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Elder statesman rails against authoritarian reversals

Ahmed ‘Seena’ Zahir, a former lawmaker and minister, has blasted authoritarian reversals under President Abdulla Yameen, criticising judicial corruption and tyranny, the ruling party’s crackdown on oversight bodies and press freedom.



Ahmed ‘Seena’ Zahir, a former lawmaker and minister, has blasted authoritarian reversals under President Abdulla Yameen, criticising judicial corruption and tyranny, and the ruling party’s crackdown on oversight bodies and press freedom.

The former Speaker of parliament and minister of justice said journalists “were even more vulnerable” than in ex-President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s 30-year rule. The Maldives had never needed journalism as much, because of government opacity, bribery within the judiciary and government corruption, he said.

His remarks were made at a ceremony held by Maldives Media Council to mark World Press Freedom Day on May 3.

He went on to criticise the Supreme Court’s outsized influence over the judiciary, and oversight bodies’ failure to act in the public interest.

He was hopeful of reform, however, saying: “Times have changed. The people’s ways of thinking have changed. Even if Lee Kwan Yew assumes power in Singapore now, he can’t rule the way he used to. That day has passed. Those were carried out with specific repressions. Not now, they can’t. They can’t repress and rule in this day and age! Today, they will have to work in an open environment.”

Zahir was speaker of the parliament when a special constitutional assembly was elected to write a new and democratic constitution.

Below is a slightly abridged version of Zahir’s speech at the World Press Freedom Day ceremony.

What laws are the courts using to bar journalists? If a person’s actions inside a courtroom is contemptuous, then he or she could be barred further entry. But how would a journalist know when a judge arbitrarily decides that they are to be barred today, because he decides that’s what his mood entailed that day. How is this upholding the rule of law?

I’ll tell you something that saddens me deeply; I worked in the judiciary for more than six years, it is a difficult sector. We have been talking about integrity all this time, while hiding certain aspects of the story. Building a monument for integrity? Signing a pledge? How does that enforce integrity?

These are people who swore in the name of Allah. How can you believe them when they have betrayed their oaths? They swore in the name of Allah, where is their integrity?

The current environment in the Maldives is very challenging. That is why when I spoke two or three years ago at a ceremony to inaugurate an online news website, I said society needs journalism and journalists even more now. This is because oversight bodies are independent in name only. There are some members of independent commissions here. Forgive me, when I saw them I felt a bit scared. I thought to myself, maybe it is not so appropriate for me to speak of oversight bodies in their presence. But we must talk about it, must we not? A man who received a sports awards, Ronaldo from Real Madrid said recently that scoring goals was in his DNA. I think it is in my DNA to talk about freedom.

I have worked in two sectors; the judiciary is a very difficult field. Corruption and bribery is so rife that you have to be on guard to catch them. Similar to how journalists tell your sources that you have to verify information before you print. But it is very difficult to verify. And if you cannot, it could amount to slander and other things.

I worked in the judiciary for six years, and when I took the job on, people from the opposition teased me saying: “Zahir is going to be a chairman of the Justice Corporation.”

It is very difficult to prove bribery in the judiciary. Judges have a lot of discretion in sentencing; the jail time could be very broad. Jail terms, for example, are within a range of three to five years. So an average person may not know which sentence he would receive.

So the brokers tell them to go and ask for lenience, maybe three months of house arrest, and say, this can be done for about ten or twenty thousand rufiyaa. So it goes something like this. Catching these people is a very difficult thing […]

We have a culture here in the Maldives, where people admit that they gave a bribe right after they bribe someone. I have come across people, even now, who say they had asked for US$1million to carry out a particular task, or say “give me 800 dollars and this can be done.” I wasn’t even asking, but this are the things people talk about. This is common in Maldives. What I’m trying to say is that in a society riddled with corruption, journalists have a major role to play in revealing the truth.

Just a couple of days ago, a friend of mine asked me, isn’t I-Havan being handed to the Indians? I said yes, I’ve read about it in the news. And then he asked me, aren’t the Americans on “Foalhavahi” [Diego Garcia]? I said yes. And then he asks, isn’t China coming here for trade and financing airport development? I said yes. And then he asks with three major powers in the Maldives, what would happen? I-haven in the north goes to India, Diego Garcia south of Addu goes to America and in the middle is China – What would happen next? I said why are you asking me that, I do not know.

Then he says, China is financing the airport development. I said yes, I read that on the news. Then he says, oh wait, the Abu Dhabi fund is the only way to raise money now. I said yes, I read that too. And he says, Abu Dhabi is a bank, wouldn’t they check the extent of our debt? When they find out that our national debt is so high, they wouldn’t loan us any money. What would happen then? I said I do not know. He says that means the only other way to get money for the airport is through the Saudi Fund. But Saudi is in a very bad shape, they are now selling shares of their oil company, so would we get money from them? I asked him why he was asking me that, I’m not employed by the government, I have nothing to do with any of it. And he asks me, do you know what will happen next? I said I didn’t. He says that we’d have to go to China and that China would have to fund all these things, and then their influence over us would grow.

And then he asks me if I knew what is happening in Malé? He said there could be buildings as tall 12 or 14 storeys, to house Maldivians. I said that’s a very good thing if everyone in the Maldives can have apartments in Malé, it’s very good if people who do not have shelter get apartments? He asks me, are apartments enough? They would have to come down from those buildings. People from all floors, how do they walk in the streets? I told him I don’t know. He asked me; how do you come out of shops? How do they breathe? How do they go swimming? I told him I didn’t know. He says is enough to just tall buildings? What about the environment and all the other services? These are things that have to be discussed.

So what I’m trying to tell you is that, if the concerned authorities and institutions do not think about these things, if the People’s Majlis does not take time to think consider this, someone else has to think about it.

Now, the judiciary. We tried very hard to reform the judiciary. I think it was 116 of us, or 106 of us who decided how the judiciary should be administered. Later, the Kuda Committee, I think it was 20 of us, who decided that the entire judiciary should be independent. We decided that the Chief Justice, or any judge, could not interfere with the administration. I challenge you to see if this is another way. They couldn’t interfere, why else was Judicial Services Commission formed? If there is a department of Judicial Administration, that does not concern [the judges and the Chief Justice]. It is a completely independent institution. If, for example, judges are moving court judges around, then that is indirect influence. It means they are interfering in sentencing, in between processes. That’s not how we envisioned it. And now when I speak of this, I could be prosecuted, but I was someone who worked on these reforms, so I know how it is.

What I’m trying to say is that one individual has overturned the decision of 106 people! And then, after that, five people went in there and finalised and sealed it. This is not what we decided. Responsibility for this must be taken. Who should take this responsibility? The People’s Majlis. The Majlis though? Nothing.

They don’t care. As long as it doesn’t affect them, then, they are with it all the way. They don’t want to say anything about this. They don’t want to say anything, about [the judiciary]. They seem more involved with their personal matters, sparking arguments amongst themselves, summon people involved in those, this type of charade, but this, this – this is against what we decided. Could one person, or even five people translate the constitution against the Special Majlis’ decision. No, we can’t say they contravened the constitution. Rectifying this falls on the People’s Majlis. But the Majlis, they’ve said nothing. After all, if that’s how they want things, why would they speak out? So what can we do about that?

Around the world, if there are people disobeying the constitution then the matter will go to the parliament who then rectifies it. The government doesn’t want to solve it. Maybe because when things go according to their wishes, then it’s alright for them. So how can we claim to have the best judiciary in the world? These are the reasons why the EU and other parties object. We get blamed when we talk about it. But someone has to speak out, in order to remedy this. It bothers me a lot, I was very involved in this process, and I worked hard. It causes me great grief to realise that years of work is going down the drain. I am not one who goes to protests, or carries placards, or walks from house to house. I try to obtain reforms through the system, slowly, slowly. We spent 30 years on this. When this Constitution was ratified, I thought, good. And when President Nasheed assumed the presidency, I thought, yes, our rule has come to an end, but it is good that someone who loves democracy has come to power. But it turned out to be a whole different sort of experiment. What I am trying to say is that the peace and stability we thought would come – it didn’t come. Oversight bodies are independent in name only, they do not dare act. Because the moment they do, complaints are lodged at the People’s Majlis. MPs do not look into the complaints, but when it comes to a vote, they say, yes, we are ready, they press the buttons and leave. How can members of oversight bodies act impartially?

I think in your issue [with the defamation bill], what should be done is to submit it to the Majlis. The Majlis, the government, should get the journalists to shape the bill in a way that is safe for journalists. This isn’t something new. We have done this before. If the members of the Majlis want to, they can do it even now. But what happens is that, the way the majority lies there, they only do what they are ordered to. Journalists should go to the Majlis and express their issues and concerns to the Majlis. And find a way to resolve their concerns. There must be freedom. But this freedom must not be used for slander. You must not write whatever you want. If you level bribery allegations at someone, you must have the evidence.

To resolve this, the government must ask journalists to share their grievances. And draw a line acceptable to both parties.

Sure you can ask me why I talk like this when my party is in power. But even if my party is in power, I must say what needs to be said. We must never think that journalists can be whipped into submission. Not in this age! No! No matter how much they try, they can’t! What we should do find a solution. We need to create an environment where we can work together. Why can’t they do things transparently? That won’t create rumors. For example when they give someone an island, why can’t they say specify the criteria? That it is based on those criteria that the island will be given? Even when they give someone a job, there is no problem in giving a job to someone who fits the criteria. What I’m trying to say is that we are paying a lot of money as taxes. We want to know how this money is spent. I am sad to say that our representatives do not do this work. That’s why we need journalists, and investigative journalism, to give us evidence and proof. Reveal! Expose!

The way I see it, journalists are more vulnerable now, than they were during our time. I saw a report a few days ago, and I thought, my god. It was written like a report that I would have written maybe forty years ago. But it was written recently. During my time, I was so afraid to name people, places, I just wrote about the incident. This report was written in the same way, in the style I used to write in! But I’ve left the work to the young people of today, and this is evident of what quality our journalism is now. No matter how much we talk about development, that we’re good… some may think that if the late Ibrahim Nasir that he may be able to rule the way he used to. No! He can’t! Times have changed. The people’s ways of thinking have changed. Even if Lee Kwan Yew assumes power in Singapore now, he can’t rule the way he used to. That day has passed. Those were carried out with specific repressions. Not now, they can’t. They can’t repress and rule in this day and age! Today, they will have to work in an open environment.

I have said a lot more than I should. What happens now is that, when I attend ceremonies, my friends call me up beforehand and they say, don’t say too much. But because I believe in freedom, when I receive the opportunity – not that I seek out those opportunities – I feel obliged to speak on these issues.

Photo by Haveeru