Freedom of expression under siege in Maldives

Journalists protest in Maldives Photograph:( Facebook )

WION Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India Sep 07, 2016, 12.46 PM (IST) Umaima Rasheed Hussain

DhiTV and DhiFM were the first ever private television and radio stations launched in the history of the tiny island nation of the Maldives. Till 2008, Maldives had only government-controlled media houses, such as Television Maldives (TVM) and Voice of Maldives (VOM). Other than these, there were three daily newspapers, which were also owned by the then cabinet ministers. Unfortunately, both DhiTV and DhiFM was shut down on August 10, 2016. 

DhiTV and DhiFM became very important in Maldives' media history. For the first time, it allowed the citizens of Maldives to hear a different side of the story;  it provided the people with an option other than the official version of an event, emanating from the government-affiliated media establishment.

The news of DhiTV shutdown came as a shock to the whole country, as the news of the closure was abruptly announced to the television staffs, just a day after the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) passed the Anti-defamation bill in the parliament. 

The stations, owned by the local business tycoon Champa Mohamed Moosa (uhchu), were operated by Broadcasting Maldives and Maldives Media Company. In a joint memo sent to the staffs on 10th August, the companies announced the shut down of the transmission of the channels that day itself at 00:00 hours, saying that they do not believe the channels could be run in a sustainable manner under the current circumstance. The staffs were given notice of three months with salary. Though the companies did not officially mention anything about the Anti-defamation and Freedom of Expression Act that were ratified on 11th  August, arguably the decision was linked to it. 

The Anti-defamation act allows fines up to MVR 2 Million which is approximately US$ 130,0000.  The Act stipulates that any media house can be closed down if found guilty of slander, for having breached social norms, and if it threatened national security in some way. Under the Act, a company can be held accountable and punished for going against the tenets of Islam. Failure to pay the fines will result in a jail sentence of up to 6 months. What makes it worse is, individuals and media stations can only appeal the sentence after paying the fine.

Irrespective of their relation to the government, the Maldivian media stood united against the bill. The only exception was the Public Service Media (PSM) which was independent, yet always supported measures taken by Maldive government. PSM not only supported the  proposed bill from the government but also tried to justify it by using Islam as a shield. PSM was broadcasting various programs, bringing Islamic scholars to talk about defamation from a religious perspective. 

Maybe what PSM did not understand was that the journalists raising voice against the bill are also not in favor of defamation. 

I always believed that to be a responsible reporter, we need to be careful about defamation. But that does not mean, I am supporting any restriction on either freedom of expression or freedom of speech in the name of defamation. It is a right guaranteed by the constitution to every citizen of Maldives, and exercising these rights are necessary for a journalists to act as a watchdog in a democracy. Right to freedom of expression and freedom of media can not be restricted even in a state of emergency. Parliament can only pass a law if it is not opposing the constitution. 

Concerns expressed by the majority of Maldivian journalists were ignored by the parliamentary members of the ruling party. Instead, they passed the bill with even tougher penalties. Sadly, some of these members are also the owner of various media outlets; they not only let down Maldivian journalists and the general public but also their own employees. For instance, the owner of Sun Media Group Ahmed Shiyam, who is also the leader of the Maldives Development Alliance (MDA) as well as Yamin Rasheed, the owner of the Sangu TV and Member of Parliament of the PPM party, voted  in favor of the bill.  Journalists from both media outlets were raising their voice against the bill and calling the MPs to vote against it. But their voice went unheard. 

Our voice went unheard and the government ratified the bill criminalising defamation with hefty fines.

The Anti-defamation Act could be used by anyone as a harassment tool against journalists and to attack the fourth power of democracy. Now the question is why just DhiTV? After all, DhiTV has been long labeled as a pro-government channel. Why not some other station like RajjeTV, which is popularly known as an anti-government station. 

 Informed sources gave us some hints that DhiTV has been on the government's blacklist as much as RajjeTV; during 2013 presidential election campaign, DhiTV was against President Yamin Abdul Gayoom. During the PPM primary, former Home Minister Umar Naseer and Yamin Gayoom were contesting to be the PPM presidential candidate, DhiTV was against Yamin and backing Umar. Even after Yamin won the primary, DhiTV continued their stand against Yamin by backing the presidential campaign of President Dr. Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik of the time. As a business tycoon, investing many projects in Maldives, the owner of DhiTV surely will need the government’s cooperation, even if he has to give up DhiTV for that. 

When DhiTV was shut down, I was part of the team working as a news anchor. During that last week, I mostly had 2 p.m and 8 p.m news. August 10th was the only day when I had to present the 10 p.m news.  Management decided to end the news coverage with the news and I did not get the chance to say goodbye. I just wished, I knew 8 p.m prime time news of 9th August was going to be my last time live on DhiTV. What bothered us more was not that we lost our job, but we lost DhiTV. Re-opening DhiTV soon is our hope. And I believe it will happen sooner or later.