The politics of information control: Dumbing down the atolls

As far as the Male ruling elite is concerned, control, not development, is the first priority in their relationship with the rest of the country.

Over the last decade, growing business opportunities, successful government and private education initiatives, and the popularity of Western and Indian fashion, music and films, have helped spread knowledge of English and Hindi among Maldivians throughout many islands of the atolls. In the last few years a wide range of information accessibility, delivered via popular English and Hindi cable and satellite television channels and the Internet, has raised the level of awareness of the outside world, but news specifically from Maldives is reported only through media controlled by the President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, his ministers and trusted associates. The state-owned radio and television stations are directed by the Minister for Information and Culture, Ibrahim Manik, brother-in-law of first lady, Nasreena Ibrahim, while the three daily newspapers are controlled by other close associates of the President. Mohamed Zahir Hussein, Minister for Youth and Sports, owns the Haveeru daily paper. He has been an intimate friend of Gayyoom since their student days at Al Azhar University in Cairo during the 1950s. Miadhu newspaper is co-edited by Gayyoom and owned by Minister for Health, Ahmed Abdullah. Abbas Ibrahim, brother of Nasreena Ibrahim and head of the National Council for Linguistic and Historical Research, owns Aafathis, the third daily paper.

The local media carries no information about the inner workings of the Malé government, or anything that might embarrass the President and his administration. There is no analysis of government policy or official decisions. Information within Maldives is suppressed by a carefully designed presidential system for censorship and suppression of criticism. This system is based on similar authoritarian practices developed in twentieth century Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Libya. It has allowed not only the Maldives National Security Service (NSS), but also cliques within the administration including the President, to act without legal and ethical restrictions. Any suggestion of reform is treated as a personal threat to these groups. Maldives is a tightly managed society and NSS actions of violence and intimidation without any regard for the legal rights of the people, requires organised connivance by a state acting well beyond the boundaries of traditionally accepted Maldivian norms.

The criminal procedure law of December 2002 gave the NSS complete control over the investigation process so much so that the arrested person's defence lawyer may now face criminal charges at the discretion of investigating officers. The real high court in the Maldives is the President's Office, and judges of politically sensitive cases receive their verdicts directly from there. In the past, Malé's judges often intervened to prevent abuse of court processes by government, but after the new 1998 Constitution placed the judiciary under direct presidential control, judges lost any semblance of independence.

As far as the Malé ruling elite is concerned, control, not development, is the first priority in their relationship with the rest of the country. Traditionally, the elite's attitude towards the atolls, and people outside their families' circles of power, was one of feudal disdain and indifference, but limited accessibility to distant atolls from the capital meant that large areas of the country were semi-autonomous. When they came into contact with their rulers in Malé, common islanders were required to perform ritual subservience to their rulers. In modern Maldives, these rituals remain important. They are performed in government-sponsored clubs and organisations, at public school meetings and every official function. Non-attendance at these functions is interpreted as disloyalty to the state and a personal criticism of the attending officials and guests.

Despite regular election promises to decentralise government administration and build resorts in distant atolls, President Gayoom has refused to direct department sections and resorts away from the Malé area. Ignoring offers from foreign airlines and governments, he continues to resist the establishment of international airports in the north and south of the country. These are heavily populated but economically depressed areas that need tourists and the consequent increased demand for fresh fish, imported vegetables and rice, government services and employment. In the midst of unparalleled wealth in Malé, the government's obsession with control and suppression of criticism has effectively prevented any comparable economic development beyond the capital. Jealousy, fear of devolution of Malé's power, greed and limited national vision are the root causes of this attitude among Gayoom and his supporters, and over the years, these, along with myopic greed have become dominant factors.

According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) statistics, the Maldives has the highest per capita income in the South Asian region, at over USD 2,000, (when adjusted for purchasing power parity—USD 4,000), but the cost of living is very high and there are significant income differentials in society, and between the capital Malé and the atolls where most of the population live. In 1998 during an economic boom, Malé's per capita income was 75 percent higher than in the atolls. Life expectancy in the atolls is much lower than for Malé—77 years in the capital compared to 68 years for atoll dwellers. 30 percent of the Maldives population lives below the poverty line, and 43 percent of children below the age of five are underweight. Worker participation rates for women in Maldives are among the lowest in the world, being as low as 19 percent in 1998.

In 2000, tourism earned 70 percent of Maldives' foreign exchange from exports and generated a third of the country's GDP, but Maldivian participation in the resort industry is low. Many resort staff are low-paid foreign contract workers from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and India, while the resorts themselves are deliberately concentrated around Malé and the country's sole international airport next door. This ensures that the profits flow directly into the capital and bypass all other islands and most Maldivians. Some Malé families have become extremely wealthy, and all landowners in the capital have been enriched by the phenomenal increase in land values and rents.

Elsewhere in the country, frustration and anger are common among the many who cannot share directly in the tourist bonanza, government jobs or increased land values. In the one industry to which they are permitted limited access—fishing—the profits from the atolls' fleets, as well as investment decisions are controlled by exporters and officials in Malé. There is widespread unemployment among young people in the capital and the islands, and drug addiction and burglary have become commonplace. Malé judges have always found the atolls as convenient places to exile people to, and with the rise in the city's crime rate and the overcrowding of nearby prisons, many law-breakers now serve their sentences in economically depressed islands, thereby enlarging the networks of the drug distributors and stolen property receivers. At the 2003 Atoll Chiefs' Conference in Malé, there were continual complaints about these criminals and their negative influence on young islanders.

The arming and military training of the NSS is supposedly designed to protect the Maldives from foreign mercenaries and to prevent illegal fishing in its territorial waters. Instead, it has become an expensive enforcer for a police state of less than 400,000 citizens with a total land area of only 300 square kilometres (about half the size of Singapore). The strict enforcement of drug and sex laws, especially for unemployed young people, combined with the incarceration of growing numbers of non-violent political activists, have overcrowded the prisons, where inmates are subjected to planned NSS programmes of torture, beatings, dehydration and starvation. Directly under the command of President Gayoom, the same NSS officers perform military, policing, prison guard and torture duties.

Against this background of increasing brutalisation, alienation and frustration in Dhivehi society, the official presidential referendum campaign of 2003 may have seemed surreal to foreign observers. The shootings in Maafushi prison (see Himal October 2003) and civil unrest in Malé shocked the elite families, not because they were not aware that torture and killings were normal NSS procedure, nor because they are unaware of President Gayyoom's commanding role. They were shocked because people who they consider inferior, dared to publicly protest the President and the behaviour of his NSS, and they were embarrassed and angry because the political inequalities that underpin their wealth and power were being exposed internationally and undeniably, for the first time.

Maldivian society is fast approaching a crossroads, where the class differences, and regional discrimination are fuelling discontent. Can we expect the Male elite to respond to the growing storm with sagacity?

Reporting the Maldives

Perhaps the only source of independent information on the Maldives, was originally established in 1999 to publish the editors' translations and research, and to attract scholars and writers interested in Maldives. Using the site and email, chat rooms and discussion boards the founders established a broad range of contacts with Maldivians and foreign researchers. It is this cyber-community that really runs, and their combined talents and hard work have given the site the influence and respect it now enjoys.

By government order, the site was blocked in the Maldives from the sole internet proxy server in the country, after pages were uploaded that highlighted the number of close relatives and long-term friends of President Maumoon Gayoom and his wife Nasreena who held many powerful positions in the executive, the administration and the licensed media. The pages included extensive quotes from the Dhivehi Forum site where arguments and discussions in English were raging among Maldivians and making these disputes accessible to an international audience for the first time was not taken well by the government/family apparatus.  Along with the ban, the editors were subjected to a continuing and sustained hate campaign from anonymous websites and emails over the last two and a half years.

The special challenge for is to appeal to both Maldivians and foreigners in a way that treats both groups of readers with respect. Some complain that news and articles on the site are too bleak and negative, but officially sanctioned torture, arbitrary arrest and police harassment are a growing social problem in Maldives, adversely affecting the lives of many individuals and their families.

The translation in 2002 of Ibrahim Luthfee's letters, originally written in Dhivehi in 1999 and sent to the president, ministers and Majlis members, was a watershed in the website's efforts to reveal the true nature of the Gayoom regime. Luthfee's defiance of the President and Ahmed Abdullah, and their efforts to relocate their Miadhu newspaper offices into Luthfee's residence and business premises, led to him being harassed and imprisoned. The letters detail this saga of injustice and torture, but they were completely ignored officially. The letters are a damning indictment of President Gayoom, some of his ministers, the NSS and the courts in Malé.

In 2002, Ibrahim Luthfee received a life sentence for defamation and treason after publishing and distributing, via the Internet, the Dhivehi language newsletter, Sandhaanu. At Maafushi prison, where he was serving his sentence, Luthfee's injuries from torture and mistreatment became so severe he was moved to Sri Lanka for treatment. In May this year, Luthfee escaped from a Colombo hospital room and for four months he shifted constantly to avoid capture by NSS officers and Maldivian spies operating in Sri Lanka. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees, which had been informed about Luthfee's case partly through the translations on, granted him political refugee status and in October he left Sri Lanka for asylum in Europe.

Immediately after his escape from hospital, Luthfee contacted and predicted correctly that violence would break out soon in Maafushi unless torture at the prison ceased.  The uprising in Malé, in September this year, in response to torture and shootings at Maafushi galvanised widespread opposition to Maumoon Abdul Gayoom among influential people in Maldives and expatriate Maldivian communities, and the website has become increasingly important for them. Gayoom has made politics central to all social and intellectual life in the country, and as long as he forbids any reporting of the country's inexorable reform process, it can be expected that the website of will continue to play an important role informing Maldivians and rest of the world about the affairs of this fast changing society.

( is run by the writer of the accompanying article, Michael O'Shea and Fareesha Abdulla)

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