Media regulators, anti-graft watchdog drawn into fuel supply row

Media regulators, anti-graft watchdog drawn into fuel supply row
January 05 13:40 2017

The broadcast regulator has launched an investigation against three TV stations in response to a defamation claim by a ruling party lawmaker, who is embroiled in an acrimonious legal battle with the state ports company.

MP Riyaz Rasheed claimed that his Meridiam Services, contracted by the Maldives Ports Limited to supply fuel, was not given a right of response in media coverage of corruption allegations fielded against it by MPL’s CEO Mohamed Junaid.

The Maldives Broadcasting Commission letter informing Raajje TV, Channel 13 and Sangu TV of the inquiry, has prompted an outcry with senior editors accusing Riyaz of abusing the controversial defamation law.

Riyaz has also lodged with the print and online media regulator a complaint against newspaper Mihaaru, and online outlets Sun and Avas, however, it is not clear if the Maldives Media Council has launched an inquiry.

MPL and Meridiam have meanwhile continued to trade accusations publicly and have sparked a graft inquiry by the Anti-Corruption Commission.

The ACC said Thursday that it had launched the investigation on its own initiative.

The controversy began in October, when Junaid told reporters that Meridiam had billed the company in excess for oil purchases, causing a loss of MVR1.2million (US$78,000). He accused Meridiam of selling oil at a price far above the market rate.

At the time, Meridiam had won an injunction at the civil court ordering MPL to buy diesel exclusively from the company.

Junaid made his allegations at a press conference, broadcast live on multiple channels, including the state broadcaster, Public Service Media.

Slamming Riyaz over the defamation claim, the editor of Sun, Ahmed ‘Hiriga’ Zahir, said the lawmaker was abusing the defamation law. “We reported a story about the MPL with quotes from its CEO. There is no place here to criticize the media,” he said, adding: “This is why we are concerned about the defamation act. It can be abused like this.”

The defamation law, approved in August and widely condemned as an attack on press freedom, requires journalists to demonstrate they made an adequate effort to obtain responses to defamatory allegations.

If found guilty, journalists and media outlets face hefty fines, and failure to pay up could lead to jail terms and closure of the news outlets.

Raajje TV’s News Director Ali Yoosuf meanwhile said Riyaz should have sued MPL instead of the media. “We gave him air time to respond, and his comments were broadcast in all of our coverage of the story,” he said.

Riyaz was not responding to calls for comment at the time of going to press.

The continuing war of words between MPL and Meridiam has meanwhile attracted further media attention.

Meridiam on Wednesday told Mihaaru that the contract to supply fuel was approved by the company’s board of directors and that it had offered the lowest price of all the firms that had bid for the contract in 2015.

An unnamed official also alleged that MPL was attempting to transfer the lucrative contract to others who had connections with the government.

Within hours, MPL hit back with a press statement, decrying Meridiam’s alleged attempt at misleading the public, and said the 2015 agreement was renewed in 2016 without the board’s knowledge, and was therefore invalid.

It was not Meridiam that had proposed the lowest price, the statement added.

Junaid had previously said that the contract was renewed without an open bid.

The civil court has meanwhile ruled in Meridiam’s favour; in December, the court said MPL was buying diesel from other suppliers in breach of its contract with Meridiam and ordered the ports company to buy diesel exclusively from Meridiam for vehicles and vessels used in Malé’s commercial port.

MPL has now filed an appeal at the high court.

This is not the first time that Meridiam has attracted controversy: it was reportedly under investigation by the ACC in February over a deal with the state-owned Fenaka Corporation.

Meridiam is also locked in litigation with the state wholesaler; the State Trading Organisation appealed a civil court ruling in favour of Meridiam to recover MVR19.3 million (US$1.2 million) released as a credit facility.

The STO claims that Meridiam failed to pay for fuel released on credit from March to December 2010 along with fines imposed for non-payment. But the civil court ruled in June that STO was unable to produce original documents to prove that the fuel was ever released to Meridiam. The case is ongoing.