Maldives Media Council (MMC), along with the Ministry of Home Affairs, celebrated the “Diamond Jubilee of Journalism in the Maldives” on Tuesday night.
After years of various restrictions on press freedom, it felt like this would be the start of a new era for journalism in the country.
President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih was in attendance, as well as Abdulla “Soadhube” Sodhig- who was conferred the lifetime achievement award for his work to journalism for over half a decade.
The president’s speech was so inspiring and full of promise, that one could almost forget all the injustices that took place. Almost.
The real goal?
Let’s have a look at the nominations first. In some categories, there were only two nominations (according to a former official at MMC, prior to this year the Council had a rule not to give out awards unless there were at least three nominations to a category.)
The deadline for nomination submission was extended until September 18, and the ceremony was initially to be held in October.
While it was delayed until December, given the vast difference in the situation in the country- prior to and after September’s presidential election- opening up for resubmission would have made more sense, if the real goal was to celebrate those that had risked their lives for the country.
Furthermore, while we mark 75 years of journalism in the Maldives, should we still only focus on just one medium? What about the hard work put in by those in broadcast journalism; including cameramen, editors and on-air operators? Do they not deserve praise or admiration?
Speaking of which, how about one individual that was appreciated at Tuesday night’s ceremony for his “immense” contribution to journalism, including to restrict free press in the country.
Contributions to restrict press freedom – awarded
Mohamed Shaheeb – was arrested on January 20, 1997, for a fictional story he had written while working for “Haveeru” newspaper. However, his actions in recent years, as chief media regulator, cannot be forgotten so easily. And, honouring him by giving him the prestigious Alimas Galan (Diamond Pen), at an event celebrating press freedom, can be described as nothing more than an insult and slap in the face for those that he forced into self-censorship by supporting former President Abdulla Yameen’s stand against a free press.
Mohamed Shaheeb has been a member of the Maldives Broadcasting Commission (MBC) since 2011, he was appointed a vice president by former President Mohamed Nasheed in 2011 and in 2016 then President Yameen had appointed him as president.
Shortly after he was appointed the president of the Commission, the draconian Anti-Defamation and Freedom of Speech Act was introduced.
With that, as the president of the country’s media regulator, Shaheeb continued to penalize certain TV stations that criticized the government’s various unlawful actions, as in for merely fulfilling their responsibilities to the people. The controversial law forced TV stations to self-censor themselves, and there is no denying Shaheeb’s contribution to this, no matter how many awards he is given.
While Maldives had continuously slid down in the World Press Freedom Index since 2012, compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) every year, Shaheeb in one of his most recent press conferences rejected the list. In the press conference held on October 4, he said that MBC does not accept the list by the international organization. The Maldives currently ranks at 120, out of 180 countries.
It was at this press conference that he, for the first time ever, admitted that the Commission had been unfair in investigating defamation cases. Not surprising since Yameen had just lost his bid for reelection, and those to assume power seemed to be all for press freedom.
What was ironic was, while Shaheeb was presented the “Alimas Galan” despite everything, MMC’s president Abdul Mueed Hassan in his speech spoke extensively about the anti-defamation law, even expressing gratitude to the new administration for “killing” the law.
And Shaheeb just sat there, smiling.
Forgotten and ignored
Another surprising point from the night was the fact that former President Mohamed Nasheed’s name was not mentioned, even once, throughout the whole ceremony.
Nasheed is first and foremost a journalist, starting as assistant editor of political magazine “Sangu” in the 90s, and his contributions to press freedom since should not go unrecognized, especially at such an event like last night. One can even argue that he is the individual that paved the way for media freedom and independence in the Maldives; he is the first Maldivian journalist to have been recognized internationally.
Next to Shaheeb being awarded, Maldives Media Council’s failure to acknowledge Nasheed’s contribution to the field received the most backlash from the public- especially working journalists.
Not only was Nasheed forgotten, but the man who jailed him and a number of others for their work to hold his government accountable was also awarded the “Diamond Jubilee Pen of Honour”.
Former President Nasheed said it best. In a tweet posted on Wednesday evening, Nasheed said “I have been charged and imprisoned over 14 times, mostly for writing dissenting journalism. Congratulations to [former] President [Maumoon Abdul] Gayoom for receiving the honour marking the Diamond Jubilee of Maldives Journalism”.
“In 1991 Nasheed was jailed and made an Amnesty International “prisoner of conscience” for writing for the popular political magazine Sangu. It was to be the first of 13 occasions when he was jailed for showing open dissent to [former President Maumoon Abdul] Gayoom’s autocratic regime, on one occasion claiming he was so badly beaten that he now walks with a limp” – Telegraph
Ending on a positive note…
While President Solih attended the event, the awards given at the “Diamond Jubilee of Journalism in the Maldives” does not reflect the government’s views on the matter, obviously.
The incumbent president is among those that started the magazine “Sangu,” and has a great understanding for the work being carried out by journalists.
His proud declaration that the first bill he ratified was the one repealing the anti-defamation law, his obvious sorrow when speaking about the loss of two powerful voices- abducted journalist Ahmed Rilwan and murdered online blogger Yameen Rasheed- to his promises to ensure full press freedom throughout his tenure; they all show his commitment to the field.
“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 Ibrahim Mohamed Solih.
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