Maldives must empower Anti-Corruption Commission, says Transparency International

The Maldives must empower anti-corruption agencies to investigate and prosecute cases in order to fight corruption, says Transparency International.

“Maldives and Sri Lanka must ensure that their anti-corruption agencies are granted ‘suo motto’ powers to instigate both corruption investigations and prosecutions on their own initiative without prior government approval,” suggested the Fighting Corruption in South Asia (FCSA) report released today.

At present, the Maldives Anti Corruption Commission (ACC) can only initiate investigations, but not prosecutions. Instead, it has to forward cases to the Prosecutor General for any further action to be taken.

Analysing 70 institutions across 6 countries, the anti-corruption NGO concluded that a “serious lack of political will on the part of governments to make laws work” was hampering the regional fight against corruption.

The report also called on the government to enforce the Right to Information Law and ensure protection of whistleblowers.

Independence and Accountability

Although the report advocated greater independence for oversight bodies, it highlighted the need to balance independence with accountability.

Too much of either can lead to abuse of power, the report noted, arguing limited judicial accountability has resulted in the Maldives Supreme Court exerting excessive use of power over other branches of government.

One example that the FCSA uses to demonstrate their findings is the Maldives Supreme Court’s much-criticised decision to convict the president of the Elections Commission Fuwad Thowfeek for contempt of court earlier this year. The apex court acted as prosecutor, judge and jury during the trial.

The Maldivian Anti Corruption Commission itself has raised concerns over a Supreme Court rulings, in which the apex court ruled the body does not have the authority to prevent the state from entering into questionable contracts.

ACC President Hassan Luthfee has said a ruling on a legal battle involving Department of Immigration, the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), and Malaysian IT firm Nexbis in 2012 had rendered the organisation powerless.

“If this institution is simply an investigative body, then there is no purpose for our presence,” he said.

“Even the police investigate cases, don’t they? So it is more cost effective for this state to have only the police to investigate cases instead of the ACC,” Luthfee said.

Referring the court’s, Luthfee said the ACC had no power to prevent corruption, arguing that anti-corruption bodies in other countries had powers of investigation, prevention, and awareness raising.

“If an institution responsible for fighting corruption does not have these powers then it is useless,” he said.

Right to Information

Another key finding highlighted in the FCSA report was what it regarded as the weak implementation of the Freedom of Information act, ratified earlier this year.

“In Maldives, although the new law has only just been passed, there are concerns about the level of citizens’ awareness of their rights, an issue which will need to be addressed as a matter of urgency,” the report states.

Under the act, an appointed commissioner has the power enforce a fine on information officers who deliberately refuse access to information. The President’s Office has today called for applications for the post which must be filled by mid July according to the new law.

The FCSA report categorises both the Maldives’ capacity to implement the law, and citizens’ awareness of the law as “weak”.

Additionally, the report highlighted the safety and protection of whistleblowers as a being major barrier to anti-corruption activities in the Maldives.

Noting the Right to Information Act provides protection to whistleblowers, the FCSA report called for more comprehensive whistleblower legislation with a broader scope covering both the public and private sectors.

Aiman Rasheed, Advocacy and Communications Manager at local Transparency branch Transparency Maldives said one the key findings of the report was the reversal of judicial reform after the February 2012 transfer of power.

“We had a new government set up. It was a positive environment. That has been reversed,” Aiman said.

He noted a “huge gap” between current systems and practices as politicians enjoyed an atmosphere of impunity following the controversial removal of President Mohamed Nasheed.

He went on to note that public engagement in holding officials accountable have been hindered by the lack of public debate in the local media.

“We have published a lot of reports on the public opinions of corruption, but we don’t see these being discussed in the media,” Aiman said.


President’s Office calls for applicants to post of information commissioner

The President’s Office has called for applicants for Information Commissioner – a post created under the recently ratified Right to Information Act.

Announced in the government gazette today, the applications process will be open until 3pm on June 1.

Under the act, President Abdulla Yameen is mandated to appoint a commissioner for a five-year term who will enforce citizens’ rights to information. The appointment is required within six months of its ratification in January.

The commissioner has the power enforce a fine on information officers who deliberately refuse access to information. Such a fine may not exceed MVR5000 (US$324).

The successful applicant will also be responsible for fining any individual who destroys requested information, or obstructs a public authority from providing access to information. Such a fine may not exceed MVR25,000 (US$ 1621).

Under the act, any public authority is obliged to comply with a request for information within 21 days. However, if the request is relevant to an individual’s liberty or protection of a person’s life, information must be provided within 48 hours.

Following the passage of the act, local NGO Transparency Maldives described it as “an important step towards increasing transparency of the state institutions, ensuring greater accountability of public officials, and fighting corruption”.

Other key features of the act include the establishment of an information office in all state institutions, a seven-day period of response for information requests, and a 30-day period to provide the information or to explain a failure to do so.


President ratifies Right to Information Act

President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom has ratified the landmark Right to Information (RTI) Act today.

Advocacy NGO Transparency Maldives has hailed the ratification of the act as “major step forward for good governance and transparency.”

The act (Dhivehi) aims to widen and improve the scope for the citizen’s rights to information in order to increase transparency and accountability.

Within six months of ratification, the president is mandated to appoint a Commissioner of Information to enforce the act, while the government is obliged to appoint an Information Officer at every government office to facilitate access to information.

The Commissioner of Information’s tenure is five years. The act also provides for the establishment of an Office of the Commissioner of Information.

The commissioner has the power enforce a fine on information officers who deliberately refuse access to information. Such a fine may not exceed MVR5000 (US$324).

The commissioner may also fine any individual who destroys requested information, obstructs a public authority or the Information Officer’s from providing access to information. Such a fine may not exceed MVR25,000 (US$ 1621).

The act also provides protection to whistleblowers if the whistleblower publicises information regarding corruption or breach of the law.

Under the act, any public authority is obliged to comply with a request for information within 21 days. However, if the request is relevant to an individual’s liberty or protection of a person’s life, information must be provided within 48 hours.

Any request for information must state the request is being submitted under the RTI Act, details of the requested information, details of the applicant, an address for receipt of requested information, as well as the designated fee.

A request for information can be declined if the Information Officer deems the request to be incomplete, incorrect, or purposeless. However, the Information Officer must notify the applicant before declining the request and grant enough time and assistance to the applicant to revise their application

The state is not required to disclose any information designated confidential by law, or information that could cause legal action against the government for breach of confidence, or which could prevent future communication of such information to the government.

Furthermore, the state is not required to disclose information which could have an adverse impact on the government’s ability to manage or administer the economy or  information whose premature disclosure could put a person at an unfair advantage or disadvantage

Neither is the government obliged to reveal information that harms the immunities of the parliament and the courts, information of a closed trial, personal or judicial records which could harm the dignity of a child below 18 years, and information regarding victims of sexual abuse.


Political bias limiting right to information: panel

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.”


Transparency Maldives conducts RTI Symposium with state stakeholders

At a symposium on promoting right to information(RTI) organised by local anti-corruption NGO, Transparency Maldives, discussions were held on the importance of establishing a strong RTI regime in the country.

A variety of sessions, including RTI and democracy, administering an RTI regime, local governance and RTI, and proactive disclosure by the state were discussed at this symposium which aimed to create awareness among policy makers, public officials, civil society and media.

“We invited high level officials from relevant state institutions to the symposium. Our hope is that we can form partnerships to further promote RTI and advocate for passing the RTI bill currently in parliament with the best practices included in it,” Transparency Maldives Advocacy Manager Aiman Rasheed told Minivan News.

The NGO further said that they had invited experts from around the world to impart information about the importance of establishing a robust RTI law.

Speakers at the event included Senior Legal Officer for Freedom of Information and Expression at the Open Society Justice Initiative Sandra Coliver, Deputy Executive Director of the Open Democracy Advice Centre Mukelani Dimba, Legal Officer for the Centre for Law and Democracy Michael Karanicolas, Programme Coordinator of Access to Information Programme at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative Venkatesh Nayak, former Information Commissioner at the Indian Central Information Commission Shailesh Gandhi and Chairperson of local NGO Democracy House Mohamed Anil.

Speaker of Parliament, Abdulla Shahid, chief guest at the symposium, said in his speech that freedom of information is a concept alien to the local society. He said that it had traditionally been reserved for the privileged and powerful classes.

“Our society tended to make very deliberate demarcations between those who need to know, who should know and those who need not know,” he said, further adding, “I strongly believe access of information must be an indispensable part of any true democracy.”

Right to Information has been regulated in the Maldives from January 2009 under a presidential decree, following the failure to pass a similar bill in parliament in 2007. The current regulation covers only the ministries under the executive.

“In addition to the executive, the RTI Act should also cover the parliament, the judiciary, the independent institutions, the state companies, NGOs and utility companies,” said Rasheed in his speech.

He also added that there should not be “unnecessary obstacles” for information seekers, and that there should not be “blanket secrecy” granted to any institution.

A new RTI Bill was submitted to parliament in November 2009, which has since been pending at the Social Affairs Committee. Speaking at Monday’s symposium, Shahid said that Chair of the Social Affairs Committee had assured him that he was “very hopeful” the bill would be adopted before the end of the year.

In addition to conducting the symposium, Transparency Maldives has previously coordinated trainings on RTI for civil society and media, produced a critique of the RTI Bill at the Parliament’s Social Affairs Committee and received endorsements for their position on RTI from the Anti Corruption Commission, the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives, the Auditor General and the Ministry of Human Rights and Gender.

The NGO has also stated that it further intends to conduct workshops on RTI in 13 atolls and to assist in the establishment of a system through information technology which aims to increase convenience for the public in obtaining information from the state.

Minivan News tried contacting Chair of the Social Affairs Committee PPM MP Abdulla Maseeh Mohamed and Co-Chair DRP MP Hassan Latheef, but neither was responding to calls at the time of press.


Transparency Maldives and UNDP launch new project on Right to Information

Transparency Maldives and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) have launched a new project on Right to Information in the Maldives.

“The right to information is most vital in preventing corruption,” Executive Director of Transparency Maldives, Ilham Mohamed said in a press statement.

Transparency Maldives stated that the two-year project “Promoting Transparency and Accountability through Access to Information in the Maldives”, will be funded by the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF) and aims to promote accountability within state institutions, through “strengthening the national access to information”.

“Right to information is central to strengthening open and transparent decision making processes, as well as in promoting good governance and the rule of law. It is not only essential in an open and democratic society but is critical in the fight against poverty and in accelerating human development,” said UNDP Resident Representative, Andrew Cox.


Comment: Maldives on path to Right to Information Act

Three years after conducting elections, the Maldives is on a path to participatory democracy by trying to finalise the Right to Information Bill, with the Bill under review by the Majlis Committee on Social Affairs. The Bill was drafted with inputs from civil society.

It’s a challenge for Maldives to implement Right to Information as a part of functional and participatory democracy. In general, both politicians and bureaucrats in Maldives accept that despite experiencing higher levels of human development compared to its neighbors in the South Asia region, the Maldives wasn’t an open society under 30-year long President Mamoon Abdul Gayoom’s administration. In a paradigm shift, the current President Mohamed Nasheed after being elected in the October 2008 general elections acknowledged that the previous administration was characterised by several examples of corruption and human rights abuses. Furthermore, the Maldives media was completely under the control of the government with little freedom for free and unbiased reporting until 2003. The right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by the then Constitution wasn’t in practice.

Earlier, the exercise of democratic reform initiated by Gayoom’s regime in its final years had given some meaning to the idea of freedom of expression. Censorship of the media was reduced considerably by the year 2006 which can be attributed to pressure from civil society and the opposition parties. However information from government bodies was disseminated by their public relations officers on a need to know basis only. The old Constitution did not contain any reference to the people’s right to information.

As part of the process of initiating democratic reform in 2007, the then Minister for Information and Legal Reforms drafted a Bill on the right to information. This Bill was closely modeled on the access laws of the Common Wealth countries such as United Kingdom and Canada. Article XIX an international resource organization on freedom of expression and access to information assisted the Government with drafting this Bill. The Bill could not pass muster in the People’s Majlis as it fell short of majority support by one vote.

Despite this debacle the Minister for Information and Legal Reforms took the initiative of converting the Bill into a set of regulations applicable to the executive only. The regulations were notified by Presidential decree on 03 May 2008 on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day. The objectives of the regulations were to: provide Maldivians with the right to access information held by government administrative specify the situations and conditions under which information shall not be disclosed.

The Government gave itself a lead time of eight months to prepare for the implementation of the regulations which were to become fully operational in January 2009. Under the regulations there was a provision to appoint an Information Commissioner to guide its implementation and adjudicate over access disputes. However by May 2008 the Civil Service Commission was created in order to shoulder the responsibility of recruiting and overseeing the civil service. The erstwhile Presidential function of recruiting people to the civil service was transferred to this Commission. The then Government took this step bowing to pressure from the opposition parties ahead of the Presidential elections. It is said that these procedural difficulties came in the way of the appointment of the Information Commissioner forthwith.

The new Constitution enacted in 2008 after the October 2008 elections guarantees not only the right to freedom of speech and expression but also the freedom to seek receive and impart information. Subsequently in November 2009 the Attorney General of Maldives tabled the Right to Information Bill 2009 in the People’s Majlis. This Bill is closely modeled on the existing RTI Regulations.

Challenges to Implementing RTI in the Maldives

Legislature challenge: As Maldives is presently undergoing a process of democratic consolidation the legislative agenda of the People’s Majlis is heavy and the law makers they will serve their purpose well if they acquaint with law-making and drafting legislatures. The RTI Bill is one of the important pieces of legislation waiting the approval of the Majlis.

Executive challenge: A large majority of the members of the bureaucracy continue to be unaware of the RTI Regulations. Further, the systematic challenges are compounded by the fact that government is going through a process of large scale restructuring, ministries and departments are being abolished and their duties and responsibilities reassigned to others. Instances of loss or misplacement of documents of the abolished offices during this transitional process are not rare. The existing departments will have difficulties when people start asking for information about the activities of the abolished offices. The communications system within executive is an obstacle in the infantry stages of the implementation of the RTI law.

The Maldives is currently engaged in the process of democratic consolidation and restructuring of government. Despite this onerous task the Government has placed transparency high on its agenda. The introduction of the RTI Bill in the People’s Majlis is the first step in fulfilling the MDP alliance’s electoral promise of transparency in the administration. Still the bill needs several major changes for it to be matched up to international standards. The bureaucracy also needs to be more efficient to provide people with access to information in real time. Mass awareness raising programmes must be initiated to educate Maldivian about their right to information and its responsible use. In this way, advocacy in the Maldives can be both top-down and down-top.

Meanwhile, civil society has also pitched in with effective changes to be made in the Maldives Right to Information Bill for effective implementation of the RTI. The recommendations on the bill made by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative would like to point out the following changes that are applicable at various places throughout the RTI Bill:

Gender sensitive language must be used: It is common practice in both developed and developing countries to use gender-sensitive language in the drafting of legislation.

Replace ‘records’ with ‘information’: The RTI Bill purports to provide access to people to the ‘records’ held by public authorities. However as the title of the Bill suggests it is a law intending to provide for the right to access ‘information’ and not merely ‘records’ which is a sub-category of the former.

In practice, the use of the word ‘record’ is much more limiting than the use of the term ‘information’. Providing access to “information” will mean that applicants will not be restricted to accessing only information that is already in the form of a hard copy record or document. The current formulation excludes access to materials such as scale models; samples of materials used in public works and information that may exist in disaggregate form in multiple records that may require compilation or collation. Replacing the term ‘records’ with the term ‘information’, unless otherwise required by the context is required.

Ensure stricter harm tests in the exemption clauses: Several exemptions clauses listed in the Bill have a lower threshold of harm test than what is considered as international best practice. The term ‘prejudice’ is used to define the harm caused to a protected interest if information is disclosed under specific circumstances [For example S27 (a), 28, 30]. ‘Prejudice’ is a vague term and is amenable to varied interpretation. Instead the phrase ‘serious harm’ is a much better usage as it requires that sound arguments and logic be put forth to refuse disclosure.

Public authorities must have a duty to confirm or deny possession of information: most of the clauses stipulating the circumstances in which information is exempt from disclosure do not place a duty on public authorities to confirm or deny the existence of a record in their possession. For example, S23 relating to personal information, S24 relating to protection of professional privilege, S25 relating to business affairs and trade secrets, S26 relating to health and safety, S28 relating to law enforcement, S29 relating to defence and security, S30 relating to economic interest, S31 relating to administration and formulation of policy and S32 relating to a Cabinet document all empower a public authority to refuse to confirm or deny the existence of a record in its possession.

This rider is characteristic of the second generation of access laws passed after World War II. The access laws of Canada, Australia passed in the 1980s and more recently the access law in UK contain such provisions. However several access laws belonging to the third generation enacted during the 1990s and later place an obligation on public authorities to confirm or deny the existence of a record. The change in international best practice is most welcome as the absence of an obligation to confirm or deny the existence of a record opens the path to commit a lot of mischief.

In conclusion, the implementation of the RTI in Maldives means that beginning of decentralization and participatory governance and a citizen-friendly orientation to government. This will help Maldives in effective nation-building and empowering citizens.

Venkatesh Nayak is Coordinator, Access to Information Programme and Balaji is Volunteer with Media Unit of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative

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]


Ministry of Health criticises media for misinforming public

The Ministry of Health and Gender has issued a press statement criticising the media for its standards and ethics when reporting on abuse cases, especially those involving children.

Police and the ministry last week confirmed they were investigating a “very serious” case of child abuse, in which which four children were taken to Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital (IGMH) by ministry workers to undergo medical examination.

Deputy Minister of Health and Family Mariya Ali said at the time that all details of the case were being withheld for the protection of the children.

“We have the children’s best interest in mind, and that means we cannot give out any information that might put them in danger,” she said.

The ministry’s statement today claimed that the media had recently written stories misinforming the public “particularly relating to abuse cases”, and criticised the publication of stories “before the ministry releases information [about them]”.

“The media should keep to its professional standards and work to the ethics of journalism, respecting privacy,” the ministry said, referring to article 12 of the the Children’s Law, under which children’s names, ages or addresses should not be made public in the instance of abuse.

President of the Maldives Journalism Association (MJA) Ahmed ‘Hiriga’ Zahir claimed that “the media is respectful of these things. It is not appropriate to reveal this information”, but acknowledged that in the past there were instances in which the victim’s father’s or family name has been released to the public, making it easy for the victim to be identified.

“There needs to be a fine balance when dealing with these issues,” Hiriga said, adding that he still believed the public had a right to know about such cases.

He echoed Mohamed Shihaab of Child Abuse Watch Maldives, who last week said that while he understood the authorities’ fear that evidence would be corrupted, or that the families of the abused children would suffer if their identities became known, “the incident needs to be reported. It’s important that the community knows that something like this is happening,” he said.

Ahmed Rilwan, media officer for the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM), said the “general viewpoint of the Commission is that there is nothing wrong [with the media reporting these cases].”

“So long as it is done responsibly, the reporting itself is not a problem,” he said.

He added that these cases should be reported without revealing identifying information that could “revictimise the victims”, and agreed that that the media has previously made more information public than it should.

Minivan News’ reporting of the ministry’s statement highlighted some of the difficulties faced by the media in obtaining accurate and timely information from ministries and organisations.

Media Coordinator for the Ministry of Health and Family, Yasir Salih, refused to comment on the ministry’s press statement, saying he is “not supposed to talk on behalf of the Ministry.” He added that he “directs people to relevant departments and officials” but is not supposed to give information.

According to Yasir, “sometimes our officials are busy and unable to give interviews and comments.”

Deputy Minister of Health and Family Mariya Ali did not respond to requests for comment at of time of publication.

Senior Social Service Officer at the Department of Gender, Fathimath Runa, said she would not be able to speak on the issue until she was “better informed on the issue”, but had not responded to Minivan News at time of press.

President of Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM), Ahmed Saleem, said he was not the appropriate person to talk to concerning the question on whether or not the media should report child abuse cases.

Hiriga said he believed the ministries and government institutions should implement “proper mechanisms to regulate information” which is released to the media, in a bid to prevent confusion and misinformation being leaked from other sources.

“Various ministries are trying to influence the media,” he suggested. “They have no right to intervene.”