Free media too much for Maldives to digest: Maldives Media Council

Following the attacks on media property during Monday’s unrest, Maldives Media Council (MMC) President Mohamed Nazeef has expressed doubt over whether a free media can flourish in the Maldives at the present time.

“We see that although we talk of democracy and freedom of media and expression, I don’t think society is ready to digest a free media,” said Nazeef.

After protests against the reconvening of the People’s Majlis turned violent, Villa Television (VTV) bore the brunt of the angry demonstrations. Projectiles aimed at the studio included bricks – and in one instance, a bicycle – while the Maldives National Defense Force (MNDF) personnel manned the building’s entrance.

The anger of Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) supporters towards VTV has been building since the events of February 7 when staff of the then-state broadcaster Maldives National Broadcast Corporation (MNBC) were ordered to patch through the VTV broadcast.

VTV is owned by Jumhoree Party (JP) Leader and MP Gasim Ibrahim, also a member of the Judicial Services Commission (JSC). Gasim’s chain of Villa Island resorts have been placed on a recent travel advisory of UK-based pro-democracy organisation Friends of Maldives (FOM).

“These are places linked to individuals or groups who we suspect to be involved in the subversion of democracy and in human rights abuses in the Maldives,” reads the advisory.

In a video aired on Raajje Television earlier this month, Gasim was seen celebrating inside police headquarters upon hearing of former President Mohamed Nasheed’s decision to resign.

MDP spokesman Hamid Abdul Ghafoor alleged at the time that the video proved “Gasim’s blatant complicity in the coup d’état.”

The nation watched VTV on state television before the feed was cut off and came back on, re-branded as Television Maldives (TVM), the name of the state broadcaster during Gayoom’s regime.

The MDP have since alleged that the national broadcaster is “being blatantly used as propaganda outlet of the coup regime, while the ongoing peaceful political activities of the MDP are being sidelined with little regard to the MBC’s mandate and the nation’s laws under which the MBC is functional.”

When asked if the MNDF had been stationed outside the television studios in anticipation of an attack, Colonel Abdul Raheem responded, “We didn’t get any intelligence that there would be attacks. It was not only VTV [that was guarded], we had persons around all key locations.”

The camera of a photographer from the Haveeru paper was also destroyed by protesters during Monday’s unrest, although Editor Moosa Latheef said he did not believe this instance was politically motivated.

Latheef reported no increase in aggression towards his reporters during the recent political strife.

In January, journalists working for the then state broadcaster MNBC were badly beaten during a protest outside the corporation’s headquarters. Preceding these attacks MNBC reporters received death threats, an MNBC official reported at the time.

Free Media?

MMC President Mohamed Nazeef lamented the politicisation of media outlets and the animosity that this produced from sections of the public: “It is a very sad situation.”

The MMC consists of fifteen members elected to preserve, promote and maintain the freedom of the press.

“The media is owned by political and business leaders. Do journalists have freedom to report what they like?” asked Nazeef. “It doesn’t happen.”

Nazeef blamed a lack of financial independence for a dearth of balanced content. “Media organisations are not financially viable. They are dependent on the owners.”

Government subsidies have been used before to try and tackle this issue, but Nazeef argued that this method was not without its problems: “It goes into the pockets of the owners.”

Whilst deploring the violence that was directed at VTV on Monday, Nazeef was not surprised.

“It shouldn’t happen, but you see the media provoking it. [Media] know [they] are taking sides… Media should balance their content.”

Aiman Rasheed of Transparency Maldives was of a similar opinion: “The media situation is clear – different media are aligned behind different people… [We] see conflict extended to the media.”

Transparency Maldives conducted a study last year into the performance and potential bias of six media organisations of which VTV was included (as was Minivan News). The amount of coverage devoted to its owner’s JP was noted as “significantly high” and largely positive.

Meanwhile, the Maldives dropped 21 places on Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index between 2010 and 2011. The organisation also expressed its concern over the takeover of MNBC on February 7.

Fathimath Ibrahim Didi of the NGO Maldives Democracy Network agreed that a free media was a crucial concept but added, “What we want to stress is that, at the same time, it is very essential for the media to be responsible.”

“Most of the media stations in Maldives are owned by businessmen in who are somehow affiliated with a political party. Hence there is a very high probability for the media to be biased towards one side while reporting.”

Private station DhiTV is financed by ‘Champa’ Mohamed Moosa, a local businessman and political benefactor of the former opposition, while the recently opened Raajje TV belongs to Akram Kamaaluddin, state minister at Nasheed’s administration.

Among the most popular local news websites, newspaper Haveeru is owned by Dr Mohamed Zahir Hussain, who filled various cabinet posts under Gayoom’s administration and has now been appointed as chancellor of the Maldives National University by Dr Waheed, replacing his former party member Dr Mustafa Luthfy.

Sun Online belongs to Meedhoo MP and resort tycoon Sun Travel Ahmed Shiyam.

Minivan News was itself often been accused of MDP bias due its inception as a party news source. Following the change of power in 2008, all funding from politically-affiliated sources was removed. Since then the site has relied on income generated through banner advertising and has passed to a succession of foreign editors who have attempted to establish it as a credible and objective source of news in the Maldives.

Despite the ownership of media, Fathmath thinks reporters can play a crucial role in maintaining neutrality.

“Reporters themselves should also maintain neutrality at all times. We as citizens would like to see non-contradictory information or interpretation regarding one incident from all the media outlets of the Maldives,” Fathimath concluded.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that DhiTV was owned by Hassan ‘Champa’ Afeef. DhiTV is financed by Mohamed ‘Champa’ Moosa. Minivan News regrets any confusion caused.


Finance Minister condemns Public Accounts Committee Chair

Finance Minister Ahmed Inaz has said that the Rf456,000 (US$31,000) issued to Maldives Media Association (MMA) according to the Finance Report sent by the ministry to parliament was actually issued to Maldives Media Council (MMC) and not to the dissolved NGO MMA.

”It was technically a typing error, we sent the Public Accounts Committee a report consisting information about some of the recent transactions, and the Public Accounts Committee’s Chair MP Ahmed Nazim [who is also the Deputy Speaker of the Parliament] asked us to send detailed information of all the transactions mentioned in the report,” Inaz explained.

He said the ministry then sent the committee details of the transactions in the report, which still had the typing error uncorrected.

”We did not identify that error, and after we sent the details, the chair of the committee told the media that we have used Rf456,000 from the contingency budget to pay salaries of MMA staff,” he said. ”Actually it was used to pay the salaries of MMC staff.”

Inaz said he regretted that Nazim had not verified the typing error with the ministry before going to the media.

”We send the report to the parliament to cooperate with them and to assist them in making us accountable, I attended the committee three days in a row this week and we do not have a policy of withholding information,” he said, adding that he condemned Nazim’s actions and hoped that he would not repeat such things in the future.

”I also apologize to MMA members, but the responsibility goes to the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee as well,” Inaz said. ”Things like this make the ministry lose the confidence we have in the Chair of the committee.”

Nazim told local media this week that a report submitted by the Finance Ministry showed that over Rf450,000 from the state budget was issued to the MMA.

In the wake of the revelation, the Maldives Journalists Association (MJA) and senior members of the now-defunct Maldives Media Association (MMA) called on the Auditor General and Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) to investigate the alleged Rf456,000  released from the state’s contingency budget.


ACC to sue Maldives Media Council over illegal ‘living allowance’

The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) has said that it has decided to sue the Maldives Media Council (MMC) after the Auditor General’s report revealed that members took almost Rf 900,000 in additional allowances.

President of the ACC Hassan Luthfy confirmed to local media that suits will be filed against the MMC, one in the Civil Court and one in the Criminal Court for corruption.

Meanwhile, the Maldives Journalists Association (MJA) has called on the members to resign following the publication of the audit report.

In a statement, the MJA said that “this raise questions about the integrity of MMC which was established by the Parliament to regulate media. The MMC Act which was passed by the parliament clearly stipulates that no additional money other than wages shall be given to the council members for their work, unless it is approved by the Parliament.”

The MJA said the MMC Act required the council to comprise of eight members from the media and seven members from the public, but questioned the legitimacy of the council after noting that member from the public had been employed by the Maldives National Broadcasting Corporation (MNBC) after he was appointed as a member.

“This has dropped the number of members representing public to six, and increased the number of members representing the media to nine,” the MJA said, asking parliament to probe the issue.

The MJA said it was unacceptable for the NGO to see an institution assigned to regulate the media breaching the laws and democratic principles.

“This primitive action by the MMC has tarnished the trust and dignity of the local media in front of the citizens,” the MJA said. “We are very concerned, as this may also damage the reputation of the Maldives media in front of international organisations, and may raise questions about the integrity of the sole media regulatory body in the country.”

The opposition joint parliamentary group has meanwhile told the media that next week they will submit a bill to parliament to dissolve the council and transfer its mandate to parliament’s Maldives Broadcasting Corporation (MBC).

Spokesperson for the opposition parliamentary group, MP Ahmed Nazim, told newspaper Haveeru that the council had not been fulfilling its responsibility and noted that the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) has accused the council of corruption.

He said that the MMC’s initial refusal to obey the direction of the ACC and repay the money was also an issue.

President of the Maldives Media Council (MMC) Mohamed Nazeef did not respond to Minivan News at time of press.


Maldives remains “partly free” environment for media: Freedom House

Media freedom has remained steady in the Maldives following significant gains in 2009, according to a report by Freedom House.

The country was found to be a “partly free” environment for media, with the constitution protecting freedom of expression “but also restricting freedom of speech ‘contrary to the tenets of Islam’.”

The report was published prior to the release of new regulations enforcing the Religious Unity Act, which bans media ‘from producing or publicising programs, talking about or disseminating audio ‘that humiliates Allah or his prophets or the holy Quran or the Sunnah of the Prophet (Mohamed) or the Islamic faith’,” imposing a 2-5 year prison sentence.

Freedom House noted that the overall legal framework protecting free expression “remained weak, with many proposed media reform bills still awaiting passage”, however it praised parliament for passing an amendment to the penal code in 2009 decriminalising defamation.

The organisation noted that legislation to transform the state broadcaster, the Maldives National Broadcasting Corporation (MNBC), into the Maldives Broadcasting Corporation, a public broadcaster, “was passed in April 2010, but the government delayed implementing the handover.”

Increased media diversity had improved coverage of major political events, including by the state broadcaster, “though the [MNBC] still suffers from pro-government bias.”

Investigative journalism, Freedom House noted, “remains hampered by the lack of an access to information law and a culture of secrecy at government departments.”

While the formation of the Maldives Media Council (MMC) was “cautiously welcomed”, given the preference of advocacy groups for self-regulation, the elections process was criticised for not being sufficiently transparent, and former members of political parties were nominated as candidates to the Council.”

The MMC is currently facing criticism from the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) for the payment of almost a million rufiya in “living allowances” to Council members beyond their stipulated salaries.

On the advocacy side, Freedom House observed that the Maldives Journalist Association (MJA) “regularly made statements regarding media freedom issues and journalists’ rights during the year, accusing the government and political leaders of interference with the private media in a number of cases”, however it noted that “an alternate group, the Maldives National Journalists’ Association (MNJA), was founded in 2010, reportedly in response to the perceived politicisation of the MJA.”

Private print media had expanded and represented a wide variety of viewpoints, the Freedom House report noted, “however some publications are owned by allies of former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom or other political actors, who exercise considerable control over content. Most newspapers are not profitable and rely on financial backing from businessmen with strong political interests.”

The government had “generally” avoided interfering with internet access, used by approximately 28 percent of the population in 2010, however “the Ministry of Islamic Affairs announced in 2008 that Christian and anti-Islam websites would be blocked, arguing that they could negatively affect belief in Islam, and a number of websites were blocked by the Telecommunication Authority at Ministry’s request during 2009.”

Journalists meanwhile remained subject to “some harassment”, with incidents including an attack in August 2010 on the offices of VTV by “unknown assailants”, “and a police attack on journalists covering a political protest in October.” Verbal attacks included threats against media outlets from Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) MP Reeko Moosa, and repeated death threats against certain bloggers “from Islamist extremists”.


MMC members received almost Rf 1 million in illegal “living allowances”, finds Auditor General

Members of the Maldives Media Council (MMC) have been illegally receiving a living allowance of Rf 7500 (US$500) in addition to their monthly salaries, according to an audit report for the year prepared by the Auditor General’s office.

The Auditor General’s report noted that the article 19[a] of MMC Act states that salaries of Council’s Chair, Vice Chair and members shall be determined by the parliament, and that the salary for the council member determined by the parliament on January 2011 was Rf 8000 (US$533) for the Chair of the Council, Rf 6500 (US$433) for the Vice Chair, and Rf 5000 (US$333) for each council member.

The report observed that council members started receiving the allowance on January 20, 2011, after the Chair of the Council sent a signed memo to the council’s corporate affairs unit.

The Auditor General at the time was aware of the matter and forwarded the case to the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) and on February 17, 2011, the ACC sent a letter to the council asking it to stop claiming the allowance until the ACC concluded the case.

‘’On February 20, the council members held their 7th meeting of the year and in the meeting all members voted that there was no reason why the council should follow instructions as in the letter sent by the ACC,’’ the audit report noted.

On April 20 council members decided not to receive the allowance, after they were asked by ACC to discontinue a second time. The MMC then sent letters to council members asking them to return the amounts they had received as living allowances – by now a total of almost a million rufiya, in addition to their salaries.

According to the Auditor General’s report, the council members did not receive the living allowance for six months from May to August. However a lump sum for six months worth of the living allowance sum was included in council members’ salaries for August – a total of Rf 45,000 (US$2900) for each council member.

The report also stated that by the end of August the council had spent a total Rf9 00000 (US$60,000) on paying members living allowances.

The Auditor General’s report stated that the living allowance was an illegal expense, despite parliament approving the MMC’s budget including the allowance, and noted that the MMC had behaved inappropriately for an institution that was required by nature to have the trust and confidence of the public.

Chair of the MMC Mohamed Nazeef told Minivan News that the issue “had been solved”, and that “some” of the council members had now returned the money they received as living allowances.


President’s Office encouraging unprofessional journalism, claims MMC

The Maldives Media Council (MMC) has accused the President’s Office of discouraging journalists from following the council’s rulings and code of conduct.

The MMC’s claims came after Press Secretary for the President’s Office Mohamed Zuhair told news outlet Sun Online that the government did not support any action against journalists of the Sun Media Group, after three journalists conducted an investigation into illegal prostitution in the Maldives.

The Media Council declared the standard of the written articles were unprofessional and that the articles indicated that the journalists may have been engaged in sexual activities with the prostitutes, and that their style of writing encouraged the activity. It referred the matter to the Prosecutor General.

However, Zuhair told the paper that the government did not consider the articles to be inappropriate, or containing words that indicated that the journalists might have involved themselves in any criminal offences.

In a press release issued by the MMC following the remarks made by the Press Secretary, the MMC accused the President’s Office of obstructing the council’s efforts to establish a culture in which journalists worked within a code of conduct.

The council said the executive was speaking in such a way that implied it could influence the work of the council, which was irresponsible.

‘’It makes the public and the media lose confidence in the legal duty of the council to set the media in the right direction,’’ said the Media Council in the statement. ‘’The remarks made by the Press Secretary were made in a way that it encouraged such writings, and was said without showing any respect to the Islamic principles, laws and the beliefs of an Islamic society.’’

The council also noted that it has declared that the articles were inconsistent with the Media Code of Ethics and that the editorial management of Sun had already apologised over it.

After Sun Magazine published series of articles sharing their experience with prostitutes working at spas and salons in Male’, the MMC pulled the magazines from circulation and forwarded the case to the Prosecutor General to file criminal charges against the paper.

Press Secretary for the President Mohamed Zuhair was not responding at time of press.


MMC pulls magazine, forwards Sun brothel expose to Prosecutor General

An undercover account of Male’s illegal brothel scene, dubbed ‘Operation Sunset’, has landed Sun in hot water with the Maldives Media Council (MMC) for its lurid details of the experience.

The stories, which initially appeared in Sun’s magazine, reportedly involved three Sun journalists visiting massage parlours in Male’ and soliciting sex from the women in an attempt to expose illegal brothels operating in the capital.

The stories have sparked a public debate on morality and journalism, and prompted the Maldives Media Council (MMC) to call an urgent meeting and demand that the offending edition be pulled from circulation.

Versions of the stories were also published on Sun Online’s website, and are now the site’s most viewed. A source within Sun Online told Minivan News that the content was edited and toned down prior to appearing on site.

Police Sub-Inspector Ahmed Shiyam said claims made in the article that the operation was conducted with the assistance of police were untrue.

“They called the police media section and said they were checking these places to see if anything illegal was taking place, but they didn’t say how. They have provided no information on these places to police,” Shiyam said, adding that police had also received complaints from the public over the story.

Shiyam confirmed that the case had been sent to the Prosecutor General’s office by the MMC, but did not say whether the subject of the investigation would be the journalists involved, the publication or the alleged brothels.

“We are waiting for the PG to request us to start an investigation,” he said.

President of the MMC Mohamed Nazeef said the council had never before received such a significant volume of complaints following the publication of a story.

“[The complaints] were mainly about the style of presentation, so we decided to ask them to pull the magazine,” Nazeef said, adding that the matter had been forwarded to the Prosecutor General’s office “because of the police issues involved.”

The MMC’s policy was to step back when other authorities became involved, he said.

“We have been very cautious because we do not want to kill investigative journalism in the Maldives or undermine the reporting of serious issues,” he said. “But the problem was the style of writing – it was not professional, and the editor has to take responsibility. These are young journalists with little training, and the editors are senior people who have put them in a bad position by saying they have paid [for sexual services].”

Nazeef said he had spoken to the executive editor of both publications, Ahmed ‘Hiriga’ Zahir, and ascertained that the original article was published in the magazine due to some internal misunderstanding.

“I got the feeling that they asked these boys to do this and write about the experience,” Nazreef said. “I think this is an issue of training. We need to run a course in investigative journalism, perhaps bring in a CNN journalist to talk to them, and offer training on how to cover protests, possibly with someone from the Western Australian police [who trained police in the Maldives].”

Zahir told Minivan News he had no official comment on the matter, and referred Minivan News to the editor of Sun Magazine, Shinan Ali. Ali was not responding at time of press.

The Maldives Journalists Association (MJA), of which Zahir is President, has meanwhile issued a statement stating that while some of words and phrases used in the article were “inappropriate for Maldivian society”, the MMC’s decision would “narrow the opportunity for investigative journalism in the Maldives.”

The MMC could have resolved the issue without forwarding the case to the Prosecutor General, the MJA suggested, as illegal prostitution in the Maldives was “something the public needs to be made aware of.”

Lawyer and former Attorney General Dr Ahmed Ali Sawad suggested to Minivan News that while the media was free to pursue the truth in the Maldives, it was still bound by the need for “ethical” conduct in doing so.

“I believe investigative journalism is about unraveling the truth and truth is protected by law. Our constitution and the democratic system we are working to establish is designed to protect journalists who reveal the truth,” he said.

“Responsible investigative journalism implies not being accountable to the consequences of the revealed truth, but to the ethical propriety [standards] of the revealing of the truth,” he said.


Journalists obstructed us during October protest coverage, say police

The Maldives Police Service has issued a statement following allegations made by the Maldives Media Council (MMC) that police used excessive force on journalists while they were covering the opposition-led protest in October 2010.

”On October 25, the behavior of the journalists covering the riot was different from how they have behaved during other riots, and they were definitely behaving in a way that that obstructed police from carrying out their duties,” said police in a statement.

”The Maldives Police Service hopes that the MMC, as the lawful body [overseeing] the media, will research the degraded actions of a few journalists who were active in the area and will work with them to correct their behaviour.”

The MMC has acknowledged that the behaviour of some journalists covering the riot “lacked discipline and professionalism”.

Police said they respected the media and believed that it was “very necessary in a modern democracy.”

”Police have worked very hard to establish easy ways for the media to gain information they need in matters related to police work,” police said.

The police recommended that the MMC avoid repeated incidents by researching how the media works in other democratic countries when covering riots and dangerous situations.

Several journalists from different media organisations have alleged that police attacked journalists covering the opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP)-led protest.

Three journalists from DhiTV, two journalists from VillaTV and one from Miadhu reported that they were attacked by police.

The two journalists from VillaTV were also arrested, handcuffed, and released the same evening.

Following the incident, police claimed that the behaviour of some journalists resembled that of “opposition activists”.

‘’Some journalists opposed police orders and refused to stay in the security zone,” Shiyam said at the time. “It would have gone smoothly if they had worked according to orders given.’’

He said that police some journalists who opposed police orders were moved forcefully.


Police harsh and journalists “unprofessional” in protest coverage, finds MMC

The Maldives Media Council (MMC) has called on journalists to follow their code of ethics when covering events such as the opposition-led protest on October 25 last year, in which police clashed with reporters.

Journalists did not adhere to the standards of discipline required of their position while covering the event, the MMC said.

The MMC issued the statement following the release of an investigation report into incident, in which the Council alleged that the police commander who managed the riot that evening may not have given adequate opportunity for the media to cover the event.

Three journalists from DhiTV, two journalists from VillaTV, one from newspaper Miadhu and a photographer from Haveeru reported they were attacked by the police. The two journalists from VillaTV were also arrested, handcuffed, and released the same evening.

Editor of DhiTV Midhath Hilmy claimed that one of his reporters was hit in the head with a tear gas canister, while another was hit with a police baton.

The MMC stated that police had planned that evening not to let any person enter the area, and did not provided an exemption for the media.

“According to video footage, pictures and audio clips as well as the statements of journalists who covered the riot, the council have noted that police have acted very strictly towards the media.”

Eight journalists from different media organisations were physically injured  during the clash and underwent medical treatment. The MMC confirmed that there was “some truth” to the allegations made by media personnels regarding their harsh treatment at the hand of police, including the use of pepper spray.

Furthermore, the council said, police took strict measures to obstruct journalists from covering the event, undermining the freedom given them by the Constitution.

Police Sub-Inspector Ahmed Shiyam said that police would respond to the allegations later.

Police have previously stated that the crackdown on the media corp was prompted when several members of the press “began behaving like opposition activists.”