Immediately after the coup on 7 February 2012, the new rulers cracked down on freedom of assembly and expression. Through violence, arbitrary detentions and the abuse of law, the new government was able to a halt the thousands of anti-coup demonstrators who took to the streets in protest. A lot of repressed democracy activists gravitated towards social media, many went on Twitter, the only place that appears still free for some honest talk by people standing up to government attempts to control speech, expression and thought by controlling information and dissemination disinformation. Not just in the Maldives but across the globe.
Yesterday I had tea with @sharaff, one of the key enablers of anti-coup and democracy activists fight against the coup government’s attempts to legitimise the illegal overthrow of government by using evidence gathered by ordinary people on social media. @sharaff is a one-man archive of almost all counter-coup information. He has a collection of all the video footage that exists on the coup. CoNI documents may be ‘Classified’ and hidden away in a vault, but @sharaff’s archive of documents, tweets, leaked information, exposes and records of exposes, is wide open to the public. I wanted to know what motivated him to spend the time, energy and effort in doing all this, becoming the Minister of Archives as some have started calling him.
Sharafulla Shihab is in his early thirties, and works in tourism, an industry far removed from politics, at least at the non-proprietor level. He was not much interested in politics until then. He did not really care for President Mohamed Nasheed either, and his political discussions almost never ended in favour of MDP. His views changed after the coup. Photography is Sharaf’s passion and, as his pre-coup images show no focus on political happenings. Things changed after the coup.
On 8 February 2012 Sharaf was near the ADK Hospital on Sosun Magu. Police came down hard on anti-coup demonstrators that day. Sharaf saw police beating up a pregnant woman outside the hospital. On the same day, he saw President Nasheed being chased by SO Police.
In the days without law and order that followed, the government tried desperately to establish a particular version of the events of 7 and 8 February: the coup did not happen, Nasheed resigned voluntarily. Sharaff soon began to notice how intense the government’s disinformation campaign was. Sometimes it was covert, at other times blatant. Current Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim told one of the early blunt lies. Outside the military headquarters on 7 February, he announced on a megaphone that he had ordered President Mohamed Nasheed to resign ‘without condition’. Speaking to the media a few days later, he denied it outright. Even though this video exists of him saying it – through a megaphone.
Raajje TV broadcast a clip juxtaposing the statements and gave it the title, ‘Nazim said that; Nazim also said this.’ Sharaff uploaded the clip on YouTube and has not looked back since. His collection of coup-related footage has now been viewed 200,000 times. Maldivians from all over the world have contacted him to thank him for giving him the chance to keep track of incidents at home.
Most of the significant events that happened in these times of coup d’état are on the channel, recorded for posterity. This is Sharaff’s main motivation.
“We grew up not knowing our history. I don’t want that happening again,” Sharaff said. He spoke of Mohamed Amin, the Maldivian president who was lynched by an angry mob in 1953. Speaking to CoNI, Mohamed Nasheed spoke of the important event in Maldivian political history, even more significant after the coup on 7 February. “I was standing under the same mango tree that Amin had stood under just before he was lynched,” he said recounting the last few hours of his presidency to CoNI. He had recently read the book Orchid, the first time many Maldivians were introduced to details of Amin’s brutal death.
“How little we know of any of what happened before us, in our long history,” Sharaff does not want the same type of State-induced amnesia to occur again.“If we don’t record everything that is happening now, and if we don’t make it as widely available to the public as possible”, he said, “future generations can grow up without knowing what really happened that day.”
Sharaf’s office is an iPhone and a Mac, and he does it all voluntarily without funds or assistance. He has like-minded friends and fellow activists who encourage him, and the appreciation of researchers and democracy campaigners keep the motivation strong. If there’s a special programme on, like the recent candidate interviews on MNBC One and the running mate last week on the same channel, he stays home to tape it, and uploads it immediately, or soon after.
“Sometimes the last thing I want to do is listen to a politician, but I feel that I must, so others can.” Sharaf lives with his wife and a young child. They have become used to, in the last five hundred days or so, to Sharaf spending a lot of time taping things.
Sharff’s blog, now automated, collects Tweets from various people on trending topics on any given day. He has set things up so that all he has to do is ‘Favourite’ a Tweet and it ends up automatically on his blog, there for all to see; it doesn’t matter whether the author later deletes it, disowns it or dissociates from it. Sharaff can verify what they really said, and when they said it. Several key coup-makers — Mohamed Waheed, Abdulla Riyaz, Mohamed Nazim, for instance—have blocked Sharaff so he cannot keep a record of what they may later regret saying.
Sharaff was also instrumental in making people aware just how much debt Mohamed Waheed’s running mate Thasmeen was in. Here is some parts of a Twitter conversation between Sharaf and Thasmeen that started sometime around 9:00 pm one evening and ended after 3:00 a.m. the next morning. Several people joined in the conversation, and there was very little of Thasmeen’s dirty debt laundry public did not know by the end of it.
“It is extremely important that people have all the information they need to make up their own minds about things. I believe in democracy, in freedom of expression, and the right to information. That’s why I do what I do.”