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Broadcasting regulator admits bias, rejects press freedom index

The watchdog’s president conceded bias in defamation inquiries initiated by his colleagues.



The president of the Maldives Broadcasting Commission on Thursday conceded bias in inquiries initiated by his colleagues.

Some inquiries were launched without complaints being submitted, Mohamed Shaheeb told the press, including one case that led to an MVR1 million (US$64,850) fine imposed on Raajje TV for airing a speech that was deemed defamatory towards President Abdulla Yameen.

Shaheeb admitted a lack of impartiality when asked why defamation of opposition figures by pro-government media went unpunished. Inquiries launched by MBC members should not have targeted a single broadcaster, he said.

“I’m saying no political figure exerted any influence over me in any matter,” Shaheeb insisted, deferring to other members on questions over their independence.

Pressed about her role in organising an event for the president, MBC member Fathmath Zaina argued that Yameen’s meeting with senior citizens was “not a political rally.”

There was no problem with her attending as a member of a state institution, she contended.

Zaina, who worked at the first lady’s campaign office before her appointment to the regulator, was photographed handing out seating arrangements.

The Broadcasting Commission Act requires members to be “individuals who maintain socially accepted moral standards, integrity, good conduct, impartiality.”

Despite slapping fines totalling MVR3.7 million on the opposition-aligned Raajje TV, the MBC previously threw out complaints against state media.

The regulator was also accused of double standards after it ruled that questionable content aired by the pro-government Channel 13 was not defamatory.

But Shaheeb went on to defend the heavily-criticised anti-defamation law. It was necessary to protect the right to good reputation, he argued, adding that the number of complaints filed with the commission has declined since it came into force.

He also questioned the validity of the Reporters Without Borders’ annual press freedom index, declaring there was unprecedented freedom for Maldivian media.

The MBC “does not accept” the index as the France-based organisation did not seek any feedback or clarification from media regulators.

The Maldives was ranked 120 out of 180 countries this year after the murder of blogger Yameen Rasheed. In the 2017 index, the Maldives slid down five places to 117 following the criminalisation of defamation.

– Unfair and unbalanced –

Thursday’s press briefing was called to release a report on coverage of the presidential campaign.

The MBC’s content monitoring showed most TV stations, including channels operated by the state-owned Public Service Media company, were biased in favour of either the incumbent or opposition candidate.

The PSM News channel’s coverage of President Yameen was 97 percent positive, in contrast to 96 percent negative coverage of opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih.

Coverage of the joint opposition candidate was 98 percent negative on the PSM’s Television Maldives channel.

Ahead of the September 23 polls, PSM aired several unsubstantiated allegations against Solih, including claims that he was suffering from a cognitive impairment.

Almost on a daily basis, the opposition coalition was branded unpatriotic, anti-Islamic and in cahoots with “Christian missionaries.”

A day before the election, PSM claimed Solih was banished in 1989 over illegal alcohol sales.

The state television and radio channels – which operates at an annual cost of MVR80 million (US$5 million) to taxpayers – functioned as “a government mouthpiece,” in the words of a senior editor.