JP Leader Gasim Ibrahim acquires Miadhu News

Resort tycoon, Jumhoree Party (JP) Leader and MP, Judicial Services Commission (JSC) member and owner of VTV Gasim Ibrahim has acquired the assets of Miadhu News, the Maldives’ second oldest newspaper.

Sun Online reported that Gasim bought the paper for MVR 500,000 (US$32,500), and that staff were transferred to the payroll of Gasim’s Villa media group.

Minivan News understands that newspaper Haveeru – the country’s most widely circulated newspaper – is also up for sale.


HarperCollins confirms Maldives not being erased from Times Atlas as global warming statement

The Maldivian government has written to the editor of the UK’s Telegraph newspaper seeking “clarification and apology” for a satirical article claiming that the Maldives was to be erased from the Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World as a statement on global warming.

The article, by climate skeptic James Deringpole, cited a fictitious spokesperson from Times Atlas as implying that the Maldives’ position on climate change was “a publicity stunt, cooked up by green activist Mark Lynas, to blackmail the international community into giving the Maldives more aid money while simultaneously trying to lure green Trustafarians to come and spend £1500 a night in houses on stilts with gold-plated organic recyclable eco-toilets made of rare earth minerals from China.”

In a letter to the Telegraph’s Editor, Tony Gallagher, Acting High Commissioner Ahmed Shiian wrote that “to suggest, even in satire, that the plight of our country in the face of sea-level rise is simply some kind of con-trick to raise guilt money from the international community is despicable and hurtful to all of us, whose country is indeed one of the most vulnerable on Earth to global warming.”

Shiian added that Delingpole’s “leaden attempts at humour” had  already had “unfortunate political consequences in the Maldives”, after his invented quotes from a Times Atlas spokesperson “were reported as fact in the Maldives media, and the opposition party of the former dictatorship has used this to accuse the President of undermining the country and national pride.”

Minivan News yesterday contacted the publisher of the Times Atlas, HarperCollins, which confirmed that the story was bogus.

“Of course we have no plans to erase the Maldives, Tuvalu or major parts of Bangladesh from the next edition,” a spokesperson told Minivan News, also confirming that the spokesperson cited by Deringpole was not a HarperCollins employee.

“Like the rest of the piece, he is a fiction,” she said.

Major media outlets in the Maldives, including Haveeru, Miadhu and Sun Online, continued to carry the story this morning, although Haveeru had amended its version to reference “unconfirmed reports”.

The stories generated strong sentiment among the many who commented on it, with many blaming President Nasheed for the underwater cabinet meeting which had led to the Maldives “being wiped off the map”.

A senior source in the President’s Office told Minivan News that the story had stirred up strong sentiments and now the perception risked running ahead of the reality.

“It is hugely irresponsible journalism not to acknowledge when you’ve made a mistake. Standard procedure all over the world is to do a retraction,” the source said.

Editor of Sun Online and President of the Maldives Journalists Association (MJA), Ahmed Hiriga Zahir, told Minivan News that he had edited Sun’s story and was under the impression that it was genuine.

“I didn’t thoroughly check the original,” he acknowledged, “but I did read the Maldivian media. Why would the [UK] media report it [incorrectly]? I think the original media should correct it. If the Maldivian media reported it and they know it is not the truth, they should also correct it,” he added.

Press Secretary for the President, Mohamed Zuhair, said the government was approaching the Broadcasting Commission and the Maldives Media Council asking it “to insist the mainstream media be responsible, and not to take silly blogs as mainstream news.”

Zuhair said he suspected the media had “deliberately misinterpreted” the story to mislead the public and generate anti-government sentiment.

“Many of these outlets were the government organs of yesteryear, and many of their journalists have not reconciled themselves with the days when they were calling the current President a vagabond and a terrorist,” Zuhair said.

“Presenting this story as serious news is misleading, and people have been misled – they are calling up the morning radio programs concerned that the Maldives has been taken off the map. The media should be responsible and publish a retraction, but I doubt they will do it – you can wake up a person who is asleep, but you can’t wake up a person who is pretending to be asleep.”

MP for former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s new political party, the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) Ahmed Mahlouf, yesterday sent out a mass text message informing people of the supposed decision to erase the Maldives from the map, blaming President Mohamed Nasheed for holding the underwater cabinet meeting and ”erasing the country, erasing religion and erasing the people.”


Gayoom loses defamation case over NYT “looters” article

Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom has lost a long-running defamation case against the editor of Miadhu newspaper Abdul ‘Gabey’ Latheef.

Gayoom sued Latheef over an article published on June 13, 2010 which referenced allegations of corruption against the former President made in a New York Times (NYT) report.

That story was based on an audit report of former Presidential palace Theemuge, published by Auditor General Ibrahim Naeem, a damning indictment of the former government’s spending habits.

These, according to the NYT article, included an estimated “US$9.5 million spent buying and delivering a luxury yacht from Germany for the president, US$17 million on renovations of the presidential palace and family houses, a saltwater swimming pool, badminton court, gymnasium, 11 speed boats and 55 cars, including the country’s only Mercedes-Benz.”

“And the list goes on, from Loro Piana suits and trousers to watches and hefty bills for medical services in Singapore for ‘important people and their families. There was a US$70,000 trip to Dubai by the first lady in 2007, a US$20,000 bill for a member of the family of the former president to stay a week at the Grand Hyatt in Singapore. On one occasion, diapers were sent to the islands by airfreight from Britain for Mr Gayoom’s grandson.”

Onus of proof

The Civil Court ruled today that as both articles were based on a state audit report, the information made public by the country’s first independent auditor general should be considered valid unless proven otherwise.

The court judgment added that there was no legal basis for individuals or media outlets to be held responsible for proving the truth or falsehood of an official audit report.

Delivering the judgment, Judge Mariyam Nihayath said that while the court believed the articles in question could be damaging to Gayoom’s reputation, information publicised in an audit report must be considered factual unless proven otherwise.

“Regardless of how damaging statements made or information provided is to the plaintiff’s honour or dignity, if the statement or information is true, [defamation law] states that it cannot be considered defamatory,” she said.

Latheef told Minivan News today that the court case was the first case Gayoom had lost in 32 years, and was a landmark case for freedom of the media.

“The media must be able to report on independent authorities such as the Auditor General’s Office or the Anti-Corruption Commission,” he said. “His lawyers said in court four or five times that they wanted to stop the media writing about these things.”

The court’s ruling meant that Gayoom was obliged to sue the source of the allegations, the Auditor General’s office, rather than the media that reported on it, Latheef said.

“[Gayoom] has been saying for three years he would take the Auditor General to court, but he hasn’t because he knows he will lose. But he thinks that, because I’m just an ordinary man, he can sue me,” he said.

Latheef said that one of Gayoom’s lawyers had approached him to settle out of court, but said he had refused as that would not have resolved the issue of media freedom at stake.

“They also approached me indirectly through some of my close friends to say why didn’t I settle and say sorry in court, and then they could support me. I said it was not compensation I needed.”

Latheef said Gayoom’s lawyers had told him after the verdict that they intended to appeal in the High Court.

“I am ready to go all the way to the Supreme Court,” said Latheef.

Gayoom’s spokesperson Mohamed ‘Mundhu’ Shareef had not responded to Minivan News at time of press.

Head of the Maldives Journalists Association (MJA), Ahmed ‘Hiriga’ Zahir, said he agreed with the ruling and felt that it was a good precedent for the country’s journalists.

“The NYT reported on the audit report and Mr Latheef reported on the NYT story. I agree with the court’s judgement,” Hiriga said, concurring that the media was not under obligation to prove the veracity of official government reports.

“The authenticity of the audit report is a different question, and the accusation is that the Auditor General was biased and that the report was politically motivated. That was the basis of the argument by Gayoom’s lawyer,” Hiriga said.

“Politically motivated”

The opposition have steadfastly maintained that the report was a politically-motivated attempt to sully the then-president’s reputation prior to the election. Naeem was however appointed by Gayoom.

“It is common knowledge that Naeem’s audit reports were both politically-motivated and riddled with inaccuracies. References from such documents are unbecoming of professional journalists, albeit the MDP government utilises them as handbooks to achieve their political objectives,” said the DRP in a statement following publication of the article.

“The MDP government, in an year and a half of searching through its ‘presidential commission’, has failed to find anything that they can pin against President Gayoom to defame his character. The MDP government will continue to fail in their sinister plots,” the DRP statement read.

“The DRP will take all necessary action to alert the international community to the government’s sinister motives behind the allegations against the former president. We condemn the government for its continued attempts to shroud its incompetence in running the country behind cheap propaganda gimmicks.”

Naeem’s tenure following publication of over 30 audit reports, alleging rampant corruption and “organised crime” by the Gayoom administration, was short-lived.

On March 24 last year, Naeem sent a list of current and former government ministers to the Prosecutor General, requesting they be prosecuted for failure to declare their assets.  Naeem cited Article 138 of the Constitution that requires every member of the Cabinet to “annually submit to the Auditor General a statement of all property and monies owned by him, business interests and all assets and liabilities.”

He then held a press conference: “A lot of the government’s money was taken through corrupt [means] and saved in the banks of England, Switzerland, Singapore and Malaysia,” Naeem said, during his first press appearance in eight months.

Five days later he was dismissed by the opposition-majority parliament on allegations of corruption by the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), for purportedly using the government’s money to buy a tie and visit Thulhaidhu in Baa Atoll.

The motion to dismiss Naeem was put forward by the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC), chaired by Deputy Speaker and member of opposition-allied People’s Alliance (PA), Ahmed Nazim, who the previous week had pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy to defraud the former Ministry of Atolls Development while he was Managing Director of Namira Engineering and Trading Pvt Ltd.

Nazim was today dismissing claims from opposition MPs that he has dodged Criminal Court summons regarding the matter eight times to date.

The parliament has meanwhile yet to approve a replacement auditor general, with the finance committee refusing to endorse any of the candidates put forward so far by President Mohamed Nasheed.


President condemns attacks on media

President Mohamed Nasheed has condemned the attacks against the media following attacks on DhiTV and Haveeru on 15 March.

The president said the government would not tolerate “threats or actions against freedom of the press”.

“The Maldivian media is free and open now,” Nasheed said, adding that the Maldivian government “will always support the efforts of the journalists to keep this freedom alive and will value their efforts.”

He urged the public to cooperate with police in identifying the suspects.

The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) meanwhile called on the police to “seriously investigate” death threats made against journalists by extremist bloggers.

Concerns from the media

Independent MP and former Minister of Information, Mohamed Nasheed, said the issue was one of “political punching. People in the government are accusing opposition media and people in the opposition media are accusing the government.”

He said the media has always been divided into two camps, and sometimes looking at the same editorial content from different news agencies “you feel as if two different stories are coming out.”

“Political activists, the religious quarter and violent criminals” are against the media, he said, explaining that the struggle for press freedom was a “tug of war.”

“This is where the temperature needs to be brought down. We need to stop politicising the media and work with them.”

He added that “a democracy cannot see the media as a friend”, but should instead treat it as a medium to dialogue.

Managing Director of Miadhu, Abdullah Lateef, said “so far the government has not been able to give the media enough protection” from violent attacks.

He claimed the former government “used gangsters,” who “still don’t understand this is not Gayoom’s regime.”

“These gangsters don’t value the media,” Lateef said. “They think they can do anything; they attack anyone.”

He said that because the government had not shown the public the value of the media and the work the media was doing, they did not value it: “Even when we go to a scene, it is a risk we are taking.”

Lateef said he had “personally received a lot of threats”, and claimed that “politicians will call and try to make us scared.”

But he noted that “this government has done a lot for us, like giving us the freedom to write without being arrested. I am not afraid of my death – the former government gave me enough threats so I don’t mind.”

Public Concern

The Human Rights Commission Maldives (HRCM) has also “strongly condemned” the attacks on media.

A statement from the HRCM said the organisation “was sad that people are instigating fear among journalists at a time when Maldivian media is not very stable.”

HRCM said it believed the incidents had occurred because of the “judicial system’s reluctance to convict people. They are released into society and are not abiding by laws and regulations and respecting human rights.”

The statement notes that such cases of violence are “alarmingly increasing” and “the Commission is calling for the authorities to take legal action against the people who are releasing these criminals into society.”

“To stop these things from happening we are calling on stake-holders, government, authorities, media, civil society, NGOs and the public to work together.”

Meanwhile the Maldives Journalists’ Association (MJA) condemned threats made against journalists and bloggers and the “continuous attempts to intimidate press freedom by the extremists in the name of Islam.”

The MJA called on the government to take action against growing extremism and said it believed there would be a solution “if the president and all the institutions work to raise awareness.”