UNESCO experts to assess coral stone mosques for World Heritage list

A team of experts from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has arrived in the Maldives to assess the nomination of coral stone mosques to the World Heritage sites list.

According to the Ministry of Education, six coral stone mosques were included in a tentative list last year.

Since then Maldives has started working on preparing the dossier up to their criteria’s to inscribe the stone mosques of Maldives in the final list of World Heritage list,” the ministry explained.

“First draft of the nomination dossier needs to be sent to UNESCO by September of this year to be inscribed on the year 2016. This team of Experts will be guiding through the documents that are being prepared and they will be verifying whether the dossiers are up to the criteria of UNESCO.”

Prior to departing on August 29, the team of experts are due to visit the six coral mosques, two of which are in the capital, with the rest located in Alif Dhaal Fenfushi, Raa Meedhoo, Haa Alif Ihavandhoo and Laamu Isdhoo.

In April, the Department of Heritage announced an exhibition to raise public awareness about the six coral mosques.

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Hanifaru clean-up completed in Baa Atoll biosphere reserve

A clean up project took place yesterday (May 10) in the Maldvies Baa Atoll – the Maldives’ first certified UNESCO biosphere reserve.

The clean up of Hanifaru Island and Hanifu reef maintenance was carried out by a large group of volunteers from within the reserve – including local councillors, police officers, and resort workers.

Baa Atoll was officially launched as a Biosphere Reserve in June 2012 by former President Dr Mohamed Waheed.

Obtaining the status of UNESCO biosphere resulted in significnant funding for the atoll, with the UNDP handing over a cheque for US$250,000 as a contribution to the fund at the opening ceremony.

Tourist resorts in Baa Atoll, including Soneva Fushi, Coco Palm, Four Seasons, and Anantara and several other resorts have also pledged donations.

The Baa Atoll Conservation Fund will be used to finance projects to conserve the environment in the atoll as well to support livelihood activities.

The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) coordinates a world network of over 500 biospheres, which are designated as areas of conservation and innovative sustainable development.

In a recent statement from the Biosphere Reserve Office, the organisers extended their gratitude to everyone who helped with the clean up, assuring that together they can achieve the common goal of managing the reserve.

Participants in the cleanup of Hanifaru included those from the atoll council, Eydhafushi Island Council, Baa Atoll Education Centre, the Maldives Police Services, and Baa Atoll Hospital. The Hanifaru reef cleanup and maintenance was undertaken by Four Seasons, Seamarc, Reathbeach Resort, Dusit Thani, Seasplash, and Kihaad Maldives.

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Heritage department to hold coral mosque exhibition

The Department of Heritage has announced it will hold a special exhibition to raise public awareness of six coral stone mosques currently being considered for UNESCO world heritage site status.

“The purpose of hosting an exhibition for this theme is because recently 6 coral stone mosques of Maldives have been inscribed on the tentative list of world heritage sites and now we are trying to inscribe the mosques on the permanent list,” said the department’s Director Ali Waheed.

The exhibition for the mosques – two in Malé, and one in Ihavandhoo, Meedhoo, Isdhoo, and Fenfushi – will run between April 21 and April 30 at the National Museum.

“By arranging such an exhibition will give the opportunity to raise awareness among students and the public about this nomination,” said Waheed in a press release today.

Potential world heritage sites must be listed on the tentative list at least one year prior to their nomination for the full list.

Successful nominations must include meet at least one of UNESCO’s ten selection criteria. The coral mosques will be nominated as meeting four of the cultural criteria points, which include:

  • sites that exhibit an important interchange of human values on developments in architecture
  • sites that bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition
  • sites considered to be outstanding examples of a type of building which illustrates a significant stage in human history
  • sites which are directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance

Waheed explained that further detailed evidence was needed before the final submission could be completed, in particular work to prove that the lacquer work exhibited in the mosques is unique to the Maldives.

Admission onto the world heritage site would bring the benefits of cultural tourism and maintenance funds to the sites.

The submission to UNESCO’s tentative list – made in February 2013 – described the mosques as a unique fusion of the Indian sub-continental, the Swahili, Malayan, and the Arab cultures.

“The ensemble of coral stone architecture and a building typology of such a representation of many maritime cultures of Indian Ocean are altogether unique, rare and cannot be found in any other part of the world,” read the submitted documents.

The submission explained that coral – taken from live boulder on the seabed – became the primary building material from the Maldives’ pre-Islamic era (prior to 1153) until the late 18th century.

Being further refined during the Islamic period, east African Swahili techniques were used to complement those of the Buddhist era, read the submission, which details the features of each mosque.

“These mosques as living mosques also embody the intangible and spiritual values of the communities and bear witness to the spread of Islam in the Indian Ocean region.”

Friday Mosque, Ihavandhoo, Haa Alifu atoll

Built during the reign of Sultan Ibrahim Muzhiruddin, the mosque remains in use today. The mosque’s cemetery contains the tombstones of many famous figures from the country’s history, including the independence hero Mohamed Thakurufaanu.

The mosque is described as being the finest example of a coral stone mosque with ‘Dhaala’ (verandah like antechambers). “The mosque has got great potential to be restored to its original state and regain its position as the best coral stone mosque in the north of Maldives,” read the submission.

Friday Mosque, Meedhoo, Raa atoll

Meedhoo’s Friday Mosque is believed to have been built under the reign of the first Sultan from Dhiyamigili Dynasty, Sultan Muzaffar Mohamed Imaduddin II around 1705. The mosque is unique as the only surviving example of clay roof tiling.

“The fact that the mosque is still being used by communities far away from the mosque proves the high ancestral values placed to this mosque by local communities,” commented the Department of Heritage.

Friday Mosque, Malé, Kaafu atoll

First submitted for heritage status in 1987, Malé’s friday mosque is considered the country’s most important heritage site. Built in 1658 during the reign of Sultan Ibrahim Iskandhar I on the site of the first mosque built after conversion, the mosque is considered to be the one of the finest coral stone buildings in the world.

“The architecture, construction and accompanying artistry of the mosque and its other structures represent the creative excellence and achievement of the Maldivian people,” the Heritage Department has said.

Eid Mosque, Malé, Kaafu atoll

The Eid Mosque was built during the time of Al-Sultan Mohamed Muinuddin in 1815, and rests on a highly decorated coral stone platform with carved coral stone walls and a timber roof structure.

“It is the last of the coral stone mosques and has the best ornamentation and craftsmanship of all the mosques in the country and is in good condition,” explained the department.

Friday Mosque, Fenfushi, Alifu Dhaalu atoll

Built between 1692-1701, during the reign of Sultan Mohamed of Dhevvadhu, the Fenfushi mosque features a unique coral stone bathing tank, coral stone wells, a sun-dial, and a large cemetery.

The designs on the steps to the pool suggest it had been built during the Buddhist era.

Isdhoo Old Mosque, Isdhoo, Laamu atoll

Dating from the reign of Sultan Ali VII in 1701, the coral mosque in Isdhoo is where the copper chronicles ‘Isdhoo Loamaafaanu’ (1195) – the oldest historical writings found in the Maldives – were once kept.

It is believed that the mosque was built from materials left over after the construction of Malé’s Friday Mosque.

“The existence of Isdhoo copper plate with much important historical written information, serves as a support for the authenticity of this mosque. Due to this historical significance for this mosque, the mosque is highly protected and valued,” said the department’s UNESCO submission.

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Government to establish conservation zones as part of Maldives bio-reserve transformation

The government is moving ahead with plans to transform the Maldives into a biosphere reserve through the designation of zones across the country that would earmark land use for specific purposes such as tourism development or conservation.

In approving the plan to transform the country into a “world renowned” marine reserve, members of the cabinet claimed there had been a growing number of visitors to areas such as Baa Atoll after it became a protected area.

While some tourism industry figures have welcomed existing efforts to transformation areas such as Baa Atoll into bio-reserves, concerns have been raised about the efforts taken to manage such zones in balancing tourism interests with preserving local habitats.

Zone strategy

Muhusina Abdul Rahman, an analyst for the Ministry of Environment and Energy, told Minivan News that the cabinet had opted to implement the action plan following a declaration by President Waheed at the Rio +20 summit last year to make the Maldives the world’s largest marine reserve.

“We consider this a good direction for development in the country, not just in terms of conservation, but as a means to improve livelihoods in a sustainable way,” she said.

In an attempt to implement the marine reserve plan, Abdul Rahman claimed that rather than impose nationwide restrictions on developments and activities that could be conducted in the country’s waters, special zones would be established instead.

“We have considered three zones that will set aside sensitive sites that would protect areas deemed crucially important to the environment,” she said.

The zones were at present expected to be separated into three categories ranging from conservation areas and “buffer zones” around these protected sites, to “transition” areas that would be able to be developed for industrial and other purposes.

According to Abdul Rahman, the action plan for the reserves had been drawn up alongside consultation with tourism authorities, NGOs, members of the fishing industry and various atoll councils.

The plans, which will form part of efforts to make the Maldives a “world-renowned biosphere reserve” by 2017 have been based on a paper submitted to the cabinet by the Environment Ministry, according to the President’s Office.

However, Abdul Rahman claimed that the implementation of the bio-reserve strategy was not expected to be without its challenges – not least in terms of negative public perception towards possible restrictions on livelihoods and businesses.

“I would like to mention that the pubic will also be able to to propose certain sites to be awarded protected status,” she added.

Biosphere designation

Baa Atoll was designated a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve in 2011.

The development was claimed at the time to be a significant achievement for the Maldives by NGOs and state organisations, who highlighted the need for efficient management.

Almost two years on from being awarded the accolade, one resort general manager based in the atoll said the designation of the site as a bio-reserve had not changed operations at his property a “single bit”, despite claims from authorities about the significant marketing potential.

“The bio-reserve is certainly a nice thing to have here, but I don’t think so many people are coming here because of [the designation],” the general manager stated.

The resort head maintained that guests had been coming for some time to the area, which is renowned for sightings of whale sharks and manta rays.  This was attributed in part to growing international attention on the nearby Hanifaru Bay, which has previously created challenges for local conservationists and resort operators.

However, the resort general manager said it was “a bit too early” to assess the significance of the UNESCO designation to the local environment and population of Baa Atoll.

“There are a lot of conservation organisations here with opinions on how to manage the site, but it’s taking a long time to reach agreements. I have myself expressed concerns that it is taking too long to devise how the areas should be used,” the resort head said.

The general manager added that the next meeting of local stakeholders to decide a plan for managing the biosphere for the next year had been scheduled for March, further setting back potential benefits for the industry and conservationists.

“By March, one quarter of the year will already have gone. There is definitely strong potential here for the reserve, but by then, the manta season may be over and we will still be waiting to vote on a plan for how it will work,” the source added.

Tourism impacts

Beyond the establishment of high-profile sub-aquatic spas and restaurants in the country, some resorts are opting to play up the emergence of nearby protected marine parks and reserves.

Within the seclusion of the country’s northerly Noonu Atoll, the Hilton Iru Fushi resort is one property that in recent years has been working with the country’s first Marine National Park (MNP) at Edu Faru in a bid to play up the surrounding natural appeal of the area for guests.

The MNP’s management told Minivan News last year that after signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the previous government in August 2011, guests staying at certain nearby properties like the Iru Fushi resort were cautiously welcomed to explore the protected underwater habitats.

“The project is still in its early development stages and we are working towards having an official opening ceremony at the end of 2013,” said a representative for the MNP at the time.  “The level of protection is yet to be determined in collaboration with the government and experts in the field.”

A representative for the MNP claimed last year that balancing tourist interest in the area with the need to preserve coral and other inhabitants would always create “ecological challenges” for its operations, but it was working to overcome them nonetheless.

“The MNP will rely on marine-based tourism such as scuba diving and snorkelling,” the MNP spokesperson said at the time  ”We strive to achieve a balance between recreational use and preservation of ecological values that form the MNP and the biological carrying capacity and prevent overuse of the site.”

Meanwhile, back in November Deputy Tourism Minister Mohamed Maleeh Jamal claimed destinations like Baa Atoll were helping the area become a “premium destination within a destination”, adding further value to properties located in an area of strong natural interest.

Along with the potential benefits of operating as a marine reserve, Maleeh claimed that the country’s status of being a protected marine reserve would not itself impact on the type of tourism developments being sought in the Maldives.

These plans have included ambitious proposals such as the construction of five man-made islands to support leisure developments including a 19-hole golf course in the Maldives.

Maleeh said he did not think these type of projects would be threatened by the Maldives protected reserve status, with developers still being required to work within existing environmental laws that impose several restrictions on the amount of development possible on each island.

“All plans are required to undergo an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and resort developers are very good at working within these parameters,” he said.

In September 2012, a marine biologist working in Baa Atoll reported the discovery of the remains of a baby shark and endangered sea turtle barbecue on the uninhabited island of Funadhoo, one of the country’s 14 priority nesting beaches legally protected under Maldivian law.

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Maldives delegation forced to return ahead of UNESCO vote for Palestinian membership, says Press Secretary

The Maldives delegation to the 36th UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) General Conference was forced to return without participating in yesterday’s vote to grant full membership to Palestine, Press Secretary to the President Mohamed Zuhair has said.

Zuhair said the delegation, which included Education Minister Mariyam Shifa and Deputy Education Minister Dr Abdulla Nazeer, were unaware of a vote when they attended the bi-annual meeting of the UN cultural agency.

“They were travelling on a UNESCO ticket and they had difficulties in extending their stay, besides Education Minister had to attend a [parliamentary] committee meeting the next day,” Zuhair explained. “Due to those reasons they were forced to return but that does not mean that the Maldives worked against the Palestine resolution. It was co-sponsored by the Maldives and we did a lot of campaigning for it.”

The resolution was adopted with 107 countries voting in favour, 14 voting against and 52 abstaining. The vote signaled a significant symbolic victory for Palestine’s bid for statehood ahead of a similar vote at the UN General Assembly in New York.

Zuhair said the Ambassador to France, Dr Farhanaz Faisal, was in the Maldives at the time and Ambassador to Geneva, Ibthisham Adam, was unable to attend on short notice.

Opposition parties, including Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) and religiously conservative Adhaalath Party, has meanwhile condemned the non-participation and dismissed the reasons provided as “unacceptable.”

Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) Media Coordinator MP Ahmed Nihan told Minivan News that the government’s stated reasons for the non-participation was very irresponsible.

“What they are saying to defend themselves is a big joke to me and does not make much sense,” said Nihan. “The campaign they did and the co-sponsoring the resolution is a big drama the government played.”

The Vili-Maafanu MP claimed the last time he sent a notice to the Education Minister to attend a parliament committee, she appared one and half month later.

“So the cabinet ministers in this government does not give that much attention to attend committee meetings and saying that they returned without taking part in the vote does not make any sense at all,”

He alleged the absence of the Maldives delegation was the result of conversations between former Defence Minister Ameen Faisal and Israeli intelligence agency MOSSAD revealed by the Wikileaks US State Department cables

Nihan claimed the current government had “secret relations with Israel” and suggested hidden reasons behind the non-participation.

Press Secretary Zuhair however dismissed the insinuations as attempts by the opposition to “politicise the matter and mislead the public.”

“The Maldives will be one country that worked most to make the Palestine resolution get passed,” he said.

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Maldives to sign UNESCO convention to protect country’s intangible heritage

The Maldives will participate in the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, a UNESCO programme established in 2008. It is already a participant in the World Heritage Convention and the Cultural Diversity Convention.

The proposal to join the convention was made by the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture, and was approved at yesterday’s Cabinet meeting.

“We have had no effort to safeguard either tangible or intangible cultural heritage in the Maldives,” said Minister of State for Tourism, Arts and Culture Ahmed Naseer. “It is very easy to see things like poetry, music, language, and dance disappear if they are not practiced. We need to have a law enacted to outline these practices.”

A draft of the new legislation is before Parliament, and Naseer hopes it will be passed before the end of the year.

UNESCO defines ‘intangible cultural heritage’ as “practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage.” The convention states that cultural elements must be protected by local and international communities.

Some aspects of intangible cultural heritage in the Maldives have been overshadowed by religious scholars, “or individuals who claim to be religious scholars,” said Naseer. “For example, some performing arts, especially on local islands, have come to a stop because of religion. It’s a problem of interpretation,” he said.

Naseer noted that the Maldives seeks to gain expertise and guidance from UNESCO, but that “the aspect of money is not the priority.” He said training Maldivians in cultural preservation was one priority.

Deputy Minister for Tourism, Arts and Culture, Mamduh Waheed, said protecting cultural heritage would improve tourism in the Maldives. “We have a market for the natural aspect of the Maldives, and now we will be able to add cultural attractions and destinations. I think it will draw tourists interested in cultural conservation,” said Waheed.

Waheed noted that this is the third UNESCO cultural convention that the Maldives has been involved in.

Other non-government organizations (NGOs) have shown interest in the convention, claimed Naseer. International NGOs are expected to be involved in the research and design process. The involvement of local NGOs is less clear.

“Local NGOs have been coming into the forefront lately, but not many NGOs cover this material,” said Naseer. “I feel there’s a huge gap when it comes to safeguarding heritage in the NGO sector. It will take some time.”

Over 130 countries are signed participants in the convention. The convention’s stated purposes are to safeguard the intangible cultural heritage; to ensure respect for the intangible cultural heritage of the communities, groups and individuals concerned; to raise awareness at the local, national and international levels of importance of the intangible cultural heritage, and of ensuring mutual appreciation thereof; and to provide for international cooperation and assistance.

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Baa Atoll to host Bodu Beru tournament

Baa Atoll and Four Seasons will host a Bodu Beru tournament in honor of Baa Atoll’s recent designation as a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.

The ‘Baa Youth Bodu Beru Challenge’ will take place on 17 and 18 November 2011 on Kamadhoo. The competition is open to Bodu Beru groups with 16 to 26 members aged 15 to 25 from the 13 islands of Baa Atoll.

Four Seasons has teamed up with Male-based cultural arts institution Varutha for the event. The institution was founded in 2007, when the ‘Meenaz’ bodu beru group noticed the need for a formal, organised means of sustaining Maldivian arts culture.

Varutha dancers will lead a 10-day workshop from September 23 to October 3. Two drummers from each competing group will have the opportunity to hone their skills and explore new bodu beru beats and methods.

Bodu beru is said to have made its first appearance in the Maldives in the 11th century AD, allegedly by sailors in the Indian Ocean. Bodu beru groups typically consist of 15 performers, including three drummers and a lead singer. Using a small bell, a set of drums known as the ‘bodu beru’, and an onugandu – a small piece of bamboo with horizontal grooves, which is scraped – performers create a lively rhythm for dancing.

Varutha’s co-founder, Sham’aa Abdullah Hameed [Anna], expressed appreciation and support for the youth arts event.

“The tournament reflects our shared mission to reconnect local youth with their rich cultural heritage by restoring, developing and incorporating tradition into the rapidly evolving Maldivian music scene. We’re looking forward to a successful workshop and an exciting two days of competition.”

Landaa Giraavaru’s General Manager and Regional Vice President, Armando Kraenzlin, said UNESCO’s recognition of the environmental value of Baa Atoll inspired the competition.

“UNESCO World Biosphere Reserves rely on optimum social, economic, and cultural conditions for environmental sustainability. We’re delighted to be working with Varutha to help strengthen the respect for cultural values amongst the Baa Atoll youth, while giving them an opportunity to contribute to their home island’s own sustainability.”

The winning team will receive Rf 100,000 (US$6485) towards a community project, and Rf 10,000 (US$650) for themselves. The team will also be invited to an awards ceremony on Landaa Giraavaru island on 28 December.

Team Application Forms and full Tournament Rules and Regulations can be downloaded at www.facebook.com/baa.boduberuchallenge.

All applications must be submitted via email by 30 September 2011 to [email protected]

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Tourism boost from Baa Atoll’s UNESCO status a management challenge

The designation of Baa Atoll as a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve is a significant achievement for the Maldives but makes proper management all the more imperative, government organisations and environmental NGOs have said.

Baa Atoll was last month added to the UN body’s global list of biosphere reserves, placing it in the company of world famous sites such as the Komodo in Indonesia, Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) in Australia and the Galapagos Islands.

The listing recognises “where local communities are actively involved in governance and management, research, education, training and monitoring at the service of both socio-economic development and biodiversity conservation,” UNESCO said in a statement.

It has also prompted a surge of tourism interest in Baa Atoll, requiring local bodies to balance the impact and sustainability objectives of the biosphere with the new income.

Director of the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) Ibrahim Naeem said it took five years of lobbying for Baa Atoll to become the first globally recognised biosphere in the Maldives.

“The whole atoll has been zoned into three categories, limiting activities conducted there,” he explained.

‘Core areas’ account for 10 percent of the atoll with no extraction activities permitted – “look and see only”, Naeem explained. Buffer areas limit some activities while transitional areas allow most activities if conducted in a sustainable fashion.

Exceptionally unique areas, such as Hanifaru Bay, have a management plan to limit access, Naeem explained: “We allow resorts and safari boats to visit Hanifaru Bay on alternate days to avoid conflicts,” he said, adding that the EPA had appointed a ranger to monitor vessels in the area and was training several more to cover the rest of the atoll.

At the beginning of the process many locals expressed reluctance about the atoll being designated a biosphere, fearing that their traditional fishing areas would be restricted, he acknowledged.

That concern still exists, says Ahmed Ikram, Director of Environmental NGO Bluepeace.

“Local divers and other groups are concerned that these places will become so protected and so exclusive that locals will be unable to access them,” he said. “We have started to hear concerns that these sites will be cordoned off to the public, with access controlled by resorts and limited access for independent dive companies and safaris.”

Local people needed to be trained as rangers, guides and attendants, and NGOs, island womens’ committees and fishermen needed to be involved in decision-making, Ikram said.

“The EPA has handed the management to the Baa Atoll council, but without any capacity building,” he claimed, while resorts sponsored “greenwashing” campaigns to fulfill their corporate social responsibility objectives, protecting their house reefs and excluding local communities.

“The reefs around resorts are some of the most protected in the Maldives. Why are the house reefs of local islands not being protected too?” Ikram asked.

In some cases tourism authorities had failed to take into account traditional bait fishing grounds when leasing islands for resort development.

“If they fall in the vicinity [of the resort] the fishermen will still go there to fish, as they have done so for thousands of years – it would quickly become a national issue if they were stopped,” he said, adding that climate change had also affected many of these areas forcing fishermen to harvest bait elsewhere.

“Already in some areas climate change has meant that fishermen are having to dive 40 metres to get bait,” Ikram said. “We need to remember than man is part of the ecosystem.”

Deputy Environment Minister Mohamed Shareef told Minivan News that the Baa Atoll management scheme would include the creation of revenue mechanism for the community whereby, for example, “one dollar from each dive goes to fund the needs of the local community.”

The management process, he said, was participatory, and for the locals, “absolutely nothing has changed. Local fishing practices and the manner of living is very sustainable, from knowledge generated over many years.”

Baa Atoll is home to 12,000 people distributed across 13 populated islands and six resorts. The atoll is one of the most biodiverse in the Maldives with high concentrations of manta rays, whale sharks and turtles, and a number of species of coral and sea slugs unique to the area.

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Maldives among few countries to improve press freedom

UNESCO World Press Freedom Day began with the news that the Maldives index has improved slightly following its 53 point leap last year, an achievement attributed to the new Constitution.

The Maldives is now ranked 102, equal place with Tanzina and Albania and marginally ahead of Turkey and Indonesia. The Maldives is still categorised as ‘partly free’, the reasons for which should be revealed when the country report is released in the coming days.

The rise came despite recent gang violence directed at media organisations and an attempt by police to block radio news coverage following emphatic protests outside MNDF headquarters and the President’s residence in January, drawing concern from the Maldives Journalist Association (MJA) and a number of media outlets.

Worldwide the index declined across almost every region in the world, for the eighth consecutive year, with one in six people now living in an environment without a free press. The only region to improve was Asia-Pacific, with significant strides in Bangladesh and Bhutan.

According to Freedom House, the international body that runs the index, countries are assessed on the developments of each calendar year, including the legal environment in which media operate, political influences and economic pressures.

Meanwhile, the two-day South Asia Regional Consultation on Freedom of Information: The Right to Know was launched in Holiday Inn this morning, by Minister for Tourism, Arts and Culture Dr Ali Sawad.

Delegates from the media, government and civil society organisations in countries including Bhutan, India, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka met discuss the development and implementation of freedom of information laws as a means of combating corruption and enshrining free press as a fourth estate.

In a video address, UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova noted that “every time we turn on the TV, turn on radio or go on the internet, the quality of what we hear depends on media having acess to accurate and up to date information.”

“The obstacles in the way of our right to know take many forms,” she said, “from lack of resources, to lack of infrastructure to deliberate obstruction. Far too many journalists suffer harassment, intimidation, and physical assault – all in a day’s work.”

Bokova called on government and civil society “to promote freedom of information all over the world.”

Many of the sessions on the first day of the conference focused around promoting freedom of information laws at a state level, however media representatives from countries including Bangladesh and Bhutan noted that even where freedom of information laws were available, they were not always used effectively by journalists.

Dehli Bureau Chief of The Hindu and keynote speaker Siddharth Varadarajan implied that freedom of information laws were less critical to freedom of the press “than our inability as journalists to transcend market forces and commercial considerations… and tendency to report trivia.”

Newspapers in India regularly sold “campaign coverage packages” to politicians come election season, he noted, a practice which “seriously compromises citizens’ trust in media content.”

A further consequence of such practices, he added, was a sense of dissatisfaction among journalists “at our inability to use the power at our disposal.”

“We have a responsiblity to be tougher, harder, and to call a spade a spade,” he said.

In his address, Dr Sawad similarly emphasised the responsibilities that came with the freedom of the press.

“With every right comes responsibilities,” Dr Sawad said. “In a free nation with free expression, the media must not forget its obligations to citizens to report fairly and accurately.”

The Maldives, he said, “has a very young free media, coming out of a culture where it was state owned and regulated. We have the challenge of dispelling the myth that the state represents media.”

Dr Sawad explained since its election, the current government “has committed to a step-by-step dismantling of the Department of Information, formerly the ministry of Information, to replace it with a stronger private media.”

State broadcasters Television Maldives (TVM) and radio station Voice of Maldives (VoM) had been placed under the new Maldivies National Broadcasting Corporation (MNBC), “a separate corporate entity with its own board and budget.”

A key challenge for the fledgling private media however was capacity building and training of its journalists, he explained.

“Private media has a very hard task. A lot of you are just past high school, with a keen professional interest in the field. But as we settle down and lay the foundations of democracy, we have to have to have the capacity to deliver democracy. You cannot give that objective to someone without the capacity to deliver it – the government has delivered democracy, but it has yet to be delivered to the people. ”

“Before the government lies the task of training, educating and strengthening the free press. As we celebrate UNESCO World Press Freedom Day, I call on the media to take up the challenge to deliver democracy with a sense of responsibility.”

The sessions continue tomorrow when President Mohamed Nasheed will launch the Journalist of the Year Award and Sukumar Muralidharan from the South Asian Chapter of the International Federation of Journalists will launch the South Asia Press Freedom Report.

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