Section: Long Reads

Maldives ‘defamation law’ to curtail freedom of expression

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by Azra Naseem

The ‘People’s’ Majlis is about to kill the people’s right to freedom of expression.

The law was proposed by a PPM MP, Jaufar Dawood. It seems to me he had little say in its drafting – otherwise he wouldn’t have called it the Deformation Bill. It will be supported by all but a couple of PPM MPs, and most who belong to the so-called ruling coalition. Jumhooree Party’s Qasim Ibrahim—the great defender of democracy—fled the country ahead of the vote, no doubt hoping it would save him from the President’s wrath (in the form of attacks on Qasim’s fat wallet) if he votes against the Bill. Opposition MDP has issued a three line red whip to attend and vote against the Bill.

Very few of the MPs who will pass the law have any knowledge of, or the brain power to comprehend, the legal minefield that is the offence of defamation, and the tightrope between the right to freedom of expression and the right to a good name that it requires legislators to walk.

As the ruling party—many leading figures of which are implicated in some of the biggest corruption scandals in the history of the country and/or have benefitted handsomely from the culture of bribery, graft and embezzlement that characterises the current regime—PPM was anxious to push the Bill through the parliament with as little discussion and debate as possible. To ensure this, it closed the door it, in a moment of unintended democracy, opened to public feedback; invited a legally non-existent entity by the name of the Fiqh Academy to advise the parliamentary committee on the Bill; recalled MPs even from religious pilgrimages to come home and vote for it; and shut out all dissenting opinion from every stakeholder other than supporters of the regime who stand to benefit from a total media blackout on their illegal activities.

In the end, after just an hour and 15 minutes of chit-chat among seven PPM MPs who ignored the remaining two opposition members, the Bill was passed with a few small changes—none that were proposed by opposition MPs, or by media organisations.

Dissecting the new law

So what does this new piece of legislation do? And why is there such an outcry against it among journalists and other thinking members of society?

To start with, it is a direct full-frontal assault on the right to freedom of expression guaranteed by Article 27 of the Constitution, and Article 19 of the UDHR and the ICCPR, both of which the Maldives is party to. It does so to such an extent that even holding an opinion—not just expressing one—and ‘seeing things as one wishes to’, are deemed material subject to prosecution and punishment. How a person’s unexpressed opinion can be policed is yet to be known, but I am sure the Attorney General—or whoever the President instructs to draft new regulations—will find ways.

Basically, the law restricts freedom of expression—that is, it criminalises defamation—on four different grounds: (1) protection of religion; (2)  protection of national security; (3) protection of an individual’s right to a good name; and (4) protection of ‘norms’. I will discuss them in the order they appear, as they appear, in this new law.

(1) Protection of religion

Protection of Islam, including speech and action against any tenet of Islam is already protected by the Constitution.

Invited to ‘advice’ the parliamentary committee reviewing the draft Bill, the ‘Fiqh Academy’ equated freedom of expression with anti-Islamic behaviour and called for, in the name of religion, absolute obedience to the leader whatever their crimes. Yesterday, the Islamic Minister said protection of a person’s right to a good name was among the reasons Islam was revealed as a religion. The stand here is clear — only religious authorities allowed to speak on this would be those who favour the Bill, and those who would use religion to help Yameen pass the Bill the way he wants.

It is a good thing my fellow blogger, Hudhuhan’dhu, published her dissenting opinion on this matter last night, with a few hours to spare before the MPs hit the button to say yes to killing freedom of expression.

What does the new legislation do to ‘protect religion’?

It prohibits any speech and opinion that mocks Islam, and that which questions the validity of its origins. These are provisions already covered by the Maldives Constitution; and this is not an argument against the Constitution but a dissection of a Bill that infringes on the rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

What is problematic in this new law here, therefore, is its regulation of speech to protect the ‘religious unity’ of Maldivians. It will be an offence to ‘destroy’ this unity, and express opinions that would ‘create religious thoughts, divisions [and] fitna’.

The said ‘religious unity’ is not defined.

Today’s Maldivian society is not religiously uniform, apart from adherence to Constitutional requirement to be Muslims. An increasing number of Maldivians follow Salafism, some adhere to the Wahhabi variant, others follow different ideological paths of the Salafi spectrum: some are purists, others apolitical or conservative, quietists, quietist-rejectionists, activist-challengers, and of course, Salafi-Jihadists. Many of them are calling each other non-Muslims and fighting amongst themselves. Another large segment of the population are so far out of the Salafi circle.

So what imagined ‘religious unity’ are we talking about here?

More importantly, what form of ‘religious unity’ is the government intending to impose on the population with the use of this law? The legislation will find anyone who attempts to disseminate religious knowledge without the permission of the Islamic Ministry in breach of this law – which of the religious segments will get approval? Whose voices are going to be cut off, who is going to be fined, and who will be thrown into jail? Given the close ties the government has formed with Saudi Arabia, and the ‘religious unity’ agreement signed between the two countries, it is very likely that this new legislation will pave the way for Saudi Arabian religious practices, and only those religious practices, to be allowed in the Maldives.

(2) Protection of national security

This includes opinions that incite acts of terrorism or armed aggression, which is fair enough, if applied fairly.

What is extremely worrying is the prohibition of ‘opinions that damage national security or sovereignty’.

What does such an opinion entail? According to the law, this would be measured by whether or not the opinion expressed is accepted or not as a threat to national security by a sane person.

This is terribly vague.

How sane does the person have to be? Is everybody equally sane, or are there varying degrees of sanity? Does every ‘sane person’ have a uniform agreement on what a national security-threatening opinion looks/sounds like? Does every sane person have the same opinion of what national security is?

Some people (I believe with a certain degree of sanity, at least enough to seem to lead a functional life) believe that talking of the corruption rife among senior figures in government—even with proof—creates disharmony among the public, which leads to public disorder (peaceful protests), which are then seen by this ostensibly sane people as a threat to national security. Or, sane people have also deemed those who supposedly summon Jinnis to locate bombs visible only to the paranoid eye as threats to national security…With a definition as vague as this, even the supernatural may not escape this law. How then can normal democratic rights hope to survive?

(3) Protection of an individual’s right to a good name

This is a basic right, guaranteed by Article 33 of the Constitution.

This new law jumps on top of the Constitutional guarantee and criminalises the publication of a false statement that damages the reputation of another; retains the right for the damaged party to pursue the case in civil court; and clarifies that people are free to publish statements that may damage the reputation of an institution but not those who run it, or work in it.

For example, people may speak of alleged corruption in—say the Sadhagath Foundation run by the First Lady, but cannot state or imply that the corruption has anything to do with the Lady who runs it. What is most worrying, apart from the criminalisation of defamation, is the lack of exemptions and protections provided by this law to those whose profession it is to talk about other people and their activities. These will be addressed later in this analysis.

(4) Protection of norms

This is a funny one, with more holes in it than a piece of Swiss cheese.

First, ‘norms’ are socially constructed, they are constantly transforming with cultural shifts, changing beliefs and other temporal and physical factors. What is normal at this moment in time is not what was normal in the past, and not what will be normal in the future. What is normal also changes from person to person.

According to this law, it is a crime to express opinions that are contrary to how people ‘normally behave’ in society, or opinions that are against how people would normally behave in public places, or against the behavioural norms that people would normally follow, or against how a media with responsibility to serve the public would normally act, or against the codes of conduct that would be publicly followed.

Would. What are these abstract standards that normal people would follow in an imagined normal society? Who are these paragons of normality that are not seen but would uphold these standards if they did exist?

There are some guidelines for keeping on the right side of this imagined community. Don’t: incite damage to person and property; express opinions that incite harm to a person, life, or property; advertise alcohol and drugs; expose any material deemed as ‘secret’ by any regulation; publicise any material that facilitates a negative perception in society of ‘women, people with special needs and children’; express opinions that encourage sexual and obscene activity; and engage in talk, within hearing distance of minors under 18 years of age, that would negatively influence their thinking.

Where would the authorities even begin policing the last two?

Who is not allowed to express opinions that encourage sexual activity? Would it apply to flirting between courting couples who are consenting adults? What is obscene activity? In today’s Maldivian society, even holding hands by unmarried men and women can be considered obscene by some people — would that mean jail time?

And who are these adults not allowed to talk in ways that would negatively influence minors? Would it apply to the parents of these children? Or does it have to be a stranger? What is considered negative influence? Can a discussion about Pokemon Go—deemed by some religious authorities as un-Islamic—lead to punishment under this law? Can talk of the Maldivian Idol? Kim Kardashian? ‘The West’? Mohamed Nasheed? Democracy?

What is defamation?

What this law defines as defamation is: publication of a statement whether spoken written, drawn, illustrated, or gestured that can be depicted, thought of, or inferred as damaging to a person’s reputation in the eyes of a third person or society at large.

Notice there is a very important word missing from this definition: false. In all definitions of defamation I have come across, it is the publication of a false statement that is the key, pre-eminent word. In this piece of legislation, the word is introduced only in the second clause of the Article (11) which defines it. Clause (b) goes on to say that the definition of defamation includes the publication of a false statement that lowers a person’s standing in the eyes of right-thinking members of society, or has a negative impact on the regard right-thinking members of society have for that person, or causes right-thinking people to hate the person, or leads to the person’s ostracisation. Clause (c) clarifies that such statements do not have to be clearly stated – they can also be implied.

This definition is not too different from most definitions of the offence as accepted in many democratic societies. What is missing are the many qualifications that usually come with this definition. One such example is, how will the identity of the implied recipient of the defamatory statement be established? No such provisions are given.

Publication

In most defamation law in democratic societies, a statement is regarded as published if a third person—a person other than that to whom the defamatory statement was addressed—is made aware of the said statement in the various ways specified.

In this law, however, publication is regarded as making such a statement—be it in writing, speech, illustration, picture, or audio—in a way that can be seen, heard, thought of, or inferred by the public. Publication also includes acts and gestures made in public view that can be felt and inferred as defamatory.

This to me suggests this law is not about the protection of an individual’s right to their good name, in which case the making of such a statement to even one other person would be regarded as defamatory. That it has to be made publicly, to the public at large, suggests the purpose of the law is more to restrict organs of public speech—such as the media and other public fora. To protect public figures who the media would talk about.

This becomes more evident in light of Clause (3) of Article 12, which goes on to say: publication also includes online newspapers, blog spots, websites, social media, registered newspapers and magazines, unregistered newspapers and magazines, and broadcasting via radio and television.

If this law was about the protection of an individual’s right to their good name, these specifications would have not been necessary – saying that any third person hearing/seeing a false statement made by an individual against another that damages the reputation of the latter would have been sufficient.

Damages

Those seeking damages in defamation cases, according to this law, have one recourse: the existing law on providing damages in defamation. In the original draft, as proposed by Dawood, the Attorney General was to have been given three months from the ratification of this law to make the necessary amendments to existing laws on damages.

Yesterday, during last minute changes brought by the parliamentary committee, this three month grace period was done away with. As passed by the parliamentary committee, the awarding of new damages will start from the moment the President ratifies this law. Apparently it matters little that no legal mechanisms to do so will exist.

Defences

Here, where the law should perhaps be strongest, is where it is at its weakest. As is found in defamation laws in most democratic countries, there are no absolute privileges—instances where the intentions of the publisher of the alleged defamatory statement is irrelevant and is therefore absolutely exempt from prosecution. What is said in parliament and in courts, for example, often fall into the category of absolute privilege—no matter how malicious the person who made the statement is being, and how untrue the allegation made might be, if they are made during a session, they are exempt. And this applies to the journalists who report these defamatory statements accurately and contemporaneously.

In the law that will be passed by the Majlis today, even these privileges—called ‘official privileges’—are qualified. Statements made in the parliament, Majlis and Cabinet, are protected only if they are made ‘according to the relevant regulations and codes of conduct’. The dangers of having these qualifications in a country such as the Maldives is that Judges, the Majlis Speaker, and the President, can change the accepted rules and codes of conduct st any given moment—right in the middle of an alleged session or even a defamatory statement—making the defendant immediately liable for libel.

Other ‘Official privileges’ include statements made and documents exchanged during an investigation by an official authority; and publications by the Majlis or a court.

Statements made, and material publicised during and for the purposes of education or in the pursuit of knowledge in schools by teachers, educators, experts, technocrats and other such figures—with good intention—is included and protected as freedom of expression.

Accurate coverage of and discussions related to these statements made under ‘official privileges’ can be accepted as a defence against defamation, as are coverage of and discussions related to official publications by a foreign organisation, court, or legislative body.

Exemptions

Interestingly, the new law has a [very short] section titled “Instances that cannot be considered as national security threats”. There is just one: Peaceful activities in support of or against various issues, carried out according to legal standards outlined by this law, while exercising the legal rights accorded to citizens and are conducted within legal boundaries cannot be considered as expressions of opinions that threaten national security.

Did you catch a glimpse of the rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution sandwiched somewhere in there between the many conditions and qualifications?

The second clause in this section deals with defences in expressing opinions that threaten national security: ‘expressing an opinion that calls for protection of a circumstance unrelated to national security’ [I did not make this up - this is a verbatim translation]; and, expressing an opinion that says a government institution must not have the opportunity to keep its operations secret.

Seriously – that is how far freedom of expression stretches—the right to say that an institution must be transparent. Other than that—for example, name the leader of the said institution and say he or she should not be allowed to keep the institution’s operations a secret—expect to be done for breach of national security.

There is similarly another very short section which is titled – Instances that would not be considered defamatory. These are when the statement made or opinion expressed is truth; when the statement made or the opinion expressed is made with due respect, in an official, or intellectual way, or at such a forum; and, when the statement made or the opinion expressed is to carry out an official responsibility or duty and is made with protection of the law.

A last minute addition, made yesterday evening, included a provision that can be seen as a nod to artistic license: a film, drama, song, story or any other production that does not refer to a particular person, based on fictitious events, produced with sufficient notice, will not be regarded as defamatory.

It cannot be argued that the truth is an absolute defence to defamation. But what are the other clauses doing here? Since when did due respect become a term defined in law? And what is ‘an intellectual way’? Will discussions on media by experts be regarded as intellectual, or are experts to confine their discussions to classrooms only? Can journalistic analyses and commentary be regarded as carrying out an official responsibility, or would ‘official’ capacity be defined as only those working for the government, or a body of the State? Why is there such an emphasis on protection of the ‘official’, and not much about the protection of the individual when the law is supposed to protect an individual’s right to their good name? To who should notice be given of someone’s intention to write a song? A book? And what is ‘sufficient notice’?

Responsibilities of the Media

That there is an entire section detailing the responsibilities of the media is telling.

Also tellingly, it starts with an Article titled, ‘Determining Punishments for the Media’:

If a media that commits any of the ‘crimes outlined in this law’ is a registered media organisation, it should be notified and the following actions must be taken when a complaint is lodged against the said organisation at the state institution responsible for the oversight of that organisation, or if the institution decides to investigate the media under its own initiative:

The organisation must be warned, and the warning made public; and the organisation must be instructed to withdraw the document, news, report, video, or a video/audio broadcast, or to release a statement to that effect or to apologise.

A repeat offender will be suspended or their programme schedule will be interrupted for a certain period. In addition to the said actions, the state institution must also fine the media organisation which publishes a defamatory statement between MVR50,000 and MVR 2 million. The accused media organisation is allowed to exercise its right to appeal – but only once the fine has been paid.

Very generously, the law says that if [in the very unlikely event, of course, given the judiciary] the appeal hearing finds in favour of the media organisation, the institution must refund the imposed fine.

One of the highlights of this clause dealing with the fine is that these fines go not to the individual concerned but to the state institution with oversight of the offending media organisation.

So much for a defamation bill that protects an individual’s constitutional right to a good name. In this case, why is the individual not being given the damages? Whose right exactly is being violated here? Or more importantly, whose right are the makers of this law expecting to be ‘violated’ by this law?

What happens when the media organisation cannot fork out the millions it must pay the state for damaging the reputation of an individual? Must that person be linked to the State?

The state oversight body must report the organisation to the police, an investigation must be conducted, and the police must send the case to the Prosecutor General. If the media organisation fails to pay the fine imposed within the time period decided on by the court, the court must jail the reporter who authored the statement for between three and six months.

The section also has a specific clause dealing with statements made at ‘meetings, forums and podiums’. It is described as a defence of reporting such statements, but is in fact an obstruction of it.

It starts by saying that balanced reporting, without distorting the meaning of, statements made at podiums, forums and meetings, having secured a response from the person the report is about, is a defence in defamation.

It goes further, saying: ‘not being able to contact the said person and therefore being unable to get a response from them cannot be considered a part of this defence’.

That the law makes it a point to say that reports of what is said on podiums and other such fora must be brought ‘without distorting the meaning of’ reveals just how much this law is intended to specifically protect one person: President Yameen.

The man has a habit of lashing out at the public when he addresses them from such venues—palpitating at podiums, if you like. Very often these tirades involve him putting his foot in his mouth. It then takes two Spokespersons—the Dhivehi term for this being rather aptly— Tharujamaanu, or Interpreter—to explain to the public (one to the Dhivehi speaking citizens, and the other to the English speaking international community) what the President really meant to say. This new law will force the media to wait until the two spokesmen untangle what the President actually said from what he intended to say. Or face a hefty fine, or jail.

The clause which requires, under all circumstances, that reporters wait for a response from the person about whom a report is being made is totally unfeasible in the modern media environment of rapidly revolving news cycles, and social media. A common tactic of politicians is to avoid phone calls for explanations—so, if the media cannot get hold of a politician who is deliberately hiding from them, the story must go unreported for days, even months? What about the activists on Twitter and Facebook? Must they wait for the spokespersons to provide the real meaning of something before they comment on what was said at the podium? Or spend six months in jail for 140 characters which quoted the President, or some ‘Honourable Member’ wrong? Or pay out MVR 150,000 for saying it was the President’s left foot rather than his right foot that was jammed into his mouth last time he lashed out?

Whistleblowing

Reporting, or expressing an opinion to reveal a crime being committed in an institution; an act being carried out or had been carried out that endangers the health or life of a person; to reveal an act committed by an institution that endangers the environment; and to reveal hidden illegal activities are not considered as defamatory.

Small mercies.

Wonder what the young Bank of Maldives employee, Gasim Abdul Kareem, who languished in jail for six months for revealing the massive MMPRC corruption, would make of it?

Power of Investigation and Punishment for Offenders

If a statement is made that causes damage to someone’s reputation by an individual who is not part of a registered media organisation, or if someone believes that the said statement has damaged his or her reputation, the plaintiff can report the matter directly to the police. And the police must investigate and send a file to the Prosecutor General for prosecution.

The new changes brought last minute by the parliamentary committee in charge of reviewing the law also added the incredible clause that if a defamatory statement is included in the broadcasting of a live event, the person on the receiving end of the said statement has the right to request the media organisation in question to stop the broadcast. If an individual makes such a complaint to a media organisation, it must immediately stop the live broadcast. If not, the organisation will be punished according to the stipulations of the new law. All broadcasting content produced in the Maldives, and abroad, must conform to the regulations, or face prosecution and punishment. Refusal to name journalistic sources is also to be a criminal offence, in direct violation of the Constitution.

In terms of punishment, if a person is found to have expressed an opinion that violates a basic tenet of Islam, the person will be punished under the relevant provisions of the Penal Code; if found in breach of religious preaching or education regulations as outlined in this law, they will be punished under the Religious Unity Law (6/94).

Individuals, who do not belong to a media organisation found guilty of the crime of defamation will be fined between MVR 25,000 and 2 million for defamatory statements and opinions that violate national security. A late change was also made yesterday evening which said that in imposing a fine for expressing opinions that violate the norm, the said individual’s standing in society, and the media by which the said opinion was expressed, must be taken into consideration.

Apart from the crime of breaching norms, for which media organisations must be fined between MVR50,000 and 1 million, all other offences will set them back by between MVR50,000 and 2 million. Individual journalists will be fined between MVR50 and 150,000. Unpaid fines for individuals will mean jail, and appeals will not be allowed until fines are paid in full. For media organisations, says the latest changes made yesterday evening, it would mean suspension or revoking of their licenses.

The lawmakers touted ‘other European countries which has criminal defamation laws’ as a justification for rejecting international criticism of these draconian new restriction on Maldivian freedom of expression. It is true, several states criminalise defamation. And, they too, face criticism from international organisations fighting for the right to freedom of expression everywhere. The difference is, the defamation laws in these countries also come with many protections of free speech: privileges that are absolute and qualified; recognition of honestly held opinions, not just stark divisions between true/false opinions; exemptions for journalistic, artistic, and other creative fields; protections for satire, and literature; opportunities to make amends; defences of fair publication; instances where ‘public interest’ is seen as outweighing an individual’s right to a good name; statements made without malice; allowances made for good faith; innocent publications; varying degrees of remedies, and damages to be paid out. This law contains no such nuances, no room for manoeuvre – only innocents and criminals. Reporters and the reported on, respectively, that is. Black/white, good/bad. That’s it.

People’s rights buried by people’s representatives

The above is a not so brief discussion of what is contained in the new law about to be passed by a majority of the people’s representatives in Majlis, who sit there in the air-conditioned chambers, paid in excess of MVR80,000 a month by the people to advocate for and protect their rights.

The law rolls back freedoms that Article 27 of our Constitution guarantees us. And, it is doing so in violation of Article 16 of the Constitution which says the rights guaranteed by the Constitution can only be limited by a law ‘enacted by the People’s Majlis in a manner that is not contrary to this Constitution’, and that any law enacted by the Majlis ‘can limit the rights and freedoms to any extent only if demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.’

The Maldives is no longer a free and democratic society. It does not have an independent judiciary, nor an independent Majlis. Laws that curtail constitutional freedoms cannot be justifiably made in such an environment, by a Majlis that is corrupt, that pays no heed to the people and their representatives in opposition, and remains above all checks and balances required by a democratic society.

Maldives Inc.

HulhuMaleDredging

by Azra Naseem

We are gathered here today at a time of potential crisis confronting our planet and its population, the crisis of environmental destruction man has invoked upon himself. Man’s action over many centuries have transmuted the natural order of his environment to the point where the whole world is ensnared in the consequences. As the scale of man’s intervention in nature increased, the scope of nature’s repercussions have multiplied. Consequences of the actions of individual nations have reverberated globally, and all mankind’s present and future generations may suffer the penalties for the errors of a few. - President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, 42nd Session of the UN General Assembly, 19 October 1987

Twenty years on from Gayoom’s landmark speech at the UN, the scale of ‘man’s intervention in nature’ has risen to unprecedented levels in the Maldives. The present and future generations of the Maldives will, without a doubt, suffer what Gayoom described as the ‘errors of the few’, now led by his brother Yameen Abdul Gayoom.

Maldives today is a capitalist dream. Mega development projects that aspire to ‘change the very map of the country’ are underway across the length and breadth of the 1200 islands spread across roughly 90,000 square kilometres of the Indian Ocean. No less than ten dredging projects are ongoing, reclaiming land at the expense of the coral.

Addu 2006/2016 Photo: @ahmedzahid

A bridge is being built to connect Male’ the capital with the island of Hulhule’, home to the country’s main Ibrahim Nasir International Airport. It matters not that the island is only a 10 minute boat ride away, five minutes on a speed boat. Already connected to Hulhule’ is the aritifical island of Hulhumale’, two square kilometres of land dredged from the ocean to alleviate the extreme overcrowding in Male’ which is home to over 150,000 people. Recently, Hulhumale’ has been expanded further to connect it to the island of Farukolhufushi, once a small tourist resort.

There is talk that once the ‘China-Maldives Friendship Bridge’ is completed, the construction of a new bridge may begin, connecting Male’ to Villingili, another ‘suburb’ of Male’ where close to 7000 people live on 0.3 square kilometres, unable to find accommodation on the capital. Together, Male’, Hulhumale’, and Villingili is to become The Greater Male’ Area where at least 70 per cent of the population is to live.

The Nasir Airport will be developed to cater to at least 7 million tourists by 2018, the government has said. Contracts to develop new terminals have been awarded to two state-aligned foreign companies: the Binladin Group of Saudi Arabia and China’s Beijing Urban Construction Group. The Beijing company will build a new 3.2 kilometre runway, a fuel farm, and a cargo complex for which the Maldives government secured a US$373 million concessionary loan from the Chinese EXIM Bank. The Binladin Group, which will build a new passenger terminal for an undisclosed amount, was recently suspended by Saudi Arabia for the Mecca crane disaster.

Meanwhile, the Chinese company building the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, CCCC Second Harbour Engineering Company for US$210 million, is blacklisted by the World Bank for fraudulent practices elsewhere. Almost all workers on the bridge are Chinese. The north eastern corner of Male’ from where the bridge starts is now occupied by Chinese workers.  What was once the most popular recreation area for the people of congested Male’ is now off limits to them, reserved for prefab housing for the Chinese workers who have moved in with entire families. The nearby Artificial Beach has become a popular spot for their leisure, leaving little room for locals who have found themselves crowded out of yet another rare open space.

Where big red ugly platforms for the new bridge now rise from the sea once rose majestic waves, which had earned the area its name: Varunulaa Raalhugan’du – Uninterrupted Waves. Raalhugan’du was a popular surf spot where international award winning surfers rode the waves or spent the day watching them in an area of the beach they cleaned, grew a garden in, and enjoyed the beauty of nature Maldives has to offer. Today surfers get arrested for surfing, protests lead to jail and the government’s promise that it will arrange free transport to alternative surfing spots has turned out to be empty. Waveless and ‘homeless’, the surfers despair of ever getting back their way of life.

 

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CoNI and the Coup III: The Legacy

by Azra Naseem

rayyithunge vote

If there is a particular event which can be pointed to as the beginning of the end of Maldives’ peaceful transition to democracy, the acceptance of the 2012 CONI report as a way forward can be described as such. This document, supported and endorsed by the international community, declared the transition of power on 7 February 2012 as legitimate and devoid of wrongdoing. In so doing, it created the conditions for the emergence of the present Maldives: a place of injustice, endemic corruption and, as described by Maldivian writer, Latheefa Ahmed Verall, tragically lacking a moral radar. The CoNI report  made it necessary for tens of thousands of outraged democracy supporters to at least be seen to be accepting its findings – in the name of democratic leadership, statesmanship, and stability.

The task ahead for all Maldivians must be to strengthen democracy in the Maldives. An atmosphere of peace and public order is essential for that to happen.

The Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma, said, admiring the CoNI findings.

Those who rushed to endorse CoNI refused to let proof of the Commission’s failures and backroom deals get in the way of the ‘stability’ it promised by getting ‘all sides to remain peaceful’. When Ahmed Saeed (Gahaa) spoke of the many problems with CoNI, his words were made to have no consequence. The call for dialogue—with those who resorted to a coup to overthrow an elected government—drowned out the angry cry for the right to a democratically elected government. It gave authoritarian forces room on international platforms to reiterate its legitimacy repeatedly, borrowing from the CoNI findings: “there was no illegal coercion or intimidation nor any coup d’état.”

It is time to stop questioning the legitimacy of the government. It is time to stop illegal activities and activities that go against generally acceptable social norms,

Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik, the president bearing the Commonwealth seal of approval said when the report came out.

The Commission’s findings are clearly stated. I do not believe there is any room to raise any questions about the transfer of power.

To be able to say that, with the approval of the international community, was the sole purpose of the CoNI exercise. This is very clear from the fact that now, well into the fourth year since the report was published, no one remembers what else CoNI said. The Commission has long since been dissolved, its website taken off the Internet, along with its report. To recall the report’s ignored contents, it called for urgent investigations into allegations of police brutality, reform of Maldives’ democratic institutions including the Maldives Police Service and the Police Integrity Commission, the judiciary and the Judicial Services Commission, the Majlis and the Human Rights Commission. It recommended national reconciliation.

None of this has happened.

There have been changes, yes. The Human Rights Commission and the Police Integrity Commission mentioned in the report were dismantled and new government-friendly/-bought members installed in them. The Judicial Services Commission remains an unequal den of greedy authoritarian loyalists kow-towing to the government and the Majlis. The People’s Majlis itself is now the engine that fuels government power using a heavy majority to draft and pass legislation to serve the very purpose.

Consolidating power in one party, one candidate, one fist.

In legitimising the coup, the CoNI and its report created the space for all that has followed: the continuation of Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik’s presidency beyond even constitutional limits; the reigning in of civil and political rights; the Supreme Court interventions to steal the 2013 election; the browbeating (and the brutal beating) of people into acceptance of the election results as fair; the corruption that bought the Majlis 2014 election; the stifling of the civil society and the pushing out from public space all civil actors and activists; the hijacking of all powers of government by the executive; the authoritarian pivot in foreign policy away from democratic states and organisations; the unsustainable development at the cost of environment, culture and identity; and the blanket lawlessness of everyday life.

A more in-depth look at the current functioning and character of the key institutions CoNI recommended extensive changes to confirms reform has not yet reached even the germination stage as an idea in Yameen’s head.

The Judiciary, Majlis & oversight bodies

MaldivesPoliceElections2013The CoNI report said if Maldivians chose stability over rights, it could get the following: a reformed judiciary which ‘enjoys public confidence’. Confidence in the Maldivian justice system has never been as low as it is now. As former JSC member Aishath Velezinee has provided ample evidence for, judicial reform requires nothing short of a return to Article 285 of the Constitution, and a reversal of the Article to its rightful place as a constitutional stipulation that must be abided by, instead of being allowed to remain cast aside as ‘symbolic’.

With this evidence in hand, the government must be challenged in its frequent rhetoric that punishment is meted out by ‘courts of justice’ – there are no courts of justice in the Maldives, only ones of political games and vengeance, underpinned by increasingly dogmatic ideologies.

In the almost four years since the CoNI report, courts have been blatantly political, not just stealing elections but also colluding with the government and its majority-led parliament to define, apply, convict and sentence political dissent as ‘terrorism’. It has put people with followers and ambitions for leadership behind bars one after another—Mohamed Nazim the former defence minister and key figure in CoNI’s ’legal transition of power’; former president Mohamed Nasheed; Sheikh Imran Abdulla, leader of Adhaalath Party and one-time supposedly divinely ordained Kingmaker among them. The former Prosecutor General, Muhuthaz Muhsin, too, is behind bars as is the former Vice President Ahmed Adeeb along with other middling Enemies of the President. The government claims these are punishments ordered by courts of law unrelated to the executive. The spin thinly masks these are punishments handed out by groups of men in robes, working alone or in groups, paid for by the government, to punish whom they deem enemies whichever way they wish.

The courts fail in justice not only in political cases but also in assuring the general public a fair society in which to live. The sentencing patterns of the courts are so erratic observers can be forgiven for thinking the various judgements are coming from jurisdictions with different laws and constitutions. Men who murder can walk free of charge while petty shoplifters get dozens of years behind bars; wife-beaters get lighter sentences than pickpockets; and protesting can get indefinite detention at the discretion of a judge. Last year, a magistrate court judge sentenced a woman to death by stoning. The sentence was quickly overturned by the High Court, but not before it exposed the lack of uniformity and ideological unity within the judiciary.

Colluding with the government and the judiciary in denying justice to the people are the constitutional bodies set up to step up when any branches of power fail or misbehave. At present, leaders of this government stand accused—with evidence—of record levels of corruption. US$ 79 million went missing from the Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC) when Vice President Adeeb was leading it (along with the Ministry of Tourism and the Enviornmental Protection Agency, too).

for saleThe only natural resources the Maldives has—born of its fragile environment of immense beauty—are being sold rapidly. Reefs, coral gardens, surf spots, diving sites, lagoons, islands gone, bartered away, shut off to the people. The money gained from the sales have been siphoned off in millions, distributed in bundles of dollars, handed out by Adeeb and accepted with grabbing arms by greedy politicians who entered the Majlis on the people’s vote to rob them blind. The government accepts this money is gone from the MMPRC coffers, but has chosen to deal with the matter by saying “the buck stops at Adeeb”.

The young 32-year-old Adeeb, hoisted onto the peak of political power by Yameen, liked to flash his cash; lived the highlife; loved the limelight; had a weakness for the adoration his money won from women; agreed to everything Yameen wanted and carried out his bidding to the letter. He is now being tried for those same instructions he loyally followed.

No one is independent. Not the judiciary, not the Majlis, not constitutionally mandated independent bodies.

The Maldives Police Service

RilwanDyingRegimeThe Maldives Police Service is another institution the CoNI report highlighted. The MPS has been constantly deteriorating in service and function for the last four years. Their mutiny on 7 February, and the role it played in the change of power is well documented. As is their brutality on 8 February 2012, and on many occasions since.

During Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik’s caretaker presidency, all that was wrong within MPS was lauded as patriotic national duties. Given the immunity and the impunity with which they were allowed to operate, their abject failure to serve and to protect people today should come as no surprise. Three young men are missing, taken without trace. The high profile case of Ahmed Rilwan remains unsolved, as does the murder of Dr Afrasheem Ali, incidents that disturbed the collective Maldivian psyche. Policelife, an online police magazine, shows numerous activities with puzzling names “Ready Camps” (type and content of courses uknown) targeting adolescent chidlren, awareness classes, futsal lessons, respect camps and other numerous activities that–at least at first glance–don’t have much to do with general policing as such. Trusting there is no hidden agenda is asking for too much given the last four years. When it comes to crime, today it is often hard to separate perpetrator and policeman. Yameen himself accused the police of widespread corruption. His ‘solution’ was to remove then Police Commissioner Hussein Waheed, the fall-guy on this occasion. The allegations remain un-investigated. The buck stopped, as it is designed to do, one step behind Yameen. Since Friday night last week, police are allegedly engaged in gang-warfare — as a warring faction, not as a police force stopping their activities.

There have already been three murders in 2016. The police–if no the entire force than the most powerful parts of it–remain inept, corrupt and, often, brutal.

Governing for stability

Recall what the Commonwealth Secretary General said. In accepting the CoNI report in place of the chaotic fight for democratic rights, what was being created was, “An atmosphere of peace and public order [ ] essential” for strengthening democracy.

It was wrong. Maldives today cannot be any less conducive to democracy. The entire criminal justice system, most of Maldives National Defence Force, and all key independent institutions are under the control of the government, as just discussed. The focus is not on a government of the people, but a government of and by the dollar for the dollar.

GodBridgeAt a time when the government should be reeling from not just the millions lost in the MMPRC loot, but also the possible US$900 million price tag on the GMR fiasco, the it remains eager to flash the cash. The government has signed a deal for a US$150 million 25 storey high hospital in Male’ with a swimming pool. It will be built by a Singapore company. A new 25 floor government building is to be constructed in Male’ by a Malaysian company. Together the twin towers are worth US$260 million. Additionally there is the US$210 million China Male’ Friendship Bridge, which has already claimed Male’s beloved surf-spot, Raalhu Gan’du, and a diving site as victims. Numerous other projects continue for a few million here and a billion there. Development without consciousness – measured only by the dollar and the mortar alone – is taking place at breakneck speed.

NihanCorruptionMembers of the higher-ranking officials put materialism at the forefront, buying people with cheap diversions and superfluous amusements while they open up the entire country, including its biosphere reserves, for sale. Keep your eyes on the fireworks and LED lights, there is nothing to see here. The government, its so-called ‘elite’ and its faithful followers are bound by a common goal: instant gratification. PPM MPs upload images of their Rolexes, Montblanc pens and BMWs on Instagram and Twitter – brash consumerism as status symbol. They ask why accepting bribes are a problem – what is wrong with paying an MP to be loyal? The President himself is nonchalant, admitting money was distributed. “Who in there right mind, when handed a bag of cash, would ask where it came from?”, he asked.

The former Auditor General Niyaz Ibrahim who, like Gahaa Saeed, told it like it is, has evidence the rot starts at the top. But, Niayz’s words, like those of others who speak out (Velezinee, Gahaa Saeed, and Fuwad Thaufeek to name some) are being actively unheard, made to be of no consequence.

Meanwhile, science is taking a backseat to the supernatural with Jinnis leading major national security issues; sorcery and black-magic is made government policy; national monuments are moved to ward off evil; and many text books in use work to narrow, not expand, intellectual inquiry. People are paying to have demons exorcised, subscribing to blood letting rituals advertised on Facebook by ‘religious folk’, and going off to war in Syria to escape from the ‘land of sin’. The Supreme Court is taking on international rights bodies, ruling out human rights in the name of Islam and Muslims, openly subscribing to the ideology that Islam and democracy are mutually exclusive.

While strengthening authoritarianism at home, the government has also actively sought to cut ties with western democracy advocates such as the Commonwealth, the UN, Amnesty International, the EU, the UK, the US and several European countries. The President’s Office has been adamant in shouting down the influence of ‘The West’, questioning its right to ‘interfere’ in the ‘internal affairs’ of a democratic Muslim country, meddling in their ‘uniquely small-island’ sovereignty.

The Foreign Ministry’s message is often in discord with Yameen’s, perhaps not without design. Led by niece Dunya Maumoon, the Ministry likes to be a player in western-led international fora, taking the podium to laud Maldivian achievements for women, equality and justice. Standing on the platform of elected legitimacy endorsed by CoNI, government representatives talk democracy, their images photoshopped clean of authoritarianism by highly-paid and mercenary international public relations firms. These representatives whose spoken words have little relation to the reality of their actions at home, take the international stage to lead the world on human rights. They talk about ‘an infant democracy’ with teething problems that needs to be measured by a different yardstick than that applied to established democracies. The source of this hubris is the claim, endorsed by CoNI and the international community, that theirs is a legitimate government in power based on rule of law.

CoNI, Commonwealth, and CMAG

P1020635The Maldives is going to be called up to the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) on 6 April. CMAG is set up to deal with serious or persistent violations of the Commonwealth’s values. The last time they met, on 24 February–despite all the flagrant violations of democratic principles outlined above which all took place in full view of the world–CMAG wasn’t ready to put the Maldives on its agenda. Instead it gave the government around 40 days in which to bring about changes that have already been asked for and wilfully ignored for almost four years. Dunya Maumoon said it was ‘an endorsement of President Abdulla Yameen’s policy on democracy consolidation‘, and she has a point.

Yameen boasted shortly after the CMAG decision that his influence on India and Pakistan before the February meeting had secured their cooperation in stopping CMAG from taking action against the Maldives. This shows India as committed to continuing its support for stability over democratic rights in the Maldives. It’s a continuation of the same policy which allowed the instalment and subsequent legitimisation of Waheed as President via CoNI.

According to the CMAG statement, these weeks have been given to the Maldives to seek reconciliation and pursue multiparty dialogue “led by the Government with democratic will” that should be “inclusive, purposeful, time-bound and forward-looking”. Fact is, there is no democratic will in those currently governing the Maldives; nothing inclusive, purposeful, or forward looking in its policies. Government officials speak of ‘annihilation of the opposition’, ‘their destruction’ not of non-partisan political dialogue inclusive of different opinions. To give the Maldives a few weeks in which to magically bid this democratic will out of nowhere is an exercise which serves no purpose. Except perhaps give government officials time to lobby necessary countries and grease some palms before the April meeting. CMAG in this instance was described as ‘toothless’ even by the Commonwealth’s own Human Rights Initiative which recognised democratic transition in the Maldives has long since ground to a halt and is not tottering along at a suitably infant pace as many claim.

The Maldivian democracy movement, and its society in general, did not arrive at this state of affairs all by itself. It was directed to this route and guided along it by the international community which, when dealing with the Maldives in times of coup d’état, put stability before everything else, including the principles of democracy.

This is not to say CoNI is to blame for everything wrong with Maldivian governance today, but to say that its findings made possible the conditions in which the current authoritarian regime could be legitimised. In doing so, it helped bring about–in the name of democracy–an end to Maldives’ first attempt at democratic transition.

Will CMAG hinder or help Maldives democracy on 6 April?


CoNI & the Coup 1: Constructing the truth

CoNI & the Coup 2: Law as an instrument of political power


 

Photos 1, 2 and 4 from this dying regime | Photo 3 Romolini Estate Agency | 5 & 6 social media, source unknown | 7 Own