“The problem with Minivan editors is that they do not value their paper. They seem to be blissfully unaware that the whole English-speaking world makes up its mind on the Maldives after reading their news.”
– Anonymous comment on Minivan News, 23 June 2013
My worldly possessions sat on the baggage belt at the check-in counter in Gatwick airport. I’d accepted the job in the Maldives a week earlier, given notice to the magazine in London I’d spent two years working for, then embarked on a week of heavily lubricated goodbye parties.
London had certainly proved a different life to my previous job as cub reporter for a family-owned newspaper in the Australian outback town of Narrabri. Three years of covering droughts, bushfires, road accidents, cotton farming and the annual (horse) races of a small population a long way from anywhere was good preparation for reporting from a speck in the Indian Ocean. Eventually, I got itchy feet, and after a brief, accidental and commercially unsuccessful stint as a freelance correspondent during the 2007 Saffron uprising in Burma, found myself broke and in London.
I’d certainly never heard of Minivan News. Why would somebody start what sounded like a small-vehicles, special-interest publication in a country that was 99 percent water and had barely any roads?
It was November 2009. Like everybody else, I’d never heard of the Maldives beyond its reputation as an overpriced tropical resort paradise. I had to look it up on a map. The first map I looked at didn’t show it at all.
I’d certainly never heard of Minivan News. Why would somebody start what sounded like a small-vehicles, special-interest publication in a country that was 99 percent water and had barely any roads? The discovery that ‘Minivan’ meant ‘independent’ in Dhivehi came later, but made my application no less confusing.
The editor at the time was Maryam Omidi, a talented Iranian journalist who had been working in Male for 11 months and sounded exhausted. Her taboo-busting coverage of a woman sentenced to flogging for extramarital sex had seen her targeted for apparently ‘mocking Islam’, while her decision to publish a reader’s letter on the misery of the Maldivian gay existence saw her hounded by local media for ‘promoting homosexuality’.
I knew the country had been ruled by Asia’s longest serving dictator, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, until he was overthrown in the country’s first multi-party democratic election in 2008. I knew dimly of the man who displaced him – the young, Westernised, progressive President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). I did not know of the yearning for the stability of dictatorship of a large chunk of the populace, the political polarisation that saw people paint gravestones in the party colours of the deceased, the street-level hostility to Western concepts like human rights and freedoms of thought and religion, the incongruous presentation of the country as both ‘100 percent Muslim’, and a tourist’s hedonistic haven of sun, sand, sex and Smirnoff.
I woke with a start to see the Indian Ocean rushing up to meet the plane. Stepping onto the tarmac into the bright sunlight and tropical humidity was bewildering after wintry London. The terminal was scarcely more than a tin shed. I joined the immigration queue with throngs of foreign tourists who were being swiftly waved through.
The officer took one look at my business visa and asked me why I was there.
“Minivan News!” he exclaimed ambiguously.
Before I could pass through to arrivals, my luggage was x-rayed and searched for alcohol, pork and non-Islamic religious artifacts. Unburdened of liquor and sausages, I was met at arrivals by Ahmed Naish, a quiet and exceptionally talented journalist recruited by Maryam. He had attended university overseas but had dropped out, turning inwards and spending years in his room with his books on philosophy – a precious commodity in a country with little culture of reading. He emerged vastly intelligent and introspective, describing himself as having been educated “by dead white men”.
The airport island of Hulhule was a short 10-minute ferry ride from the capital of Male. The candy-coloured concrete towers took up every spare inch of the island, and from ground level, Male looked like a miniature metropolis rising from the ocean. I would meet many travel writers in the Maldives struggling to come up with new words for the colour blue. The tropical water was a tourist cliché for good reason, and the clear turquoise shallows in the harbour faded to deep azure as the boat crossed the channel. However jaded I became, it always looked glorious.
The Minivan News office turned out to be a six by eight foot dusty windowless bunker on the second floor of a concrete box on a street called Alikilegefaanu Magu. It was sublet by the Maldivian Detainee Network (MDN), which occupied the larger and plusher office next door and had luxurious amenities such as a functioning printer. A third room was rented by the South Asian Free Media Association, although I never saw its door open. There may well have been a dusty skeleton hunched over a desk inside.
The only other permanent staff member besides Naish and Maryam was Mariyam Seena, a recent arrival who handled administration and advertising. When I arrived she was being trained by Simon Hawkins, a visiting marketing consultant from the UK, to approach businesses and develop the advertising side of the newspaper into something capable of financially sustaining itself.
Simon Hawkins had worked in media sales for an assortment of large British papers, a cutthroat, commission-heavy sector where only the most self-assured and persistent survived. He would snap his fingers while listing benefits in the unconscious manner of a born salesman, though in his darker moments he confessed to not being entirely convinced as to the efficacy of print advertising. This had no bearing on his encyclopedia of techniques for ‘overcoming objections’ of those he was selling it to. He was very good at it.
Sales was a dark art unknown to me, one I had regarded as a necessary but vaguely unsavoury part of running a news outlet. I understood that journalists pursuing the noble cause of truth had to be paid somehow, but had never given much attention to how the money appeared. I had been reassured prior to departure that I was only to worry about content and could let marketing sort out the finances. This utopian optimism was to be short-lived.
The plan was for Maryam to hang around for a few weeks and help with the handover. She and Naish had spent the past 11 months writing three stories a day, six days a week in that tiny room without respite or holiday, barely managing to stay afloat month to month. Smoke could be seen wafting from their ears.
With no culture or history of journalism in the Maldives, the media landscape was a shallow pond to draw from. The profession was unglamorous, and reporters were despised as propagandists.
Naish was indispensable – the soul of Minivan and among the best journalists I have ever worked with. But he was burned out, desperately in need of a break. He committed as long as he could. Eventually, I found myself alone in that dusty little room, writing as much as I could to keep the publication afloat as I interviewed potential replacements. With no culture or history of journalism in the Maldives, the media landscape was a shallow pond to draw from. The profession was unglamorous, and reporters were despised as propagandists. The job demanded good English, education and commitment to a cause. Those who fitted these criteria had been snapped up by the President’s Office or the cashed-up, UN-funded NGO sector. We couldn’t compete on excitement with the first, or on salary with the second.
The candidates trickled in. I had one simple but critical question: “Why do you want to be a journalist?”
“Because I want a platform for my opinions,” was invariably the answer.
Ahmed Nazeer was the only one to straight away jump at the concept of independence. He had worked for a magazine called Sandhaanu, and was tired of writing to a political agenda. His English initially wasn’t as strong as that of some of the other potentials, but he was a natural journalist and needed the chance. I took him on and he remained one of Minivan’s most consistent, loyal and prolific reporters in the four years I was editor. He had superb links with Male’s underworld and was particularly fond of covering crime, corruption and religious hypocrisy. Whenever somebody was stabbed Nazeer would be there – not participating, but always on the periphery. He had a talent for blending into walls, and luring incautious politicians into saying outrageously stupid things. He happily took up his custom beat: sex, drugs, rock and roll and Islam. Years later, he would switch to part time to accommodate a law degree, a decision made after the police confiscated his motorcycle.
Naish continued to contribute the odd article, and freed from the daily story grind, mellowed into the Maldives’ unequalled parliamentary correspondent. Mazin ‘Maani’ Rafeeq, fresh from university in New Zealand and sporting a thick Kiwi accent, signed up as an intern. Affable, keenly ethical and with a nose for injustice, he exposed a culture of child abuse at one of the country’s largest international schools, which indirectly led to the exposure of a multimillion dollar human-trafficking racket and the Maldives’ inclusion on the US State Department’s trafficking watch list. He later moved into construction.
Mohamed Naahii joined Minivan in 2011, also as an intern. Slick, charming and well-connected, Naahii was studying law and took naturally to court reporting. He became far more versed in the law than any Maldivian judge – although so corrupt were these officials that law was not a priority for most of them. Naahii moved to work for the UN after the chaos of the 2013 presidential election.“Three times the money for a third of the work,” he observed.
Hawwa Lubna joined in 2011. She was one of the feistiest and most confrontational journalists in the Maldivian press pack, with a fierce sense of justice. We poached her from the anti-Nasheed aligned Sun Online after the editor found himself embroiled in one too many debilitating sex scandals. Some of the more MDP-inclined staff were initially suspicious of her, while she herself expressed surprise that I wasn’t forcing a political agenda on her. I gave her the space to write whatever she wanted, and she swiftly became our star poster-journalist. She also wore a headscarf, which gave us street cred with members of the public who felt we were morally deficient irreligious deviants. She took a hefty pay cut to work for us, but her gamble on Minivan’s reputation as a scholarship factory for young reporters paid off. She scored a four-year course in development studies at Lundt University on the Swedish Institute, and according to the last update, was running the university’s South Asian Student Network, had been adopted by the population of Lundt, and was swiftly heading towards the post of UN Secretary General.
Zaheena Rasheed had worked for Minivan under previous editors before leaving the Maldives for several years to study journalism at Middlebury in the US. Bright, sunny and extroverted with a Cheshire-cat grin that could get difficult sources to cooperate, Zaheena scored successive fellowships and travelled the world’s hotspots, becoming something of an expert in non-violent regime change along the way. She returned to Minivan in 2013 and took up the post of deputy editor.
Mariyath ‘Ehju’ Mohamed was a 29 year-old single mother who bravely took on controversial and taboo topics such as religion. She exposed the culture of flogging women for extramarital sex, among other religious issues, and found herself stalked, harassed and targeted by fundamentalist groups.
“Your sister has hanged herself and we can help you do the same,” read one note posted under the door of her house. On another occasion she narrowly escaped a man with an iron bar who was waiting for her in the stairwell of her apartment block. There was some justice: in 2014 her bravery saw her listed among Reporters Without Borders’ top 100 ‘Information Heroes’.
Mohamed ‘Aeko’ Fathih worked for Minivan News as a translator, quietly and diligently transcribing several stories a day into Dhivehi for a small audience of older Maldivian expatriates. Minivan’s Dhivehi edition was fiddly, poorly marketed, and at only 200-500 extra hits a day, basically a public service broadcast. Unfortunately, it had dedicated readers who complained bitterly whenever service was disrupted. Aeko kept them off my back with minimal oversight.
We also had regular contributors who worked on a freelance basis. Aishath ‘Shazu’ Shazra wrote many features for us early on in my tenure. She preferred to steer clear of politics, instead covering social issues, arts and entertainment. Her very considered and detailed food reviews earned us the wrath of many restaurant owners.
If Shazu eschewed controversy, Dr Azra Naseem embraced it. She wrote many comment articles for Minivan anonymously before I finally learned her identity. When she revealed herself we offered her a job immediately. She worked full-time for a while, then decided to focus on the PhD she had begun while living abroad in Dublin, Ireland. She completed it in 2012 and became the country’s foremost authority on counter-terrorism, a qualification that made her largely unemployable in the Maldives. She started her own website, DhivehiSitee.com, tearing apart issues and politicians like tissue paper while kindly allowing us to reprint her.
Yaamyn Rasheed applied for a job as a journalist, but took one look at the salary and became an IT technician at a large telecom company. However, he was a fantastic writer, one of the country’s best, able to present complex issues with common sense and sardonic humour. Alongside Azra, he was one of the few who would challenge religious extremism under his own name. I figured that if we couldn’t employ him, we could at least publish his writing. He wrote many comment pieces for us and I was often stunned at how his work succinctly and eloquently mirrored my own impressions of events. Publishing Yaamyn absolved me of writing editorials, which would otherwise have been quite a job hazard.
Aside from the rented room, Minivan’s total assets included an ancient, erratic and possessed printer, and a laptop with a broken shift key that demanded the user engage and disengage caps lock for every capital letter. Nazeer would spend four years torturously typing stories in this fashion.
The website itself was run by a customised content-management platform that looked dated and had no social media integration or even capacity to show reader comments. In 2009, this was like being the web equivalent of a Ford Pinto.
Credibility was Minivan News’s niche not solely through intention, but because the rest of the Maldivian media cared little for the concept and were intensely politicised to the point of having a loose grip on reality.
A new site was in development, and I struggled under the pressure to manage this while producing two stories a day, establishing a social media presence, learning about advertising, and meeting local contacts in an attempt to decipher this new and insular society. I sensed Maryam’s displeasure with her new hire. She and Naish had set a high benchmark for quantity and quality of content by focusing on little else. Putting out anything less felt like a deep existential failure, a complex I dubbed ‘Minivan Guilt’. The absence of any oversight made Minivan independent, but it made Minivan Guilt worse because at the end of the working day there was nobody to say “Good job, here’s a biscuit, go home.”
The huge pressure to run a respectable and professional national news service in the absence of any competition didn’t help this slow-burning sense of inadequacy. Credibility was Minivan News’s niche not solely through intention, but because the rest of the Maldivian media cared little for the concept and were intensely politicised to the point of having a loose grip on reality. This meant the burden of being the national news of record went unshared; Minivan’s monopoly on credibility, international audience and English-language reporting in the Maldives made it the authoritative gateway for what the rest of the world thought of the country, despite it being under-staffed, under-equipped and under-resourced.
This made for high pressure, high stakes reporting. A rushed story on a Thursday night before a visit to the airport hotel bar, a misquote, a mistranslation, a failure to properly fact-check a story, a hasty subedit; such everyday mistakes were amplified by the credibility of Minivan’s voice and made every click of the blue ‘publish’ button both terrible and thrilling. Its successes and failures were its own, and both had real impact.
The occasional story that hit a nerve – usually judicial travesties involving the beating of convicted fornicators – saw huge spikes of up to 40,000 visitors. Many of these came from large mainstream news sites like the BBC and Huffington Post. The endorsement of Minivan News’s credibility as a primary news source by large and respected media outlets worked like a butterfly effect, giving Minivan enormous influence that belied its small size.
Minivan’s track record of credible reporting made it a key reference for diplomats and non-government bodies such as the Commonwealth and the United Nations. It was among the most heavily referenced sources for the UN Human Rights Commission’s Universal Periodic Review, a regular assessment of a country’s human rights reward and commitment to the treaties it had signed. We watched fondly as the former dictator’s daughter Dunya Maumoon, freshly installed as state Foreign Minister after the 2012 coup that toppled Nasheed, tried to defend the country before the UN Human Rights Commission. The panel, appearing surprised and alarmed at the appalling moral bankruptcy in such a pristine tourism paradise, plucked forth issue after issue from a ceiling-high pile of Minivan News articles: human-trafficking and abuse of foreign workers, flogging of women for extramarital sex, failure to criminalise rape, failure to address an institutionalised culture of torture, criminalisation of homosexuality, state-sponsored oppression of thought, conscience and religion.
A third demographic consisted of people who had never been to the Maldives and had no intention of ever visiting, but followed Minivan News like a serialised soap opera; an Indian Ocean version of Game of Thrones.
Domestically, the perception of our credibility was more challenging. The ‘Minivan’ brand had been founded by Nasheed’s MDP in 2005 during its self-imposed exile in Sri Lanka, before Gayoom conceded the introduction of multi-party democracy. Its outlets included a small newspaper, Minivan Daily, and Minivan Radio, with programs produced in Salisbury, UK, and broadcast over shortwave via Radio Miami for GBP 122 per 59-minute broadcast. It was the first dissident conventional media, reporting on a government that jailed and tortured critics until they fell into line. The newspaper and radio station were overtly political, but the approach with Minivan News was different. The breakthrough was recognising the growing demand for credible information on the Maldives and recruiting foreign editors, typically young journalists with some newsroom experience, to produce a high standard of content while protecting them from the MDP’s instinct to control, exaggerate and propagandise the message.
It was a fractious relationship. The activist nature of the MDP’s roots and the fact that many of its core members had been tortured under Gayoom’s regime made trust the organisation’s primary currency. This encouraged a ‘with us or against us’ mentality that, while frequently invoked by the international media, eventually led to the party’s seriousness being questioned by the diplomatic community. What they couldn’t control, they ignored.
After Nasheed won the 2008 election, Minivan was no longer a priority for the MDP. The newspaper and radio station folded instantly. Minivan News was by this stage producing the highest quality journalism in the country, but suddenly had the financial rug pulled out from under it. Realising its importance, the former editors fought to have it legitimised and officially registered under a specially created local company with non-executive (read non-meddling) directors. This, they felt, would free it from political association and give it a chance of either thriving or wilting commercially on its own merits in the new democracy, hold Nasheed’s government accountable to its pledges, and set the standard for Maldivian journalism while training a new generation of local reporters.
After Nasheed won the 2008 election, Minivan was no longer a priority for the MDP. The newspaper and radio station folded instantly.
The nobility of the goal was not matched by the practicality. Journalists make poor salesmen and the advertising was never properly developed. The site hobbled along, surviving month-to-month on handouts from the odd businessmen or philanthropist, usually an MDP-aligned figure – those few who could be persuaded that the merits of independent journalism warranted keeping it alive another few weeks. Their interest in doing this waned as the elections became more distant. Minivan News had fulfilled its purpose as far as many were concerned, and the donations amounted more to a palliative care than a real commitment to development.
The upside was that the decision to corporatise Minivan News gave it legitimacy, putting it in charge of its own destiny and turning it into an odd kind of institutionalised and hereditary small business. Unfortunately, however balanced and credible the content, in such a politically charged and polarised country it was never going to shake the widespread belief that it was an MDP mouthpiece. Popular opinion was that it was run from Nasheed’s basement, a belief encouraged by many on the Gayoom side. On one occasion, a visiting foreign diplomat who had just met Waheed’s post-coup government checked our location with her previous appointment, and called me to say that she had arrived. “I’m outside Nasheed’s house,” she said, having asked her previous appointment about our location.
Where Gayoom’s regime regarded us with suspicion and distrust due to the publication’s political origins, many in the MDP considered Minivan disloyal if not outright traitorous. They did value our credibility – at least enough to steal our name and logo when they restarted the radio station and paper after the 2012 coup. Several heated phone calls later, I decided the success of Minivan News was to be measured in how few friends we had.
It affected the willingness of many businesses to advertise with us. Most business owners were strongly politicised and still regarded advertising in local media as a show of political support. Attempts at market education and long discussions about readership figures, audience share and the benefits of attracting more customers would be followed by “So, are you MDP? Will this please Nasheed?”
I encouraged our critics to let the content speak for itself, while doing my best to make sure concerns about our perceived polarisation were unfounded. Many of our local reporters had strong political feelings, and as they were young, urban and educated, these often swayed towards the MDP. I came to see this as less of a liability than a trait that made them interested and engaged reporters. It was far easier to encourage self-reflection and balanced journalism in the politically invested than it was to bully the apathetic into turning up for work.
I emphasised fairness and the importance of the right to respond. No story was published without an effort to contact the aggrieved side. However, very often people caught out would refuse to pick up the phone in the mistaken belief this would kill the story, and then complain bitterly when they came out looking shifty. “The trouble with sticking your head in the sand is that you leave your ass in the air,” observed one commentator.
On the exceptionally rare occasion a complaint of bias came directly to us, we offered to remove the line “Was not responding to calls at time of press”, include their response in an addendum and, if desired, publish their entire letter unedited in a fresh article as ‘comment and opinion’. Despite all the grumbling, in four years nobody took us up on either offer. The result of this policy was that our strongest critics accused us of being both biased and perfectly fair.
Even if we had been the rabid propagandists of our critics’ imaginings, bias would have been unnecessary. The stories wrote themselves, with a cast of pantomime villains lining up to appear in print: corrupt politicians, rogue policemen, shady gang leaders, hypocritical religious scholars. The tenth of January 2012 was a typical front page: a local group of Islamic extremists called for anti-sorcery legislation, five men and a minor were arrested for sodomy on a fishing boat, a seaplane crew member was killed in his aircraft’s propeller, and the government enacted a so-called ‘gold-digging clause’, making it illegal for Maldivians to marry foreigners earning less than USD 1000 a month.
“Some stories here give you a shotgun and a barrel of fish and tell you to go have a good time,” observed our US intern Eleanor Johnstone two days later, both of us drunk on cheap whiskey during a party on the helipad of a visiting Indian warship.
We were often criticised for our lack of speed, but without the staff to attend every car accident and press conference, we couldn’t compete with the larger established mainstream media. Issue-based reporting was where we really excelled – our deep, investigative articles into topics such as abortion, child prostitution and human-trafficking broke taboos and emboldened the rest of the media. Sometimes our example-setting was subject to misinterpretation. One publication, launching a bold undercover ‘investigation’ of Male’s brothel scene, sent a team of 19-year-old male journalists in for the full treatment. The resulting softcore ‘analysis’ made no mention of the real issue – sex trafficking – but was nonetheless hailed as a triumph of Maldivian investigative journalism.
I spent the first year trying to compete with the mainstream outlets, most of which were owned by wealthy political figures and had no need to operate as a sustainable business. Eventually I realised this was a race to the bottom, and decided we needed to play to our strengths: accuracy, analysis, credibility and gall. I gave up competing on time and took the line that it was better to be slow and correct than fast and wrong, and invented a new category for us in the Maldivian media landscape: ‘news review’. This worked: local readers told us they would go first to Haveeru or Sun Online to find out if something had happened, and then to us to find out what this meant and to react themselves.
Even if we had been the rabid propagandists of our critics’ imaginings, bias would have been unnecessary. The stories wrote themselves, with a cast of pantomime villains lining up to appear in print.
Freedom of expression itself had only just been introduced in the 2008 constitution, although it carried the vague caveat ‘subject to the tenets of Islam’. Introducing a comment section provided us security. The kind of people who would read an article, call their mates and show up with placards and handfuls of rocks would instead vent their rage and indignation into the ‘comment here’ window. It made for a very effective vent.
Publishing comments also greatly improved perception of our credibility. People who felt strongly about an issue would submit comments below an article, often including an aside such as “You’ll never approve this anyway, MDP swine”. That we blankly ticked ‘approve’ and published such criticism went some way to convincing everybody else that we were happy to transparently accept it. Direct threats and attacks on our journalists were joyfully published as evidence that we were right on the money.
Thirdly, it made Minivan News a benchmark for public opinion and forum for debate. Such a forum had not previously existed – instead, groups of people supporting one particular political party or religious line would consume only the heavily partisan media reflecting that line, and then sit around a cafe table discussing it only with people who had similar views. There were no new inputs, and free thought, like cheese left too long in the fridge, tended to rot. Minivan News was a platform where these disparate groups came together.
It was messy.
We started by copying the UK Guardian’s commenting guidelines – clauses such as ‘no sexual or racial discrimination’ – but quickly discovered that this meant sidelining the vast majority of readers who genuinely believed rape was acceptable if a woman was showing her ankles, that homosexuals should be put to death, or that there was a conspiracy of Jews out to destroy Islam in the Maldives. I reasoned that it was far better that such opinions were aired so others would have the chance to see they existed, and hopefully challenge them. Foreign commentators would do so, incredulous at the level of hate, insanity and xenophobia behind the scenes of their favourite tropical postcard destination. Publishing these responses naturally saw us accused of economic terrorism.
In the absence of any national polling, Minivan became a benchmark for public opinion. Many people told us they didn’t read the articles past the headline, but skipped straight to the bottom for the comments. I didn’t take this personally – there was no way we could compete with the comments for sheer tabloid shock. Instead I encouraged the team to embrace our role as custodians of public opinion while other media outlets continued to delete anything critical or which didn’t gel with the editor’s political fervour. Running Minivan was like running a bowling alley – our job was to set up the pins and let the commentariat knock them down. We lifted rocks, shined lights and aired the country’s abundant supply of filthy laundry while remaining neutral and detached.
Our income came from two advertising banners and a strip of Google ads. The latter, while in US dollars rather than Maldivian rufiya, was a liability as Google scanned the page on which the ad appeared before automatically displaying whatever its code felt was context sensitive. Articles on Islamic matters would attract ads from Christian missionaries, while ads for ‘Asian beauties’ would appear alongside coverage of floggings for fornication, brothel raids and domestic violence. Either was fodder for our opponents to shut us down on grounds of breaching public virtue.
The advertising approach had freed Minivan News from relying on sponsors and sporadic handouts, spreading the income stream and making it much more resistant to any attempts at editorial influence. Unlike sponsors, a grumpy advertiser could be replaced without devastating cash flow, and there was little attempt to manipulate coverage. It was the most editorial independence I had had in my career, and by late 2011, Minivan was even making a small profit.
The decision to literally live in the office was a financial breakthrough for Minivan. By consolidating we were able to afford a light, pleasant and airy multi-storey two bedroom apartment on the eastern side of the island with a stunning view over the water. I converted the living room into the office, the adjoining kitchen into the canteen, and lived in one of the rooms upstairs. The flight of stairs became my daily commute.
The other room was soon occupied by Neil Merrett, a World War II blitz-era war widow reincarnated into the body of a 29-year-old Welshman. Neil had been working for a successful Maldivian travel interest publication before his employer suffered a paranoid schizophrenic breakdown and sacked all his foreign staff, believing they were conspiring to take over his business. This was a relief to me, as they had a team of four talented foreign reporters doing a far better job of covering tourism than I was the national news. I was concerned they would turn their sights on Minivan’s turf, but after hearing about the boss’s decline I decided I needn’t have worried.
The apartment had a third room – a cupboard off the kitchen barely able to fit a small bed, let alone a suitcase. We discovered we could import talented foreign journalism graduates desperate for work experience, stash them in the cupboard and work them six days a week in exchange for a pitiful stipend in unexchangable Maldivian rufiya.
The advertising approach had freed Minivan News from relying on sponsors and sporadic handouts, spreading the income stream and making it much more resistant to any attempts at editorial influence.
It was an extremely successful program. Eleanor Johnstone, detained on arrival over a technicality, remarked on seeing the room that it was smaller than the immigration detention cell. She stayed for six months all the same and was followed by Daniel Bosley, a postman from Cheshire with two masters degrees who had spent two years working internships trying to break into journalism. We would send Luke Powell from Shropshire, UK, into the darkest reaches of the country’s north for two weeks on an MDP campaign boat crammed with 80 activists and a single toilet. He returned shattered, moved home to work on a paper where he met a nice local girl and lived happily ever after. Not all came from journalism backgrounds: Leah Malone’s background was in aerospace engineering, but she had a nose for environmental stories and wading through large wordy reports to find nuggets of newsworthy horror. Daniel Bosley even returned after his internship to succeed me as editor – apparently unhurt that the President’s Office had called him “a little shit” over the phone.
I was often asked whether we were concerned for our safety. In reality the predominance of Western tourism meant attacks on white foreigners were exceedingly unlikely. My real concern was for our local staff, who were considered property of the local society and were much more vulnerable. This got worse after the 2012 coup as the government’s hold weakened, the security services became more erratic, and a sense of impunity and confidence grew among the country’s fundamentalists. Maldivian journalists working for other publications were attacked, an MP was murdered. The stress was high. Mariyath Mohamed had a heart attack in the lead up to the 2013 elections and collapsed in the street aged just 29. Doctors from the nearby private hospital zapped her back to life with a defibrillator and she crawled into the office, demanding to continue writing.
The greatest challenge to our reporting was far more prosaic: Maldivian phone etiquette. In the vast majority of societies, the sound of a ringing phone impels a person to answer. Not so in the Maldives. Neither did people give their name or say “hello” when they did deign to answer, instead triggering an awkward and confused dance as you tried to establish their identity from the non-committal grunting.
It wasn’t a language issue. Most people spoke conversational English, and young people, much of the government and the senior civil service were fluent. The vast majority of people simply would not answer the phone unless they had saved the number and had a personal relationship established with the caller. If the conversation was likely to be difficult or something had happened that had the potential to make them look bad, they would simply turn their phones off. This applied double to appointed spokespeople.
Despite the challenges, we managed to appear a large and well-oiled company to the outside world, a difficult illusion needed to inspire confidence in advertisers and sources. A good sign was the sense of ownership that many Maldivian readers seemed to take in us; an ownership that, based on the constant stream of advice, demands and criticism, belied the meagre responses to journalist job ads and suggested much of the country were experts at running national news outlets. My elevator pitch for Minivan referred to weighty higher purposes such as upholding democracy and defending freedom of expression from the sort of people who felt a ‘Ministry of Information’ was a useful public institution. Our actual experience was more pragmatic – more like being the only galley-slave rowing a leaking boat trying to escape from pirates while the other oarsmen gathered around yelling ‘row faster’.
~This is an edited extract from JJ Robinson’s book Paradise Lost: Reporting the Dark Side of the Maldives.
~JJ Robinson is the associate editor at Himal Southasian.