Government takes control of state media

The government has seized control of the state television and the radio stations through a new law, in a move journalists and the opposition say will undermine press freedom in the Maldives.

President Abdulla Yameen today ratified the Public Service Media Act and dissolved the old Maldives broadcasting corporation and its five member board.

The president has proposed seven individuals to a new governing board, who are expected to gain approval from the ruling party dominated parliament. Umar Manik, the chairman of the former broadcasting corporation board, is the only incumbent who will sit on the new board.

Others nominated include Ibrahim Khaleel, CEO of private Villa TV, Ikram Abdul Lateef, former official at Villa TV, and Aiminath Shayan, a TV presenter and the wife of a ruling party activist.

A parliamentary committee today approved the nominations without an interview.

A senior editor who wished to remain anonymous said the new law is an attempt by the government to take control of the public broadcaster.

“The new law does not accept the concept of a public broadcaster. It will now simply act as a mouthpiece for the government,” he added.

The main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) says the new law is aimed at spreading “government propaganda.” Opposition MPs continued their daily protests inside the parliament during the vote.

The opposition has been protesting since Majlis reconvened on March 2 over the imprisonment of former president Mohamed Nasheed on terrorism charges. The ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) has pushed through several pieces of legislation without significant debate amidst protests.

According to parliament minutes, PPM MP Riyaz Rasheed during a brief debate on the new bill said a new body to govern state media is necessary as the former broadcasting corporation had provided coverage of the campaign to free Nasheed.

“But all the events, overseas trips of the president and the services the government is providing each and every day is completely ignored by the state media,” he said.

The new law also requires the state to distribute a printed daily newspaper and use social media to disseminate programmes.

“The law requires public service media to establish and run their news and programs through social media. This is an attempt to spread propaganda at all levels of the media,” said MDP MP Imthiyaz Fahmy.

The managing editor of local daily Haveeru, Ismail Naseer, expressed surprise at the decision to start a government newspaper saying: “Even in other countries, we don’t see the state distributing a printed newspaper. If you look at it newspapers are a thing of the past, this is the era of digital journalism. So I don’t understand why the public media service has to run a print edition.

“Also the cost of running a newspaper will be very expensive. And I believe if the state is running a paper it has to be made available for every person including the people in the atolls. We have been in this business for 35 years and still find that task to be impossible.”

Former chairman of the broadcasting corporation, Umar Manik, however, defended the new law saying it would improve the day to day running of the state media.

“I take this as a positive move to further improve the public broadcaster. We were not influenced before and I am very confident that we will not be influenced by the government in the future as well,” he said.


MDP accuses state media of “blatant propaganda” in letter to Maldives Broadcasting Commission

The MDP intends to lodge a complaint against the current practices of the Maldives Broadcasting Corporation’s (MBC) state media outlets, Television Maldives (TVM), and the radio station, Voice of Maldives (VOM).

In a letter, the MDP accused the MBC of violating the agreements mandated by the Public Broadcasting Services (PBS) Act of August 2010 by producing biased content and not giving adequate exposure to all political groups.

TVM and VOM were, the MDP argued, “being blatantly used as propaganda outlets of the coup regime, while the ongoing peaceful political activities of the MDP are being sidelined with little regard to the MBC’s mandate and the nation’s laws under which the MBC is functional.”

“State media airwaves are being clogged incessantly with interviews, views, opinions, and press conferences detailing the regime’s vision by regime loyalist political parties,” MDP alleged.

“On March 6, MDP’s request to buy airtime to broadcast a crucial press conference by Maldives’ first democratically elected President Mohamed Nasheed was met with silence.”

The MDP also accused the group of allowing politicians from the Dhivehi Quamee Party (DQP) and Jumhooree Party (JP) unfettered access to TVM studios and editing booths in contravention of its independent credentials.

JP MP Abbas Adil Riza, named in the letter as one of the MPs seen at TVM, strongly denied the accusation. He was unaware of the complaint and said he did not wish to see the letter. Also named in the letter are the JP’s Ali Hashim and the DQP’s Adbulla Ameen.

The letter reads “MBC is legally bound and mandated to ensure impartiality and independence in its role as a public service provider”.

“According to Article 2 (c) of the Maldives Broadcasting Act the MBC must facilitate nationwide, equitable, and acceptable transmission and broadcasting. According to Article 3 of the Broadcasting Act the MBC is an independent commission of the State.”

The timing of this complaint appears to be related to the Corporation’s failure to respond to MDP requests for media coverage of a speech by former President Mohamed Nasheed on March 6. Copies of the letter were sent to the MBC as well as to the independent media watchdog the Media Council of the Maldives (MMC) on March 7.

The MMC’s duties as prescribed in the Maldives Media Council Bill, is to preserve media freedom and promote ethical practices, as well as to investigate any complaints filed.

Minivan News itself experienced difficulty when trying to contact the MBC for comment on the issues raised by the MDP.

After a group of police, military and opposition supporters stormed the state broadcaster on February 7, shortly after an assault on the military base in Republic Square, President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan’s government rebranded MNBC as TVM – the broadcaster’s title under former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s administration.

MNBC was established by Nasheed to run the state media, removing its employees from the jurisdiction of the Civil Service Commission (CSC). In 2010 the then-opposition majority parliament created MBC and demanded the transfer of MNBC’s assets to the new body, which the Nasheed’s government refused to do, alleging political partiality on behalf of the MBC board. Days after the events of February 7, TVM was handed to MBC by the new government.

After this takeover, Chairman of MBC Ibrahim Umar Manik expressed his commitment to run the state media with “impartiality” and within legal bounds.

“As stated in the law, we will operate the two stations as a public broadcaster by bringing independent news, information and programs,” Manik claimed.

Maldives Media Council

President of the Maldives Media Council Mohamed Nazeef said he was not yet aware of the MDP complaint although he stated that he would “be very interested” if it were to come to his attention.

His desk is the first place such complaints go to when received, at which point it is standard practice for the Council to attempt a resolution before the official investigative procedures are initiated.

A member of the Council’s Secretariat said no official complaints had been received in recent weeks although there had been a slight increase in the number of people making informal complaints in person.

Discussing the current condition of public media in the country, Nazeef said that he had “noticed an improvement” in the weeks since the Nasheed administration ended.

“[Public Broadcasters] can’t do the same thing as before. They have to give equal time to all political parties,” Nazeef said.

He said he believed that there was little difference between the Gayoom and the Nasheed eras, in terms of media impartiality.

“Television Maldives was same before [under Nasheed] as it had been for thirty years under Gayoom, apart from 2007 and 2008, when it was a little more lenient,” he said.

The most pressing concerns, in the opinion of the Council President, are the lack of social programming and need for better education in the sector. A typical area mentioned as being in need of improvement was investigative journalism.

“This is where the media fails in the past twenty years,” Nazeef continued, “most people are trained for private broadcasting.”

Nazeef recently discussed these issues with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) which advocates a robust media as the key to sustaining democracy.


Civil Court orders MNBC to transfer assets and staffs to MBC

After months of dispute between the opposition and the government over control the state media, the Civil Court has finally ordered the Maldives National Broadcasting Corporation (MNBC) to transfer all assets and staff to the newly-established Maldives Broadcasting Corporation (MBC).

The tug-of-war began last year when the government transferred the assets and staff from Television Maldives (TVM) and Voice of Maldives (VOM) to the 100 percent government-owned corporate entity MNBC.

The opposition-majority parliament subsequently created MBC and order the government to transfer MNBC’s assets and staff. MNBC has been labelled pro-government by critics, while proponents argue that as most other mass media is owned by senior opposition political figures and favours the opposition, the government had no alternative voice.

Press Secretary for the President Mohamed Zuhair said that the government will appeal the Civil Court’s ruling in the High Court.

“The MPs and the judiciary should consider that the MNBC is operated by a board and all of its assets are properties of the MNBC,” he said.

Zuhair contended that there were resorts belonging to MPs that were operated under the same structure as MNBC, and questioned whether they wished to set a precedent for the court-ordered transfer of all their assets to another person’s company made for the express purpose.

MBC was formed by the parliament last year in April and its board was also appointed by the parliament. The board is answerable to parliament which makes the MBC board politically influenced, the government has claimed.

After the parliament passed the legislation to ”free” the state media, expecting the government to transfer the frequency and assets, the government bluntly declined to transfer the assets.

”MNBC was re-branded and changed its name after two board members of Television Maldives (TVM) proposed their names for the Maldives Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) board, but were dismissed from the parliament,” said opposition MP Ahmed Nihan at the time.

Nihan alleged that he was “certain” there was “a secret deal” made between MNBC and the government.

The opposition also held a series of protests for the freedom of state media before the issue was taken to the court.


Looming tug-of-war between parliament and executive over state broadcaster

The executive today signaled reluctance to hand control of state media over to parliament, potentially sparking a political tug-of-war over Television Maldives (TVM) and Voice of Maldives (VOM).

The state media outlets are currently operated by the Maldives National Broadcasting Corporation (MNBC), a 100 percent government owned company established by executive decree.

However in April Parliament approved a law to establish a company called the Maldives Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) to operate the state media, with nine board members appointed and answerable to the parliament.

Today the parliament appointed nine members for the MBC board. Chairman of MNBC Mohamed “Madulu” Waheed and Managing Director Ibrahim Khaleel also proposed their names, but were dropped from the shortlist by parliament.

Out of the 29 names presented, MPs approved 18 names to be shortlisted and nine of the persons were appointed as the MBC board members.

“MNBC is a company established under a resolution by the president and all its assets and land also belong to the company under a contract,” said the President’s Political Advisor Hassan Afeef today at a press conference.

”Although the MBC has been established, the MNBC will continue operating the state broadcasters. I would like to note that TVM and VOM are both channels registered under MNBC and are assets of that company.”

President Mohamed Nasheed ratified the bill establishing the MBC in April, which was originally passed by Parliament on 6 April 2010.

The government said then that it wanted the corporation to be free from political and commercial influence, and to televise public service announcements and matters of the state (such as President Nasheed’s speeches) at no cost to the government.

However today Afeef said that if the MNBC did not wish to hand the assets to MBC, there was no way they could be transferred if the MNBC did not wish to.

“If the MBC was established for the government to operate, the government would have the power to appoint people for its board,” Afeef said. “The government did not establish MBC, it was the parliament.”

Press Secretary for the President’s Office Mohamed Zuhair in April that the formation of a new public broadcaster “will be best for the general public”, and that MNBC’s assets would be transferred to the new corporation.

DRP MP Abdulla Mausoom suggested at the time that President Mohamed Nasheed should “be very happy” with the way the bill was passed.

”Now the president can say he has no power over the media,” Mausoom said.

However government’s backtracking today suggest it may not be prepared to hand control of the state broadcasters to parliament so readily.