Four months after Channel News Maldives shut down citing pressure from the government, the hard-hitting team of journalists behind the popular online paper has regrouped and returned with a new website.
The Voice of Free Press was launched at the Salsa Royal restaurant in Malé last night by chief guest Ahmed ‘Seena’ Zahir, a former journalist, justice minister, and speaker of parliament.
Speaking at the ceremony, VFP owner and editor-in-chief, Ismail Rasheed said: “CNM was forced to close because we didn’t give in to political pressure. I assure you today that this paper, too, God willing will go forward without coming under any such influence.”
CNM was shuttered in June when Mohamed Ali Janah, a construction magnate who held a controlling share in the paper, annulled its parent company.
Janah dismissed claims of political pressure at the time, insisting that it was a business decision. But Rasheed, the minority shareholder, said the pair was forced to close the paper “because of influential government officials, who have been trying to erase this paper’s existence when their first attempt at making us sing their praises failed.”
Shortly after VFP was launched last night, the site came under attack and went down this morning. But it is now back online, featuring stories about the ruling party split, three supreme court justices securing ownership of Rehendi flats, and a report about wasteful spending on Malé’s western artificial beach.
After resuming work today, VFP senior journalist Misbah Abbas told the Maldives Independent that the team is confident of avoiding the kind of pressure that CNM faced.
“There will not be pressure to shut down like last time because we are using our own finances and money from our friends, without much financial support. We only have one investor this time,” he said.
CNM was set up in late 2011 and quickly became a thorn in the government’s side with corruption exposés. The site was also hacked earlier this year and its journalists have faced arrest and intimidation.
The forced closure came after it exposed how an NGO linked to First Lady Fathimath Ibrahim was distributing dates donated by the king of Saudi Arabia.
Another story claimed the first lady was given a share of government’s quota allocations for the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. CNM also published a letter sent to the finance ministry by the Islamic minister with instructions to give half of a US$24,000 grant donated by Abu Dhabi to Fathimath’s Sadagat Foundation.
CNM’s closure also came amid an unprecedented crackdown on the press. The Maldives’ oldest and only print newspaper, Haveeru, was shuttered in April by a court ruling that split its ownership.
The Maldives has plummeted in the Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index during the past four years with the near-fatal attack of a journalist, the torching of an opposition-aligned TV station, and the abduction of Maldives Independent journalist Ahmed Rilwan in August 2014.
None of the suspects in any of the cases has been convicted to date.
Speaking at last night’s ceremony, Zahir reportedly said that the role of a free press in the Maldives is vital at present with both the parliament and independent institutions rendered incapable of serving the public interest.
“There are sentiments and hardships of the people that are not being brought to the public. Journalists have to do this. In my mind, it is journalists who now have to raise the people’s voice,” he said.
Shafaa Hameed contributed reporting.