The biased editorial practices of media outlets owned by politicians is one of the major impediments preventing the right to information from being upheld in the Maldives, journalists and civil society actors highlighted during discussion panels organised by the US Embassy this week.
Maldivian journalists and NGO leaders met with representatives from the US Embassy, the UN, as well as a US attorney representing the American Society of News Editors, Kevin Goldberg, to discuss the current status and future efforts needed to protect this human right in the Maldives.
The state is the guardian of information and the public have a right to access that information, according to the forum.
This is essential for not only holding the government accountable to the public – so residents of the Maldives can understand what the government is doing for the people – but also for instilling public trust in government institutions.
Any type of information, including documents, electronic records, audio, video, etc., produced, held or maintained by a state institution should be easily accessible. Uninhibited access to events held in the public domain, such as protests, are also protected, the forum was informed.
Journalists and NGO representatives alike noted the lack of cooperation from government institutions as well as the shortcomings of media outlets in disseminating balanced information.
The media discussion panel held Monday (August 12) was nonetheless poorly attended, with three journalists from Sun Online, one Maldives Media Council (MMC) official, and one Minivan News representative participating.
While two Maldives National Broadcasting Corporation (MNBC), also known as Television Maldives (TVM), reporters were present during part of Attorney Kevin Goldberg’s opening remarks, they left prior to the group discussion taking place. No representatives from the Maldives Broadcasting Commission (MBC), Raajje TV, Villa TV (VTV), DhiTV, Haveeru News, Channel News Maldives (CNM), Miadhu News, or Minivan Radio attended the event.
Although the panel was small, discussion was lively, with everyone in attendance concerned about editorial policies that catered to the government or a specific political party, which they said had staunched the flow of information reaching the Maldivian public.
Unbalanced reporting in favor of the state during the February 2012 controversial transfer of power that followed former President Mohamed Nasheed’s resignation, as well as government authorities cutting Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) aligned-Raajje TV’s feed, were highlighted as concerns.
In addition to the need for a culture of balanced, ethical reporting, journalists highlighted the difficulty in obtaining information from various government representatives and institutions.
Goldberg noted that “information delayed is information denied”, and that procedural mechanisms should be in place to allow the public, including journalists, easy access information. The state should “proactively disclose” information of public interest, individuals “shouldn’t have to ask for it”, he said, explaining that readily available information was as much a means for public officials to protect themselves from the media as it was for the media in conducting investigative journalism.
Goldberg, as well as the Human Rights Advisor to the UN Resident Coordinator’s Office, Safir Syed, stated that MBC’s requirement that journalists be licensed to enter a protest was a human rights violation.
Goldberg emphasised that it takes time to build enough collective momentum to effectively pressure a government to uphold the right to information, and that collaboration between media outlets and civil society was essential to do so.
NGO representatives echoed the concerns noted by journalists during the discussion panel held Tuesday (August 13) and emphasised that unethical reporting and the media’s lack of cooperation with NGOs had limited civil society’s trust of local media outlets.
The inability to appeal to the judiciary to obtaining access to public information was also highlighted as a problem.
Transparency Maldives Project Director Aiman Rasheed explained to Minivan News that while Article 19 of the Maldivian Constitution guarantees the right to information, current practice was limited to the executive. He added that the right to information regime needs to be spread across all state institutions, including the judiciary, parliament, independent commissions and state companies.
Furthermore, the Maldives is a signatory to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which also protects this human right.
“The right to information is important for citizens to make informed choices, participate in the democratic process, and hold the government accountable,” said Rasheed. “Freedom of information is a key prerequisite for democracy.”