By Annapoorna Karthika
In 2004, Maldives embarked on the path toward adopting a democratic status when then President Gayoom, under mounting pressure for reforms, announced plans for significant political reforms which included the drafting of a new constitution. Between 2005 and 2007, the authoritarian regime relaxed policies for registering newspapers, ended years of state monopoly over media and announced major media-related reform bills. Even so, this liberty of journalists in the post-authoritarian Maldives to practice media impartiality and editorial independence is being increasingly undermined by diminishing religious tolerance, and escalating violent clashes between pro-democracy groups and the government. The anti-government protestors are demanding an early election – a claim that has reportedly been supported by the Commonwealth and the European Union, but rebuffed by the government. This commentary attempts to understand the mounting inimical descent in freedom of expression and independent journalism in Maldives.
Politicisation of free media
The ongoing tussle between Raajje TV, the only broadcaster aligned to former President Nasheed’s Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) – a tough critic of the government – and state institutions, is a reflection of the growing polarisation of media in Maldives. The conflict surfaced with the decision by the Maldives Police Service (MPS) to not cooperate with Raajje TV claiming that the TV station was deliberately broadcasting ‘false and slanderous content about police which had undermined their credibility and public confidence’, especially when anti-government demonstrations were flaring in Maldives (Minivan News, 1 August 2012). Refuting the allegation, Raajje TV approached court against the decision of the MPS arguing that the policy of non-cooperation was a violation of its constitutional right to free expression. Early this year, Raajje TV’s viewership had risen manifold after a few armed officers hijacked the Maldives National Broadcasting Corporation (MNBC), a public service broadcaster, immediately after the dramatic resignation of Nasheed from the office of president. The ruling government labelled the MDP and Raajje TV as ‘enemies of the state’ and condemned them for purposefully inciting violence against the police. On 7 August 2012, the TV station’s offices were broken into by unidentified men who caused damages worth approximately US$ 6500. Silencing the station that has exclusive access to the MDP is perceived as a necessity by the state institutions to diminish any support to pro-democracy demonstrations. The channel has accused the state institutions of targeting and harassing its journalists for what it calls ‘non-partisan’ reporting.
The cases of attack on journalists are not limited to those associated with a single channel. The pro-democracy demonstrators supporting the MDP have been accused of assaulting journalists who were assigned to cover ongoing demonstrations. A journalist associated with DhiTV, a channel that has been anti-MDP, was intentionally injured in an attack by the protestors. International organisations, particularly the Committee to Protect Journalists, have been extremely concerned about the safety of journalists who are being compelled to live in a state of fear – a factor that adversely affects the objectivity expected of professional journalism.
The Maldives Journalists Association (MJA) stated that media boycotts of channels understood to have an inclination toward opposing parties are common in the country (Minivan News, 22 August 2012). Political parties and state institutions provide access to those media agencies that defend their policies, and if aligned to the government, these parties use instruments of state to squelch voices of dissent. In January 2012, then President Nasheed had come down heavily on the press, warning them of government action for being resentful toward his government’s policies. Partisan journalism has become an inevitable consequence of an ‘oligarchy’ typified ownership of some of the media enterprises in Maldives.
Umbrage of a free media
Maldives fell 21 places in the press freedom index of the Reporter’s Without Border (RSF) between 2010 and 2011 to 73rd position. This is an upshot of the vulnerability experienced by journalists in Maldives to report on religious issues and therefore, resort to the practice of self-censoring on related matters. The trend of dwindling religious tolerance with respect to media is widely prevalent across South Asia. The attempt on the life of Ismail ‘Hilath’ Rasheed on 4 June 2012, an outspoken blogger advocating freedom of religion and gay rights and a fierce critic of the growing religious extremism is an indication of the swelling religious intolerance toward free speech in Maldives. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs under former President Nasheed blocked Rasheed’s blogs for possessing ‘anti-Islamic’ material, which the constitution does not permit. The reluctance of the former and present governments’ in Maldives to initiate an effective investigation into the attacks on Rasheed’s life has impeded the journalists from reporting on the sensitive subject at their own risk.
Outlook of a nascent democracy
The ‘oligarchy’ typified section of Maldivian society has possibly inherited a trait from the legacy of the country’s autocratic past – the inability to acknowledge voices of dissent. The informal network of clientele controls some of the media enterprises which lack the financial mobility to initiate independence in media objectivity. This lamentable trend has a distressing impact on the fledgling democracy of Maldives. The process of democratization is deeply entwined in the development of a transparent, impartial and responsible media. Unfortunately, the rhetoric of political rivalry is redefining the practice of journalism in Maldives today.
Research Officer, IPCS
email: [email protected]