Freedom of Expression
Daniel Bosley, Managing Editor of Minivan News, talks about the abduction of Minivan journalist Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla. Following are excerpts from his interview: Why was Rilwan abducted? Do you think it was because of his reporting?
I think Rilwan was abducted because he fitted a profile of the type of freedom of expression that is being targeted by vigilante actors as the authorities fail to take control of the deteriorating situation.
Rilwan had worked for Minivan News – a paper often labeled as producing irreligious content by radical Islamic groups – since December, but was a prolific blogger and Twitter user for a number of years. He was well known amongst twitter users for poking fun at the hypocrisy of the country’s political and religious leaders. Perhaps he was targeted simply because he laughed at those in power.
While many are reporting that Rilwan liked to write about religion, this is misleading as he was curious about many subjects. A quick review of his nine months’ of writing for Minivan News shows that only around 11 percent of his writing touched on religious news. Had he recently targeted any particular group/individual that could have provoked this incident?
While Rilwan reported personally on the threats made against journalists earlier this month, all media outlets had reported the news, and nobody at Minivan News actually received threats on this occasion.
One group had taken issue with some of his writing – a supposedly Syrian-based group of Maldivian jihadis called Bilad Al Sham. When Rilwan wrote in detail about the group, they suggested he had misrepresented them. When Rilwan attempted to contact the group, they refused to talk, sending a message via their Facebook page saying ‘your days are short.’
This was in May and he has received no specific threats that I was aware of since. What steps are being taken for his recovery by the government? Are you satisfied with the government's actions?
The police’s initial reaction to the incident was slow, and many question are being asked as to why more was not done when the initial abduction was reported on August 8 (it was another 5 days until Rilwan’s family reported him missing). After attempting to consult with the police on investigations carried out by ourselves, his friends and family, we were forced to publish our findings as the evidence suggesting an abduction was being reported elsewhere.
Since that time, information from the police has been almost non-existent, with police in fact releasing a statement accusing the media of hindering its investigations. However, with the repeated failure to resolve the growing series of attacks and threats made against journalists, trust between the public and police is almost non-existent.
The government’s response has been equally weak – best typified by the Home Ministry’s failure to invite us – Rilwan’s own newspaper – to a press conference regarding the investigation.
In short, while we are keen to trust the police and to work alongside them, we are left in an extremely awkward situation wherein we need to find our friend and we are unsure if the police are willing or able to carry out this investigation properly. Are journalists free to report in the Maldives?
Journalists are not free to report in the Maldives. This incident is a culmination of a series of assaults on freedom of expression and a culture of labeling by extremists group that is frequently now being followed up with actual violence.
A threat analysis report by the Maldives Broadcasting Commission (MBC) in May showed that 84 percent of journalists surveyed received threats. Gangs, religious extremists and politicians proved to be the main source of threats – although the three are widely reputed to be inextricably linked. During our efforts to try and work together to raise awareness of Rilwan’s disappearance, we have heard countless stories from fellow journalists, including reports of gang members walking into television studios to force journalists to take stories off the air.
Self-censorship is the core aim of those who intimidate, a throwback to the 30-year dictatorship where people learned not to criticize President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. While we are yet to shy away from censoring our output at Minivan News – we were the only outlet in the country to report on a series of vigilante attacks in June – I admit that I now heavily censor the comments we receive on our articles.
With local laws on the defamation of Islam so vague, I dare not publish any comments suggesting criticism of Islam for fear of radical groups who consistently misrepresent readers’ comments as the work of our journalists. This is something I feel very guilty about as an editor. But with the government’s refusal to clarify or act upon its own religious unity regulations, and the impunity afforded to groups who take this duty upon themselves, I cannot risk the safety of my team.