Critical news website closes citing unrelenting political pressure

Critical news website closes citing unrelenting political pressure
June 25 15:56 2016

A popular news website critical of the Maldives government has been forced shut after it exposed the first lady’s misuse of state resources, staff have said.

Directors of Channel News Maldives annulled its parent company at an emergency meeting Friday night, citing political pressure by the government, according to several informed sources.

The website has now been taken offline.

Mohamed Ali Janah, a construction magnate, who holds a controlling share in the paper, dismissed claims of political pressure. “It’s a business, we didn’t want to go ahead with the business any more,” he said in an interview with pro-government news website Avas.

The paper’s second owner and editor-in-chief, Ismail Rasheed hit back saying Janah’s comments were “completely false,” and said the pair had been forced to close the paper “because of influential government officials, who have been trying to erase this paper’s existence when their first attempt at making us sing their praises failed.”

CNM’s closure comes amid an unprecedented crackdown on the press. The Maldives’ oldest and only print newspaper, Haveeru, was shuttered in April by a court ruling that split its ownership. A second critical news site, Addu Live, has also been blocked.

Since it began publishing in 2011, CNM has been a thorn in the side of the government, exposing corruption and human rights abuses. The site was hacked earlier this year and its journalists have been arrested, threatened and dragged to court.

It recently exposed how an NGO linked to the First Lady Fathimath Ibrahim was distributing in its name dates donated by the king of Saudi Arabia.

Another story claimed Fathimath had been given a share of government’s quota allocations for the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. CNM also published a letter sent to the finance ministry by the Islamic minister asking it to give half of a US$24,000 grant donated by Abu Dhabi to Fathimath’s NGO, the Sadagat Foundation.

Earlier this year, Janah had announced he would sell off his shares in the paper, but the result of “him not doing so is that the pressure has intensified to the point we have to dissolve the company,” Ismail said.

Ismail said he agreed to Janah’s request to dissolve the media company because he did not want the businessman to suffer any losses, and because he wanted to save the paper’s archive.

Janah owns 51 percent of CNM‘s shares, while Ismail holds 49 percent.

President Abdulla Yameen’s spokesman was not responding to calls for comment.

Journalists claim CNM’s closure is aimed at silencing the free press.

“I never thought people would stoop so low as to silence all critics in such a hideous way. Nevertheless, it is important that we try and keep going no matter what,” said Imad Latheef, an editor at Villa TV, in a Facebook Post.

“A paper has been taken offline because of a simple date. This is a warning to all other outlets,” said Axmoon Ahmed, a journalist with Raajje TV.

Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed, the leader of the newly launched opposition coalition, said on Twitter: “Once again the Maldives government has raised its pressure on journalists forcing an immediate surrender of the online newspaper CNM.”

The Maldives has plummeted on the Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom during the past four years.

The Maldives Independent’s journalist Ahmed Rilwan was disappeared nearly two years ago, while several have survived murder attempts. Opposition aligned Raajje TV’s offices were also torched in 2013.

None of the cases have been successfully prosecuted yet.

Meanwhile some 18 journalists were arrested April from a sit-in staged outside the president’s office over threats to media, including a bill proposing to criminalise defamation.