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Arresting the fourth estate

It is perhaps not the best idea to jail a bunch of journalists. It means that those who hold the pen, the power to communicate, feel a rare sense of empathy towards the rarely seen, writes Xiena Saeed.



“Everyone has the right to freedom of the press, and other means of communication, including the right to espouse, disseminate and publish news, information, views and ideas. No person shall be compelled to disclose the source of any information that is espoused, disseminated or published by that person,” Article 28, The Constitution of the Republic of Maldives.

It is perhaps not the brightest idea to jail a bunch of journalists. It means they get a view of what is hidden from common society: the lives lived behind bars. It means that those who hold the pen, the power to communicate, feel a rare sense of empathy towards the rarely seen. In a place like the present-day Maldives, where people are detained for their views or the posts they hold, people who are referred to as ‘prisoners of conscience’, it is perhaps not the best idea to arrest seventeen committed journalists, committed enough to risk arrest for press freedom, to make them realise the unjustness of what it feels like to be deprived of their absolute right to liberty.

It means that we now know how it feels to be told to strip off our clothes and squat naked, inside a putrid toilet with an open doorway with a policewoman staring at us. It means we know that the toilet in our cells doesn’t have a seat. That to shower, and clean ourselves after urinating and defecating, we have to use the same cut up PET bon aqua bottle. It means to bathe, we have to fill up a cut-off jerry can with water, the bottom of which is dubiously grimy, and use the same cut-off PET water bottle as a container to pour water on our bodies. It means we know that those in detention go through the absolute indignity of cleaning themselves in small, half open enclosures, covered only loosely with rattan mats, displaying whoever is inside to the rest of their cell. The bathing enclosure, also, for the record, smells like years of accumulated human shit that was never quite cleaned properly. It is terrible.

It means we know what it is like to clean a toilet that has no seat with our feet and soap while holding on to a grimy wall so we don’t slip off. We know the claustrophobia of seeing rats crawling over the railings of the cage we were in, sitting on a floor rich with ants, and leaning against walls engraved with toothpaste – evidence of years of restrained frustration.

We are not criminals. The government had no right to deprive us of our civil liberties, even for a second. Now we know that, even as we go about our free lives, those people held in the cells in the Atholhuvehi block 1, 3 and 4, absolutely and as a matter of fact, don’t have rights.

We met a lady in our cell. She was Indian, young and beautiful. Her name was Navanitha Mudali. She was held because her Maldivian employers had accused her of fleeing, and was due to be deported. She was not supposed to be in a cell, terrified, ill and alone, unable to communicate. On the wall behind her, scrawled in toothpaste were large letters that said, Happy New Year 2016. When we left, she pointed to herself, held up a single finger, and cried.

When you are locked up, time takes on a different meaning. Every minute, you are made aware that you are not an independent person, able to move of your own free will. Every moment without freedom means a corrosion of the fundamental right to function as an unconstrained human being. On Sunday morning, when 16 other journalists and I were arrested for peacefully protesting for free media, we were made well aware of this fact.

On Sunday we protested because we don’t know, even after 600 days, what happened to our abducted friend and colleague, Ahmed Rilwan. We protested because the presses at Haveeru, the longest running local paper, now lies silent. Because courts are banning reporters from their courtrooms at their discretion. Because Raajje TV was burned to the ground in front of our eyes and no one has been held responsible. Because they tried to kill our outspoken colleague Asward Ibrahim Waheed. Because the government, accused of embezzling billions, is trying to shut up the people who report on these matters.

To the government, I want to say, jailing journalists will not change this – you have just given us some extra empathy and a whole lot more drive. Jailing journalists merely means giving freedom to a voice that speaks of the injustices you are trying to hide. Congratulations. You will hear from our pens.

#FindMoyameehaa #JusticeForRilwan #JournalismIsNotACrime #IStandWithHaveeru #LiyeveyneLiyaanan

“Everyone deprived of liberty through arrest or detention as provided by law, pursuant to an order of the court, or being held in State care for social reasons, shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person,” Article 57, The Constitution of the Republic of Maldives.