For the first time in more than a decade, Maldivian journalists risk jail for critical reporting.
In December, the criminal court found Raajje TV journalists, Mohamed Wisam, 21, and Leevan Ali Nasir, 20, guilty of obstructing police officers. They were arrested while reporting on a bomb scare in Malé in November 2015. Prosecutors have asked for a prison sentence of four months and 24 days, but the judge, for unspecified reasons, has postponed their sentencing to January 24.
Wisam is also standing trial on a second charge of obstructing police officers. He was arrested along with 29-year-old cameraman, Adam Zareer, while covering an anti-government protest in March 2015.
Wisam’s second trial is on going, while a verdict is expected in Zareer’s case on Monday.
Wisam, Leevan and Zareer share in their own words why they continue to report despite the risks they face.
‘The most important public service one can do’
I grew up on the island of Rakeedhoo in Vaavu Atoll. I moved to Malé in 2000 after completing seventh grade, and joined Ameer Ahmed School. After I finished my O’level exams, I briefly worked as a shopkeeper and later at a pizza shop.
In 2011, I moved back to Rakeedhoo to serve on the island’s first elected local council: I had been elected on the Maldivian Democratic Party ticket. Then the MDP administration was ousted in a coup d’état. I relocated to Malé and in 2014 applied for the post of cameraman at Raajje TV.
I wanted to join the station because I was concerned by the government’s control of information. All media outlets were under the government’s control and that of pro-government politicians and businessmen. I saw how the public broadcaster manipulated information, but Raajje TV brought balance, and was critical of the government.
I believe Raajje TV is targeted more than any outlet, because the government cannot control the station by other means, such as coercing a politician or by blackmailing a businessman. This is why they resorted to burning down our offices and near-fatal attacks on my colleagues – because the state has no control over the information broadcasted by Raajje TV.
Despite the threats, arrests and now legal action, I have not even considered quitting Raajje TV because this is an important job. This is the most important public service one can do in the Maldives – to keep the public informed.
I refuse to leave the Maldives because I believe whatever is to happen will happen for the best. I am not guilty of a crime, I know it and the whole world knows it. Why should I hide?
At the court hearings, prosecutors presented video evidence claiming that the police did not know I was a journalist. A police witness said that I did not have a camera or press accreditation on me. But even in the video submitted by the state, there I was, holding my camera, with my press card hanging from my neck. This is what they are prosecuting me for.
Throughout the trial, Raajje TV has been very supportive. The station has taken care of the legal issues. My family has been there for me too. Despite the obvious threats, they have not asked me to stop my work.
If I have to go to jail, I am most concerned about my wife and my daughter, Yoolie. She will turn three in March. How will they take care of themselves? My wife, Mariyam Suha, has been very strong throughout.
I also worry about my mother and father. They are both elderly: My father is a fisherman and my mother occasionally weaves thatch. Their mental well being is very important to me. I worry that they may worry too much if I am jailed and this may cause their physical health to deteriorate.
‘There is no way I can get out in such a corrupt system’
Leevan Ali Nasir
In 2015, my father, a taxi driver, was diagnosed with throat cancer. He is undergoing treatment in India and has to travel every two months. The most difficult aspect of the prospect of jail is the suffering of my family; my father’s treatment is already toll and my going to jail will only add to their worry.
To be honest, I think I will be sent to jail. There is no way I can get out in such a corrupt system. The charges were never true: I did not attack or obstruct a police officer. But here I am, a convicted criminal. What is there to stop them from sentencing me to prison. Even the Majority Leader Ahmed Nihan has said that jail will teach journalists to stay in line. So I cannot see them letting me stay free.
I am from Addu. I moved to Malé after completing fifth grade in Addu. I worked at a photocopy shop and joined Raajje TV in 2015 as a trainee. I’ve always had an interest in writing; especially sports news. Now I am a full time reporter covering sports.
I have never considered quitting: even after the arrest, trial and conviction. If anything, I am more encouraged, because I realise now how important it is that journalists continue doing their work. Once, I was offered a job at Television Maldives [state broadcaster]. At the time, it was not expressly stated, but it was obvious to me that if I accepted the offer, the charged would be dropped. But that is not me.
Journalism is a public service. To aspiring journalists I want to say: Do not hesitate. It takes courage and thick skin, but it is really important that young people enter this profession.
I am most thankful for the support of my family and colleagues at Raajje TV, especially Ahmed Saleem, the managing director. I am also encouraged by public support. Sometimes people stop me on the street and ask me about the trial. Their concern is a huge encouragement.
‘Even if I were to go to jail, I will come back as a journalist’
I have received threats. I have been arrested multiple times, dragged in and out of court for more than a year, and now I have been found guilty of obstructing police officers. But I have never thought of quitting: The conviction has only strengthened my resolve in continuing as a journalist. I don’t see myself doing anything else.
The continuing threats and the state-led harassment is testament to the value of my work. I believe it is important that journalists persevere against all odds, so that the public may be more informed.
I joined Raajje TV as a cut-switch operator in 2014. I am not sure what got me interested in journalism. At the time, I had moved to Malé from Laamu Atoll Gan and I was looking for a job and any job was good enough.
It would not be a lie to say that I spend most of the day at work. I go from work to home and back again. I go out with friends sometimes, but even then those are colleagues from work.
My family, friends and colleagues at Raajje TV and other outlets, have been a constant source of support and have kept my hope up even through all of this trouble. This is why I know that even if I were to go to jail, I will come back as a journalist.
Journalists in the Maldives, especially if they are critical, have faced harassment. In recent years, the threats against Raajje TV has increased; one of our journalists survived a near-fatal beating, our offices were torched and burnt to the ground, and now three of us are facing jail.
The mounting pressure against Raajje TV is proof that this authoritarian regime is afraid of the work of journalists. This is why we must not stop reporting. Not only Raajje TV, but also every other independent and critical media have faced harassment. Death threats, arrests, legal action, and intimidation and attacks by gangs – this is why we must continue.