Friday, January 15, 2010

Maldives Matters: President Nasheed’s love-hate media relationship

Perhaps, there has never been a person who “courted” the media so much and stood up for their rights like Mohamed Nasheed, in the then opposition MDP. Clad in his party colour, yellow, none could fit in so well with the slogan shouting youngsters in the media, like he did.

Young and energetic Nasheed protesting in Male’ streets, bashing the Gayoom administration over lack of a free press was a common sight then.

And now, over a year into Nasheed’s presidency, is Maldives a haven for a free media?

Queries have now risen if all is well with the Maldives media or has it really gone from bad to worse.

Maldives media

It is an undeniable truth that there was a firm government grip on the media in the early years of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

The state owned Television Maldives and the Voice of Maldives was full of Maumoon and was biased in favour of the Government.

Anything related to the then Opposition MDP hardly appeared in it so much so the Opposition called the TVM, “Maumoon TV”.

Yet things changed in an impressive manner towards the end of Gayoom’s administration in 2008.

Former Information Minister Mohamed Nasheed under the Gayoom administration opened up the state clenched electronic media to all political parties alike.

Equal opportunities were given to all political parties ahead of the 2008 presidential election.

Many private radio stations and TV stations began ahead of the election giving rise to a vibrant media and also giving people a better opportunity to make an informed choice at the presidential election.

Today the country has 5 newspapers, 20 online newspapers, 6 radio stations and 3 television stations.

The massive change that was brought about under Gayoom has been reversed under President Nasheed, the Opposition DRP now alleges.

They say the state owned TV and radio is used by the President to promote his party, the MDP and it has almost become a party television.

One may argue that it is the norm of any Opposition to criticize the sitting government over lack of media freedom.

But independent parliamentarians like Mohamed Nasheed, who broke away from the main Opposition DRP too says that the media is heavily biased.

“It is common knowledge that media is experiencing a reversal of the freedom – they had fought so hard to achieve and maintain,” Nasheed wrote in his personal blog recently.

“While the state media has been converted into a pure government mouthpiece it has been denied the editorial independence to contribute to enhancing democracy in the Maldives.”

Sounding quite hilarious, the Government is trotting out a lame excuse over why its media cannot be independent.

The Government has said that although they would like to be independent there is a shortage of personnel trained to “deliver that independence.”

Moreover, the private electronic media is being “closely watched by the government” and “fledgling stations have already begun facing government ridicule and threats of closure and cancellation of license,” Parliamentarian Nasheed added.

Deadly blow

In the Maldives, the private print media is still not in position to be financially independent.

And a decision by President Nasheed in September 2009 to stop government advertisements to private newspapers has put them in a struggle for survival.

The decision sent almost all print media outlets gasping for breath, short of money to keep them running. The “Manas Daily” was forced to close down.

By all means, the private media should not be allowed to be at the mercy of the Government for funds as it could threaten their independence.

But the tragedy of its infantile media is such that it cannot stand on its own feet yet due to high cost, unless propped up with the monies coming from the government advertising, at least for the time being.

Speaking on one-to-one Dhi FM show recently, President Nasheed said he stopped advertisements to private media in a bid to promote a free press.

“We hope the private media will be strengthened,” President Nasheed was quoted as saying in the talk show.

But the President cannot sound so cut off from the reality of the Maldives media and -- to say now that he simply hoped the “private media will be strengthened”.

In the least, he should have provided them alternative means of funds temporarily.

Companies have to incur high cost for transportation of papers to its geographically isolated near 200 inhabited islands.

But its money-spinning tourism industry has no interest in investing or advertising in local newspapers as they are aiming at a global market for tourists.

Businessmen do invest in newspapers occasionally but that that has again given rise to a biased media.

Hence the Maldives Journalist Association has now requested for an allocation from the Government budget for print media and now it is upto the House to pass it.

Physical attacks and phone tapping

Journalists have been attacked under the Nasheed Government and there is reason to believe that media personnel are under government surveillance.

Ahmed Zahir, Executive Editor of Haveeru Daily and President of Maldives Journalist Association was assaulted last year while covering a protest by the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party. Ibrahim Rasheed, newscaster of state broadcaster Television Maldives too was attacked in a separate incident.

According to Zahir, MJA President, there is reason to believe that some journalists are under surveillance. “The Defense Ministry officially admitted to phone tapping without specifying who were the targets,” he noted.

Religious extremism in the Maldives has added to media woes too.

“For example, no journalist would dare venture to cover any events in extremist-controlled Himandhoo island though there are credible reports of child sex slaves been kept there,” Zahir said.

Meanwhile, the Maldives leading newspaper “Haveeru Daily” has been threatened with eviction from its current location by the Government.

Extravagant license fees are still required for operation of private radio and television stations whilst registration is required to set up any media.

Also the Ministry of Islamic Affairs “monopolized by the extremist Adhaalath Party, has closed down many websites, alleging anti-Islamic content, though some of the sites were not anti-Islamic and some were even promoting Islam,” said Zahir.

The Adhaalath is a coalition partner in the Government and the party teamed up with Nasheed in the second round of presidential polls in 2008, helping him to assume presidency.

In return, President Nasheed offered the party the Ministry of Islamic Affairs but the religious extremist party since then has opposed the government on many issues.

Delayed laws

Above all, hardly any investigative reporting is being done now with the Government seeking to restrict access to information from public agencies, Zahir noted.

The Freedom of Information bill giving access to information is still pending Parliament.

Currently, the content and air time of the state broadcaster is heavily biased in favor of the Government and the ruling party.

But the media bills aimed at allowing state broadcasters to have independent editorial boards have yet to come into effect.

As the list of issues related to media freedom goes endless, one wonders if President Nasheed, the one time darling of the press was really genuine in his so-called love for the media that has turned into apparent hatred now.


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