/ Comment Piece

Freedom of speech under attack in the Maldives

Raajje TV, the only pro-democracy television station in the Maldives was set on fire early this morning in Male’. All broadcasting equipment, bar a video camera have been destroyed in the attack, Raajje TV has reported.


This latest attack is part of systematic state-sponsored violence against institutions that support democracy in the Maldives. The attack on Raajje TV is not unexpected—it has been made inevitable by leading players of the current regime, especially the security forces, led by Maldives Police Service. Police Commissioner Abdulla Riyaz, educated to first degree level at the dubious Scottish Police College has led the charge against Raajje TV. He first announced a policy of non-cooperation with all Raajje TV journalists shortly after the 7 February 2012 coup. CP Riyaz’s lead was followed by President Mohamed Waheed, who also banned Raajje TV journalists from various state functions, basically outlawing the channel as an illegal organisation. Police and other institutions have done nothing to find the perpetrators of the brutal attack, an attempted murder, of Raajje TV journalist Asward Waheed earlier this year further encouraging attacks on the channel.

Raajje Tv’s crime is supporting Maldivian Democratic Party and democracy in the Maldives by bringing news of the dictators’ clamp down on all democracy activists.

The Maldivian television landscape is one dominated by private ownership by rich political figures where television stations do not even pretend to be unbiased. Raajje TV is pro-MDP and is the only channel which covers the daily protests and other continuous activities across the Maldives to halt the authoritarian reversal currently underway. Its blatant support of MDP is the only form of a balanced view that people have access to given what the rest of the channels broadcast. These stations include: the supposed state broadcaster MNBC One, DhiTV owned by Champa Ucchu, a tourism operator and one of the main financiers of the coup, and VTV owned by Gasim Ibrahim, the failed presidential candidate and tourism tycoon who also bankrolled the coup and is the chief cause of the Current Maldivian crisis.

One of the first actions by coup-makers on 7 February 2012 was to takeover the state television station using mutinying security forces. Within minutes, they renamed the station TVM, the name it operated under during Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s autocratic regime. The station was quickly put under the control of Ali Waheed, President Waheed’s brother, and apart from the series of special programmes and presidential debates broadcast in the run up to the elections, it has been totally inept at performing the role of public watchdog that it is supposed to.

Gasim’s VTV and Champa’s DhiTV, meanwhile, daily broadcast lies and anti- MDP propaganda, and provides live coverage of various anti-MDP campaigns their owners organise aimed at denigrating MDP as a terrorist organisation. Both channels are keen to also broadcast ‘religious sermons’ [condoned by the Maldives Broadcasting Commission as within ethical media practice] that are nothing but political messages aimed at inciting hatred against democracy activists and actions in the name of Allah and the protection of Maldivian nationalism.

Both VTV and DhiTV played a crucial role in enabling and encouraging the police mutiny against Nasheed’s government on 7 February 2012. Statements given to CoNI by various policemen who participated in the mutiny reveal that they were mainly driven by false news broadcast live on the two channels—they heard from these ‘news sources’ that a policeman had been killed; that MNDF officers were being attacked; that Nasheed’s plan was to arrest all police officers who had defied his command; that Maldivian men and women were being brutally attacked by ‘MDP thugs’ and MNDF officers were being ordered to act against the constitution by Nasheed.

One policeman described how he broke down in tears listening to this, and how it motivated him to defy Nasshed’s commands and join the mutiny. Without a doubt, these false reports broadcast on the two channels, not by mistake but by design, helped Maldives lose its first democratically elected government and paved the way for the current crisis.

Reports say that Raajje TV asked for police protection even last night. It has been fully aware that an attack was on the way—for two days, a report, allegedly containing details of an attack on Raajje TV—was made available to the public. But the police did nothing, and by their inaction, encouraged those planning the attack and guaranteed them immunity from prosecution. Now police are surrounding VTV and DhiTV, protecting them against potential retaliation from ‘MDP terrorists’. By doing this, the police are hoping to present to the world the image that they are protecting free speech and democracy in the Maldives.

Do not be fooled, they are protecting the mouthpieces of dictatorship, the poodles of autocracy which are responsible for creating hatred among the people against Maldivian democracy activists and activities. CP Abdulla Riyaz and current president Mohamed Waheed, and of course, Gayoom, whose grand strategy for an authoritarian reversal is responsible for the current mayhem in the Maldives, must bear full responsibility for the destruction of Raajje TV and the Maldivian people’s right to freedom of speech and protection against disinformation and pro-dictatorship propaganda.

    Speaking of sovereignty: US foreign policy in the Maldives

    Illustration: www.greanvillepost.com Illustration: www.greanvillepost.com

    It is misguided to focus the current Maldivian sovereignty debate on possible military intervention by a foreign power. The Maldives is a long way away from the kind of humanitarian disaster that today qualifies for foreign military intervention and such talk serves no other purpose than provide politically inflammatory rhetoric to be used in the current political crisis. If we are to discuss threats to sovereignty, it would be more fruitful to talk about the role that non-military foreign relations play in shaping Maldivian domestic affairs.

    For the better part of the twentieth century, Maldives held little interest for global, and even regional, powers. This staus-quo of Maldives as inconsequential in international affairs changed shortly after the beginning of this century, not from its own doing, but due to two major changes in global politics: the dramatic change of world order in which several developing states—among them India and China—have risen to challenge the United States’ post-Cold War only-superpower status; and the United States-led global War on Terror.

    Both matters made the Maldives, for the first time in its history, a country of interest to the United States, signalling an end to the days in which it could remain sheltered from the threat of becoming a pawn in global power games.

    The rise of China: United States, India and the Maldives

    China will overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy in 2016, according to a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). India, too, is no longer just the strongest regional power, but is rapidly becoming a global force to be reckoned with.

    US relations with India has been dictated by its own interests almost from the time of India’s independence. Throughout the Cold War, when India doggedly stuck to its non-aligned stance, US foreign policy vacillated wildly between favouring India and favouring Pakistan as best suited its fight with Soviet Russia. Once George W Bush’s declared the War on Terror and invaded Afghanistan, Pakistan once again became a premier ally, while India was made to take a backseat until US relations with Pakistan soured once again, and George W Bush signed a nuclear treaty with India in 2005. Today, as India’s foreign policy has gone from one of determined non-alignment to the formation of a strategic alliance with the US, America has begun to view India as ‘a swing state’ in Asia’s balance of power.

    Control of the Indian Ocean, which connects West Asia, Africa and East Asia with Europe and the Americas is important to not just India and the US but also for China as it  rises to global preeminence. Maldives is strategically located 450 miles off the south-western tip of India, making it of significant strategic interest to all those fighting to maintain a dominant presence in the region.

    Recent analyses predict that China will become the world’s largest importer of oil by 2017, and 80 percent of this oil is transported through the Indian Ocean (Kumar 2012). Given the long-existing US dominance in the Indian Ocean, China—not surprisingly—is keen to ensure that its vital energy routes remain open and have strengthened its military presence in the region. This is where China’s interest in the Maldives lies.

    Countering China is thus one of the main reasons for United States increased interest in the Maldives and its expressed desire for a military presence in the country, even if it is not the boots on the ground as outlined in the draft SOFA as discussed here. The United States may have denied the draft SOFA and a possible military base, but it did not deny that negotiations for some sort of an arrangement — whether a lily pad or whatever other name it is called — is underway.

    The geo-strategic alliance between the US and India helps both countries counter China’s expanding ambitions. The US has long been the dominant player in the Indian Ocean and will fight to maintain this at whatever cost. It will be US’ strongest card to play in stalling the unbridled rise of China if and when it needs to do so. Thus the increased maritime activity in the Indian Ocean region in general and, more specifically, the so-called Asia Pivot in US foreign policy.

    With US as a strategic ally, China is less likely to confront India over the many disputes that exist between the two countries such as those over the borders of Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh and the continuing Chinese financial and military assistance to arch enemy Pakistan.The importance of India’s new alliance with the US is apparent from the fact that since 2005 India, which from 1995-2005 opposed the US in the UN in 80 percent of all its votes, has voted with them on sanctions against Iran, opposition to a Small Arms and Light Weapons Treaty and on the Kyoto Protocol (Chenoy & Chenoy :2007).

    It should come as no surprise then that India and the US supported each other in the rapid recognition of Waheed’s presidency of the Maldives as legitimate.

    The War on Terror: United States and the Maldives

    When the US launched its global War on Terror, it force-created another bi-polar world: those with the United States and those against it. The Maldives, led by President Gayoom, was firmly ‘with the US,’ despite the War’s decidedly anti-Islamic overtones. This status of the Maldives—as an Islamic state willing to co-operate with the US in the War on Terror is how the Maldives first appeared in the American consciousness. Unfortunately for the Maldives, this is still her primary (and often only) identity as far as the United States is concerned. Unlike India, and even Britain, the US has no experience or knowledge of Maldivian culture and its long relationship with Islam that is so vastly different from the radical Islam that dominates its society identity today. Nor did it, until very recently, have any tourism or travel related interests in the Maldives, unlike other Western states.

    If the United States was honestly interested in tackling the rapid radicalisation of the Maldivian society instead of its own counter-terrorism efforts in the region, it would have taken steps to understand the root causes and nature of extremism in the Maldives. Very little is known about how and why Maldivians have succumbed so easily to radical Islamist ideology. Neither is it known whether the people who outwardly show signs of radicalisation—change of religious practices, clothing, general behaviour— in fact have anything to do with the adoption of an ideology. Serious intent of curbing radicalistion would involve attempts to understand it, followed by a counter-radicalisation strategy custom-designed to solve the problems so identified.

    The United States has a vast budget and plan for counter-radicalisation efforts that go beyond its borders, but it has not initiated or supported any research in the radicalised Maldivian community. Instead, it sends dubious US ‘terrorism experts’ to teach Maldivians about tackling radicalisation, according to what the Americans know and has defined radicalisation to be. Rather than tap into the vast potential for building a knowledge base on how an entire population can embrace radical Islamist ideologies after remaining far removed from them for centuries, the US tells Maldivians what their society is about, and implement actions governed not by what is at stake for Maldivians, but by a generic idea of what the US perceives should be done in a ‘rapidly radicalising Islamist society’.

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      Voteless in Maldives: resistance is not futile

      The impulse by which a single individual, a group, a minority, or an entire people says, “I will no longer obey”, and throws the risk of their life in the face of an authority they consider unjust seems to me to be something irreducible – Foucault

      Where is my vote? An angry protester confronts security forces at a protest in Male' yesterday demanding early elections Where is my vote? An angry protester confronts security forces at a protest in Male’ yesterday demanding early elections

      Saturday dawned as crisp, sunny and beautiful as any other day in the Maldives. The clear blue skies belied the dark cloud that descended over a majority of the country’s population after the beleaguered Elections Commission announced shortly before midnight on Friday that the Supreme Court, and other allied state institutions, had left it with no choice but to call off the second round.

      What the Elections Commission has been forced to call off is hope—the expectation that democracy will be restored in the Maldives on 11 November 2013.

      For nineteen long months, a majority of Maldivians have dedicated most of their lives to winning back democracy from the authoritarian gang that came to power on 7 February 2012. The fight has been all-consuming and has affected every single Maldivian one way or another.

      In the immediate aftermath of the coup came the violent confrontations with the security forces. Hundreds were beaten up, arbitrarily arrested, detained without charge, and ordered to obey, or else. Basic human rights—freedom of assembly and expression—were rolled back. Foreign ties were broken coldly, with little care for international norms or the inevitable consequences. The economy suffered blow after blow, leading to bankruptcy with little hope for recovery in the foreseeable future.

      Working with unscrupulous ‘religious scholars’, intense nationalism was promoted in parallel with virulent xenophobia against any foreign actor that promoted democracy. Ties with autocratic regimes were fostered, along with relations with international gangsters known for drug trafficking and money laundering. National assets were sold off, deals made with unscrupulous foreign governments that spoke democracy but acted with nothing but their own national interest in mind. Unexplained murders, gang-related crimes, drug abuse and sexual offences increased exponentially.

      The international community’s decision to condone the coup and endorse it as ‘a legitimate transfer of power’ was a major blow, but not enough to kill the Maldivian people’s desire for democratic governance. In the face of intense pressure from the international community to obey, to put stability before rights, to follow ‘the democratic process’, combined with brutal force by domestic authorities, the street protests could not be sustained. But supporters of democracy did not give up. Led by Mohamed Nasheed and the Maldivian Democratic Party, Maldivians channeled their frustrated hopes into campaigning for a democratic election instead of protesting on the streets.

      MDP’s presidential campaign has been an exemplary democratic exercise—the ‘costed and budgeted’ manifesto it brought out in August this year is the embodiment of a majority of Maldivian hopes and dreams for the future. It is based on views and opinions gathered from people on every inhabited island and it envisions a future in which the Maldivian people will, at long last, be empowered to work for their own socio-economic progress under a government that a majority of them have elected of their own free choice. Of course, it is naive to think that every desire would be fulfilled, but at least everyone was asked what they want, everyone had a say, and everyone could take ownership of their own future. No such bottom-up exercise has ever been conducted in the long authoritarian history of the Maldives.

      On 7 September, 88% of the electorate turned out to vote. 45% of them voted for Mohamed Nasheed, 25% for Abdulla Yameen, 24% for Gasim Ibrahim, and 5% for Mohamed Waheed. Nasheed did not get the 50% plus one needed for an outright win, but the Maldivian map, from north to south, was all yellow at the end of voting that day. Most people in all atolls bar two want a democratic government led by Nasheed.

      The authoritarians know this, always did. Plan B was there from the start—let them have their vote if they must, but the results will always be ours, as we want it. Over a thousand observers, local and foreign, verified the election as free and fair. Except for minor errors, expected in any election anywhere in the world, it went without a hitch. Only 25% of the Maldivian people want Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s autocratic rule to continue. That’s when the stubborn septuagenarian called in all the stops and brought into full play the dregs of dictatorship that continued to infect the Maldivian democracy throughout the three years or so that it lasted.

      Gayoom has played his old house-boy Gasim well. Taking full advantage of Gasim’s indignation about not having got the votes he paid for, Gayoom has dictated most of the Supreme Court bench—the most corrupt of the many corrupt state institutions—to rule in Gasim’s favour, bringing Maldives to where it is today: a constitutional vacuum into which Gayoom can step in effortlessly to ‘rescue’ us from ourselves. If Gasim thinks that Gayoom will let him take the president’s oath on 11 November, he is an even bigger fool than he has repeatedly shown himself to be.

      The Supreme Court did not just issue an injunction against the second round, it also ordered the security forces to act against anyone who tries to go ahead with the polls. One can only imagine the elation of the baton-happy coup-Police Commissioner Abdulla Riyaz who immediately deployed his forces to the Elections Commission, sealing the Commissioner and staff off from interaction with anyone local or foreign.

      Efforts for mediation by the international community were not just prevented by the police, but strongly criticised by Gayoom’s minions. With his daughter at the helm of foreign relations as the State Minister of Foreign Affairs, it summoned India’s High Commissioner for a good telling-off for attempting to help disenfranchised Maldivians. The government has not stopped spurning the international community since, and will not stop until it becomes clear to everybody—at long last—that Gayoom and his followers will not allow democracy in the Maldives, whatever it takes.

      The truth of the matter is, and has been since 7 February 2012: there will be no election in the Maldives as long as Nasheed, the champion of the Maldivian democratic movement, is in the running. So the focus has now returned to the farcical prosecution of Nasheed, through the very courts that have proved again and again that they are neither independent nor respectful of the ‘judicial process’. The machinations are fully underway to annul the first round and put Nasheed behind bars before calling fresh elections, if there are to be any. Reports say Gayoom himself is planning to run if and when new elections are held, his ‘economist’ brother having failed to live up to family expectations by not being able to garner much support.

      Having lived under Gayoom for most of their lives, a majority of Maldivians remain oblivious to the fact that indefinitely delaying the elections is a robbery of their fundamental right to vote, too, and not just of members of the MDP or supporters of Nasheed. Their gloating about the cancellation of the election is both sad and sickening. They will do everything in their power to help bring Gayoom, and their own enslavement, back to life.

      For the rest of Maldivians, the only choice left is to refuse to obey. Power, contrary to popular belief, is not something that can be taken away by force. It can only be given away, by the people, if we so decide.

      Resisting a full-fledged authoritarian reversal has been a long hard slog that has taken a heavy emotional, financial and social toll on all of us. Sustaining the resistance will be difficult, and all out civil disobedience would be even harder; but do it we must, if we are to be in control of our own destiny. What we must continue to remember is—nobody can govern us without our consent. It is within our power not to give it.