Cameraman ‘forced’ to erase footage of PG meeting judge

A cameraman of the opposition aligned Raajje TV was forced to erase footage of a meeting between prosecutor general Muhthaz Muhsin and criminal court judge Abdul Bari Yousuf at a café, the broadcasting commission has found.

The PG allegedly met Bari at the Café Layaali in Malé on March 8 while the latter was presiding over former president Mohamed Nasheed’s terrorism trial.

The pair have denied the meeting took place, and Muhsin has previously said he would resign immediately if the allegations are proven to be true.

Following an inquiry, the commission determined on Monday that the Raajje TV journalists “faced reasons forcing them to delete the footage.”

“As the commission saw that this was a situation that obstructed press freedom, the members who participated in the meeting to conclude this case decided unanimously to appeal to all parties to ensure that broadcasters and the media as a whole do not face such compulsion in order to maintain an environment where journalists can fully exercise the right guaranteed by the constitution and laws without fear,” reads the summary statement of the report prepared the commission.

The commission also investigated a complaint alleging that Raajje TV disseminated false information as PG Muhsin denied meeting the judge. The commission decided that the station did not violate the broadcasting code of content as it had sought comment from both Muhsin and Bari.

The meeting took place days before a three-judge panel sentenced ex-president Nasheed to 13 years in prison on terrorism charges. Judge Bari also presided over ex-defence minister Mohamed Nazim’s trial on weapons smuggling charges.

After Raajje TV reported the alleged meeting, the criminal court barred the station’s reporters from attending hearings. The court accused Raajje TV of “spreading lies about judges, meddling in judges personal affairs and engaging in actions that may harm judges.”

Muhsin meanwhile told Minivan News at the time that the judge was already at the café when he went there for a meal with family members.

However, Raajje TV insisted the pair were sitting at the same table and that Muhsin had walked away when the journalist started asking questions.

At the time, a Raajje TV staff told Minivan News that a group of young men led by Progressive Party of the Maldives MP Ahmed Assad forced the cameramen to delete the footage.

In 2013, the watchdog Judicial Service Commission suspended Judge Bari for over a year pending the outcome of a complaint lodged against him for alleged misconduct.

Although the commission did not reveal any details of the complaint, local media reported that a female attorney from the Prosecutor General’s Office had alleged that Bari had sexually assaulted her.

Bari was cleared of the allegations and resumed duty at Criminal Court on July 24, 2014.


US shines spotlight on missing Maldives journalist

The US state department has highlighted the unresolved disappearance of Minivan News journalist Ahmed Rilwan in a campaign ahead of international press freedom day on May 3.

Acting spokesperson Marie Harf called on the Maldives to “credibly investigate the disappearance” during a press briefing in Washington DC on Wednesday.

Rilwan is believed to have been abducted at knifepoint outside his apartment building in a Malé suburb in the early morning of August 8. The 28-year-old reporter wrote on politics, criminal gangs and Islamic extremism.

Rilwan had received clear threats to his life in the weeks prior to his disappearance, and an investigative report by a local human rights group has implicated radicalised gangs in the abduction.

Harf called on the government “to take the steps necessary to create space for independent journalists to work without fear of violence or harassment, including ending impunity for attacks and intimidation against journalists.”

Police investigations has been slow despite nine months passing since the disappearance was reported.

In a statement last week, the police said they are continuing with the investigation, and have received some forensic analysis reports of samples from three different cars that may have been used in the abduction.

“The investigative team is now reviewing how we may continue with the investigation based on the results of some of the forensic analysis reports,” the April 23 statement said.

In October last year, the police arrested five individuals over the disappearance, but all have been released. Local media reported that several suspects left the Maldives in January, ostensibly for the war effort in Syria.

Home minister Umar Naseer has also acknowledged the involvement of gangs in Rilwan’s disappearance.

His family has accused the police of negligence, saying officers failed to stop and search the car used in the abduction, despite eye witnesses having filed a report with the police immediately after observing the abduction.

Police officers had reportedly confiscated a knife from the scene.

Maldives journalists have repeatedly raised concerns over death threats to the press by Malé’s criminal gangs, but the police have failed to take substantive action against threats.

In March, local media cited a blog and reported that Rilwan had died fighting against the Islamic State in Kurdistan. However, the police said the blog was fake.


CPJ urges Maldives to free Raajje TV and Channel One journalists

New York-based Committee to Project Journalists (CPJ) on Thursday urged the government of Maldives to free three journalists arrested from opposition protests last week.

“We call on the authorities to immediately release Mohamed Wisam, Adam Zareer, and Mohamed Niyaz, and allow journalists in the Maldives to do their jobs freely and safely,” CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Bob Dietz said.

Opposition-aligned Raajje TV’s Wisam and Zareer were arrested late on Wednesday evening while covering the Alliance Against Brutality’s nightly protest. They were subsequently placed under a five-day remand.

Channel One’s cameraman Niyaz was arrested on Tuesday. He was remanded for ten days.

The Maldives Police Services said the three journalists were arrested along with several protesters for “obstructing police duties and disobeying police orders.”

“By holding these journalists without charge for days at a time, authorities in the Maldives are clearly trying to suppress news coverage of events through silencing and intimidation,” Dietz said.

Calling for the immediate and unconditional release of its staff, Raajje TV on Wednesday said: “Over the past month, Wisam and Zareer have been working tirelessly in covering the various protests and activities held in Malé City, in difficult circumstances and often under the threat of violence.”

The station also noted it was “yet to receive any justice with regards to previous attacks targeted to our station and journalists.”

Raajje TV head quarters were torched and destroyed in an arson attack in October 2013. Its former journalist Asward Ibrahim Waheed was nearly beaten to death in February 2013. No one has been held accountable for the attacks.

According to the President of the Maldives Broadcasting Commission (MBC) Mohamed Shaheeb, the Commissioner of Police Hussein Waheed in a phone call on Thursday pledged to expedite investigations and free the three journalists as soon as possible.

Speaking to Haveeru, Shaheeb urged journalists to act professionally in covering protests, claiming some act like opposition activists at gatherings, pushing back against riot police shields and aiming their cameras inches away from police officers’ faces.

“The Maldives Police Services facilitates the opportunity for journalists to cover protests. So I urge journalists to be more professional than they are now. If journalists acted within their bounds, it would be easier for us to advocate on their behalf when they get arrested from protests. Even so, we are working on these cases,” he said.

This year, the Maldives fell to 112th place in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Press Freedom Index, marking a decline for the fourth consecutive year.

Last year saw numerous death threats sent to journalists, the disappearance of Minivan News journalist Ahmed Rilwan, and a machete buried at the door of the Minivan News office.

In April 2014, President Abdulla Yameen vowed that his administration would not take action against the media “no matter how far journalists take the freedom offered by this government”.

In May 2014, the MBC released a landmark ‘Threat Analysis Report‘ which found 84 percent of journalists surveyed reported being threatened at least once, while five percent reported being threatened on a daily basis.

Journalists identified political parties to be the top source of threat. Gangs, religious extremists and parliament placed second while the government was rated third.


Home Ministry opens up second call for newspaper, magazine re-registration

The Ministry of Home Affairs has opened up a second re-registration call for all news outlets and magazines.

The ministry had ordered all registered newspapers, news websites, magazines, and periodicals to re-register in October during the vote to elect members for the Maldives Media Council.

The order came after reporters complained over the eligibility of publications that were not in regular circulation to vote in the elections.

The ministry said it was opening up a second call due to popular requests. Media companies and news outlets must submit proof that they have been regularly publishing in the past six months.


Missing journalist’s family concerned over slow progress in search

Missing Minivan News journalist Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla’s family has expressed concern over slow progress in the Maldives Police Service’s three-week long search.

The police released a statement on Thursday night claiming it had questioned 318 individuals, interrogated 111, searched 139 locations in Malé’s suburb island Hulhumalé and searched 267,197.5 square meters of ocean.

“These are just statistics. We want to find him. We want the police to tell us if they have leads, if there is progress,” Rilwan’s brother Moosa Rilwan told Minivan News today.

“We want to know what the results of these extensive searches are. It’s been a month, my family and I fear for his life,” Moosa said.

Rilwan was last seen boarding the Hulhumalé ferry on August 8 at 12:55am. Evidence gathered by Minivan News suggests Rilwan was abducted.


Eyewitnesses told Minivan News they saw a man being forced into a car at knifepoint in front of Rilwan’s apartment building at the time he is expected to have reached his house. The abductors dropped the knife and eyewitnesses reported the incident to the police. Minivan News understands the police confiscated the knife from the scene.

The police have said they took in two cars and have conducted forensic tests. Samples have also been sent abroad for further tests. Meanwhile, four individuals’ passports have also been withheld in connection to the case.

According to Moosa, the police have so far refused to publicly comment on whether there is a connection between the abduction and Rilwan’s disappearance.

“If the incident is not connected to Rilwan’s disappearance, who was abducted? What did the police do on the night after the abduction was reported? Why have they taken in two cars in relation to Rilwan’s disappearance?” Moosa questioned.

“Why have the police withheld passports? Have they been questioned? Are the police not afraid these men may go into hiding in the country?”

The police’s statement raises more questions than answers, he added.

Extensive search

According to the police, a specialist crime command team consisting of police officers from the intelligence department, forensics department, marine police specialist operations and divisional operations are working around the clock on the case.

The team is analysing 719 hours of CCTV footage from 101 cameras at 48 locations along the route Rilwan is believed to have traveled in Malé on the night of his disappearance.

Police are also investigating 638,000 cellphone numbers that have hit cell towers along the same route, the statement said.

Some 18 vessels in Hulhumalé lagoon including Safari boats, all of the beach area and empty lots in Hulhumalé, eight houses in Malé’s, four locations and the waste dump in Malé’s second suburb island Villingili were also searched, the police said.

Rilwan’s family will continue to support the police in the search, Moosa said.

The Human Rights Commission has also released a statement noting that it had yet to be updated on the authorities’ attempts to locate the missing journalist, despite having made a request for information more than two weeks ago.

Pressure up

An Avaaz petition has been launched calling on the Maldives government to expedite the search to find Rilwan and to guarantee a safe environment for all journalists, human rights defenders and bloggers in the Maldives.

The opposition Maldivian Democratic Party has tabled the case with the People’s Majlis Security Services or 241 committee.

Minivan News understands Minister of Home Affairs Umar Naseer, Commissioner of Police Hussein Waheed and Minister of Defense and National Security Mohamed Nazim were summoned to the confidential committee hearing on Thursday.

Rilwan’s friends and family have also gathered 5000 signatures on a Majlis petition calling on the parliament to press for a thorough and speedy investigation.

The family has offered MVR200,000 (US$ 12,945) for any information on Riwlan’s whereabouts.

Maldives media have also called for a speedy investigation in a joint statement and have met with the Commissioner of Police, MPs from the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives and MDP, Prosecutor General and Majlis Speaker Abdulla Maseeh regarding the case.

International organisations, including Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the Committee to Project Journalists (CPJ) and the UNHCR, have expressed concern over Rilwan’s disappearance.


MDP calls on PG to drop charges against CNM journalist Haseen

The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) has called on Prosecutor General (PG) Muhthaz Muhsin as well as the government to drop charges against Channel News Maldives’ (CNM) senior journalist Abdulla Haseen.

“We note with regret that this is the first criminal prosecution of a journalist since the adoption of a democratic constitution in 2008,” the main opposition party said in a press release on Wednesday night (September 3).

Haseen is currently on trial at the Criminal Court on charges of obstructing police duty during an MDP demonstration on July 21, 2012.

The former Minivan Daily reporter is accused of shoving police barricades at the Chandanee Magu-Orchid Magu junction and using obscene language to address riot police officers.

At the first hearing of the trial last week, Haseen pleaded not guilty and noted that he attended political rallies and street protests to cover them as a journalist.

“This is a charge raised deliberately by the state against press freedom,” Haseen told reporters after the hearing.

“And this is an opportunity to experience for myself how the Maldivian criminal justice system functions.”

The court granted a five-day period for Haseen to hire a lawyer.

In addition to Haseen, Abdulla Idrees of Gulfaamuge in Laamu Maavah and former opposition MDP MP Hamid Abdul Ghafoor are also facing similar charges. The cases were conducted concurrently during the trial.

The next hearing of the case has been scheduled for September 28.

Press freedom

The MDP expressed concern with the filing of charges over two years after the incident allegedly occurred, noting that obstructing police duty was the most common charge pressed by the state.

“And we note with concern that Abdulla Haseen is being prosecuted at a time when the media in the Maldives is facing serious challenges with journalists assaulted, television stations torched, death threats made against journalists, personal safety of journalists lost, and a journalist believed to have been abducted,” the press statement read.

The party added that the Maldives has plummeted in press freedom indexes of international media organisations and called on the state to ensure security for media personnel.

The Maldives dropped to 108th place in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Press Freedom Index for 2014, marking a decline in press freedom for the third consecutive year.

In February 2013, opposition-aligned private broadcaster Raajje TV reporter Ibrahim ‘Asward’ Waheed was nearly beaten to death, while the station’s offices and equipment were destroyed in an arson attack in October.

In June 2012, two men slashed the throat of freelance journalist and blogger Ismail Hilath Rasheed with a box cutter.

Prior to the country’s first multi-party democratic election in 2008, the Maldives was ranked 104th – an improvement on its 2007 ranking of 129th. The country’s ranking in 2009 and 2010 reflected dramatic improvements in press freedom – including decriminalisation of defamation,  rising to 51st and 52nd respectively.


Rilwan’s abduction is a threat to all, says Maldives media

Maldivian journalists have expressed grave concern over the disappearance of Minivan News journalist Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla and called for an end to intimidation of the press.

In an unprecedented joint statement on Saturday, media outlets expressed solidarity and said Rilwan’s abduction is threat to all of Maldives.

“Abduction and disappearance of individuals do not stop with journalists. This is a threat to every individual, every family and all of the Maldives,” the statement read.

Efforts have been made by various parties to silence the press, including assault, murder attempts, vandalism of property and torching of TV stations, the statement noted.

“Now, a journalist has disappeared without a trace. Information we have gathered so far strongly suggests Rilwan was abducted,” it said.

The statement comes after several journalists from various media organisations spoke with eyewitnesses in Hulhumalé who claimed to have seen a man being forced into a car at knifepoint on the night of Rilwan’s disappearance.

Today is the 15th day since Rilwan is believed to have gone missing.

Both print and broadcast media signed the statement. They include Minivan News, Haveeru, Sun, CNM, Vaguthu, Dhuvas, Raajje TV, DhiTV, VTV, DhiFM, Channel One and Jazeera TV.

Media groups noted the state has failed to take adequate action against those who intimidate the press.

“As intimidation of press grows, and attacks against journalists, equipment, and buildings continue, we are extremely concerned over the delays in bringing to justice those who commit these acts. We note that the investigation of Rilwan’s case is slow and that information has not been adequately shared with the media and the public,” the statement said.

No one has been prosecuted for the October torching of Raajje TV, while two years have passed since charges were pressed against two individuals suspected of assaulting Raajje TV journalist Ibrahim ‘Asward’ Waheed.

The state’s failure to end press intimidation allows extremism of all forms to grow stronger, the statement added.

The Maldives Police Services have pledged to treat Rilwan’s disappearance as a “top priority case” and said the army is now assisting the police in their search. Police have failed to reveal details of the investigation.

In a May report, the Maldives Broadcasting Commission said 84 percent of reporters in the Maldives have reported being threatened at least once, often by political parties, gangs and religious extremists.

Media groups today urged the state to make the relevant policies to ensure the right to live and work without fear is enjoyed by all Maldivians.

“Even though different media outlets have different editorial policies, we, all journalists, are one family,” the statement said.

Pledging to do all necessary to secure freedom of the press, media groups said: “And though we continue to face dangers from radical and extremist groups, this is not a danger we alone face. We will not step back, or put down our pens, or silence our tongues or hold our thoughts in the face of such threats.”

Expressing gratitude for the solidarity, Minivan News Managing Editor Daniel Bosley said: “We, as journalists, are a community which rightly includes differing political opinions – and even different nationalities. But we have to send a message that we are one community nevertheless, and I strongly believe that this statement does that.”

Media groups have set up a committee to pressure the state to expedite investigations into Rilwan’s disappearance and end intimidation of the press. Planned activities include meetings with stakeholders on Rilwan’s disappearance, increased coverage and talk shows about the threats against media.

International groups, including the Office for the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights (OCHR) and Reporters Without Borders have called for a speedy and thorough investigation.

The OCHR has urged the relevant authorities to address threats and intimidation of the press, while the International Federation of Journalists said the government must determine the circumstances of his disappearance as a “matter of urgency.”

The New York based Committee to Protect Journalists urged the authorities “to leave no stone unturned” in their efforts to find him.

Meanwhile, Rilwan’s family have offered a reward of MVR50,000 (US$3,240) for information leading to his successful return.

Read the full statement here


RSF urges government to deploy all necessary resources to find missing journalist

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has called on the Maldives government to deploy all necessary resources to find missing Minivan News journalist Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla.

Minivan News strongly believes Rilwan was abducted in the early hours of August 8. The paper has received multiple eyewitness statements claiming they saw a man being forced into a car at knifepoint around 2 am on August 8 in front of Rilwan’s building.

“We are extremely worried by Rilwan’s disappearance and urge the authorities to step up their efforts to find him as quickly as possible,” said Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire.

“There is every reason to be concerned about Rilwan, especially as gangs and religious extremists are very often responsible for threats to journalists. Ismail Hilath Rasheed, a freelance journalist known for his support for religious tolerance, only narrowly survived a murder attempt in June 2012.”

The press freedom advocacy group said they are “very concerned” about Rilwan’s disappearance and has urged “the Maldives authorities to deploy whatever resources are necessary to find him.”

The Maldives Police Services at a press conference on Sunday night said Rilwan’s case was of “high priority,” but declined to reveal details of the investigation.


CCTV footage from the Hulhumalé ferry terminal in Malé, obtained by Minivan News, shows Rilwan entering the waiting area at 12:44am wearing a black shirt.

A tweet from Rilwan’s account @moyameeha at 1:02am implies he was on the one oclock ferry, suggesting he would have reached his apartment building between 1:30am and 2am on August 8. Another man who claimed to have sat next to Rilwan on the ferry has also been identified entering the ferry terminal at 12:45am on CCTV footage.

Neighbors claimed they heard screaming and rushed out on to their balcony. They saw a man being forced into a vehicle, from just 20 feet away.

The abductor described as a tall thin man dropped something on the ground as he got into the car after the captive. The car sped off, its door still open, eyewitnesses said.

A third neighbor went down to the street and found a knife on the ground. He subsequently notified the police, who took statements and confiscated the weapon.

Minivan News understands no other person has been reported missing from Hulhumalé.

Security experts with experience in counter terrorism have alleged an “unholy alliance” between gangs and religious radicals following a number of abductions in June, and told Minivan News Rilwan has been considered a target for his outspoken views.

Rilwan regularly reports on religious issues, politics and the environment.

The RSF has ranked Maldives 108th of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, marking a decline in press freedom for the third consecutive year.

The downgrading came after Raajje TV journalist Ibrahim ‘Asward’ Waheed was nearly beaten to death in February 2013 and the station’s offices and equipment were destroyed in an arson attack in October.

A staggering 84 percent of journalists in the Maldives in May reported receiving threats, from political parties, gangs and religious extremists.


Death threats lead to self-censorship, says Reporters Without Borders

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has called on the Maldives to guarantee the safety of journalists after 15 journalists received threatening text messages regarding coverage of gangs in Malé.

“Death threats lead to self–censorship,” said Benjamin Ismail, head of RSF’s Asia- Pacific Desk.

“The authorities have a duty to guarantee the safety of journalists. This includes arresting those responsible for these threats. The authorities must end the culture of intimidation and impunity by ceasing to turn a blind eye to abuses by the rival gangs.”

Journalists with Haveeru, Raajje TV, Maldives Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), Villa TV (VTV), Sun Online, and Vaguthu received an anonymous text on Wednesday saying, “[We] will kill you if you keep writing inappropriate articles about gangs in the media.”

The threats came in the wake of extensive coverage of a spate of violence in Malé which saw one dead and nine hospitalised with serious injuries.

The press freedom advocacy group cited a Maldives Broadcasting Commission report published in May, in which journalists said political parties were the main source of threats against journalists, followed by gangs and religious extremists.

“The threats encourage self–censorship, with 30 percent of journalists saying they are afraid of covering gang activity and 43 percent saying they do not report threats to the authorities,” the RSF said.

The organisation noted that although death threats are frequent in the Maldives, they are rarely carried out. However, the near fatal- beating of Raajje TV journalist Ibrahim ‘Asward’ Waheed sets a “disturbing precedent.”

“As Malé is a small town, journalists have nowhere to hide when they are threatened,” noted RSF.

Speaking to Minivan News today, Asward condemned his 18 month long wait for justice. After a second witness failed to identify suspects with absolute certainty at the Criminal Court today, Asward said delays affect memory and allow attackers to tamper with evidence.

“Each day of delay is one more day without justice,” he said.

He called on the courts to expedite the trial and said he had no confidence the courts may deliver justice.

“It’s quite possible that the case will conclude saying that I beat myself up,” he said.

The Maldives Police Services have said the near fatal attack was not politically motivated, but connected to gang activity. Asward has denied this claim.

Gangs often seek media coverage of their actions, but turn against the media when the coverage is not to their liking or when media covers activities of rival gangs, note RSF today.

Gangs enjoy “complete impunity,” as politicians use them to threaten and pressure journalists or people they regard as opponents the organisation said.

The organisation also noted slow progress on prosecuting those responsible for the attack on Asward and the arson attack which destroyed Raajje TV office in October.

“Although the authorities have promised to defend media freedom, they have made little progress.”

Maldives is ranked 108th out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index.

Six opposition parliamentarians have also reported receiving death threats on Sunday.