The original Dhivehi article was published on Mihaaru.com website on 24th October 2017.
The following is a loose translation:
Even from a small sample, there will not be any 30-something Maldivian who would not know what Dhivehi Observer was. If a person of that age group doesn’t know what it is, then that person would be someone who had no clue of the political changes that had been happening ever since 2004.
In October 2003, Ahmed Shafeeg (Kuda Sappe), left Maldives to the UK, after a fallout with President Maumoon’s regime, when Evan Naseem died in custody after suffering from brutal torture by the prison wardens. At that time he said that staying back in the Maldives might be dangerous for him.
After studying for a PhD, Sappe switched to journalism and took up the anti-regime work for Maldivians, at a time when independent journalism didn’t exist. Dhivehi Observer (DO), was likely the most visited website to find the Maldives political stories from 2004 to 2008.
It had many lies too. There were articles that did not even come close to the journalism code of ethics. It stepped out of the boundaries of journalism and slandered senior politicians of the Maumoon government and people who opposed MDP’s ideology. Some described DO as that which ‘took the shine out’ of the dictatorship and of those who didn’t dare oppose the regime.
During that period, along with the MDP’s activities, Maldives’ political scenario also drastically shapeshifted. DO revealed to the public numerous secrets that were prohibited to be published in the registered media. Therefore, many were lead to believe that real facts that were against the regime were only available on DO. No matter the extent of the lie, people started to accept whatever was published on DO as the truth. There were also those websites which supported Maumoon’s regime and challenged DO. However, based on the public viewership, they were barely able to compete.
Sappe came out boldly. Considering the scenario back then, DO was the biggest threat Maumoon’s regime faced.
When registered media’s works were obstructed and when practising journalism became a fearful task due to the government policy, the sample of what happens next is DO. And based on what is happening now with similar policies of the current administration, it seems like the time has come for some Maldivians who are abroad to follow suit and replicate DO.
The current administration’s policy has spread out to the extent where the registered media’s freedom is completely restricted. Maldives Media Commission (MMC) will be formed neither to improve the press freedom nor to protect them. It will be to get rid of the Maldives Media Council which is yet to be brought under the control of the government and to make another commission like the puppet Maldives Broadcasting Commission.
As per some knowledgeable seniors, the biggest threat posed for the government are online websites. It is their top priority to ‘gag them’ (said in an offensive local term). The fact that the media council members are elected without the authority by the president and the parliament, restricts their control over online media. Therefore, with the bill submitted today, it will pave the way to control it.
Even at that time, we knew that the primary objective of the Defamation Law passed was to limit the freedom of the press. In all the decisions taken against RaajjeTV by Broadcom, there was no conviction of libel. When they charge ridiculous fines for baseless reasons, it proves that the commission is compromised. There could be instances where the media deserves to be fined. And for that journalists do not have an issue. However, there should be individuals in the commission to come to a fair decision, after doing an independent inquiry into each and every case.
However, the government does not allow that. And it doesn’t even seem likely. Finally, the outcome at some point in time would be Maldivians running websites from abroad that has no regard to any of the ethics of journalism and of which the government cannot have any control over.
There are talks of corruption related to the government and great misconduct by senior officials. And there is truth to those stories. Some had even asked some journalists, ‘There isn’t anything left that you all haven’t published, right?’ The answer is, there are plenty but, because of the fear-mongering by the government, some news reporters have self-censored themselves.
The power of websites like DO
DO was a dangerous website. The lies exceeded the truth. However, the outcome turned out the way Sappe and the opposition wanted. The ‘shine’ of the senior officials was dimmed. There were scores of things published that the official media didn’t publish but which the public bought.
With the existence of such websites, the current seniors will also face many challenges. The materials of underground websites will stand higher in front of the public eye, compared to the official media materials. And the influence of those websites will be beyond the reach of the government, the media commission and the parliament.
This isn’t 2004 nor 2008. This is the age of Facebook and Twitter. Back then smartphone users were few. Today smartphone users are aplenty. The internet is widespread. Even region-wise, Maldivians dominate the social media. So what they couldn’t control in 2004 and 2008, the parliament nor the government can control today. With such current bill submissions, the result will be nothing near close but worse than what you expect.
Journalists like me might be stuck and stay within the law and the government’s fear psychosis. However, it is likely that there might appear plenty of 2003’s ‘DO Sappe’s in the near future. Then there will be no point in screaming, straining the throat blood vessels to deny the information being streamed to the public.
When you shackle the official media, then the exodus of Maldivians will move on to the unofficial ones. Today, it is more than easy.