The Maldives is becoming a dangerous place for journalists, especially those who are critical of the powers held by the political and religious elite.
One journalist who made headlines in the last few weeks was James Foley, the American freelancer covering the civil war in Syria. He was abducted by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria two years ago. A video posted by the terrorist organization in August showed the brutal beheading of Foley, leading to a worldwide uproar against the ISIS.
As the world mourned Foley’s murder, the journalist community in the Maldives had issues of their own to be worried about – Maldivian journalists were trying to come to grips with the abduction of a local journalist, Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla, a 28-year-old reporter, blogger and human rights activist.
Rilwan disappeared in the wee hours of August 8 when he was heading home from work. He lived in Hulhumale, an island near capital Male. According to reports published in Minivan News, the media outlet Rilwan was associated with, he left his office quite late, sometime after midnight. He was last seen on a ferry terminal in Male where he bought the ticket for Hulhumale. A CCTV camera installed at the terminal recorded his movements.
He was seen going towards the boarding area and although he was not seen boarding the ferry, one of his tweets confirmed that he was on his way to Hulhumale. An active micro-blogger, he kept tweeting stuff for the next 20 minutes – the time it takes to reach the island from Male. Rilwan also sent a Viber message at around 1:42 am. However, from then on, he went completely silent. A clue to his whereabouts was offered by his telephone service provider, according to whom his phone was last used at 2:36 am at a location in Male. A search operation was conducted in both Male and Hulhumale but to no avail.
Rilwan’s abduction has yet again brought into focus a rather dark truth about the Maldivian society: the growing radicalism that is gradually casting its dark shadow over all segments of society, including the media. In the recent past, a number of journalists were targeted by extremist groups. In its 2013 ‘Predators of Freedom of Information’ report, the NGO Reporters Without Borders accused “leaders and members of
fanatical groups in the Maldives of intimidating media organizations and bloggers and threatening them with physical harm in order to force them to exercise self-censorship.” In 2012, a freelance journalist and blogger Ismail Hilath Rasheed narrowly escaped death when an attacker tried to slit his throat. Hilath blamed Islamic radicals for the assassination attempt and believed that his public calls for religious tolerance were the reason for the attack. He left the country after the incident and now lives abroad.
Rilwan may have been abducted for the same reason. His employer believes that Rilwan “fitted the profile of the type of freedom of expression that is being targeted by vigilante actors.” The fact that he worked for an organization that has been blamed for “producing irreligious content” does not help matters either. Apart from his journalistic career, Rilwan was also a ‘prolific blogger’ and a frequent Twitter user. He was known for his liberal views in the Maldivian blogosphere as he would often raise pointed questions about issues that are best left untouched, such as religion and dogma.
He did not shy away from expressing his opinions despite knowing the consequences, especially considering the growing radical tendencies in the country. Making fun of the double standards of the religious extremists, he writes in one of his blog posts ’10 reasons why the World
Cup is haraam’: “Smoking is haraam, movies are haraam, music is haraam, secularism and democracy is haraam, Tom and Jerry and Mickey Mouse are haraam, travelling without a mahram, showing hair and using perfume are all haraam for women. They protest over changes in alcohol regulations, when a Muslim converts, about the new curriculum… they make Facebook
Rilwan did not stop at ridiculing religious leaders. Politicians were also a target of his mockery and condemnation. In fact, it is being hinted that his criticism of some political forces could have landed him in this trouble.
groups against their critics… issued death threats against secularists... etc. BUT! They fail to issue any verdict against the World Cup. They did not protest against it, instead they… bought TVs for their homes/shops, and started enjoying the matches. You heard it. They are ENJOYING a worldly sport.”
Rilwan did not stop at ridiculing religious leaders. Politicians were also a target of his mockery and condemnation. In fact, it is being hinted that his criticism of some political forces could have landed him in this trouble. According to Daniel Bosley, editor of Minivan News, Rilwan would poke fun at the hypocrisy of the country’s political and religious leaders. "Perhaps he was targeted simply because he laughed at those in power,” Bosley said.
And perhaps this is why the powers that be in the Maldives have given a lukewarm response to Rilwan’s abduction. On his return to the country after his China sojourn, Maldivian President, Abdullah Yameen responded to enquiries from journalists regarding Rilwan’s disappearance in this manner: “A journalist is missing, I think. So work will be done to find the journalist, right? And, God willing, that will be successful.” This statement resulted in a barrage of criticism directed at the president for his indifference to an issue that has received considerable worldwide attention, especially from international press freedom groups such as Reporters Without Borders, CPJ, IFJ and South Asia Media Solidarity Network and even from the UNHRC.
The picture becomes even more serious in light of the threats received by various journalists, MPs as well as family members of Rilwan after his abduction. Chillingly, all the threats were linked to Rilwan’s abduction and the sender of the threats did not try to conceal this fact. Aishath Aniya, a journalist working with Minivan 95, received a message from a sender called ‘ISIS’ stating, “You are next on our hit list. Be careful when you walk alone. #(expletive)moyameehaa”. Rilwan went by the alias ‘Moyamehaa’ on the social media. Similarly, Adam Haleem, Editor of Vnews, received a death threat saying, “If you keep behaving however you like, we will make you disappear, we will behead you. Keep that in mind (expletive)”. A few of Rilwan’s relatives also received threats from some unknown people, who warned them not to pursue Rilwan’s case.
It goes to the credit of both the Maldivian media and the family of the abducted journalist that they have held their ground and are united in demanding Rilwan’s safe return despite such threats and intimidating tactics. Now with the Maldives National Defence Forces coming to the aid of the police authorities in solving what is being termed as “the most complicated investigation ever faced by the service,” it is hoped that the trail will end on a positive note.
Rilwan’s abduction also calls for introspection by all elements of society – the government, the politicians, the media and the people – of where the country is headed.