Reporters Without Borders today welcomed the fact the British company Cable & Wireless (C&W) responded to a query about its involvement in the Internet in the Maldives, one of the world’s most repressive countries as regards free expression online, but rejected its reasons for not tackling the government about its Internet policies.
"Cable and Wireless must obviously respect the laws of the countries where it operates, but there are certain obligations when you work with a regime that cracks down so hard on free expression," the organisation said.
Reporters Without Borders added: "We don’t ask C&W to pull out of the Maldives’ telecommunications sector, but we do expect it to raise the question of the free flow of information online with the authorities. The letter we have received clearly indicates that C&W refuses to undertake this kind of initiative."
The organisation wrote to C&W chief executive Francesco Caio on 20 July criticising his company’s involvement in the Internet sector in the Maldives. C&W’s director of corporate and public affairs, Lesley Smith, wrote back on 2 August defending its policies.
Extracts from the C&W letter
Smith said in his letter that, in all the countries where it operates, C&W is required to respect local laws and regulations, including "the implementation of Internet access policies." He said, "the form of governance in a country is a matter for the citizens of the country concerned and not a matter in which a foreign investor can legitimately intervene."
The letter continued: "The availability of modern communications is an important contributor to the achievement of rights and freedoms for all." It concluded that it would be inappropriate "to abuse the hospitality of the countries in which we invest by involving ourselves directly in local political issues."
Open Letter to Francesco Caio, CEO of Cable & Wireless
Reporters Without Borders has urged the Chief Executive Officer of Cable & Wireless (C&W), Francesco Caio, to put pressure on the Maldives authorities to end abusive Internet censorship and to press for the release of imprisoned Internet-users.
The British telecommunications giant holds 45% of the stock in Dhiraagu, the company that runs the network in the Maldives. The country is one of the world’s most repressive of freedom of expression on the Internet. Four Internet-users are currently in jail there for having posted articles critical of the government.
"Cable & Wireless has said it is very concerned about human rights issues. We therefore hope that its top executive will appreciate the ethical consequences of running the network in a country like the Maldives," said the international press freedom organisation.
C&W took over telecommunications on the archipelago in 1977. Twenty-one years later the British firm invested in 45% of the stock in Dhivehi Rajjeyge Gulhun Limited (Dhiraagu), a company created to operate telecommunications on the Maldives. The State is the main shareholder in Dhiraagu, which today has a monopoly on Internet access.
On its site, C&W says it "supports the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights" and that one of its priorities is "to develop ethical behaviour within the company".
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION ON THE INTERNET IN THE MALDIVES
Mohamed Zaki, Ahmad Didi, Ibrahim Lutfy and his assistant Fathimath Nisreen were arrested in January 2002, for working for the email news bulletin Sandhaanu, that exposed human rights abuses and corruption in the Maldives. Charged with "defamation" and having "attempted to overthrow the government", Zaki, Lutfy and Didi were on 7 July 2002 sentenced to life imprisonment. Fathimath Nisreen, who was only 22 at the time of the trial, was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Lutfy managed to escape from prison on 24 May 2003 and now lives in Switzerland.
The painter and political dissident Naushad Waheed was arrested on 9 December 2001, for sending emails to Amnesty International. He was sentenced on 12 October 2002 to 15 years in prison for having committed an "anti-government act". Waheed has been tortured in prison on several occasions.
Through Dhiraagu, the authorities censor online bulletins produced by opponents of the regime. The website of the main opposition party www.maldiviandemocraticparty.org, the news site www.sandhaanu.com, relaunched by Ibrahim Lutfy, and the online magazine www.maldivesculture.com, devoted to human rights and based abroad, are inaccessible in the archipelago. The government also blocks access to discussion groups used by dissident Internet-users.