Paris, London, Lahore, Brussels, Copenhagen 4 December 2006
The member organisations of the International Mission for Press Freedom in the Maldives are writing to you to express our concern that recent events suggest that progress on democratic reforms is not in line with what was promised. The government has failed to meet its own deadline for opening up the broadcast media and journalists working with opposition media are still being wrongfully arrested and harassed.
The official “Roadmap for the Reform Agenda” said legislation allowing the creation of privately-owned broadcast media, putting an end to the State monopoly on radio and television, would be completed by 31 October. However, on 1 November 2006 it was announced that this legislation has been delayed. A bill was submitted to the People’s Majlis on 1 October but it was still to be adopted. The reasons for this remain unclear. The government often accuses the opposition of blocking draft laws but the presentation of other bills by the government suggests that these may be more of a priority. Meanwhile, at least 38 requests for radio and television broadcasting licences have been filed with the authorities.
In a communiqué explaining the delay, the information ministry said the electronic media would be monitored because of the negative effects of unconditional press freedom. Two weeks earlier, however, you were quoted by Haveeru newspaper as saying privately-owned broadcast media would be able to obtain licences quickly. Furthermore, at a meeting with members of the International Mission in May, you promised the rapid authorisation of private broadcasters and the creation of a Media Advisory Board consisting of leading figures as part of this process.
The International Mission understands that a legal framework is needed for the licensing of private broadcasters, in line with the practice around the world. We do not believe, however, that there is any reason why such a legal framework should not have been developed by now.
We would also like to express concerns that a licence application by Minivan Radio, the only non-governmental radio station broadcasting in Divehi, will not be treated fairly. This concern arises from the fact that the government engages in frequent attacks on Minivan daily newspaper and the Minivan News website.
We would also like to remind you of your commitment to turning Television Maldives and Voice of Maldives into public service broadcasters. We have not seen any tangible progress in this direction. On the contrary, the opposition was extremely critical of the way the government used these media during the crisis around the 10 November demonstration. . We remind you of one of the recommendations that were made after the fact-finding mission in May: “The Mission calls upon the government to pursue the transformation of state-controlled broadcasting into public service broadcasting, as well as the development of access to information and defamation laws in accordance with international standards and best practices.”
The International Mission notes that there are a significant number of cases of independent or opposition journalists being arrested, summoned without justification, harassed or expelled.
The staff of Minivan have been particularly targeted. They were, for example, accused of calling for President Abdul Gayoom’s assassination when the Maldivian Democratic Party appealed for a demonstration on 10 November. The newspaper said the police tried to arrest editor Aminath Najeeb and sub-editor Nazim Sattar on 23 November.
Cartoonist and opposition activist Ahmed Abbas was arrested in Male on 3 November after leaving the United Nations offices where he had requested asylum. He was sentenced in absentia to a six-month prison sentence for telling Minivan in August 2005: “What we should do to those in the Star Force [an elite police unit] who beat us, is to seek them out individually and for us to act in such a manner that makes them feel that beatings result in pain, otherwise they will not be subdued.” Najeeb and Sattar have been charged with “disobedience to order” in the same case.
Mohamed Rilwan, one of the editors of the magazine eSandhaanu, was summoned by the Male police on 27 November over an article by a contributor that referred to the president as a “despot.” According to the Minivan New website, Rilwan told the police that he received the article by e-mail and he did not change it.
Finally, we have learned of recent comments by Foreign Minister Ahmed Shaheed, in an address to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, to the effect that the new press law would lead to an unprecedented improvement in the situation of the media. Although the draft law does include some positive provisions, it also creates of a number of new ‘media crimes’, and includes a long list of ‘banned matter’. On balance, our view is that the draft undermines press freedom far more than it protects it.
The International Mission urges you to move forward rapidly to put in place the necessary legal framework for licensing private broadcasters, for transforming the State broadcasters into public service broadcasters and for protecting, rather than undermining, press freedom. We also call on the authorities to stop all harassment of independent and opposition media.
Agnes Callamard Executive Director Article 19
Jesper Højbjerg Executive Director International Media Support
Christopher Warren President International Federation of Journalists
Robert Ménard General Secretary Reporters Without Borders
Sadaf Arshad Coordinator South Asia Press Commission