Comment: Maldives’ judiciary an impediment to democratic consolidation

This article first appeared on Dhivehi Sitee. Republished with permission.

In September 2003, 30-year dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom declared a state of emergency after the dictatorships guards killed an inmate named Evan Naseem in Maafushi jail. Security services on duty resorted to the use of firearms to defuse the revolt, killing three others and injuring 17.

The riots that erupted forced Gayoom to initiate a reform agenda. The security forces and the judiciary came to the forefront of the discourse on democratic transition. The constitutional assembly, which proposed democratic restructuring of the system of governance and the report published by legal expert Professor Paul Robinson in 2004, highlighted these reforms needed for the criminal justice system. Professor Robinson concluded that “the reforms needed [for the Maldivian judiciary] are wide-ranging, and that without dramatic change the system and its public reputation are likely to deteriorate further.”

The Constitution ratified in August 2008, which paved way for the first democratic elections won by Mohamed Nasheed in October that year, consisted of a mechanism to re-appoint sitting judges during the interim period from August 2008 to 2010 and ensure judicial independence for the first time in Maldives’ history.

During the interim period, in accordance with sub-article (b) of Article 285 of the Constitution, the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) was mandated to ascertain whether all sitting judges possess mandatory characteristics and standards prescribed under Article 149. Aishath Velezinee, former JSC member appointed by Nasheed, who publicly spoke out about JSC’s failures, claims that judges appointed during Gayoom’s regime secured their positions on the bench through a “Failed Silent Coup” in 2010 which subverted the Constitutional processes to re-appoint judges. In January 2011, her criticism of the manipulation of the Constitution by judicial actors made her the victim of a knife attack.

The interim Supreme Court judges, who were also subject to Article 285, wrote to the Nasheed administration as early as June 2010, declaring that they would permanently remain on the bench. Velezinee recalled the appointments to the Supreme Court as a “grave blunder.” The JSC defied Article 285, declaring it “symbolic” and swore-in all sitting judges, securing their tenure for life. A report published by the International Commission of Jurists in February 2011, also raises concerns about “the politicisation of the judicial vetting process.”

Coup to undo democratic gains

The first democratically elected government of Nasheed was forcefully brought to an end on 7 February 2012 by a televised coup d’état, led by loyalists of dictator Gayoom’s regime, and facilitated by Nasheed’s deputy Mohamed Waheed. The international community was quick to recognise the post-coup government headed by Waheed. A Commission of National Inquiry [CoNI] backed by the Commonwealth declared the chaotic transfer of power “lawful”.

The CoNI report published at the end of August 2012 was heavily criticised by the MDP, and with good reason, claiming that the inquiry selectively ignored evidence that did not fit its contrived conclusion.

International legal experts also echoed MDP’s concerns with regard to the report. The MDP, however, accepted the report with reservations as it acknowledged police brutality on 6, 7, and 8 February 2012. To date its recommendations regarding police brutality have not been implemented, resulting in impunity for Special Operations officers who were involved in the violent crackdown in early February 2012.

During the onset of the political turmoil, MDP maintained that elections should be held that same year, without letting the post-coup regime “entrench itself.” International community supported calls for an early election in 2012, although Waheed’s administration stated that “earliest an election could be held under the Maldivian constitution was July 2013.”

In July 2012, MDP’s presidential candidate Nasheed was prosecuted for the arrest of chief judge of the Criminal Court, whom the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) failed to take any action against despite his prior criminal record and misconduct in 2011.

Nasheed also faced proceedings against him at the Civil Court over allegations of defamation made against him by dictator-loyalists Minister of Defence Mohamed Nazim and Commissioner of Police Abdulla Riyaz who led Nasheeds ouster. Over 20 MDP parliamentarians and some 800 active members and supporters were also subjected to various politically motivated criminal proceedings against them. In hindsight, the period leading up to elections was used by the post-coup regime to create shock and awe among the electorate, characterised by manufactured incidents and political persecution of MDP supporters in order to dissuade them from taking part in political activity and deflect attention away from the disputed legitimacy of the regime.

The juridical system continues to act as the means by which the regime achieves these ends under a democratic façade. Without a constitutional mandate to regulate lawyers, the Supreme Court issued a resolution for all practicing lawyers and prosecutors in April 2012. The resolution restricted lawyers’ freedom of expression, ordering that lawyers shall not discuss or criticise judicial proceedings or judges.

Lawyers were pressured to sign the resolution since the courts refused right of audience to those who didn’t. Ahmed Abdul Afeef who was part of Nasheed’s legal team was not able to represent him in court since he had protested the resolution and remained without signing it.

The muzzling of lawyers didn’t end there; Abdullah Haseen who represents a huge number of pro-democracy protestors was suspended for appearing on a TV show on Raajje TV disseminating information of the law.  Although there is no legislation that prohibits sketching inside the courthouse, a lawyer named Shafaz Wajeeh was fined by the Supreme Court for his sketch. Lawyer and MDP parliamentarian Imthiyaz Fahmy is currently being prosecuted for contempt of court due to remarks he has made against the judiciary, although his comments are in line with international bodies such as the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

Nasheeds prosecution further revealed the state of Maldives’ judiciary to the international community. Trial observer Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh from Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales noted in her report that the panel of judges in the Hulhumale Magistrates’ Court was “cherry-picked for their likelihood to convict by a highly politicised JSC.”

The 2012 report by United Nations Special Rapporteur on Independence of Judges and Lawyers Gabriela Knaul detailed the crisis Maldives’ criminal justice system is faced with. The report expressed concerns over the “politicised and inadequate” JSC, noting that “the concept of independence of the judiciary has been misconstrued and misinterpreted in the Maldives, including amongst judicial actors” to benefit judges, enabling a culture of unaccountability. The UN Special Rapporteur also questioned legitimacy of the Hulhumale Magistrates’ Court since it contravened the Judicature Act 2010 and was declared invalid by a parliamentary oversight committee in November 2012.

The selective manner in which the JSC has taken disciplinary measures against judges suggests that the judicial watchdog refrains from taking action where it suits its political needs to shield loyalists of the former regime. In 2009, then Chief Judge of the High Court was removed from his position, and the JSC suspended a Civil Court judge for sexual misconduct. In 2013, a Criminal Court judge was suspended for sexually harassing a public prosecutor and Chief Judge of the High Court who was hearing Nasheeds appeals was also suspended.

However, it has not occurred to the JSC to take any form of action against Justice Ali Hameed of the Supreme Court whose scandalous escapade in Colombo with three prostitutes have become public knowledge with leaked video footage of him doing the deed. The Bar Association of Maldives called for the immediate suspension of Justice Hameed back in July 2012. JSC’s inconsistency in penalizing  Justice Hameed is left unscathed so he can sit in the Supreme Court hearing the motions filed by Qasim Ibrahim who has close family ties to Gayoom’s family. It is also worth remembering the motion filed by Gayoom’s half-brother Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom at the Supreme Court.

Ballots to restore democracy

One of many gigantic posters of incumbent Mohamed Waheed put up across Male' ahead of 7 September polls. Waheed got 5%. Photo: Aznym

One of many gigantic posters of incumbent Mohamed Waheed put up across Male’ ahead of 7 September polls. Waheed got 5%. Photo: Aznym

February this year, the Elections Commission of the Maldives (EC) announced the presidential election to be held on 7 September 2013. On 28 July 2013 the EC officially announced the order of the candidates on the ballot paper, after approving the candidacy of all four candidates; Qasim Ibrahim with his Jumhooree Party (JP) and Islamist party Adhaalath (AP) coalition; Dr Waheed, independent, incumbent president, endorsed then, by Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP); Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom from the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) in a coalition with Maldivian Development Alliance (MDA); and Nasheed from Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).

Foreign and local observers such as the Commonwealth, the European Union, Transparency Maldives, Human Rights Commission of the Maldives declared that the first round of polls were “peaceful and inclusive” with a markedly high voter turnout of 88%. Transparency Maldives, which observed the election across the country, stated “none of the incidents reported on Election Day would have a “material impact on the outcome of the election”.

The chair of the Commonwealth observer group, former Prime Minister of Malta Dr. Lawrence Gonzi stated, “the vote count at the polling station was highly transparent with media monitors, party observers, and national and international observers able to scrutinize the process closely.”

In accordance with sub-article (a) of Article 111 of the Constitution and sub-article (a) of Article 19 of the Presidential Elections Act 2008, the EC began preparations for the presidential election’s runoff as none of the four candidates secured 50% of the votes; Nasheed had 45%, Waheed an embarrassing 5% and Qasim who had 24% came closely behind Abdul-Gayoom who secured 25%. The third place JP coalition refused to accept the first round of elections, and filed a motion at the Supreme Court requesting annulment of first round of polls. The JP also filed a motion at the High Court, requesting the Court to release the voters’ list.

JP produced three documents as evidence for their motion at the High Court, which indicated three lists of alleged discrepancies in the voters’ registry. Out of the first list that JP claimed consisted of deceased people who appeared on the registry, only seven were found on the original voters’ registry, and five were found to be alive. The other list consisted of allegedly repeated names of eligible voters. The EC’s legal counsel later proved in court that these were not repeated names but in reality different people with different national identification numbers and dates of birth. The third list consisted of people who were on Male Municipality’s Special Register who have mailing addresses registered in the capital. The High Court decided that there was no evidence of fraudulent activity with regard to the motion. However, it allowed supervised viewing of the electoral registry.

Supreme tyranny of the electoral process

Protests near the Supreme Court in Male' as it deliberated JP's case to annul 7 September election Photo: Aznym

Protests near the Supreme Court in Male’ as it deliberated JP’s case to annul 7 September election Photo: Aznym

Article 172 of the Constitution indicates that the High Court has the appellate jurisdiction for electoral motions, while Article 113 states the Supreme Court shall have final jurisdiction over such motions. Regardless, JP filed their motion directly at the apex court. MDP, the Attorney General (AG) and PPM made inter-partes claims to the motion, with PPM supporting JP’s claim and with the AG calling for the Court to order the Prosecutor General and Maldives Police Service (MPS) to investigate the alleged “irregularities” in the electoral registry.

The request by the AG is contrary to electoral laws and the Maldives Constitution, which clearly outlines the forum and mechanism to investigate and adjudicate on disputed results of an election. Sub-article (b) of Article 64 of the Elections Act 2008 states that if electoral laws have been violated, only the EC has the legal authority to initiate criminal proceedings through the Prosecutor General. Article 62 stipulates that the electoral complaints mechanism shall be established by the EC, and if a party is not satisfied with the recourse given by the complaints bureau, he or she may file a case at the High Court in accordance with sub-article (a) of Article 64.

The EC’s lawyer, former AG Husnu Al Suood noted an astounding lack of evidence to back JP’s claims. Suood also claimed that any delay could result in a constitutional void, citing US Supreme Court case Bush v. Al Gore 2000. MDP’s lawyers Hisaan Hussein and Hassan Latheef expressed concern at the lack of substantial evidence to claim electoral fraud, and stated that JP had not submitted complaints to the EC regarding the registry when the EC had publicly requested for complaints with regard to the publicized list of eligible voters.

JP’s lawyer and its presidential candidate Qasim’s running mate Hassan Saeed stated that the JP had thirteen reasons for annulment, reiterating claims made at the High Court. At the proceedings Saeed requested that; the security services oversee a fresh round of elections after nullifying the first round and for the Court to issue an injunction halting the EC’s work to hold the runoff dated 28 September 2013. The AG Azima Shakoor echoed JP’s criticism over the EC, but refrained from vocally supporting an annulment. The international best practice where either a public prosecutor or state attorney does not support actions of a state institution would be to refrain from commenting.

It is of importance to note such procedural irregularities that took place during the proceedings for this extraordinary motion. Despite the case being deemed a constitutional matter by the Supreme Court, and anonymous witnesses whose identities are protected by courts are only very rarely admitted in serious criminal cases, the apex court acted as a court of first-instance, admitting 14 witnesses submitted by JP who gave their testimonies in secrecy. Out of the three witnesses submitted by the EC, only one was admitted.

The AG also withheld certain evidence and this was left unquestioned by the Court. The AG’s office requested to submit a police intelligence report as “confidential” evidence – solely submitted as evidence to the Court’s Bench. The Chief Justice responded on behalf of the Bench, inquiring whether the intelligence report (or at least parts relevant) should be disclosed to the EC since their lawyers requested it. In her response to the Chief Justice, the AG stated that she will not submit the police intelligence report if the contents of the report would be disclosed to the EC.

“Where is my vote?”

Protesters near Supreme Court hold up cartoons making fun of disgraced Justice Ali Hameed Photo: Aznym

Protesters near Supreme Court hold up cartoons making fun of disgraced Justice Ali Hameed Photo: Aznym

At approximately 8:00 pm on 23 September 2013, four justices from the apex court signed and issued a stay order indefinitely postponing the runoff election until the court reaches a verdict. After the issuance of the stay order, the Commonwealth, European Union, Transparency Maldives, Human Rights Commission of Maldives, the United Kingdom, United States of America, Canada, Russia, and India all expressed concern over the postponement of the second round, calling Maldivian authorities to hold the second round according to the timescales stipulated under the Maldivian constitution.

At the proceedings the next day, the Supreme Court ejected and suspended lawyers Suood representing the EC, Hussein and Latheef representing MDP as a third party to the case, claiming that they were in contempt of court for their comments on social media regarding the Court’s stay order. Subsequently the MDP revoked its inter-partes claim to the case, claiming that the Court cannot guarantee the rights of over 95,000 of its supporters.

MDP’s chairperson Moosa Manik sent an open letter to the Chief Justice, criticizing the apex court’s contravention of the Constitution by denying fundamental right of reply and issuing a stay order indefinitely suspending sub-article (a) of Article 111 of the Constitution. The chairperson also called on the Chief Justice to restrain the Court to the “legal ambit of the Constitution” and “uphold Article 8 of the Constitution, which states that all powers of the State shall be exercised in accordance with the Constitution.”

After weeks of countrywide protests against indefinite postponement of the runoff election, the four Justices; Abdullah Saeed, Ali Hameed, Adam Mohamed Abdullah and Ahmed Abdullah Didi who infamously legitimised the Hulhumale Magistrates’ Court earlier this year, also issued the stay order halting elections, and on 7 October 2013 decided to annul the first round of elections held on 7 September 2013. Chief Justice Ahmed Faiz and Justices Abdullah Areef and Ahmed Muthasim Adnan gave dissenting judgments, which claimed that the Court has adjudicated based on “inadmissible evidence” which the EC, the respondent in the motion, was not privy to, and questioned the Court’s jurisdiction in accepting the motion prior to the High Court.

The confrontations the judiciary continue to have with the legislature and executive from 2008 to present day is proof that elements within the Maldives’ judiciary is adamant on holding onto the power structures that existed during the former dictator Gayoom’s regime. The dregs of dictatorship continue to impede realisation of democratic governance in Maldives as envisioned in the Constitution.

The final chance to consolidate democracy through universal suffrage is at risk due to justices in the Supreme Court who have assumed supreme powers unto themselves, in order to benefit those politicians who unequivocally support their tenure, and are against overhauling or reforming the judiciary.

Mushfique Mohamed is a former Public Prosecutor and a member of MDP’s Electoral Complaints Committee. He has an LLB & a MScEcon in Post-colonial Politics from Aberystwyth University.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]


Opposition meets Vice President, pledges allegiance and urges him to take control of executive

The ‘December 23 alliance’ of eight political parties and a coalition of NGOs met Vice President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan at his official residence, Hilaaleege, at 1:00am last night, pledging allegiance and urging him to assume control of the executive.

The meeting followed the 14th consecutive night of opposition-led protests against the government’s ongoing detention of Chief Judge of the Criminal Court, Abdulla Mohamed, after the judicial watchdog obeyed a Civil Court injunction to halt its investigation of the judge.

Last night’s protest started outside Reefside on Orchid Magu, during which protesters reportedly threw black ink at riot police.

Police pushed back the crowd around 10:15pm, dividing them up in the process, but the protest continued in the area and protesters were seen eating rice pudding. An MNBC One cameraman was reportedly hit on the head and was rushed to hospital in a police ambulance.

The steering committee of the protests then gathered for a meeting at the Dhivehi Rayithunge Party (DRP) office around 11.15pm. The meeting was attended by Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) Deputy Leader Umar Naseer, Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) Deputy Leader Ahmed Mohamed, Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) Secretary General Abdulla Ameen, Adhaalath Party President Sheikh Imran Abdulla, Jumhooree Party (JP) Secretary General Fuad Gasim, NGO coalition chairman Sheikh Ibrahim Didi and a representative of Dr Waheed’s Gaumee Ihthihaad Party (GIP).

The party leaders emerged from the DRP office around 12.45am and headed towards the VP’s official residence, next door to the Justice building. Opposition supporters were gathered in the area when they arrived.

Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) officers with shields soon arrived and cordoned off the area. At 1:40am officers entered the Vice President’s residence through the back door and a few minutes later Naseer and the rest of the party leaders came out of the building.

They then headed to the Jumhooree Party (JP) office for a press conference. A team of MNBC reporters were refused entry.

According to local media, the opposition leaders asked for a meeting with the Vice President because of the government’s “destruction” of the judiciary and “the President’s declaration that he would not hold the 2013 presidential election.”

An audio clip of President Mohamed Nasheed vowing to ensure a fair judiciary before the 2013 presidential election was leaked to local media yesterday.

In the recording Nasheed is heard to say: “Freedom of expression and an independent and fair judiciary in this country – I will not go for the election after these five years without doing these two things.”

Several local media outlets reported the comment as a threat from the President not to hold elections unless the judiciary was reformed. The President’s Office yesterday said the statement was a promising to reform the judiciary before the conclusion of the President’s first term in office: “He has no intention of calling off any elections.”

After last night’s meeting in Hilaaleege, Umar Naseer said all the parties in the opposition alliance have agreed to “pledge support to the Vice President.”

Speaking to DhiTV after the meeting, Naseer said the members of the alliance decided to meet the VP to discuss the current situation.

“After these discussions we are now calling upon the nation’s security forces, on behalf of our ‘December 23 alliance’ of all the opposition parties in the country as well as the NGO coalition, to immediately pledge their allegiance to the VP,” Naseer said.

“I repeat, all members of the December 23 alliance are now calling on the security forces to immediately pledge allegiance to Vice President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik and, as Mohamed Nasheed has violated the constitution, to not obey any of his orders and to pledge allegiance to the Vice President.”

Dr Waheed had assured the party leaders he would “take any legal responsibility he had to within the bounds of the law”, Naseer stated, and was “ready to take over the duties specified in the constitution.”

The stand of the ‘December 23 alliance’ was that President Mohamed Nasheed has “lost his legal status”, DhiTV reported.

President Mohamed Nasheed’s Press Secretary Mohamed Zuhair told Minivan News today that the Vice President “has not said anything to cause a loss of confidence in him by the government. He was very careful in his statement, which was that he would undertake his duties as stipulated in the Constitution. Had the protesters gone to meet with [Fisheries Minister] Dr Ibrahim Didi or [MDP MP] Reeko Moosa they would have said the same thing.”

The protesters claimed to represent 13 political parties and 21 NGOs, Zuhair said, “but all the rallies have seen the involvement of no more than 300-400 people. It is very disproportionate.”

“I think the protests are slowing down and now they are trying to save face – pledging allegiance to the Vice President is the same as pledging allegiance to the government. The VP is working in cabinet today – there is no rift. This is a non-story,” he maintained.

The government was not concerned about Dr Waheed’s late night meeting with opposition leaders, as letting the protesters into his house “was the polite thing to do,” Zuhair said.

He also dismissed opposition claims that there was anti-government sentiment brewing in the security forces.

“The security forces have shown themselves to be a disciplined and absolutely professional force loyal to he government. There is no cause for any concern,” Zuhair said.

Legally, President Nasheed can only be impeached with a two-thirds (51) majority in the 77 member parliament. The combined opposition parties can marshal 36 members to the MDP’s 35 – without considering the six independents – so a decision to impeach would require the unlikely cooperation of at least nine ruling party MPs.

Dr Waheed was not responding to calls at time of press. However in a blog post on January 21 regarding the government’s detention of Abdulla Mohamed, he said he was “ashamed and totally devastated by the fact that this is happening in a government in which I am the elected the Vice President.”

He subsequently gave a press conference in which he requested the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) suspend Criminal Court Judge Abdulla Mohamed from the bench while complaints against him remain outstanding, “because as you can see [keeping him on the bench during questioning] has created more disruption than we all had bargained for.”

The JSC this week told parliament that it is unable to take action against the judge after he filed an injunction in the Civil Court halting the investigation.

Aishath Velezinee, former president’s member at the JSC, argues that “if the judicial watchdog can be overruled by a judge sitting in some court somewhere, then the JSC is dysfunctional. But that’s what has been happening,” she asserted.


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.”


Partisan media obstructing journalists from reporting ethically

The Maldivian media needs to move beyond the basics of reporting and on to media ethics if it is to build its credibility, become independent and break free from the influence of partisan politics, urged visiting journalism trainer Tiare Rath, Iraq Editorial Manager for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR).

Rath, an American journalist and trainer who has worked in the US, Africa, Asia and the Middle East for companies including CNN and the New York Times, spoke last Thursday to a small group of Maldivian journalists and NGO representatives about the challenges and opportunities for journalism in a young democracy.

“I have been really impressed with news judgement here, and the understanding of the basic principles of journalism,” Rath said of her experience training young reporters in the Maldives.

“But on the other hand, one of the major issues all my students talked about is resistance among newsroom leadership – editors and publishers. Even if the journalists support and understand the principles being taught, they consistently tell me they cannot apply them,” Rath said. “This is a very, very serious problem that needs to be addressed.”

Rath compared the state of the Maldives media with that in Iraq, “where most of the media is partisan because that’s where the money comes from.”

“They haven’t been able to develop an advertising market, so political parties and powerful individuals back their own media outlets,” she said. “There have been a lot of issues with bias, media ownership and political pressuring of [Iraqi] journalists, and they don’t have the level of legal protection enjoyed by the media in the Maldives.”

However, despite the high-levels of violence obstructing democracy in Iraq, “the news media has flourished – there are more than 300 newspapers in Baghdad alone, and across the country there are thousands of newspapers and many small radio stations, and a lot of news sites and blogs.”

Media in countries like Afghanistan face additional problems, Rath added, “such as the lack of educated young people in the post-Taliban environment who want to be journalists. That has been a major issue.”

In Afghanistan the threat to journalists was primarily harassment and imprisonment, Rath explained, “and there have been efforts by the government to block out the media when it pushes too hard, especially on certain issues like drugs or warlords. The government just issues a media blackout and refuses to engage with the media.”

Even where it was present, “the response to any kind of critical coverage has been really hard. Again it’s a partisan media, because the traditional power brokers are the ones backing and financing it, rather than it being based on advertising [revenue].”

So while it was troubled, the situation facing the media in the Maldives was “a breath of fresh air” in comparison, Rath said.

“While there are challenges, a lot of other countries in a similar period following democratic transition are facing a lot more violence and oppression of the press,” she observed.

Many challenges faced by the Maldivian media were common to countries shaking off the vestiges of authoritarian regimes, she noted.

“A pattern I’ve definitely noticed in newly emerging democracies is that media retains the old style of attending press conferences and spitting out what was said, without doing their critical analysis. When you attempt to be objective it doesn’t mean your sources will always like you, and there may be backlash.”

Even in the West the media faced a lot of criticism, Rath said, “particularly for bias”.

In the UK journalism was the third least respected profession, and in the US it was second last, “right behind lawyers”, she pointed out.

Escaping powerbrokers

For media in an emerging democracy to develop beyond a partisan press and become independent, free from a legacy of political powerbrokers, it must evolve as a business, Rath explained.

“Advertisers do care about politics, but more often they care about money,” she said, “and at least in the US, that means they care only about circulation.

“If you have partisan media, one of the issues you have is that your market is really limited – you’re preaching to the choir. The other audience isn’t going to listen to you. But if you are impartial, there are broader sources of funding purely based on business value. If a news organisation emerges with a real and strong reputation for independence, and strives for objectivity, I do think the advertising dollars will follow, simply because of readership and audience reach.”

Rath said that while she respected the concept of media that was openly partisan and did not strive for impartiality, a trait common to a lot of media in Europe if not the US and UK, “I think it can be damaging in many ways because the credibility of the media is so important. If you don’t even aim for objectivity your market is going to remain very small, and the media is going to be credible only with the party members you are aiming towards.”

Initally, she said, this meant independent media needed a source of funding – an investment – “because it is about money for news organisations. It is important to have a source of funding, whether this is an individual or an advertising base, that cares more about independent media in principle, or who cares purely about money and so would be willing to invest in an independent media outlet that had a lot of potential for growth.”

Another step was ensuring that journalists had an organisation independent of their own newsrooms, such as a professional association, “dedicated entirely to good journalistic practice.”

“I think journalists need a place to meet. One thing I am concerned about in the Maldives is that the political polarisation may also have affected the journalists themselves. The Maldives is very small and everyone feels affected by politics, and has a personal connection to politics.

“I think it is really important for journalists from different news organisations to meet and discuss journalistic issues together. It’s also important to discuss ethics and professional standards, and to debate amongst yourselves what kind of media you want to have. And at the end of the day, if the media comes under attack, they will need to come together and defend themselves.”

The Maldives had a free press, Rath observed, and now it had to fight for respect – “a widespread challenge for anyone trying to fight for ethical journalism.”

“You’ve got a free press. Now how are you going to establish that press, how are you going to build its credibility, and what kind of values do you want it to have? You can technically do whatever you want – but a free press means having responsibility.”

Not as simple

Accepting that responsibility was not as simple as just reporting objectivity, Rath said.

“The model of objective and unbiased journalism has been rightly criticised because of the angle a news station takes on a story. It’s not necessarily bias, it’s part of news judgement, and it’s a huge debate across the industry,” she explained.

“But especially in a new or emerging democracy where there is a lot of political polarisation, it is very important to strive for objectivity to build the credibility of news organisations and to practice these traditional values of journalism, rather than to just be completely caught up in political debate.”

Journalists themselves could push towards more proactive journalism, rather than reacting to press releases and statements by political figures, Rath noted.

“I’m a big proponent of enterprise journalism, where you notice trends, talk to sources and do a feature on it – issues based journalism.

“I’d like to see that in the Maldives, but are there enough bodies? And enough money? It’s still small industry – journalists are assigned to small stories, and when you’re doing 1-3 stories a day you don’t have time to write up a great feature or do non-reactive news because you have to follow events going on around the country. But it’s a huge opportunity in the market.”