Journalists need courage and paranoia in repressive Maldives regime

Journalists need courage and paranoia in repressive Maldives regime
Determined to hold her government to account, exiled Maldivian journalist Zaheena Rasheed continued her work, despite death threats. A degree of paranoia is healthy for reporters, she says.
7 min read
03 May, 2017
Rasheed won Index on Censorship's Freedom of Expression Award on 19 April [Image Elina Kansikas]
When satirical blogger Yameen Rasheed was brutally murdered in the stairwell of his apartment block on 23 April, it brought home a regrettable reality for fellow Maldivian journalist Zaheena Rasheed (no relation): Paranoia can be paralysing, but journalists in the Maldives "should never let their guards down".

The island nation, known by much of the world as a holiday paradise, has been marred by political violence, radicalisation, abduction and intimidation in recent years. There are also suspicions of links between politics and violent gangs, with some politicians suspected of hiring gangsters to help further their own political ends.

Rasheed, the recent winner of Index on Censorship magazine's Freedom of Expression Award for journalism, believes that never before has there been such serious criminality and embezzlement among her country's political leaders.

"This level of corruption is historic," she says. "The government has sold off more than 60 of the county's islands and pocketed the profits," she claims, referring in part to allegations it has sold the Faafu atoll to Saudi Arabi - something the government denies.

When it comes to media freedom, the situation is just as bad. A wave of democratisation, spearheaded by former president and human rights activist Mohamed Nasheed, allowed free expression to flourish in the country from 2005 onwards.

'Paranoia is annoying but at least it keeps you alive.' - - Zaheena Rasheed, exiled journalist

However, since the democratically elected Nasheed was ousted in 2012, media freedoms have been brutally quashed. Political violence, media harassment and defamation lawsuits following the introduction of a controversial defamation law in 2016, are just some of the risks faced by Maldivian journalists today - particularly if they report on government corruption or religious extremism.

The story behind this repression is one of authoritarian rule and power struggles between political elites, Rasheed explains. Following a 30-year dictatorship under Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the archipelago nation took big strides towards democracy when Nasheed was elected president in the country's first-ever multiparty elections in 2008.

A website counts almost 1000 days have passed since Ahmed
Rilwan disappeared in August 2014  [Image]

Democracy was "a big threat to the entrenched politics and power structures of the time," Rasheed says, and this "seismic shift in Maldivian politics" was met with fierce opposition from the country's political elites. In 2012 Nasheed was forced to resign and Abdulla Yameen, Gayoom's half- brother, took power.

Since then it has been an uphill struggle for independent Maldivian journalists, the exiled reporter says. The Maldives' state broadcaster was transformed into a "government mouthpiece" immediately after the coup and independent media outlets have been attacked, bought out or financially ruined – most recently by the draconian Defamation and Freedom of Speech Act, which sets hefty fines and jail terms for journalists and others found guilty of slander.

"There are so many threats facing journalists in the Maldives today," Rasheed says. "We have seen the vandalism of an opposition-aligned TV station; an attack on a blogger in 2012 [allegedly by Islamic extremists]; and a murder attempt on a journalist in 2013. People have been forced into self censorship by being physically attacked or financially crippled, but sections of the Maldivian media have remained defiant."

People have been forced into self censorship by being physically attacked or financially crippled

Rasheed herself has also been targeted. The journalist received several death threats - online and in person - for her outspoken reporting. She was forced into exile last year following her involvement as a researcher, production assistant and interviewee in an Al Jazeera documentary. The film, based on evidence gathered from three of the former vice president's mobile phones, exposes the shocking, almost comic, extent of corruption in the Maldives today.

Shortly before the film was aired, Rasheed took the decision to flee her country, having been harassed by pro-government media and government officials, who branded the documentary as economic sabotage and an attempt to overthrow the government. When it was aired, the Maldives Independent office was raided on charges of conspiracy to topple the government.

  Read more: Authoritarianism: The nemesis of press freedom

Rasheed escaped by the skin of her teeth – and now works as an exiled Al Jazeera reporter in Doha – but two years earlier her friend and former Maldives Independent colleague, Ahmed Rilwan, was not so lucky.

The then 28-year-old journalist had been carrying out investigations into corrupt politicians, Islamic extremists and Maldivians fighting in Syria. He has now been missing for almost 1,000 days – a disappearance that Rasheed says has not been properly investigated by the police.

An unattributed blog cropped up in 2015 that claimed Rilwan had travelled to Syria to fight for the Islamic State

"Just a few days after Rilwan went missing we were able to establish that he was abducted," Rasheed tells me. "His neighbours came forward to say they had seen a man being forced into a car at knifepoint. They called the police immediately and the police even had the knife, which was dropped at the scene, but they still didn't investigate the incident."

Suspects arrested over Rilwan's abduction were reportedly allowed to leave the Maldives following their release and a campaign of disinformation followed, with an unattributed blog cropping up in 2015 that claimed Rilwan had travelled to Syria to fight for the Islamic State. "Someone photoshopped all these images," Rasheed says, "and then pro-government media carried the story. It's so disgusting."

The problem facing Rasheed in her search for Rilwan is that she has no evidence that government officials ordered her former colleague's abduction. What she does accuse the government of is protecting her friend's kidnappers. "All the facts of the case demonstrate that the people responsible for Rilwan's abduction were protected by the state," she says. "And police negligence allowed them to flee."

'All the facts of the case demonstrate that the people responsible for Rilwan's abduction were protected by the state,' - Zaheena Rasheed, exiled journalist

Rasheed describes the reporter's disappearance as "a form of torture". When I ask her if she still believes her friend is alive, she says "not really" - "that hope has faded quite a lot," she admits. "But you can never stop hoping, and you can never get closure until you see a body. This is why disappearances are used to terrorise people."

How does all of this make her feel in herself? "It certainly doesn't make me feel safe," Rasheed says, laughing a little nervously. "But most of all it makes me angry. The fact that the people entrusted with our safety just don't care about it makes me very angry."

It is this sense of injustice that motivated Rasheed during her three years as editor of the Maldives Independent, covering stories on a host of taboo subjects neglected by other press outlets.

These included gender, human rights, political violence and religious extremism. "I was proud of our independence as a publication and the fact that we continued to publish every day," she says. "We don't necessarily have the best coverage or the biggest reach in the Maldives but we continued to speak out on issues that many others didn't – in spite of the threats we faced."

Despite this extraordinary courage in the face of adversity, and Rasheed's bullish drive to continue holding the government to account, she was not immune to intimidation. "When I went into exile and later quit the Maldives Independent [in February 2017], I was a mess," she says. "I was jumping at shadows, I was suspicious of strangers, I was afraid of the dark. As a journalist and a writer you need to have a certain openness to the world, but I found I had become very reserved."

In the past her coping mechanism was to not fully acknowledge the risks. "To continue working in that kind of environment you have to downplay the threats you face," Rasheed says. Now though she has developed what she calls "a healthy sense of paranoia" – "especially after Yameen Rasheed's murder I understand why this is important," Rasheed says.

"I'm careful about digital security, what apps I use, email verification and I text my husband to let him know where I'm going and what I'm doing at all times. Paranoia is annoying but at least it keeps you alive."

Fred Searle is a journalist based in London.