Parliamentary committee recommends private media subsidies

The parliamentary committee reviewing the mid-term budget for 2010 has voted to recommend an amendment to include Rf6 million in subsidies for private media.

The proposed amendment was made by the opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) to recommend the inclusion of subsidies for private broadcasters and daily newspapers in the budget in the committee report.

Speaking to Minivan News today, Gemanafushi MP Ilham Ahmed of the DRP said the designated amount might not be ideal but was adequate under present economic circumstances.

Ilham said he had “no doubt” the budget will be passed with the amendment when the committee presents its report to parliament this week.

“I believe it will pass with a large majority,” he said. “I don’t think independent members would want to see private media embalmed and buried in its infancy.”

Ilham accused MPs of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) of opposing the subsidies as “the present government does not want to develop private media”.

He added broadcasters and newspapers critical of the administration faced pressure and restrictions from the government.

At the committee meeting, said Ilham, MDP MP Ahmed Hamza proposed an amendment to give Rf1 to private media.

The MP for Bilendhoo told Minivan News today he did not believe private media should be given government subsidies while small businesses and fishermen were facing serious difficulties in paying back loans.

“Most of the private media are well off,” he said, adding he proposed the Rf1 as annual subsidies as a “symbolic” gesture because the chairman of the committee, Dhiggaru MP Ahmed Nazim, asked for a vote on the issue without determining an amount.

But, said Hamza, he was speaking in his individual capacity at the meeting and as the main parties have agreed in principle to the subsidy, he expected the amendment to be passed.

Last week, the Maldives Journalist Association sent a letter to parliament calling for the allocation of subsidies to the media in next year’s budget.

The association urged MPs to authorise the subsidies in the same principle as it was given to political parties.

Ilham said the Rf6 million decide upon by the committee was 50 per cent of the assistance given to political parties.

The committee decided the subsidies will be granted to television and radio stations as well as daily newspapers, but not to online news outlets or weekly magazines.

Ahmed ‘Hiriga’ Zahir, president of the MJA and editor of daily newspaper Haveeru, said he welcomed the committee’s decision.

While Ilham said the committee has not worked out the details of the subsidy, Hiriga said he anticipated that distribution could be a problem.

At a time when private media was operating under serious financial difficulties, the subsidy will be of valuable assistance, he said.

“Initially I think this is a good amount, especially with the government facing budget constraints,” he said.

But, with the overhead cost of operating a newspaper or television station upwards of Rf1 million, the subsidy was “proportionately small”.

“But at such a difficult time, even a small assistance will help cover costs such as rent,” he said.

Hiriga said he did not think a profitable media outlet with economies of scale was possible given the small market in the Maldives.

“Especially with the high cost of rent and electricity, I don’t think a full-fledged operation is possible without subsidies,” he said.

Several daily newspapers were operating at a loss with just “one or two staff”, he said, as a result of not being able to pay for enough journalists.

The MJA president said he expected the budget to be passed with the amendment as it was not a partisan issue and he believed all MPs understood the importance of the media. “So I think it will get enough support and it will be passed.”


Journalists ask for government subsidies

The Maldives Journalist Association (MJA) has sent a letter to parliament asking for media subsidies to balance the “fragile” state of the country’s media.

The letter urged parliament to provide the subsidies “in a sensible way” to “vitalise” Maldivian journalism, in order for it to continue its “important role” of holding the government accountable.

Several newspapers have closed down while others have reduced staff numbers and salaries, it said, as a direct result of the government moving its advertisements to an in-house gazette.

“Moreover, MJA has been receiving complaints that there are many obstacles to practicing responsible journalism,” the letter read, adding that subsidies were necessary “to protect and preserve independent journalism in the country” and that failing to provide them “would have an adverse effect on this burgeoning democracy”.

President of the MJA and editor of the newspaper Haveeru, Ahmed ‘Hiriga’ Zahir, proposed that media outlets be given subsidies based on circulation, in a similar system to the way political parties are funded.

“A small community [like the Maldivian media] won’t survive unless we are given support,” he said, adding that this money would not compromise the media’s independence if it was allocated by the state rather than the government.

“We have 300,000 people [in the Maldives] and that’s not enough of a market for fully private enterprise,” he argued. On the other hand, “state TV should be privatised to ensure it has a commercial component. Until recently most of the time people relied on the 8pm news on TVM (Television Maldives) to get their information, and now so much of it is biased towards the current government.”

Hiriga said he was also concerned that fully privatising media ownership would consolidate control in the hands of a few wealthy individuals.

There are no provisions in the current budget for media subsidies, although this has yet to be passed by parliament which has stalled the process at committee level, citing various concerns and “confusions”.

Chairman of the budget review committee, MP Ahmed Nazim, told Minivan News last week that there were no subsidies for the Maldives National Broadcasting Corporation (MNBC) included in the budget.

“Can TVM [Television Maldives] and VoM [Voice of Maldives] finance their 2010 operations on their own? Surely not,” he said.

State Finance Minister Mohamed Assad said the government was “not closed to the idea of state-funded media”, but did favour corporatisation of the sector.

“The whole idea of corporatisation is to budget your own operation and not to rely on support,” he said, claiming this made the media less independent “as its income is hidden.”

He said he was concerned at the way parliament was interceding on the budget, and suggested that “we seem to be moving more to a parliamentary rather than presidential system of government.”

“We are proceeding with the budget and have not said otherwise,” he said, adding that there were contingency plans in place “because in the worst case scenario the government still has to operate. Parliament can’t bring the government to a standstill by not passing the budget.”

He dismissed the concerns of the review committee and said parts of the document were “highly technical and misunderstood, [for example] whatever is earned this year will [only] show up as next year’s income,” he said.

“I think Nazim just wanted a break, it was as simple as that.”