The finance ministry has admitted to breaking the law over a right to information request filed by the Maldives Independent about a US$40 million loan.
The government has been unable to provide details or answer basic questions about the loan, including when it was granted and if the money is in place, despite ministers announcing it three months ago.
On July 16, hours after the European Union said it was considering sanctions over human rights abuses, two ministers said the country was getting a US$40 million loan from the OPEC Fund for International Development.
There was no record of a new US$40 million loan from OFID, which did not confirm or deny if this funding existed.
The Maldives Independent contacted the housing ministry, environment ministry and finance ministry with questions about the loan, including when it was granted and why there was no information about it on the OFID website, but no answers were forthcoming.
Right to Information (RTI) requests were filed with these ministries to ask when the US$40 million loan was approved, when it was granted, why there was nothing about the loan on the OFID website, why OFID did not deny or confirm the loan’s existence, if the loan exists or the ministers lied, and the start and finish date for the projects to be funded by this loan.
According to the Right to Information Act, the ministries had 21 days, including weekends and public holidays, to respond.
But all three ministries failed to respond, with the housing ministry not responding and environment ministry issuing a short response asking Maldives Independent to submit the request to finance ministry.
According to the law, it is the duty of the ministry that received the request to forward it to the relevant state authority rather than telling the applicant to file a new request.
Nonetheless, a new RTI request was filed with the finance ministry on September 10 but there was no response when the 21-day deadline ended on October 1.
The ministry’s information officer Mariyam Asma said it was on hold because of orders from finance minister Ahmed Munawar.
“The ministry has not finalised a response to your RTI request yet. We are waiting for a signal from the [minister’s] section,” she said.
Asked whether she was aware of the legal deadline, she said: “Yes, I am aware of this. I know that we get 21 days to respond, but we cannot issue a response if the minister does not give approval.”
Munawar was not answering calls. He sent a message saying “please text me” and questions were texted. There has been no response at the time of publication.
Munawar was asked whether his approval was required to respond to RTI requests, why he failed to do so within the 21-day period, and if he was aware the ministry was in breach of the RTI law.
“Government ministries are always trying to find some excuse to hold information,” said Ahid Rasheed, a senior project coordinator at Transparency Maldives.
“I believe that the other steps mentioned in the law must be taken. As far as I am aware, not a single RTI case has been taken to court. But this can also be done. Everyone must know that right to information is a right that can be widely exercised.”
He suggested information officers fear for their job security.
“They are generally mid-level staff so they have to go to a senior staff when they get RTI requests. If the senior staff tells them not to provide the requested information, they cannot do anything about it even though they know it is unlawful. They hesitate to provide the information because of the fear of losing employment.”
OFID has a US$159.6 million project portfolio in the Maldives.
There are 15 projects listed and four are ongoing: two are related to sanitation, one to regional hospital development and the fourth to the development of the Maldives’ main international airport.
The water and sanitation projects began in March 2013 and December 2014, with combined funding of more than US$73 million. The ministers said the money would be used to fund harbour construction projects but no such OFID-backed projects are ongoing.