It was 1989, and Maumoon Abdul Gayoom had cemented his rule in the Maldives. The Maldives was on the cusp of major transformation; schools were being built, primary healthcare facilities were being set up in outer atolls, and tourism was being expanded. At first glance, Gayoom, was putting the tiny island nation of Maldives on the map as a modern, prosperous nation.
But hidden behind those social transformations was an unspoken truth; a lack of fundamental rights, grave human rights violations, and rampant corruption through which regime loyalists lined their pockets. No one dared to question anything. Independent media was non-existent. The state owned the only television and radio channels in the country. Newspapers were owned by senior government officials or close aides of the president.
“In those early days, local news was churned out mainly from a government information subsidy; features and in-depth stories were largely translations of foreign editorial content. Journalism was more a literary discourse than an outlet for serious news reporting and analysis of local events and issues,” says Dr Ali Rafeeq, former editor of Maldives’ longest running daily Haveeru who currently serves as an Assistant Professor at the United Arab Emirates University. But little did the regime realise that things were about to change in a big way!
Mohamed Nasheed had just returned home after completing his studies in the United Kingdom. Nasheed, together with a few friends, set up a magazine, called Sangu. It was a political publication, talking about corruption and human rights abuses. For the first time in history, they shone a light on the murkier operations of the regime and its loyalists.
Not surprisingly, the regime cracked down hard on the independent magazine. One night, at around 3am, the police raided Nasheed’s home and took him to jail. This was the first of at least 14 times that he would be imprisoned for political activism.
But Sangu was bigger than just one person. It gave birth to critical journalism in the Maldives. The courage it took for Nasheed and his friends to launch an anti-government publication at a time of intense secrecy and in the face of seemingly invincible state machinery reverberated amongst anti-government activists both in the Maldives and abroad. Although Sangu ceased publication following the government crackdown, it set in motion a flurry of anti-government publications; e-newsletter Sandhaanu and Dhivehi Observer website to name a few.
These publications helped mobilise people from all across the archipelago for a citizen-led movement for democratic reform. Boosted by relatively new tools that were made possible by the introduction of internet to the Maldives in 1997, these publications appealed to a younger audience, which was fed up of meager living conditions and the widening inequalities between the elite and the working class. And with that, the entire nation erupted in calls for change. The voice for more freedom and human rights for some 350,000 citizens of the island nation resonated from the northernmost coast to the island-city of Addu in the south. “The regime continued to crack down on Sangu magazine, they were never able to completely stop it, or the ideas that it espoused, namely, democracy, human rights and good governance,” Nasheed, who would later become president, said at the 2016 Commonwealth Journalists’ Association Conference.
In the wake of unprecedented political unrest in 2003 following the death of an inmate at the hands of prison wardens, Gayoom cut the entire country off from the internet
“With Sangu, we had created a spark, which eventually turned into a flame, and later became a raging inferno demanding political change. The regime was unable to put out the fire.” The government felt the heat almost immediately, and as a result its crackdown on free speech and press freedom reached an unprecedented level of notoriety. The entire team of Sandhaanu was arrested in 2002 and was condemned to life imprisonment. Painter and political dissident Naushad Waheed was arrested in 2001 and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. More similar arrests and imprisonments targeting anti-government activists and journalists followed. In the wake of unprecedented political unrest in 2003 following the death of an inmate at the hands of prison wardens, Gayoom cut the entire country off from the internet. Although internet service was restored within days, online publications by dissidents were censored and remained so until the latter part of Gayoom’s presidency. Dhivehi Observer, a widely read anti-government news website which was founded by a UK-based Maldivian activist after the 2003 riots, was also blocked.
But in the end, the regime was forced to relent. Political parties were legalised, procedures for registering newspapers were relaxed, and private broadcasters were allowed. A legal framework, which included measures such as the formulation of independent media and broadcasting regulators, was introduced. A new constitution with far-reaching rights was enacted. In 2008, the Maldives held its first free and fair presidential election, which was won by the opposition coalition led by Nasheed.
Maldivians welcomed a new president. They celebrated. They cheered. It was the dawn of democracy for the country.
Under the new leadership, the Maldives moved towards joining the community of newly democratised countries. The new government began initiatives to widen democratic space, and space for free expression and media. These initiatives, most notably the decriminalisation of defamation, translated into huge leaps on the annual press freedom index by Reporters Without Borders. Prior to the country’s first multi-party democratic election in 2008, the Maldives was ranked 104 – an improvement on its 2007 ranking of 129. The country’s ranking in 2009 and 2010 rose to 51 and 52, respectively. These developments, however, were short-lived.
The 2013 presidential election saw the rise to power of former strongman Gayoom’s half-brother, Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom. His election victory and his coalition’s big win in the 2014 parliamentary elections unleashed a new wave of challenges – perhaps worse than the conditions that existed during his brother’s 30-year-long dictatorship – for journalists in the Maldives. After years of physical attacks, Maldivian journalists faced a different kind of threat under President Yameen’s rule; action by courts and regulatory bodies.
Violence against journalists also increased sharply. Impunity for crimes against journalists reached new levels
Three publications, including the country’s longest running and only print newspaper Haveeru, were forced shut. Several journalists were slapped with bans. Arrest of journalists and criminal charges against reporters became everyday news. The media and broadcasting regulator were stacked with ruling party activists. A draconian anti-defamation law, which was enacted in 2016, was used by the broadcasting regulator to slap fines worth millions on opposition-aligned television stations, mostly for airing exposés on alleged corrupt activities of the first couple. Violence against journalists also increased sharply. Impunity for crimes against journalists reached new levels. The police never found Ahmed Rilwan, a journalist who disappeared in 2014. The 2017 murder of blogger Yameen Rasheed remains unpunished. To make matters worse, petitions by the families of Rilwan and Rasheed were rejected outright by the government-controlled parliament. Peaceful marches calling for justice for Rilwan and Rasheed were met with brute force.
But after this dark period for Maldivian journalists, we are once again seeing signs of hope. President Yameen failed to secure a second term. In his first speech after winning a landslide in the 2018 presidential election, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih promised to open freedom of expression and freedom of the press “to its furthest reach”. The first bill he ratified as president was the one repealing the anti-defamation law. The president and the first lady joined a solidarity march -- similar to the previous marches that saw their family members pepper sprayed and arrested – with the parents and friends of Rilwan and Rasheed.
“Having a free press without a government is more important to ensure the rights of the people, than having a government without a free press,” President Solih declared, on the 2019 World Press Freedom Day. This new stance has already begun to bear fruit. The Maldives jumped 22 places in the Reporters Without Borders’ 2019 Press Freedom Index, improving its score for the first time since 2010.
The current winds of change and promised media reforms are an unequivocal bright spot for Maldivian journalists who are ever more committed and determined to defend their constitutional rights against any and all threats. But much still needs to be done to ensure the safety of journalists and to end impunity for crimes against journalists in the Maldives.