In the Maldives, it’s not just knives that journalists are being threatened with: The Independent

“Anyone searching for #Maldives on Twitter over the last week, and expecting to see endless pictures of an idyllic desert island holiday, may have found themselves slightly perplexed by the seemingly random image of a machete lodged through a door,” writes Neil Merrett for the UK’s  Independent newspaper.

“The door in question belongs to Minivan News, an independent online publication that has provided coverage of the country’s often painful transition from an autocratic theocracy to a democracy.

Minivian News journalists were then once again threatened with their lives via SMS. ‘You will be killed next,’ Minivan News’ current deputy editor was told.

The machete, pictured above, was a gift from suspected gang members on a self-proclaimed spiritual mission to “eliminate” suspected secularists, atheists and homosexuals. Conveniently, these labels are almost always attached to media outlets, NGOs, opposition politicians and bloggers.

What started with a machete through the door of the Minivan News office, soon escalated into arson threats being issued against the publication and Raajje TV. Police moved quickly to evacuate the offices of both media outlets, while providing them with ongoing protection.”

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Raajje TV seeking “international assistance” to investigate arson attack

Opposition-aligned broadcaster Raajje TV is seeking international assistance to investigate the arson attack that destroyed its main office earlier this month – alleging concern at potential state involvement in the crime.

Police have so far confirmed that three individuals aged 18, 21, and 24 have been arrested over their alleged roles in fire bombing the private broadcaster, with investigations ongoing to identify other suspects involved.

A police media official declined to provide any more information on the investigation at time of press, beyond confirmation of the arrest of three suspects.

Six assailants were pictured committing the attack on CCTV.  The attackers also stabbed a security guard for the building.

“I don’t think we can expect police to solve this” Raajje TV Chairman

Raajje TV Chairman Akram Kamaaluddin has questioned the efforts and commitment of law enforcement officials to solve the case, with no further information shared by police so far over the progress of the investigation.

“I don’t think we can expect police to solve this, I highly suspect they may be involved in this,” he said. “So we are seeking international help with our own investigation.”

Kamaaluddin declined to provide further information of the nature of the international assistance he was seeking at time of press.

He alleged that the attack on its offices and control room by masked figures that destroyed cameras, computer systems, as well as broadcasting and transmission equipment was “state-organised”.

The station has continued to allege police and government involvement in the arson attack, namely Tourism Minister Ahmed Adheeb.

Adheeb has denied the allegations, which he described as “politically motivated, biased, baseless claims.”

The private broadcaster has also accused officers of purposefully failing to protect it after reporting threats made against the station and its staff ahead of the attack.

The Maldives Police Service has previously confirmed that it had been made aware of threats to Raajje TV ahead of the attack on its office

On October 9, the Maldives National Defense Force (MNDF) issued a statement denying reports spread on social media that a suspect suspected injured in the arson attack on Raajje TV was being treated at a military hospital.

The MNDF statement said the military hospital treated three firemen who were injured while trying to control the blaze, rejecting allegations of treating potential suspects while criticising efforts to spread news relating to the attack without clarifying the matter first.

Meanwhile, recently released CCTV footage of the arson attack shows several of the six arsonists without masks, and implicates an additional six men in the arson attack.

The Maldives Police Service has also released CCTV footage showing two men donning masks on Ameer Ahmed Street, a few blocks away from Raajje TV offices, shortly before the fire at the station’s offices.

Global condemnation

Global NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has condemned the arson attack and criticised what it called the Maldives Police Services’ failure to defend the station despite repeated requests for police protection.

“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 TV station requested protection a few hours before it took place,” RSF said in a statement.

Chief Superintendent of Police Abdulla Nawaz had previously said the institution had been unable to station officers at Raajje TV as many were being utilised at the Maldivian Democratic Party’s (MDP) protests following a Supreme Court order to suspend presidential elections.

The Maldives Media Council (MMC) condemned the Raajje TV attack as an attempt to “eliminate” one of the country’s most watched broadcasters, calling for security forces to do more to protect media outlets and journalists.

The Maldives Journalists Association (MJA) has meanwhile said it continues to call for those responsible for the attack to be brought to justice.

MMC member and Maldives Journalist Association (MJA) President Ahmed ‘Hiriga’ Zahir today said he personally had not been made aware of any discrimination in the treatment  of certain broadcasters by police.

Zahir argued shortly after the that media should not cover live events and other developments in the country in a manner that would incite violence.

Zahir confirmed the MCC had published a statement before the attack criticising any media found to be trying to incite institutions or individuals to perform violent acts.

The statement specifically condemned any media found to be spreading calls for “terrorism and unrest”, something it said was not permitted even in nations regarded as leading in international standards of press freedom.

Zahir cited one notable example of media inciting unrest was by covering the statements of certain politicians who encouraged people to “violate the law” and go against state institutions.

Media violence

The attack is the second raid on the Raajje TV’s building by masked assailants. During the first attack – in August 2012 – assailants sabotaged equipment in the station and cut critical cables.

In February 2013, men wielding iron rods on motorbikes assaulted Raajje TV’s news head Ibrahim ‘Aswad’ Waheed Asward, leaving him with near-fatal head injuries.

The main office of Villa TV (VTV), a private broadcaster owned by Jumhooree Party (JP) Leader – and third-placed presidential candidate MP Gasim Ibrahim – was attacked during anti-government protests on March 19, 2012.


Journalists important for consolidating democracy: Parliament Speaker Shahid

Journalists play an important role in consolidating democracy in the Maldives, said Parliament Speaker MP Abdulla Shahid.

Shahid made the remarks while speaking at the official inauguration of Channel News Maldives (CNM) held last night (June 3) at Trader’s Hotel in Male’.

CNM Chairman Mohamed Ali Janah, senior dignitaries of the state, reporters from various media outlets, as well as members of the Maldives Media Council and Maldives Broadcasting Corporation also attended the launch ceremony.

CNM was registered as a newspaper on 3 May 2011 at the former Department of Information.

“The saddest thing that can happen is for the legislative body to try to tie down the journalists,” said Shahid.

Shahid emphasised that the country needs journalism that adheres to proper ethical standards and conduct. He also stated that journalists must remember they have to present themselves to the public daily and the public will not accept false information.


Reporters Without Borders labels Maldives’ extremist groups “predators of press freedom”

International press freedom NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has included ‘extremist religious groups’ in the Maldives in its ‘Predators of Freedom of Information’ report for 2013.

The report, released to mark World Press Freedom Day on May 3, identifies ‘predators of press freedom’ around the world, including “presidents, politicians, religious leaders, militias and criminal organizations that censor, imprison, kidnap, torture and kill journalists and other news providers. Powerful, dangerous and violent, these predators consider themselves above the law.”

The 2013 report “accuses leaders and members of fanatical groups in the Maldives” of “intimidating media organisations and bloggers and threatening them with physical harm in order to force them to exercise self-censorship.”

The report also accuses extremist groups in the Maldives of “promoting of repressive legislation”, “debasement of political debate”, contributing to the “censorship of publications and the blocking of access to websites”, and “resorting to violence, and even murder, to silence dissident opinions.”

“Ever since the army mutiny that overthrew President Mohamed Nasheed in the Maldives in 2012, extremist religious groups have tried to use their nuisance power to extend their influence. They have become more aggressive as the [September 2013] presidential election approaches, intimidating news media and bloggers and using freedom of expression to impose a religious agenda while denying this freedom to others,” the report states.

The report identifies the general characteristics of media repression around the world, most notably the impunity those responsible enjoyed.

“Physical attacks on journalists and murders of journalists usually go completely unpunished. This encourages the predators to continue their violations of human rights and freedom of information,” the report stated.

“The 34 predators who were already on the 2012 list continue to trample on freedom of information with complete disdain and to general indifference. The leaders of dictatorships and closed countries enjoy a peaceful existence while media and news providers are silenced or eliminated.”

The report emphasises that failure to confront and prosecute those responsible for violations of press freedom was not due to a lack of laws, but rather selective or non-existent enforcement.

“The persistently high level of impunity is not due to a legal void. There are laws and instruments that protect journalists in connection with their work. Above all, it is up to individual states to protect journalists and other media personnel. This was stressed in Resolution 1738 on the safety of journalists, which the United Nations security council adopted in 2006,” the report stated.

“Nonetheless, states often fail to do what they are supposed to do, either because they lack the political will to punish abuses of this kind, or because their judicial system is weak or non-existent, or because it is the authorities themselves who are responsible for the abuses.”

Attacks on journalists

The Maldives plummeted to 103rd in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Press Freedom Index for 2013, a fall of 30 places and a return to pre-2008 levels.

“The events that led to the resignation of President Mohamed Nasheed in February led to violence and threats against journalists in state television and private media outlets regarded as pro-Nasheed by the coup leaders,” RSF observed, in its annual ranking of 179 countries.

“Attacks on press freedom have increased since then. Many journalists have been arrested, assaulted and threatened during anti-government protests. On June 5 2012, the freelance journalist and blogger Ismail “Hilath” Rasheed narrowly survived the first attempted murder of a journalist in the archipelago,” RSF noted in its report.

Rasheed, who subsequently fled the country, alleged the attacked was a targeted assassination attempt by Islamic radicals in retaliation for his public calls for religious tolerance. Police have yet to arrest anybody in connection with the murder attempt.

Subsequent to the the release of the press freedom index, Raajje TV journalist Ibrahim Waheed ‘Aswad’ suffered serious head injuries and was left in a critical condition after he was attacked on the street with an iron bar.

Waheed was attacked while he was on his way to see two Maldives Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) journalists, who were admitted to hospital after being attacked during opposition-led protests.

Following the attack, Aswad was airlifted to Sri Lanka for emergency surgery. He later recovered and returned to the Maldives.

Police have since forwarded cases against suspects Ahmed Vishan, 22, M. Carinlight Northside, and Hassan Raihan, 19, G. Fehima, for prosecution.

Press freedom day in the Maldives

Meanwhile, the Maldives Journalist Association (MJA) has launched a campaign calling for laws protecting journalists, “such as salaries, work hours and insurance for journalists,” according to MJA President and Editor of Sun Online, Ahmed ‘Hiriga’ Zahir.

The MJA showed a T-shirt promoting the ‘Working Journalists Act’, released as part of the campaign during a ceremony in the DhiTV studio.

According to Sun Online, MJA Secretary General Mundoo Adam Haleem “said that while the government has established an organisation to work for the benefit of media operators, people should ascertain for themselves who actually works for the benefit of media operators.”

Local media also reported on an acknowledgement of World Press Freedom Day during Friday’s sermon delivered all over the Maldives, encouraging people to draw a distinction between “press freedom” and “press fairness”.

An event organised by the Maldives Broadcasting Commission (MBC) to mark the signing of a five point pledge to uphold media freedom was meanwhile cancelled due to inclement weather.


Reporter Ibrahim ‘Asward’ Waheed returns to Maldives following major surgery

Raajje TV reporter Ibrahim ‘Asward’ Waheed yesterday (April 19) returned to the Maldives following major surgery in Sri Lanka after being attacked with an iron rod in February.

Asward told local media he was very happy to return to the Maldives and added that the attack on him was an attack on media.  He told local media that he would remain undeterred in his role as a journalist.

Asward, 22, is news head of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP)-aligned broadcaster Raajje TV.  He was attacked with an iron rod at 1:18am on February 23 while riding a motorbike near the artificial beach area of Male’.

Commissioner of Police Abdulla Riyaz described the attack via Twitter as a murder attempt.

The attack left Asward unconscious.  He was later transferred to a hospital in Sri Lanka for treatment, where he had to undergo major surgery last month to correct a maxillary fracture (broken jawbone).

Police submitted cases against two suspects to the Prosecutor General’s Office April 16
on charges of assaulting Asward in February. The investigation into the murder attempt remains ongoing.


IFJ warns that Privileges Act will undermine journalist source protection

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has warned that the Parliamentary Privileges Act pressed into law today (March 12) will undermine the ability of Maldivian journalists to protect their sources.

Journalists in many developed countries, including the UK and Australia, are routinely sentenced to contempt of court extending to imprisonment for declining to reveal sources when asked.

The Maldives is one of the few countries to have so-called ‘shield laws’ protecting journalists from this, with the constitution containing specific provisions concerning freedom of expression in a bid to inspire confidence in potential whistleblowers.

Article 28 of the constitution states – “Everyone has the right to freedom of the press, and other means of communication, including the right to espouse, disseminate and publish news, information, views and ideas. No person shall be compelled to disclose the source of any information that is espoused, disseminated or published by that person.”

However Section 17(a) of the new Parliamentary Privileges Act states: “[Parliament or a Parliamentary Committee has the power to] summon anyone to parliament or one of its committees to give witness or to hand over any information which the parliament wish to seek.”

The Act was passed after a presidential veto was overridden by parliament, in a vote that obtained rare cross-party support. The Act follows the refusal of senior government and police officials to attend committee hearings when summoned, including Police Commissioner Abdulla Riyaz, and would theoretically criminalise such refusal in future.

The IFJ endorse the the Maldivian Journalist Association (MJA)’s opinion that the new power “is too broad in its provisions and could undermine the constitutional protection that journalists currently enjoy.”

“The IFJ believes that [Article 28 of the Constitution] is a salutary provision of law which makes the Maldives one of the few countries to provide constitutional protection to sources of journalists’ information,” the IFJ said in a statement.

“The IFJ joins the MJA in asking for a reconsideration of provisions in the Parliamentary Privileges Act which may undermine this valuable protection afforded to journalists and all citizens,” it added.


Criminal Court extends detention of suspect arrested for attack on Raajje TV journalist

The Criminal Court has extended the detention period of the suspect arrested in connection with the attack on Raajje TV senior journalist Ibrahim Waheed ‘Aswad’.

Police have not officially identified the suspect, however local media reported that the suspect was 21 year-old Ahmed Vishan.

The suspect was arrested on Tuesday while he was at his house and was summoned before the court, which extended his detention by 15 days.

The arrest was initially reported by Commissioner of Police Abdulla Riyaz, who informed the public in a tweet that a person had been arrested in what he described as a “murder attempt”.

Waheed, a senior reporter for the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP)-aligned television station, was attacked with an iron bar while riding on a motorcycle near the artificial beach area early on Saturday morning.

The attack left him unconscious, and he was transferred to a hospital in Sri Lanka for treatment. Doctors have since said his condition is stable, and that he is recovering.

Maldivian journalists took to the streets of Male’ to protests against the recent attacks, joining international organisations who have also condemned the violence.

In July 2012, July 2012, a group of alleged Islamic radicals slashed the throat of blogger Hilath Rasheed. Rasheed, who had been campaigning for religious tolerance, narrowly survived and has since fled the country.

However, no arrests were made in connection to the case.


Media needs to introduce “peace journalism”: MP Nasheed

Former Legal Reform Minister MP Mohamed Nasheed has recommended Maldives-based journalists introduce “peace reporting” in order to stop violence against local media.

Nasheed claimed that the Maldives media is exploited by politicians to a great extent and that reporters needed to start looking at the similarities between politicians as opposed to their differences, the Sun Online news agency reported.

The Kulhudhuffushi-south MP told local media that a new kind of “peace journalism” should be introduced into the system as the level of rivalry, anger and hatred that exists in the Maldives is too much for people to endure.

“One thing journalists can do is introduce peace journalism, promote peace journalism.

“Instead of making a big deal out of the differences between two people, and spreading information about those differences in the society – they could present the similarities. We should go for peaceful journalism,” Nasheed was quoted as saying in local media.

Nasheed claimed that political leaders prepare quotations in certain ways in order to make the headlines and therefore exploit journalists.

“There is a limit even to political influence. There is a limit to how much journalists can be exploited to obtain political advantages.

“If all journalists unite and establish certain policies, politicians will have no choice but to follow those policies,” Nasheed told Sun Online.


Comment: Journalism in the Maldives

I sit to write this after hearing the news that another journalist has been attacked in the Maldives. Aswad Ibrahim, a journalist for Raajje TV was left critically ill after being repeatedly beaten about the head with a metal bar. We all pray he will recover, just as fellow journalist Ismail Hilath Rasheed recovered after having his throat slashed last year.

This recent attack has prompted me to share some thoughts from my own personal experiences of working as a journalist in the Maldives for much of 2012. The name of the newspaper I worked for was Minivan News – the word ‘Minivan’ meaning independent in the local language.

My time in the Maldives was a fantastic one, but also one of frustration and bemusement at the persistent refusal by many to accept the existence of political impartiality within Maldivian society. Many will already be reaching for their keyboards as they read this, to write disparaging comments about myself, about Minivan News, or about the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) – who founded the newspaper in 2005. This was a persistent tactic used by commenters on most of the articles I wrote for Minivan and many of the pieces I produced for other publications at the time.

The most commonly repeated rumours were that we worked very closely with the MDP leadership, in particular with Nasheed himself, and that we were all given a strict editorial line to follow. In actuality, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Personally, I met with Nasheed only once during my time in the Maldives. Three days before I left, I requested a personal meeting with him as he was somebody I had come to admire greatly (and also, because I had never met a President before).

As for the strict diktat, filtering down to the writers from the upper echelons of the MDP, this would take a great deal more organisation than a handful of overheated foreigners hunched over their laptops around a kitchen table can really manage.

A brief account of my background may assuage any accusations that I was, as one commenter put it, an MDP “stooge”. I believe my history to be, if not the same as, at least indicative of, the majority of westerners who come to work for the paper – arriving open-minded, without prior political predisposition.

I ended up in the Maldives shortly after moving to London in search of career opportunities. Prior to this, I had worked as a postman in the north-west of England. The first internship opportunity I secured was with the Maldives’ High Commission.

Despite being an International Relations graduate, I have to admit that prior to my feverish preparation for the job interview that week, I had barely heard of the Maldives, nor could I have pointed it out on a map. All of this begs the question of naysayers who consistently queried my credibility: Why would a postman from Cheshire have strong political affiliations in country he’d never heard of, 5000 miles away?

I will admit that the High Commissioner and Deputy High Commissioner during my time at the High Commission were strongly pro-MDP. Indeed, both resigned shortly after President Nasheed left office. It is this assumption, however, that contact with persons of a certain political persuasion forever diminishes one’s ability to think clearly, that I found particularly insulting.

This attitude was exemplified by the response of business tycoon and politician Gasim Ibrahim when I met him during last year’s parliamentary by-election in Kaashidhoo. Feeling I had nothing to hide, I mentioned to him that I had worked at the High Commission with these people. It was at this point that he smiled knowingly and turned to the rest of his supporters saying “there, you see it”.

Perhaps this was the misperception that those raining blows down on Aswad laboured under. That they were attacking something bigger than him, that he is simply a mouthpiece for a far larger movement. As I experienced, it seems never to occur to people that the writer could be his own person; could have his own integrity; that his words could stem from his own thoughts.

One particularly interesting example of this attitude was the case of Dr Hassan Saeed, whom I met whilst working at the High Commission in London. Dr Saeed, a former Presidential candidate and current Special Advisor to the President, came to London shortly after the change in government in February 2012 to speak with the media. As part of my duties there, I helped to arrange an interview for him with the BBC. During that day we chatted about politics, Maldivian and British, and I found him to be a very pleasant man. However, during my time in the Maldives, I was unable to get him to even sit with me for a cup of coffee.

Understandably, Dr Saeed was surprised to see me in the Maldives when we met at President Waheed’s first public reception at Muleeage. After greeting me, Dr Saeed asked if I was in Male’ in relation to my work with the High Commission. I replied that I was now working with Minivan News, at which point his smile slipped a little.

Thinking I was talking to a friend, I jokingly asked if this would be a problem. He simply replied “no, every paper has its philosophy.” After this we agreed to meet for coffee. Unfortunately, after being politely stalled a few times, Dr Saeed would not return my messages and I realised with disappointment that an excellent opportunity to build a relationship between Minivan and this powerful politician would be missed as, in his mind, I had ceased to be Daniel Bosley and had instead become Nasheed’s mouthpiece.

After this, Dr Saeed failed to respond to almost all of the paper’s calls regarding stories, just as most government ministers do. Read any story published on the site and you will find it littered with phrases such as “the state minister was unavailable for comment”, “Minivan News was awaiting the government’s comment at the time of press”. The article is then almost inevitably followed by many comments stating how biased and “one-sided” it is.

One of the most bizarre experiences I had personally was a President’s Office spokesman calling me a “little shit” over the phone, after I had spent five minutes explaining to him why I needed a quote for a story and could not just write my own opinion. This failure to understand the basic tenets of journalism seems to be the main reason why journalists in the Maldives, like Aswad, are more often becoming the victims of violence.

Dr Hassan Saeed was also rumoured (note that I include the word ‘rumoured’ as I cannot personally substantiate this) to be behind a comical attempt last year to establish a rival English-language news outlet – Maldivian Daily.

This endeavour involved flying in two young journalists from the UK, assigning them minders, and refusing them any of the freedoms a normal journalist would expect – including a warning to steer clear of any Minivan employees (who, me?). This farcical scheme ended soon after the pair began asking too many questions. The employees of Minivan News were given all the details at the airport bar shortly before the first journalist flew home, to be followed by the second weeks later.

This incident would be funny were it not indicative of the repeated attempts to manipulate and coerce the Maldivian media. I fully understand that Raajje TV takes an unashamedly pro-MDP line, but this in itself does not make its content necessarily fallacious. Again, the basic (and often wilful) misunderstanding of the difference between an editorial line and propaganda has led to the refusal of the Maldivian Police to offer Raajje’s journalists even the most basic protection.

In the UK, the Guardian newspaper takes an openly liberal line but its journalists are not labelled communists and beaten in the streets; similarly, Daily Mail writers are not condemned as Nazis. My advice to anyone who feels a news outlet is printing inaccurate information would be to send them to court, not to hospital.

If you are reading this on Minivan News itself (I did not have any particular publication in mind when this stream of consciousness began), you will likely note a thread of derogatory comments below. It is not the policy of the paper to reply to comments made on the site, so I would like to redirect anyone particularly incensed by my remarks to my twitter feed (@dbosley80).

I write this not as an MDP stooge, not to win favour with any individual, not even as a practising journalist. I write as someone disturbed to see a man beaten to within an inch of his life for putting pen to paper; to see a peaceful nation brutalising itself.

The URL at the top of the page should not detract the veracity of my claims, nor should the name of a paper diminish the credibility of a writer’s argument. Similarly, the organisation which Aswad Ibrahim works for does not immediately denigrate his integrity as a journalist.

Perhaps more importantly, it does not remove his rights as a human being – something which many in the Maldives appear to have forgotten.

Daniel Bosley worked as a journalist for Minivan News in 2012.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]