The word “impunity” was chosen for the campaign as, in most extreme cases, journalists have been killed for doing their work and no one has yet to be punished for it.
The First International Day to End Impunity for crimes against journalists has been marked by a series of meetings and conferences internationally.
The International Day to End Impunity was created by the United Nations General Assembly in 2013 in commemoration of Claude Verlon and Ghislaine Dupont, the two French journalists who were assassinated in Mali on November 2 of that year.
Intimidation of journalists did not end only by killing them. They are also jailed, kidnapped, threatened, harassed, censored, faced with fabricated false charges in court, are tortured to reveal their sources and information they know, have their stations, websites and newspapers shut down, fined or blocked, blackmailed, brutally attacked. Sometimes their personal belongings such as mobile phones and cameras are seized and are either forced to delete what is recorded or are damaged or destroyed. Even though a journalist has to face these things in their daily work, they still put their life at risk and with great effort, they uncover the truth and deliver to the public.
According to a statement published on rsf.org on June 27th2018, a total of 47 professional journalists, citizen-journalists and media workers have already been killed within the first six months of 2018, according to the tally of press freedom violations kept by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
What is impunity?
When someone acts with impunity, it means that their actions have no consequences.
Journalists, activists, and bloggers have been harassed, threatened, tortured, intimidated, jailed or worse for exercising their basic human right to express themselves, but their perpetrators rarely face serious consequences for their acts.
According to the research done by Professor Jackie Harrison of University of Sheffield, the dramatic consequences of impunity are that, journalists are subject to increased physical and psychological attacks, harassment, threats, smear campaigns, arbitrary detentions, deprivation of liberty and kidnapping. Journalists must also live with threats to family, undue political pressure, censorship, false lawsuits and corrupt trials.
Issues in the Maldives
The Maldives, a member of the United Nations human rights council, co-sponsored a resolution urging member states to ensure protection for journalists, but failed to bring perpetrators to justice in most of the incidents that happens in the country. According to an article published on Maldives Independenton November 2nd2016, the resolution to urge all states to release arbitrarily detained journalists and reform laws that obstruct press freedom was agreed universally by the 47-member human rights council and welcomed as “ground breaking” by British press freedom group Article 19. It also calls for an end to the forced closure of media outlets and promotes the right of journalists to protect their confidential sources. According to this article, Andrew Smith, a legal officer at Article 19, said, “The government cannot whitewash impunity for disappeared journalists, arrests under archaic laws and raids on media houses by signing up to a UN resolution that condemns these kinds of free expression violations. The government must be asked what it will do to live up to its UN commitments to investigate these crimes, repeal abusive laws, and ensure a safe and enabling environment for journalists.” But the situation for the Maldivian journalists is so crucial that journalists themselves believe that they are the only people that have being prosecuted in politicized courts while the culprits of crimes against journalists roam freely with impunity. The media offices have been attacked and even though threats against journalists and their families are given by text messages or in person, there has been no justice so far for any of the attacks on medias or the journalists. Instead, the institutions to protect them turns out in favor of the state by putting them on baseless trials and fine the media centers, forcing the medias to open up a charity. The fines are imposed under the Anti-Defamation bill passed in August 2016. The heavily-criticized anti-defamation law that requires payments to be settled before the decision could be appealed at court. The continuous harassment and intimidation of journalists leads to a direct impact on the freedom of the press ever since President Abdulla Yameen assumed office. As a result, Maldives ranks 120 out of 180 countries in the 2018 Reporters Without Borders’ annual press freedom index.
Impunity issues faced by the Maldivian journalists
According to a news published on The Oslo Times on October 28th2015, International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) said: "Threatening and intimidating journalists is fast becoming the tool of choice to suppress and stifle press freedom. Maldivian journalists are regularly facing threats and intimidation in their attempts to report and tell the news. Cyber-attacks against news outlets are also becoming a tool of suppression which aims to stifle press freedom and intimidate journalists and media organizations. The Maldivian government needs to take immediate action to end the threats and ensure the safety of the journalists." Even then, so far none of the issues relatedto journalists have been solved, no fair trial nor any of the victimized family have gotten justice. Examples of such cases as follows:
Ahmed Rilwan, a journalist with the Maldives Independent and well-known blogger, has been missing since August 8, 2014. He had received several threats on social media.
Four suspects related to this case were first arrested by the Maldives police in September 2014, but in October 2014, they were released from detention stating that there was no concrete evidence found related to the missing journalist.
In April 2016, two men; Aalif Rauf the owner of the red car suspected to have been used in the abduction of Ahmed Rilwan, and another suspect name Mohamed Nooradheen were arrested days after police revealed that DNA samples from hair lifted from the trunk of the red car which matched that of Rilwan’s mother’s DNA. According to a news published on Maldives Independent on April 2016, the car was illegally transported to the suburb island Hulhumalé- where Rilwan lives, a week before the abduction, and was brought back to Malé in mid-August that year. In August 2018, on the final hearing of themissing case of Rilwan, the Criminal Court of the Maldives released these two suspects as thecourt found Alif Rauf and Mohamed Nooradheen not guilty of forcing Rilwan into a car at knife-point. According to the Maldives Independent, the judge said that the police and prosecutionwere negligent, careless, and failed to conduct a thorough investigation. To this day, no one knows where he was and what happened tohim. But at a campaign rally on August 7, 2018,President Yameen, who has repeatedly refused to meet with Rilwan’s family, declared that the journalist was dead and there is no doubt about it. Later he tried to reverse the statement and apologized for after being heavily criticized by the public. An Al-Jazeera documentary in 2016 alleged that Yameen texted former Home Minister Umar Naseer not to be "overwhelmed" by the investigation into Rilwan's abduction.
On April 23, 2017, Yameen Rasheed was found with multiple stab wounds in the staircase of his apartment building in Male’. Yameen was a prominent human rights defender, blogger, and social media activist who had been a vocal critic of rising religious extremism, human rights abuses, injustice and government corruption in the country.At the time of his death, he was an employee at the Maldives Stock Exchange. He was believed to be the best friend of the missing journalist Rilwan Abdullah, and lead through the campaign “Find Moyameeha.” He died shortly after being taken to the hospital. Even though he reported the threats that he received on social media to the Maldives Police Service, no action was taken. The murder trials started behind closed doors in September 2017, at the request of Prosecutor General’s Office. Preliminary hearings were held behind closed doors from September 2017 to April 2018.
According to Maldives Independent, the first open murder trial was scheduled on the 7thof June 2018 and later cancelled. A second hearing was scheduled on 27thJune 2018 and cancelled due to administrative reasons. Maldives Criminal Court cancelled the trial for the third time, without giving a reason on 24thJuly 2018. After three cancellations in a row, the first open trial was held on 30thJuly 2018. One year has already passed with no sign of justice, leaving the family in a question about the ability and the credibility of the investigation. Could this be another case of impunity like the one of the missing journalist Ahmed Rilwan and the fatal attack on blogger Hilath Rasheed?
Ismail Hilath Rasheed, a blogger and former editor of the Maldivian newspaper Haveeru,was attacked on 5thJune 2012.His throat was slashed in an alleyway. He was given a five percent chance of survival, but luckily he recovered. He has since then fled the country. Rasheed had been previously arrested and had his blog shut down by the government for “anti-Islamic material.” The government condemned the attack, but no one was arrested for it.
According to “Minivan News”, Ibrahim Waheed ‘Aswad’, a senior reporter for Raajje TV was hit on the head with an iron bar on 22nd February 2013, while riding on a motorcycle near the Artificial Beach area. The attack left him unconscious, and he was transferred to a hospital in Sri Lanka for treatment where he had undergone an emergency surgery. He returned back to the Maldives in April 2013 following a major surgery in Sri Lanka. The Commissioner of Police at the time, Abdulla Riyaz, described the attack as a murder attempt.
Issues faced by the Maldivian journalists and media houses
Journalist Zaheena Rasheed- the editor of Maldives Independent, was forced to leave the country because she was featured in an Al Jazeera documentary, “Stealing Paradise,” which exposed systematic corruption at the highest levels of the Maldivian government.
Many social media activists and bloggers fled the country in fear of unlawful arrests or life threatening warnings. Today, the majority of the society believes that journalists were attacked by the Maldives Police with impunity while covering political rallies and protests. Even though the journalists were beaten, attacked, and heavily sprayed with pepper spray on their faces at a close distance and injured in front of live media, there has been no independent investigation so far.
The arson attack on the opposition -aligned Raajje TV, in October 2013 by a group of masked men after stabbing the security guard armed with machetes, iron rods and petrol, broke into the studio and the main control room and set them on fire. According to Maldives Independent, the fire destroyed the station’s offices, control room, computer systems, and broadcasting and transmission equipment, causing damages worth MVR11.6 million (US$752,200). Till now, no one was arrested.
The TV stations are being fined under the controversial Anti-Defamation and Freedom of Expression Act 2016, that was heavily criticized by local and international organizations as being restrictive and contrary to international standards. Based on developments during the past year, RSF said the government continues to “persecute the independent media” and that many journalists have been the target of death threats from political parties, criminal gangs and religious extremists.
In September 2014, a warning message was sent to the staffs of the Maldives Independent. After removing the CCTV camera, a man who was believed to be engaged in gang violence, approached the office and lodged a machete in the wooden door. According to Maldives Independent, hours after the attack on the office, a staff member received an SMS message that read: “You will be killed or disappeared next, be careful.”
In October 2015, Addu Live, a website operating from Addu City was hacked and went down for two weeks when they refused to remove a report they published on corruption of judges, and the impeachment of the president. They were asked to do so by threatening calls from abroad. Furthermore, journalists of Addu Livereceived threat calls for over two months and they were regularly intimidated and harassed.
The main office of VTV, the second private TV channel of the Maldives owned by the opposition Party leader MP Qasim Ibrahim, was under attack during an anti-government protest on March 2012. The attack caused great damage to VTV and their property.
Channel News Maldives (CNM) a popular website which started publishing in 2011, was forced to shut down in October 2016 as a result of exposing the corruption of the Maldivian first lady Fathimath Ibrahim. Before it was forced to close down, the website had once been hacked early that year, and journalists had faced arrests and intimidation too.
As freedom of right and expression is a fundamental right, safety of media workers is of a great concern. But the truth is, with every passing second, journalists and human rights activists are putting their lives at risk by reporting the truth. And the governments are incapable to protect them. Information is the essence of an inclusive and democratic country. Therefore, a free press is very important to ensure the society's right to know, receive and reveal information so that governments and institutions can be held accountable. Silencing a journalist by killing, threatening, intimidating, or harassing not only stops the freedom of expression, this also affects the society’s right to know. It is not only in the Maldives, but the number of attacks on the media around the world, and a huge majority with impunity have added to the high-level of journalists and media workers. Harassment and intimidation of journalists still continues leaving the question “Why the Impunity?” as an unanswered question, and a problem to be solved.
BY: Maryam Nashida 15thSeptember,2018
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INTERNATIONAL CENTER FOR THE PROTECTION AND FREEDOM OF JOURNALISTS