 20 days. The government has said it intends to appeal.

“The IFJ has consistently argued the case for public service journalism which is independent of state control and insulated from a dependence on advertising revenue which is known to often impair editorial independence,” said IFJ’s Asia-Pacific Director Jacqueline Park.

“The Maldives Journalists’ Association (MJA), an IFJ affiliate, has placed on record its belief that the empowerment of the autonomous corporation [MBC], which has been designated as a public service broadcaster under Maldives’ national law, is key to raising awareness during a challenging time of transition for the Indian Ocean republic.”

The Foreign Ministry claimed that “Unfortunately the current MBC Board was appointed at a time when the opposition majority of the People’s Majlis was being used for obvious political reasons.”

“However, the government looks forward to the day when the MBC can function as an independent, impartial and objective State broadcaster, backed by an independent and well-respected Board.”

The Maldivian media – including MNBC – is frequently accused of overt political bias favouring one or other of the major political parties, a legacy of decades of autocratic governance and a state-controlled media establishment.

Several opposition-allied MPs and businessmen remain key owners of much of the country’s private media, and visiting journalism trainers have voiced concerns from young Maldivian journalists that senior editorial management obstruct them from reporting ethically.

Iraq Editorial Manager for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), Tiare Rath, observed in September 2010 following a series of journalism workshops that “one of the major issues all my students talked about is resistance among newsroom leadership – editors and publishers.”

“Even if the journalists support and understand the principles being taught, they consistently tell me they cannot apply them,” Rath said.

“This is a very, very serious problem that needs to be addressed.”

Inviting the IFJ to the Maldives, the Foreign Ministry said it requested that the IFJ “only uphold the very principles they espouse when they report on the situation on the ground. In this regard, perhaps it would be useful for the IFJ to send a delegation to Male’.”

Minivan News is currently seeking a response from the IFJ to the Foreign Ministry’s invitation.


IFJ condemns police questioning of Haveeru journalists

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has condemned Maldives police for summoning two journalists from the Haveeru newspaper for questioning after they wrote an article about an alleged Facebook blackmail ring thought to involve a number of high profile politicians.

Police have since denied allegations from some press and media organisations that the questioning was politically motivated, claiming they had sought to request assistance with the ongoing investigation into the reported crime.

However, the IFJ has said it was critical of the manner that police sought to question two journalists over their story.

”Ahmed Hamdhoon and Ismail Naseer, who researched and wrote the story in the Dhivehi-language edition of Haveeru, were summoned by police in the capital Male’ and asked about the sources they had used to detail the content of the allegedly pornographic videos,” said the IFJ in a statement. ”The story published on 22 February had reported that the pornographic material was being circulated in a blackmail operation that had entrapped several well-known figures.”

“We are encouraged to learn that the two journalists turned down the police demand to name sources,” the IFJ website quoted is Asia-Pacific Director Jacqueline Park as saying. ”The Republic of the Maldives sent out a strong positive signal by including the protection of media sources in its basic law and it is important to see that this significant legal provision is strengthened, not weakened, in practice.”

“Anonymity of sources is a necessary protection for journalists seeking to bring evidence of wrongdoing into the public domain. It is well understood that anonymity cannot be used as a cover for putting out wrong or malicious information, or for the protection of anybody involved in any felony,” added Park.

On 22 February, Police announced that they had arrested 14 persons including a minor for alleged involvement in blackmailing people after acquiring nude pictures and videos of them through Facebook.

Police Sub-Inspector Ahmed Shiyam told Minivan News this week that in light of the ongoing serious cyber crimes investigation into the Facebook case, attempts were made to to obtain further information from the sources used in Haveeru’s article.

“For that we needed more cooperation from Haveeru so we sought a court order to go ahead with this,” he said.

The conduct of police in requesting information about the sources used in the Haveeru article has been criticised by both the paper’s own editor and the Maldives Journalist Association (MJA) – an affiliate of the IFJ.


IFJ expresses concern over police attack on media

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has expressed concern over the police attack on journalists who were covering the opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP)-led protest last week.

Last week several journalists working at different media outlets claimed they were attacked and forced to move away while they were covering an opposition riot.

“According to the Maldives Journalists’ Association (MJA), an IFJ affiliate, the journalists were reporting on a protest organised by the opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party in the national capital of Male,’’ said the IFJ’s statement.

“The MJA has since established that the journalists, most of whom were wearing press badges, were beaten with batons and some of them shackled. A few were briefly detained.’’

“Though the Maldives has significant provisions defending press freedom in its newly enacted constitution, there seems to be a gap between the assurances of the law and the reality faced by journalists on the ground,’’ said the IFJ Asia-Pacific Director Jacqueline Park.

‘’“We fully support the MJA in its effort to ensure that all provisions of the law are made operative and become credible guarantees of press freedom.”

The police claimed that some journalists covering the riot had begun to show the same characteristics as the opposition activists and engaged in hostile confrontations with the police.

Police Sub-Inspector Ahmed Shiyam said last week that “some journalists opposed police orders and refused to stay in the security zone. It would have gone smoothly if they had worked according to the orders. Some journalists who opposed the police were moved away by using force.’’

He also claimed that journalists had tried to break the police lines and pass through the cordon.

Press Secretary for the President Mohamed Zuhair did not respond to Minivan News at time of press.


IFJ alarmed at MJA claims of spike in hostility towards media

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has issued a press statement expressing alarm at “increasing hostile actions against independent media in the Maldives.”

Verbal attacks and vandalism by unknown persons against private broadcaster VTV had contributed to “a climate of intolerance” against the broadcaster, the IFJ said, “according to information received from IFJ affiliate, the Maldives Journalists’ Association (MJA).”

The IFJ statement also noted that “the MJA has drawn attention to a threat of action held out against VTV by ‘Reeko’ Moosa Manik, leader of the Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) parliamentary group, following what the MDP leader characterised as ‘repeated’ broadcasts of news stories critical of his party.”

The IFJ further repeated claims by the MJA that Head of the Male’ Municipality Adam Manik had “reportedly attacked” a cameraman belonging to private broadcaster DhiTV, and confiscated his camera.

Manik admitted taking the camera but denied attacking the cameraman, following the incident last week, and returned the item in the presence of police.

“Cameramen are not allowed to film on government property without authorisation,” he said, adding that “the media is too occupied with making the news instead of reporting it.”

IFJ Asia Pacific Director Jacqueline Park said the international organisation “supports the MJA’s effort to dissuade the officials responsible for these incidents, and indeed all individuals, from persisting with such hostile actions against journalists and media organisations.”

“The physical and verbal attacks on media organisations that have been recurring in the Maldives could create an environment that would be adverse to press freedom in the country,” she added.

Press Secretary for the President, Mohamed Zuhair, said he believed “the facts have been overblown and the IFJ misled.”

“The IFJ ought to know that that media in the Maldives was a state monopoly for 30 years and remains exactly as it was under the former regime, with the only change that it can now report freely,” he said. “This is a new concept for them and is why they feel so uncomfortable being taken to task.”

“The government no longer sponsors private media, and while some public officials may show hostility to the media, there is a broader picture – they are immediately accountable.”

Zuhair further alleged that the majority of the members of the MJA “are apologists and sympathisers of the former regime. I don’t think a single journalist involved in the reform process is in the MJA.”

He also claimed that MDP MP Reeko Moosa’s claims regarding the corruption of media “voiced the allegations of many in his party” that private media was being subverted to serve the political interests of its owners.

“I don’t believe people should invest in media for political purposes,” he said. “You don’t go fishing for political purposes – you go fishing for fish.”

PIC report

The MJA has meanwhile also called for the Department of Information to retract a decision to deduct five points from DhiFM’s broadcasting license, after the Police Integrity Commission (PIC) ruled that a police order for the station to cease covering a riot outside the presidential residence on January 28 violated the police act.

Police claimed that the order was given because the DhiFM coverage was broadcast in such a manner that it was a potential threat to national security, however police failed to convince the commission.

Following the incident, the government’s Department of Information docked five points from DhiFM’s broadcasting license for eight contract violations, with the content review committee claiming that DhiFM’s coverage breached aspects of the code including failing to distinguish between fact and opinion, produce unbiased and balance coverage of controversial/political events, and promoting criminal activities as “something good or acceptable.”

Then-Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture, Dr Ahmed Ali Sawad, under whose jurisdiction the Department of Information fells, agreed that “in principle this is not something the executive should be doing. But because there is an existing broadcasting contract [under the former administration’s licensing system] we have to fulfil our duty.

He told Minivan News at the time that the five point deduction out of a possible 100 amounted “to a symbolic gesture”.

The MJA meanwhile called on the government to withdraw the decision after viewing the report published by the Police Integrity Commission, and dissolve the Content Committee of the Department of Information.