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Government-imposed barriers to media freedom in Maldives
Handuvaru (pseudonym)
Maldives Culture April 2003

early European printing press
In Maldives, the constitution guarantees freedom of expression. However, this guarantee is rendered useless by the ruling regime through anti-constitutional regulations.

The regulation governing registration and publishing in the Maldives, imposes many restrictions on media independence. The purpose of this regulation is to restrict media freedom and ensure that the media cannot be used to criticise the regime.

The regulation says the editor and founder of a publication have to be at least 25 years old. The editor should have an academic qualification in the field of journalism, or five years' experience in journalism. The academic qualification must be acceptable to the Ministry of Information, Arts and Culture, the government body which makes media regulations.

It is not clear what type of qualifications will be approved by the ministry. In the past, the Information ministry conducted training courses for journalists but recently no courses have been offered. Whether the qualification means having completed this short training or a university degree is not clear. There are no universities in the Maldives and only a handful people have a degree in journalism.

Similarly, few people have five years experience in journalism. They will be already attached to the existing media establishments. Hence, most young people are prevented from starting magazines and newspapers. They see publishing magazines and newspapers as a potentially profitable business, but they cannot get an editor who meets these ridiculous requirements. For Maldivians to exercise their right to freedom of expression guaranteed by their constitution, they should not necessarily need an academic qualification or five years' experience in journalism.

The purpose of this regulation is to discourage people from starting magazines and newspapers.

Even if an editor meets the requirements, there is a lengthy bureaucratic process to further delay the registration of the publication. The founder and editor have to get clearance from many government bodies. Their names are checked by the Ministry of Defense and National Security, Ministry of Justice, Criminal Court, Civil Court, Family Court and many other offices, ensuring that they have no bad records.

When they pass this clearance test, the application forms are submitted to the Ministry of Information. Then the application goes to the President's Office.

The President's Office gives its clearance and then the application is returned to the Information ministry. Only a lucky few, or those with right contacts, manage to get their application approved. Currently there are several applications pending at either the Information ministry or the President's Office. Some of these applications were submitted over a year ago.

The Information ministry has the right to approve the applications. In the written regulations, there is no provision for sending the application to the President's Office and getting the approval from there. However, all applications are meticulously scrutinised by the President's Office. This shows the extent to which the executive branch of government controls media in the Maldives. The President's Office is likely to deny it, but this is the real process.

The regulation also states a publication can be closed down by the ministry if the editor of that publication is out of the country for a certain period of time.

According to the regulation, the editor is responsible for the content that is published. Editors live in a perpetual fear in Maldives because they can be arrested and imprisoned following the publication of content which the government labels as unfavourable. Editors can also be summoned to the Information ministry, questioned and warned. Mohamed Bushry, the editor of Monday Times, a weekly English paper that has been closed down, was summoned on different occasions to the Ministry of Information and questioned about the content in the paper.

This creates self-censorship as the editors censor and edit the content of writers to avoid getting into trouble.

1990 - a brief period of freedom
Maldivians saw a brief period of press freedom in 1990. Two newspapers, the monthly Sangu and the weekly Hukuru, began criticising the government. This period of media freedom was short-lived as the government could not tolerate the criticism and closed down the two papers. Some of the journalists who wrote for the papers were arrested and imprisoned, while others were framed on false charges and met a similar fate.

Both Sangu and Hukuru exposed the corruption of the government. After their demise, another magazine emerged called Manthiri. Manthiri was printed in Sri Lanka because no company in Maldives was willing to print it, because of threats made by the government. When copies of Manthiri arrived in Maldives, they were seized by Customs. The public did not get a chance to read it.

Control of printing facilities
The regulation concerning the publication of newspapers and magazines also require a letter from a printing house stating its willingness to print the paper or magazine. This clause was added to the regulation after the regime realised the need to control the printing facilities, after its bittersweet marriage with media freedom in 1990. Hence, when a paper is printed the government knows where it occurs. If the content of the paper is not satisfactory then the government can put pressure on the printer.

In 2002 Loamafaanu Print, which was printing Monday Times, stopped printing the paper after the owner Zahir Hussain received a warning from President Gayoom. Zahir Hussain is the Minister of Youth and Sports. Ironically the founder of Monday Times was his daughter Leena Zahir and its editor was her husband.

Before the warning came, Monday Times ran a series of columns indirectly criticising government ministers. In its last issue, it had criticised the Minister of Health Ahmed Abdullah, for using the facilities and employees of the Health Ministry to circulate Miadhu, a daily newspaper which he manages.

After Loamaafaanu Print refused to print the Monday Times, the owners approached other print houses but no one was willing to do it, because they had all received warnings from the government. The final nail was driven into the coffin of Monday Times when a sudden regulation amendment in March 2003 and abolished many registered magazines and newspapers including Monday Times.

2003 - Media freedom restricted even more
On 4 March 2003, the Ministry of Information, Arts and Culture issued an announcement saying the 29th clause of the regulation governing the publication of newspapers and magazines had been amended. Previously the clause said the license for a newspaper or magazine could be revoked if it is not regularly published for six months. According to the amendment, the license could be revoked if three consecutive issues of the paper or magazine are not published regularly. The license can be issued again when an application is made after six months.

This amendment to the regulation was made on a government holiday - the first day of the Hijri New Year. The Ministry of Information issued the announcement when it was supposedly closed for the holiday. On the same day, it also announced that a number of magazines and newspapers were being closed down according to the amended regulation.

This was unfair because, after announcing the amendment, the ministry gave no time for the magazines and newspapers to comply with it. It is evident that this amendment was directed at certain magazines and newspapers. Among the 22 newspapers and magazines closed down on 4 March 2003 was Monday Times, which had not been published since the print houses in Maldives refused to print it.

There was also Dhanfulhi, a quarterly magazine which started in 1996 as a monthly. It was a variety magazine with both English and Dhivehi pages.

On 5 March 2003 the Ministry of Information announced that the license for another 9 newspapers and magazines had been revoked according to the clause 29 of the regulation. However, later it announced that Sales Magazine, which was closed down on 4 March 2003, could continue as the Ministry had recently received a copy.

The regulation relating to the magazines also says that two copies of each issue should be sent to the Information Ministry.

Closing down of Dhanfulhi
There is evidence that the drastic action taken by the Ministry of Information by amending its regulation and acting on the amendment on the very same day, (which also happened to be a public holiday), was done to close down Dhanfulhi.

When the Information Ministry announcement came, an issue of Dhanfulhi was already in print. The issue was contained historical research based on the fall of the first president of the Maldives, Mohamed Amin Didi. Amin was overthrown by an uprising in 1953.

The research was done by Mohamed Nasheed (Anni), a journalist and former MP. Nasheed had been arrested on multiple occasions for his writings. He was a key writer in Sangu. In 1999, he was elected as MP of the capital city Malé. During his short term as a MP, he tried to bring in many reforms but was not able to succeed because the government controls the parliament. Nasheed was framed on petty theft charges and his status as a MP was taken away.

The government thought that there must be a political motive behind Nasheed's attempt to publish research on Mohamed Amin. Even though the research itself had no bearings on the current politics, the government suspected that Nasheed was up to something, especially as a Presidential election is to take place in 2003.

Moreover, even though there was no political content in the research, the government was fearful that Nasheed may try to publish political articles in the future issues of Dhanfulhi. Although Nasheed has no direct control over Dhanfulhi, the fact that the magazine was willing to publish anything written by him, gave the impression that Dhanfulhi was a 'loose cannon'.

Government-dominated media outlets

graphic by Naoto Hattori
Graphic: Naoto Hattori

Government feels that there should be no loose cannons in the media. The only radio station in the Maldives, and the sole TV station, are state-owned and controlled. They are instruments of propaganda.

There are three daily newspapers in the Maldives. They all serve as propaganda outlets for the government. Each paper also comes with its own print house as it cannot afford to rely on other parties for printing.

The longest serving daily, Haveeru, is owned by Minister of Youth and Sports, Mohamed Zahir Hussain. He is a close friend of President Gayoom. The bi-monthly magazine Huvaas is also owned by him. Haveeru and Huvaas are printed by Loamaafaanu Print.

Aafathis Daily is owned by Abbas Ibrahim, the brother-in-law of President Gayoom. Aafathis is printed by Corona Press.

Miadhu Daily is controlled by President Gayoom himself, and the paper relects the attitudes of the presidential palace. Print Image, which prints Miadhu, is managed by Adam Naeem, the secretary of the presidential palace. The founder of Miadhu is Ibrahim Rasheed Moosa, Principal of the Institute for Islamic Studies, and a former Haveeru journalist.
Miadhu is run by Ahmed Abdullah, the Minister of Health, who operates the paper according to the instructions coming from the Presidential Palace. Miadhu publishes government propaganda at a level far greater than the other daily newspapers.

Apart from the dailies, there are a couple of tabloids that also have links with the government. Adduvas is backed by Minister of Information Ibrahim Maniku whose nickname is 'Samarey'. The founder and editor of Adduvas, Abdulla Haseen, had worked in Information Ministry. It was during that time that Ibrahim Maniku approached him and asked him to run a magazine.

The government's policy is to encourage tabloids, so that intellectual writings have no publishing outlet. The tabloids also serve as propaganda tools. Adduvas published an interview with President Gayoom. However, an interview of Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Maniku, a former MP and an opponent of the ruling government, could not be published because Minister Ibrahim Maniku did not approve of it.

Another tabloid Udhares has also links with Information Ministry. One of its senior staff, Mohamed Luthfy, works in the Information ministry. Ahmed Shiyam, the editor of another magazine called Fiyes, is a senior official of the Information ministry.

The magazines and newspapers were shut down in March 2003 while Adduvas was re-launching after a long intermission. The Information minister and his staff's desire to control the market may also have been a decisive factor in revoking of the license of other magazines and newspapers.

Another reason is that a Presidential Election is scheduled for later this year, and the government needed to 'clean up the place' as a matter of caution.

Threats to journalists and intellectuals
Even though the main dailies are backed by the government, journalists working for these newspapers live in fear. There is no guarantee they will not be arrested for what they write.

Mohamed Shaheeb, a journalist working for Haveeru, was arrested and jailed because of a story he published in Haveeru named Kuda Golhi (Small Cell). The story is about a young girl who is abused in a jail in India. Even though the story is set in India, the government felt that the story had too many parallels with a Maldivian girl named Sudha who was arrested for drug abuse and imprisoned. Sudha died in jail after the police allegedly gang raped her and tortured her while she was ill.

The suppression of freedom of expression occurs to unimaginable levels in Maldives. Three writers, Ahmed Shafeeq, Hassan Ahmed Maniku and Ali Moosa Didi, were arrested and imprisoned because of a diary that Shafeeq kept. The diary had entries about the things he heard, including the corruption of ruling officials. The diary also had an entry about the expenses incurred in building the expensive Presidential Palace.

For any writer, to produce something in the Maldives and get it published is an arduous task. To publish a book, the writer need not register it with the Information Ministry, but he or she has to get a permit from the Department of Public Examinations. It is up to the government to decide which books will be allowed to be published.

In Maldives, freedom of expression and intellectual growth has been suppressed, while media freedom is curtailed through various bureaucratic processes. The excessive powers enjoyed by the police, and the irregularities in the justice system, only add to the suppression of the Maldive people and their freedoms.

More comment from the writer
Freedom of expression is an essential freedom guaranteed by the Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Yet in so many countries this freedom is restricted, controlled or violated.

The freedom that the media enjoys in any country is a yardstick to measure the extent to which freedom of expression exists in that particular country.

In democracies we see today, the people delegate their powers to their representatives; either the elected officials in power or the members of the parliament. These people make important decisions on behalf of the people. Hence, their actions need to be probed and a great extent of accountability is needed. For accountability to exist, independent institutional forums are needed. One such forum is mass media.

Hence, an independent mass media is a requirement for a healthy democracy. A number of international declarations have stressed the importance of media independence.

One such declaration is the Windhoeck Declaration (3 May 1991) which defines media independence as independence from 'governmental, political or economic control' or from 'control of materials and infrastructure that are essential for the production and dissemination of the media.'

The European Court of Human Rights (Strasbourg) has stressed on multiple occasions that the citizens in a democratic society have the right to be properly informed. The Court believes the task of the mass media is 'to impart information and ideas on matters of public interest'. If the media of public information were the interests of political or financial elites it would become an instrument of propaganda.

Constitutions may guarantee freedom of expression but are practically useless if governments do not respect them. In some countries, the executive branch of government controls the protection given by the constitution through administrative decrees that restrict the circulation of information.

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