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Disobedient editor

ajosephs Icon Posted by Ammu Joseph

April 28th, 2007

Maldives, the sunny side of life… Maldives, the last paradise on earth… Most people who have heard of the island nation in the Indian Ocean officially known as the Republic of Maldives probably know it as an idyllic tropical holiday destination.

But Aminath Najeeb, a highly respected Maldivian journalist and editor of the daily newspaper, Minivan (freedom), points out that it is important for “the international community not to look at the Maldives simply as a haven for tourists, a country of atolls, the blue ocean, silver sands and coconut palms swaying in the tropical breeze.” Instead, she says, more attention should be paid to “the brutal way in which the country’s citizens are being denied their fundamental rights and the way the local media is gagged.”

Najeeb, one of the country’s only women editors and a prominent female journalist, has first hand experience of the latter. In fact, on Monday (30 April) she is due to appear in court to face charges of “disobedience to order,” a provision of the Maldives Penal Code that facilitates the violation of the right to freedom of expression and assembly, according to Amnesty International. In a worldwide appeal on her behalf, released in May last year, Amnesty pointed out that “Although the government has promised to revise it, in the light of mounting national and international concern, it continues to use this law (Section 88 (a) of the Penal Code) against its critics.”

With three separate cases pending against her, all on the same charge, Najeeb — president of the Maldivian Chapter of South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA) — could face up to 18 months in prison if she is found guilty in all of them. In a report on the website of her own newspaper she is quoted saying she is “dead scared” that she will indeed be jailed. She admits that she also fears for her life if she is sent to prison, especially in view of several allegations about extra-legal killings by the police.

Highlighting the fact that she would be at risk of “severe ill-treatment” in prison, the Amnesty statement had also pointed out that if she is detained for two weeks or more she would not be legally eligible to continue as the editor of a national newspaper. Such a situation may well result in the effective silencing of one of the few independent newspapers in the country, especially since several other journalists in the paper have been prosecuted, detained and/or expelled in recent times, and a number of other methods employed to intimidate and immobilise the only paper in the country that dares to be critical of the government, which has wielded virtually uninterrupted power for 28 years.

According to Najeeb, Minivan — which now has a circulation of approximately 3,700 copies in Male — was granted permission to begin publishing in 2005, mainly thanks to the international support received by the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), the sole opposition party, which has been exerting pressure on the regime of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. In a March 2007 Minivan News report, Nazim Sattar, deputy editor of the country’s only pro-opposition daily, was quoted as saying “We are not affiliated to the MDP, but we do support them.” The paper recently doubled the size of its pages after its own, long-awaited printing press finally began operations, as part of preparations for the nation’s first multi-party elections, scheduled in 2008.

Maldives has been indicted by several media watch organisations and journalists’ associations for its poor record on media freedom. Last July an International Press Freedom Mission released a report urging the government to end the “arbitrary arrest, harassment and intimidation of journalists and dissidents.”

Ironically, even as Najeeb gets ready to face the court on Monday, the Maldives Ministry of Information is all set to celebrate World Press Freedom Day with a conference organised in collaboration with UNESCO and Asian Media Information and Communication Centre (AMIC). The country’s Parliament is also in the process of debating a bill on the freedom of writers.

In an e-mail message on Thursday, Najeeb said it was quite frustrating that she often cannot meet her lawyer. In fact the last hearing was postponed because the lawyer was not informed about it by the court. Najeeb has been told that if no lawyer is present at the next session, she will have to represent herself. Unable to discuss options with her lawyer and with no access to legal experts specialising in media matters, she is preparing her own speech – more or less resigned to accepting what seems inevitable: “The culture here is such that once anyone is charged they are already convicted. In this case, when it is a lose-lose situation, I feel it may be best to get convicted with honour.”

On International Women’s Day this year, International PEN commemorated over 60 women writers and journalists across the world who have come under attack for the practice of their right to freedom of expression in the past year. Although her name is not mentioned in the report on the PEN website, Aminath Najeeb is clearly one of them.

UPDATE: I’m sorry about the factual error in my post pointed out in a couple of responses in the comments below: I have since confirmed that the Maldives does have another woman newspaper editor: Mariyam Suhana, editor of Miadhu Daily (which I gather is owned by the country’s environment minister), and I have corrected the references above to reflect this.

My post — based on a number of sources (including but not only those to which I’ve provided links) — seems to have generated considerable heat and dust among people who obviously have intimate knowledge of and strong, opposing views on Maldivian politics.

However, political differences should not obscure the central issue here, which is freedom of the press/media. And any number of sources other than those I’ve already cited support the facts presented in the post about the grim situation vis a vis media freedom in the Maldives in general, and the situation of the Minivan daily and several of its journalists in particular — see for example:

http://www.ifj-asia.org/files/press_freedom_mission_report_on_the_maldives_-_19_july_2006.pdf

http://www.article19.org/pdfs/letters/maldives-roadmap-for-reform.pdf

http://www.southasianmedia.net/mediamonitor/2005/index.htm

http://www.achrweb.org/Review/2005/86-05.htm

The point is: I may or may not like certain publications (or other media) in my country or elsewhere, and I may even have little regard or respect for particular editors/reporters (or producers or whatever) but I would still oppose official or unofficial censorship, including the harassment and intimidation of journalists I don’t particularly care for.

One Response to “Disobedient editor”

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