Free­dom of Ex­pres­sion

Southasia - - REGION MALDIVES - This in­ter­view was con­ducted via email.

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.

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