Killing the Voices
Media in the Maldives and Bangladesh are speaking out against the brutal treatment meted out to bloggers.
On August 8, 2015 a large and peaceful group of people streamed out into the streets of the Maldives. Holding placards with #Findmoyameehaa (Find Mad Man) written across, the participants of the group were asking for information about the missing blogger Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla. He was popularly known as Moya Meehaa because he would speak out against the atrocities in the country. He had been abducted from outside his home a year ago.
Among the group was an elderly lady, the mother of Abdulla, who wanted to know about her son’s whereabouts. Instead of giving her the information, she and the others were mistreated by the police which had been deployed to stop the rally. The government’s callous treatment reinforced its lack of empathy towards
the missing and also revealed the vulnerability of the media in the Maldives.
Since Moya Meehaa’s disappearance, his mother and friends, mostly local journalists, as well as international organizations like the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and even the UN, have been trying to find out about him.
According to a local blogger and friend Yameen Rasheed, Ahmed Rilwan went missing shortly after he had written a report on death threats received by journalists for reporting on the powerful gangs operating in the country. Rasheed said the situation in the Maldives had become quite difficult for journalists to work in and was only getting worse. He said almost all journalists had received threats and everyone was waiting to see who would be next.
The media in the Maldives never enjoyed complete freedom and was always controlled by the state and even independent newspapers were influenced by those close to the regime. Things changed slightly in the early 2000s, when democratic forces started to emerge. Media outlets, especially websites, became popular for the people to vent their views. Naturally this led to the government blocking them but it did not stop the people from accessing the sites through proxies.
The wave for change seemed to be imminent but the struggle had only begun. The change was supported by the ratification of the constitution in 2008, after which Article 28 of the constitution granted media freedom in the Maldives, thus increasing the space in which the media could work. This helped to improve the standard of press freedom in the country. As a result, the Maldives moved from the 103rd position on the Reporters Sans Frontières ( RSF) Press Freedom ranking to the 51st position. But this was hard to retain by the Maldives. In February 2012, President Nasheed’s government ended with a coup and the media reverted to the pre-2008 position. This was augmented with attacks on and disappearance of journalists, making the situation even more dismal. It is prudent to mention that the media in the Maldives may be freer to work in some ways but it is still not independent and journalists are prone to exercise self-censorship.
In June 2012, blogger Hilath Rasheed suffered a near fatal attack when his attackers slashed his throat. Miraculously he survived but only to flee the country. The attacks continued, some by groups allegedly supported by the regime. In October 2013, opposition aligned Raajje TV's main station was destroyed in an arson attack. Then, in June 2014, many people were abducted and harassed by radicalized gang members for allegedly posting pro-secularist content.
Another country where bloggers in particular are being targeted is Bangladesh. In a little more than five months at least four bloggers were brutally murdered in the country but the authorities have seemed unable to stem the aggression towards bloggers. Blogger Avijit Roy was murdered on February 26, Oyasiqur Rahman on March 30, Ananta Bijoy Das on May 12 and Niladri Chattapadhaya Niloy was also killed inside his home in the capital city’s Goran on August 7. Ansar-Al-Islam, the Bangladesh chapter of al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent, accepted the responsibility of the attack on Niloy. Its members were picked up for interrogation by the police and are currently under investigation.
The situation is quite grim in Bangladesh, and the authorities are walking on a thin rope in trying to grapple with the outspoken bloggers and their aggressive opponents. The Bangladesh Inspector General of Police, AKM Shahidul Haque said after Niloy’s murder, “There is no problem in writing blog posts. But, don’t write anything that hurts others’ religious sentiment. Hurting religious sentiment is an offence.”
The attacks on journalists in Bangladesh began two years ago in 2013, when blogger Rajiv Haider was blatantly hacked to death on February 15, 2013 in front of his home in Mirpur, Dhaka. Similarly, the other attacks on bloggers were in full public view – Niloy was killed in his own home with his wife present in the building. The boldness of the attackers reveals the vulnerability of bloggers in Bangladesh. All the bloggers who have been attacked in Bangladesh had one thing in common - they supported or were members of Gonojagoron Mancha, which literally means National Awakening Stage (gono means people, jagoron means awakening, and moncho means platform). A campaign began in 2013 against the verdict on Abdul Quader Mollah, a Bangladeshi Islamic leader and politician, demanding capital punishment for him and the Razakar and Al-Badr members who committed crimes against humanity in 1971.
Journalists from all over the world need to support the struggle of journalists of the Maldives and Bangladesh against the dangers they face in their countries. The UN and other international journalists’ bodies need to step up efforts to try and resolve the situation in these countries and strengthen the journalists. One way to do this would be to strengthen the journalists in the country and highlight the problems faced by them. The international organizations need to open channels of negotiations with the governments to improve the state of affairs and to give freedom to the journalists. Atrocities against journalists should also be highlighted through global campaigns to build pressure on the relevant governments.