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Monday roundup: economic growth and sacking of broadcasting commissioner

A roundup of the day’s top stories.



Parliament removes broadcasting commissioner

Parliament on Monday dismissed the vice president of the Maldives Broadcasting Commission as recommended by the independent institutions oversight committee.

MPs voted 56-1 to remove Fathmath Zaina from the seven-member commission.

The committee also recommended the dismissal of the commission’s president but Mohamed Shaheeb resigned last week after the impeachment vote was tabled in parliament’s agenda.

During the previous administration, the regulator used a draconian anti-defamation law to slap hefty fines on private broadcasters, including more than MVR3.7 million (US$240,000) on Raajje TV for airing speeches deemed defamatory towards former president Abdulla Yameen.

Appearing at the oversight committee in June, the commission’s members blamed each other for targeting Raajje TV at the behest of the former government.

Pressed about her role in organising a campaign event for the former president, Zaina argued that Yameen’s meeting with senior citizens was “not a political rally.” Zaina – a former journalist who worked at the first lady’s campaign office before her appointment to the commission in April 2016 – was photographed handing out seating arrangements.

With Zaina’s removal, the commission’s remaining members are Zeena Zahir, Aminath Sharahath Izzath and Amjad Waheed. Former members Hassan Nabah and Ismail Sofwan resigned during the committee inquiry.

World Bank predicts 5.2 percent economic growth

Real GDP is expected to grow 5.2 percent in 2019, the World Bank predicted in the new South Asia Economic Focus released on Sunday.

Growth has slowed from 6.7 percent in 2018 due to “the completion of large infrastructure projects and the slow transition to new ones,” the biannual regional update explained. Robust growth in the construction sector in recent years was fuelled by the development of new resorts as well as the previous administration’s housing projects and infrastructure scale-up.

Tourism is expected to remain the main driver of growth with double-digit increases in arrivals this year. The World Bank predicted growth to rebound to 5.5 percent in 2020 on the back of tourism expansion and infrastructure investment such as a bridge connecting the airport island to the capital.

“The outlook assumes an increase in recurrent spending related to the new administration’s campaign pledges, including an extension of Aasandha coverage for Maldivians living abroad, additional subsidies, and an expansion of the university scholarship programme,” it noted.

The poverty headcount in the Maldives was low at 8.2 percent, the report noted. Over 90 percent of poor Maldivians live outside the capital, reflecting “large disparities in welfare and other socio-economic outcomes.” Youth unemployment was high at 15.3 percent.

Other key challenges include the impact of a potential increase in oil prices, a global economic downturn dampening tourist arrivals, and the persistent risk of debt distress.

“One key challenge for the Maldives is to strike an appropriate balance between making large investments needed to close existing infrastructure gaps –potentially allowing to boost tourism, increase resilience to climate change and ease constraints in service delivery— and managing the rapid accumulation of public debt,” the report observed.

“Containing recurrent spending and improving the efficiency of social spending are key areas that require attention. The overall level of indebtedness is high and reserves coverage is low. The large volume of external loans and guarantees on non-concessional terms to finance infrastructure projects represents significant risks.”

Public debt is estimated to have reached 59 percent of GDP last year and the fiscal deficit widened to 4.7 percent of GDP. The overall deficit narrowed in the first half of 2019 as tax revenue grew by 6.3 percent, grants more than doubled and government spending contracted “largely due to the under-execution of the public sector investment programme.” But recurrent expenditure – on salaries, subsidies and administrative costs – increased by 8.8 percent.

Despite tourism and construction driving growth, the report observed that two-thirds of Maldivians were employed in jobs unrelated to tourism, and recommended fostering private sector job creation.

Yemeni ‘terrorist’ ends hunger strike

A Yemeni national in Maldives immigration custody with alleged links to terrorist organisations ended a hunger strike last week, local media reported on Sunday.

Yasir Yahya was admitted at the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital in September after refusing to eat solid food for two months. But he relented last week and started eating, sources told the media.

Yasir was arrested in March 2017 on suspicion of recruiting Maldivians for militant groups. He was handed over to the immigration department and kept at a detention centre in Hulhumalé for deportation.

Home Minister Sheikh Imran Abdulla told the press last month that upon Yasir’s arrest immigration cancelled his visa and ordered him to leave within 30 days. But Yasir refused and the authorities suspect that he has hidden his passport. The situation in his war-torn home country made it difficult to obtain a travel document, Imran said.

Prior to his arrival in the Maldives, Yasir was jailed in Yemen, Oman, Pakistan and Malaysia on suspicion of planning terrorist attacks, the home minister said. Yasir will be deported as soon as he agrees to leave, he added.

Yasir was married to a Maldivian woman and had been working as an Arabic language teacher at both the Ahmadhiyya International School and Arabiyya School in Malé.

Ex-MP Alhan’s assailant sentenced to seven years

The main suspect in the stabbing of MP Alhan Fahmy in February 2014 was found guilty and sentenced to seven years in prison last Thursday.

The former MP for Feydhoo was stabbed in the back at the Breakwater restaurant in Malé. He required treatment overseas for spinal injuries.

One of two suspects arrested shortly after the stabbing, Mohamed Naseem, from Ulfamanzil in Hithadhoo, was convicted based on DNA evidence, video analysis of security camera footage and testimony from a secret witness