Independent and opposition newspapers established themselves in the media landscape despite threats and arrests. Police arrested nearly 10 journalists in 2007. The government finally allowed licensing of privately-owned radio stations but the independent radio Minivan failed to secure one.
President Abdul Gayoom, who has been in power since 1978, slowed down the reform process and preferred to govern with the conservatives, leading to the resignations of several ministers, as he came under mounting pressure from the democratic and Islamist opposition. The information minister drove through the drafting of a law on broadcast media, opening the way for the creation of privately-owned radio. But the exorbitant cost of licences disqualified the sole independent radio already in existence, Minivan Radio.
The law on press freedom, which despite its name entailed numerous restrictions, was adopted in August. On the other hand, parliament in November rejected a law on access to information. The information minister was disappointed by the vote, which he said deprived the Maldives of a means to bring about change to a national culture, hostile to the right of citizens and the press, to allow access government information. Finally in May, the founding of the Maldives Media Association was made official with the election of its leadership.
Star Force in action
Police, and in particular, members of the elite Star Force corps arrested around 10 journalists working in the private press. Ahmed Rifah, a photo-journalist on the opposition daily Minivan, was held in custody from the 1st to 10 June after being held as he left a gathering of Muslims, deemed by the authorities to be illegal.
Police had no hesitation in trumping up accusations against journalists. Ahmed Rifah was accused of “violence” and Ibrahim Mohamed, a reporter for Miadhu, who was charged in April with organising a demonstration, was alleged to have attacked police officers and to have started a rumour that officers had killed someone. In fact, the young reporter had taken photos of the beating and arrest of the chairman of the Maldivian Democratic Party, Mohamed Nasheed. He was held at a police station for 48 hours. Three journalists were arrested a few days later during the funeral of Hussein Salah, who had been found dead, his face and body swollen. Zeena Zahir, of the pro-government Miadhu, Adam Miqdad, editor of the website e-Sandhaanu, as well as Mohamed Nasheed, a photographer on Minivan, were arrested and accused by police of being demonstrators not reporters. In September, Moosa Anwar, of the weekly Sangu, was arrested, beaten and accused of “disobedience” by police officers in Malé.
Minivan still in the firing line
As in previous years, the crackdown was focused on the highly contentious opposition newspaper Minivan. Its editor, Aminath Najeeb, close to the Maldivian Democratic Party, was summoned before the courts on several occasions in 2007. She appeared in April before a criminal court in Malé, accused of “civil disobedience”, in connection with an article that appeared in September 2006, in which an anonymous journalist condemned the failings of the legal system. The author said that judges attacked more people than they defended. Aminath Najeeb was faced with the same charges in two further trials and faces up to 18 months in prison. Sub-editor on Minivan, Nazim Sattar, was also charged with “civil disobedience”. The authorities announced on 3 May, World Press Freedom Day, that the charges against the two Minivan journalists would be lifted or reduced.
Also in May, Aishath Ainya, a contributor to Minivan and a women’s rights activist, was arrested and taken for questioning by the Supreme Islamic Council after she objected in an article to the obligation on women to wear the veil.
Cartoonist and opposition figure Ahmed Abbas was jailed for six months for his trenchant remarks, carried by Minivan. A Malé court in March dismissed his appeal against sentence in his absence for “disobedience of the law” in November 2006. He said in an interview that opposition militants should defend themselves against police prison brutality. He was released from prison in Maafushi, also on 3 May.
Two journalists on the newspaper Minivan were also imprisoned for drug-taking. Abdulla “Fahala” Saeed, sentenced to life imprisonment in April 2006 for “possession and drug-trafficking”, has been physically and morally weakened by the harsh prison conditions in Maafushi jail. Observers condemned numerous irregularities during his trial. His life sentence appeared to be linked to the highly critical stance he took in the columns of Minivan. At the end of 2007, Ali Rasheed, a journalist contributing to a number of opposition publications was imprisoned in Maafushi after being sentenced to life imprisonment, also for drug-trafficking. Rasheed, who admitted taking drugs, said he had been the victim of a rigged trial. He had at the start of 2007 condemned the regime in scathing articles and also in the foreign media, including Al-Jazeera television.
The authorities also obstructed the work of journalists on the foreign-based news website Minivan News. US reporter Phillip Wellman, correspondent on Minivannews.com, was expelled from the country in January a few days after his arrival, and on the pretext that he did not have a valid visa, he was banned from visiting the country for two years. He was previously arrested and expelled in September 2006, despite the fact that he had a working visa. He had been assured that he would be allowed to return to the Maldives after two weeks.
Patrick Browne, correspondent in South Asia for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and his cameraman were mistreated by police in March during a demonstration held to welcome back Maldives opposition figure, Mariya Ahmed Didi who had just received an “International Woman of Courage” award from US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice.