Media council elects new leadership amid press freedom concerns

Media council elects new leadership amid press freedom concerns
December 20 11:08 2016

The reconstituted Maldives Media Council elected leaders and began its new term on Monday amid heightened concern over press freedom in the country.

Abdul Mueed Hassan from the online blog Bahuru and Ahmed Abeer Ismail were elected president and vice president, respectively. New members elected to the print and online media regulator on December 12 met for the vote yesterday at the home ministry.

Mueed was the sole contender for president whilst Abeer narrowly defeated Ahmed Mujthaba from Sun Online.

Some 29 candidates contested in last week’s election for the MMC’s fourth term with journalists and staff from 86 media organisations casting votes. The 15-member council is comprised of eight members from media organisations and seven members of the public.

Speaking to the Maldives Independent after the election, two of the new members criticised the composition of the council at a time when press freedom is under threat in the Maldives.

On Monday afternoon, shortly after the new MMC members convened their first meeting, two journalists from the opposition-aligned Raajje TV were found guilty of obstructing police duty.

Mohamed Wisam and Leevan Ali Naseer, the first journalists to be convicted in more than a decade, could be facing a four-month jail term.

“The media is facing dark days ahead,” said Misbah Abbas from online paper VFP, who was among the seven journalists elected to the MMC last week.

“With the new council and the Defamation Act, it is going to be very tough for independent and opposition media in the coming days.”

The MMC is authorised by the controversial law to investigate complaints and impose separate fines for the journalist who writes a defamatory article and the media outlet who publishes it. Failure to pay the fines could result in a jail term up to six months for the journalist and the closure of the media outlet.

Journalists say they are now forced to practice self-censorship to avoid lawsuits or criminal prosecution.

Misbah was also critical of the current composition of the media council: “Bringing in a columnist or an opinion writer and filling in the media council is not how it should be done,” he said.

“This is the council that is the most unfamiliar with the media landscape. With the former councils, everyone involved was prominent people in the media, journalists and editors. Now we don’t have that.”

Misbah argued that the lack of first-hand reporting experience among the new members would be detrimental to the Maldivian media in the long-term.

“Previously we had a majority of working journalists and editors in the council. They knew everyday problems facing journalists and media professionals. It will be different now,” he said.

A second newly-elected member told the Maldives Independent on the condition of anonymity that a majority of the new MMC members would be subject to undue influences.

“I think from the current membership, there are five or six people who can work independently for the betterment of the media industry and it is going to be difficult for them to work, with the Defamation Act and all of that,” he said.

The media council election last week was also marred by controversy.

The vote was first scheduled for December 9 but was delayed by four days after complaints were made about the list of candidates contesting for the seven seats reserved for members of the public.

According to the Media Council Act, the home ministry must shortlist 14 candidates after evaluating applications. However, the ministry shortlisted 12 candidates, prompting complaints from applicants who were left out of the list.

Some 16 candidates had applied to the ministry.

Mohamed Tholal, the deputy home minister, said the ministry decided to shortlist 12 candidates as one member of the public who was elected to the council during the middle of the previous term is still a member as his term has not expired.

“The law says to shortlist 14 applicants to elect seven. Now we are only electing six, so we decided to send 12 names,” he said.

On December 5, the home ministry also amended the procedure for electing media council members and downgraded educational qualifications of candidates applying for the public seats from a first degree to a diploma.

But the candidate must hold a diploma in the fields of law, Dhivehi language, religious studies, social sciences or human rights.

Misbah suggested that the delay was a deliberate attempt by the ministry to interfere with the poll.

“They delayed the election based on these complaints, and yet when they held it on Monday night [December 12] there were no changes based on the complaints. I believe it was them trying to influence the election,” he said.

Of the journalists who contested, Ahmed Rifau from Vmedia won the most support with 69 votes, followed by Mujthaba from Sun Media (57 votes) – owned by the government-aligned Maldives Development Alliance’s leader Ahmed ‘Sun’ Siyam – and Fayaz Yoosuf from the state-owned Public Service Media (55 votes).

The new president, Abdul Mueed Hassan, won 44 votes and Misbah came fifth with 41 votes.

Other members include Hassan Shakir Mohamed from the Asdhadi magazine, a publication of the Maldives Fishermen’s Association, and Mohamed Hamdhoon from newspaper Mihaaru.

The six members of the public elected to the MMC are Ahmed Abeer Hassan, the tourism ministry’s information officer, Shaufa Hussain, a former PSM journalist, Mohamed Azim, a former presenter with PSM’s Television Maldives, Anwar Ibrahim, a Dhivehi language lecturer at Maldives National University’s Faculty of Arts, Assad Shareef, a former parliamentary candidate of the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party, and Mariyam Haleel, sister of the new MMC president.