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Maldives: Journalists at Risk

At least three journalists in the Maldives have been subjected to either physical or verbal abuse and psychological intimidation within a span of the last 10 days.

The first case involved Ahmed Zahir (Hiriga), the Executive Editor of Haveeru Daily, and the President of Maldives Journalists Association, who was attacked by a mob outside the parliament building while he was covering a protest there. Interestingly the protest outside the parliament was sparked by a scuffle inside the parliament between some members of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party and opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP).

The second case involved an article written by Maryam Omidi, the Editor of the online English language newspaper Minivan News. In the article Omidi reported on Amnesty International’s recent call to impose a moratorium on flogging in the Maldives and highlighted the fact that women are disproportionately flogged in the Maldives for extramarital sex while in most cases men are able to evade the punishment for apparent lack of evidence. Even though the author of the article did not express any personal opinions on the issue, some groups in the Maldives declared the article as anti-Islamic and organized a protest against Minivan News. The protesters also called for Omidi, a foreign national, to be deported from the Maldives.

Maldives Dissent debates this issue and points out that in several cases the victims of flogging are also victims of child sexual abuse:

The public flogging at the centre of the controversy involves an 18-year-old girl, but a disturbing aspect of the case appears to have gone unnoticed. It has emerged that the girl, who reportedly “confessed” to having had extra-marital sex with two adult males, committed the “crime” when she was under-18. If so, this would have grave implications for the Maldivian state. Not only has the state failed to protect a child from sexual abuse but has, in fact, been party to subjecting her to further physical abuse.

Sadly, this is not an isolated case. At least 22 girls under 18 years of age were sentenced to public flogging, in 2006, for fornication or giving birth out of wedlock.

Under Maldivian law child sexual abuse requires a confession by the alleged abuser, or testimony by four eye-witnesses, for a successful conviction to take place. This means that if a victim reports sexual abuse but the perpetrator denies it and there are no eye-witnesses, the court can find the child guilty of having consented to the sex. The state would then wait for the girl to turn 18 and then carry out the sentence of public flogging, in effect, punishing her for reporting the crime.

By continuing with the practice, the Maldives is violating no less than four UN conventions it has signed: the convention on the rights of children; the convention on civil and political rights; the convention against torture; and the convention against all forms of discrimination against women.

The third case of an attack against journalists involved Ibrahim Rasheed, newscaster for state-owned Television Maldives (TVM), who was assaulted while he was covering a gathering outside the residence of the former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. A crowd had gathered outside the former ruler’s residence because the police were trying to escort the ex-president to the police station for an investigation of allegations of corruption.

South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA) Maldives has condemned the attacks on journalists on their blog:

SAFMA Maldives expresses concern over the recent attacks on media personnel, and calls on all concerned parties to respect the ideals of freedom of expression and media enshrined in the Maldives Constitution.

SAFMA Maldives also reiterates that it is not necessary that all media organizations share the same opinions and editorial policies, and believe that the public should be able to formulate its own opinion based on the different viewpoints and information accessible from the various media, and call on the Government, political parties and the general public to respect journalists working to acquire true information in order to carry out a public service.

Till a few years ago, the Maldives used to be a repressive state, with freedom of expression severely restricted by the government and journalists arrested or intimidated by the government for criticism. With a democratic government coming to power in November 2008, the government is no longer regarded as a barrier to press freedom. However, the recent cases of intimidation and abuse against journalists by various groups in the society indicate that journalists are still at risk, especially in the politically-charged atmosphere and the deeply partisan politics the Maldives is experiencing right now.

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