The police service has come under renewed criticism from media bodies like the Maldives Journalist Association (MJA) over claims it continues to stifle free speech by questioning reporters over both the identity of sources and the accuracy of their stories.
The MJA’s concerns relate specifically to the recent decision by police to summon DhiFM News Editor Mohamed Jinah Ali for questioning to prove the accuracy of a news report from December 29, 2010. The report itself alleged that an international standard O’ Level examination paper was leaked and found hidden in a fish container in the country.
MJA founder and President, Ahmed ‘Hiriga’ Zahir, has told Minivan News that he is “very worried” that police were operating outside of their constitutional role by questioning journalists and media outlets over the accuracy of news reports. Similar concerns have been shared by the Maldives Media Council (MMC), which has said it also holds reservations over the nature of police questioning of journalists, despite itself calling for more professionalism and training within the national media.
In addressing these criticisms, Police Sub-Inspector Ahmed Shiyam confirmed to Minivan News that authorities had spoken with the DhiFM editor in regards to the examination paper story, after it received complaints concerning the accuracy of the report and its relation to an ongoing investigation.
“Before we go ahead with any case on this matter, we needed to confirm if [DhiFM] are standing by their story,” Shiyam said. “We requested that if the story is true, then the reporter had to prove the details to us.”
The Department of Public Examinations that oversees handling of the papers has reportedly denied there is any truth to claims in the report that an international examination had been leaked.
According to police, the DhiFM report had claimed that an unidentified source within the Department of Public Examinations had revealed details of the alleged loss of the examination paper.
However, in responding to concerns from organisations like the MJA that it was for specialised authorities like the MMC and not the police to decide upon the legitimacy of a story, Shiyam said that law enforcement authorities had to respond to complaints received by members of the public, even in regards to the media.
“We don’t want to have to deal with issues like this, but there are presently many problems with the report,” he said. “Once we have confirmed whether the report is factual or not, then we will decide whether to send any case to the media council (MMC).”
However, the Police sub-inspector was unable to share the exact nature of the its concerns or the complaints made regarding the report when asked by Minivan News.
In responding to the police questioning of the DhiFM editor, MJA president Ahmed ‘Hiriga’ Zahir claimed that whether the report was true or not, the country had a specific journalism authority in the MMC that deals with potential issues of ethics and professionalism in the media. Hiriga said that he believed it therefore remained important to keep the police from overseeing media in this way.
The MJA founder gave a hypothetical example of the problems he believed police questioning posed for the media. Hiriga pointed out that if the media was confronted by a source within police detailing possible unethical practices by law enforcement officials, the media should be free to report this without possible prosecution.
“This really raises questions over freedom of expression in the country,” he said. “I don’t know if the report is true or not, but it is not the role of the police to decide this.”
Hiriga added that the country’s journalists were also protected under article 28 of the Maldives’ constitution. This article prevents reporters from having to give up the identities of their sources to police if they did not wish to do so.
The President of the Maldives Media Council (MMC) Mohamed Nazeef said that it had been made aware of the questioning issue by DhiFM, but added that no decision had been taken yet on its next course of action.
Nazeef added that he was concerned however that police had appeared to become involved in deciding upon issues of media ethics and the factual nature of an article’s content, which was the main purpose of the MMC. The media council, which has an elected board of eight representatives from the media and seven public members, has stated aims of trying to safeguard a free national press that acts in a responsible manner, as well as reviewing complaints over coverage.
Rather than a problem that should be seen solely as an issue for police to resolve though, the MMC president said that it was important for society as a whole to break away from a long-standing culture of looking to punish the media for its reportage.
“There is a culture within society to want to punish the media through measures like giving prison sentences to journalists for their reporting. The way of thinking has changed now and we can’t penalise the media just because of something we might not like,” he claimed. “However, I think we need to see changes both within the media and the public too. Society needs to accept that media is now free and can report on any issue, while the media has to be more professional in how it reports the news and trains journalists.”
As a wider concern, media freedom – and the industry’s responsibility in exercising it – has remained a prevalent issues for the country during the last year, both in terms of the right of police to question reporters and editorial independence.
Back in May, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) released a report entitled ‘Press Freedom in Peril‘ relating to the South Asia region that claimed there were a number of issues in the Maldives where “discord between journalists and the government is rife”.
In the findings, SAMSN stated that “going beyond the perception-based indexes of press freedom that have put Maldives among the most rapidly improving countries in terms of media reform, there are certain difficulties that journalists in the nation continue to face, even if these are not reflected in the broad numerical indexes, which are admittedly of limited value.”
However, the Maldivian media – including the government-owned Maldives National Broadcasting Company (MNBC) – is frequently accused of overt political bias in favouring one or other of the major political parties, viewed as 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 previously 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.”
However, despite the issues of self-regulation facing the media, local press associations have continued to raise concerns about the conduct of police in questioning journalists over controversial and politically sensitive issues.
In February, the MJA spoke out along with other prominent media figures like the editor of the Haveeru newspaper to criticise police for requesting to speak with some of its journalists regarding the identity of sources on which it based a report.
The story focused on an alleged blackmail ring that reportedly obtained pornographic images of some high-profile national figures through the internet, which has been the basis of an ongoing police investigation. Haveeru said at the time that its staff declined to reveal the identities of its sources.