The battle for the Maldives’ oldest newspaper, Haveeru Daily, took a new twist on Thursday, with the paper’s new shareholders requesting a stay order to prevent its founder and staff from registering or operating a new paper.
Haveeru remains closed for a third week over the bitter dispute.
The daily’s new shareholders, Farooq Hassan, Ibrahim Rasheed Moosa and Mohamed Naeem, applied for a stay order against its founder Zahir Hussein on Wednesday. A hearing was scheduled the next day.
If the paper’s journalists start a new paper, it would void a High Court ruling that legitimised Farooq, Moosa and Naeem’s ownership claim, and lead to the paper’s bankruptcy, their lawyer argued.
Zahir Hussain’s lawyer, Husnu Suood, however, said a stay order would deprive both his client and Haveeru‘s staff of their constitutional and legal right to economic activity and employment.
He noted that the daily’s journalists, administrative staff and editors were not employed under Zahir, but with the Haveeru Media Group, a company owned by Zahir’s three children.
The HMG, which has launched a counterclaim urging the Civil Court to protect their rights, asked the court for more time to review the stay order claim, noting the hearing was scheduled twenty-four hours after the case was filed. Former Prosecutor General Ahmed Muizz is representing the HMG.
Mohamed Haleem, the presiding judge, granted further time for review, scheduling the next hearing for 2pm on April 25. He has also requested Suood and HMG to submit Haveeru‘s employment contracts.
The civil court is also separately in the process of dividing Haveeru’s assets between the four shareholders.
Farooq, Moosa and Naeem were part of Haveeru’s editorial staff at the paper’s inception in 1979, and were awarded a controlling share in Haveeru last year by the High Court in 2014, based on a 1983 agreement.
The ruling cleared the way for the three to sue Zahir – chancellor of the Islamic University of Maldives and former education minister – to claim a share of Haveeru’s assets and profits for the past 35 years.
The civil court issued a ruling on March 31, ordering the paper to involve its new shareholders in its management, including in the making of editorial decisions and financial transactions. The HMG subsequently closed the paper.
The Supreme Court has meanwhile rejected an appeal filed against the High Court ruling.
The battle for Haveeru, however, remains complicated. Zahir asserts that he had developed the paper with loans taken out in his name, and argued the other three had not put up any capital in the venture.
Zahir’s lawyers have asked for details of the three men’s financial contributions to the paper, to which Judge Haleem said he would appoint an auditor to value the company.
Zahir maintains that the 1983 agreement Farooq, Moosa and Naeem had based their claim on had been annulled in 1985. The agreement was made to set up an agency to disseminate news and operate the paper, and was dissolved in 1985 following a dispute, they said.
Haveeru was established in 1979, and has the highest circulation of any local newspaper. It became the first media outlet to launch an online version in 1997.
During former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s 30-year rule, Haveeru was decidedly pro-government, but has become increasingly independent in its coverage since 2008.
Some 183 journalists have signed a petition urging the government to negotiate a solution to Haveeru’s shut down. The petition comes amidst growing concerns over press freedom in the Maldives.