Maldives must pursue murderers of journalists

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”108902″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]Index on Censorship calls on the Maldivian authorities to step up their investigation and pursue the individuals behind the murders of the journalist Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla and blogger Yameen Rasheed.

“The government of the Maldives must do all it can to uncover and bring to justice all those responsible for the murders of Ahmed and Yameen. Their pursuit of truth in the public interest led to their murders at the hands of criminals bent on silencing their work,” Perla Hinojosa, Index Fellowships & Advocacy Officer, said.

Rilwan’s disappearance in 2014 shook the Maldives, when he was forced into a car at knifepoint outside his home on the island of Hulhumale and taken in a boat out to sea where he was killed, according to Husnu Suood, the head of a Maldives presidential commission set up to investigate the case. Suood said the people who murdered Rilwan, also murdered his friend Rasheed, who was leading a campaign to find Rilwan. 

At the time of his abduction, Rilwan was reporting for the news website now known as the Maldives Independent, which was named the winner of an Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards Fellowship in journalism in 2017.[/vc_column_text][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1567498421448-a2c7a885-6928-8″ taxonomies=”6534″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Press freedom in Maldives: “I honestly think it is too soon for anyone to relax”

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”89549″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]After five years the president of the Maldives may be on his way out — but no one is celebrating yet.

The Indian Ocean island nation voted on Sept. 23, 2018 to oust sitting president Abdulla Yameen in favor of challenger Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, who won 58 percent of the vote. The message? They were done with Yameen’s increasingly authoritarian rule.

Yameen came into power in 2013 and has jailed or forced many of his political opponents into exile. He’s restricted protests and reduced media freedom, all while boosting corruption in the government with bribes, embezzlement and human rights abuses.

The Maldives Independent, winner of the  2017 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Journalism Award, is one of the few independent news organisations left in the country. In 2014, Maldives Independent journalist Ahmed Rilwan, known for criticising the government, went missing. He has still not been found. Many believe Yameen’s hand played a role in his disappearance and the subsequent lack of investigation.

Two years later, Yameen signed a criminal defamation law that created fines and jail sentences for slander or defamatory speech, speech threatening “social norms” or national security, and remarks against Islam. The law was criticised by the United Nations and the United States, both calling it a move against freedom of expression.

Yameen’s biggest accomplishments have been in development, building an extension to a public hospital in the capital, new airports, and the country’s first overwater bridge. But behind these projects was even more corruption, critics say.

In 2016, Al Jazeera exposed a major scandal in which Yameen and then vice-president Ahmed Adeeb leased islands to tourism companies and embezzled the money for themselves. Zaheena Rasheed, then editor-in-chief of the Maldives Independent, appeared in Al Jazeera’s investigative documentary. Hours after the documentary went online, police raided the news organisation’s offices. Rasheed has since fled the country.

Addressing the embezzlement at a debate a week before the election, Yameen pointed his finger at the former vice president and “the system” as the cause behind the corruption, denying any wrongdoing.

With a platform based on restoring democracy and freeing Yameen’s political prisoners, Solih represents a new leaf for the nation.

Riazat Butt, current editor of the Maldives Independent, called the two candidates “night and day.” And though Solih may want to make significant changes in the government, Butt said three out of four of the parties in the coalition backing Solih have shown little interest in democracy.

“The opposition alliance has not said what will happen if the coalition falls apart,” Butt said. “There is an agreement they have to sign about steps to be taken in such an event, but the agreement has not been made public and the president-elect’s spokeswoman is refusing to answer questions on it.”

On top of the issues Solih may face within his coalition, Yameen is not going down without a fight.

The leader of Yameen’s party, the Progressive Party of the Maldives, launched an investigation into complaints regarding the authenticity of the ballots cast, citing “systematic irregularities.” The party has asked the Elections Commission to delay publishing the final results and has reportedly told their supporters to submit electoral complaints to the commission.

The move has been denounced by the opposition party and the Human Rights Watch, who say it is an attempt to annul the election.

“Yameen has too much to lose to just step aside,” Butt said. “He may find a non-violent way to steal the election after all….he just needs to do it in a way that avoids sanctions and military action against him.”

On Oct. 10, Yameen challenged the election results in the Supreme Court. If the Court finds proof of irregularities, the election could be annulled.

Meanwhile, members of the Elections Commission have received anonymous threats due to their dismissal of the ruling party’s claims of fraud.

If Solih is able to secure the presidency and move his coalition government into power, it may not result in much change regarding journalism in the country. Butts called the coalition manifesto “fantastically vague” about press freedom. Though journalists have asked for specifics, like if the anti-defamation law will be repealed or if background checks for foreign journalists will end, they have not received answers.

“There is no detail, and that’s not good enough,” she said. “I honestly think it is too soon for anyone to relax or believe that their job will become easier or safer.”

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Corruption report sends Maldives journalist into flight

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]This article is part of Index on Censorship partner Global Journalist’s Project Exile series, which has published 52 interviews with exiled journalists from 31 different countries.[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]

2017 Freedom of Expression Journalism Fellow Zaheena Rasheed, Maldives Independent

2017 Freedom of Expression Journalism Fellow Zaheena Rasheed, Maldives Independent (Photo: Elina Kansikas for Index on Censorship)

For many tourists, the Maldives is a resort destination with straw-thatched luxury bungalows perched atop the clear blue Indian Ocean. But for journalist Zaheena Rasheed, this small island nation, located off the southwest coast of India, is home. At least, it was.

Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards 2017 Journalism Fellow Rasheed, who was born in the Muslim-majority archipelago of 400,000 and attended college in the USA, developed an interest in journalism in 2008 when she took a semester off school to intern at the Maldives Independent news site. While there, she covered the country’s first multiparty elections, in which human rights activist and former political prisoner Mohamed Nasheed defeated longtime dictator Mamoon Abdul Gayoom.

Rasheed went to work full-time at the Independent and began climbing the ranks, but her professional life took a turn in 2012 after the democratically-elected Nasheed was forced from power and the space for the independent press and government criticism began closing. In 2014 a colleague who was known for criticising Islamists and the government, Ahmed Rilwan, went missing.  By 2015, she was editor-in-chief of the Independent, but the political situation in the Maldives had worsened. The former president Nasheed was jailed and eventually went into exile in the UK while travelling there for medical treatment.

Press freedoms worsened in August 2016 when the new president Abdullah Yameen signed into a law a sweeping criminal defamation law that carried large fines and jail terms for slander as well as speech that threatens “social norms” or national security. Rasheed and 16 others journalists were detained for protesting the law.

By then Rasheed had earned the government’s ire through the Independent’s investigation into Rilwan’s disappearance as well as corruption in Yameen’s government. A tipping point came when she appeared in an explosive Al Jazeera investigative documentary in September 2016 called “Stealing Paradise.” The program implicated the highest reaches of Yameem’s government in a $1.5 billion international money laundering scheme.

Knowing she would face repercussions, Rasheed fled to Sri Lanka just days before the documentary was released. Hours after it appeared online, police raided the offices of the Maldives Independent.

“Sri Lanka, in many ways, has been the first stop for Maldivian dissidents,” Rasheed says, in an interview with Global Journalist. “It’s housed many, many different Maldivian dissidents, politicians, journalists, human rights defenders over the years, over the decades.”

Rasheed continued to edit the Independent remotely, but in April 2017 she moved to Qatar and accepted a reporting job with Al Jazeera.

Currently living in Doha, the 29-year-old spoke with Global Journalist’s Rayna Sims about witnessing firsthand the decline of press freedom in the Maldives and her hopes of returning home. Below, an edited version of their interview:

Global Journalist: What have been some of the effects of the anti-defamation law in the Maldives?

Rasheed: I left just three weeks after the defamation law came in, so I haven’t felt the effect of it myself, and it’s been about a year since I’ve left the Maldives…But it’s really had a chilling effect. People are a lot more careful about what they report on and what they say. One of the television stations has been fined a number of times, and they’ve essentially had to set up donation boxes to collect the money to pay off these fines. And the law allows for the government to shut them down if they’re unable to pay the fines.

Tell me about the disappearance of your colleague, Ahmed Rilwan.

He was about 28, I think, when he disappeared. He was just a really wonderful human being, and he cared a lot about doing stories about rural Maldives, which is not covered very well by the local media. He also was quite a prominent blogger. He was quite prolific on social media before he joined our team. He was known for satirizing the religious extremists, and he received quite a lot of threats over the years…as did many other journalists.

For me, it was obviously one of the most important events of my life in some ways. Just to have someone you work with, you know, just to have them disappear like that. It was the first disappearance of that kind, and I think it made us all realize that it could happen again, and it did. In April one of Rilwan’s best friends [a political blogger] was killed as he came home from work.

What has it been like living in exile and working for Al Jazeera in Doha?

Al Jazeera has been really, really great. I think a lot of people who go into exile, it’s just this sense of having your moorings cut and not knowing what to do next. You know, to have this life and then just to be uprooted from it, to be away from your family and your daily routine and your job and everything that gave you meaning. It’s very jarring in many ways…it really impacts your sense of both identity and also…what gives you purpose and meaning in life. Suddenly all of that is taken away.

Do you think you will return to the Maldives one day?

I do hope to return to the Maldives one day. I think the hardest part about living in exile has been missing deaths and births. My grandmother died last December, and then I just add[ed] a baby niece, so I’d like to go back and see her.

When you return to the Maldives, do you think you will continue being a journalist?

Not for a little while I guess, and it depends on what happens in the Maldives. It will be really hard to go back and do exactly the same thing I was doing without persecution. I think if I were to go back and continue doing the same job, it’s just a matter of time before I’m picked up again.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_video link=””][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]Index on Censorship partner Global Journalist is a website that features global press freedom and international news stories as well as a weekly radio program that airs on KBIA, mid-Missouri’s NPR affiliate, and partner stations in six other states. The website and radio show are produced jointly by professional staff and student journalists at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, the oldest school of journalism in the United States. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”6″ style=”load-more” items_per_page=”2″ element_width=”12″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1516806129189-84da7a6a-de56-3″ taxonomies=”9028″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

#IndexAwards2017: Award raises Maldives Independent’s profile

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”89552″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes” alignment=”center”][vc_separator color=”black”][vc_column_text]Following the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards in April, journalism award-winner Maldives Independent has undergone a period of change and restructuring.

Former editor Zaheena Rasheed credits the award with increased press coverage outside of the Maldives. Most significantly, Rasheed told Index that the attention from the award convinced their sponsors to continue funding them.

After an Al Jazeera documentary containing interviews with Rasheed was released, the Maldives Independent’s office was attacked and raided by police in September 2016 and Rasheed had to flee for her safety. She has since taken a role at Al Jazeera in Doha, Qatar.

The job has been very busy, but exciting, especially following a diplomatic crisis between Qatar and its neighbours,” Rasheed told Index. 

In late April, Yameen Rasheed, a prominent blogger and journalist, who had contributed opinion pieces in the Maldives Independent, was murdered. His death is still on the minds of those at Maldives Independent, which extensively covered the investigation into his murder.

“Yameen was a critical and brave voice who spoke out against injustice despite the crackdown on free speech. His murder has had a chilling effect on free speech in the Maldives and prompted many others to practice self-censorship. I believe he was targeted by religious extremists because of his advocacy for a more tolerant and secular society”, Rasheed said. No information has been released on the identities of the suspects in Rasheed’s murder or what charges they might face.

Maldives Independent journalist Ahmed Rilwan disappeared in August 2014. Despite the international attention these incidents have received, Rasheed is not confident that they will affect the culture of impunity that exists around attacks on critics and freethinkers.

“The biggest concern, as evident by Yameen’s murder and Rilwan’s disappearance, is that there are groups who are willing to kill in the name of Islam. They enjoy impunity because they have the protection of state bodies. State officials support them for two reasons; they think supporting radical groups bolsters their legitimacy, or they also subscribe to these views” Rasheed said.

Rasheed identifies the Maldives Independent’s biggest challenge is securing consistent and sufficient funding, something which Maldives Independent is working on now. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”12″ style=”load-more” items_per_page=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1509444026808-19a50408-3e9b-3″ taxonomies=”9028, 4002, 9136″][/vc_column][/vc_row]