Integrity of Writers' Organisations



23 April 2006

Recently several well-known international organisations working for the rights of journalists and writers have shown their support for Maldive nationals under detention in the Maldives for exercising their freedom of expression. This is an encouraging development that sends the clear message to the world’s remaining despots that they are under the watchful eye of international watchdogs. These organisations include English PEN, Reporters sans Frontières and Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

It is important, however, that the watchdogs get the facts right by reporting all sides of a story and are fair even to bloodthirsty dictatorships such as that in the Maldives, when they campaign on behalf of detainees. It is precisely because the civilised world wants dictators too to be treated fairly, that we are seeing former despots such as Saddam Hussain and Charles Taylor on trial.

The most recent campaign by these organisations is on behalf of Abdullah Saeed nicknamed Fahala, a former journalist for the Minivan newspaper which is closely aligned with the Maldives main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).

The above clip was in the English language web site of Reporters sans Frontières on 22-23 April 2006.

The web site goes on to qualify the term predator as follows: "There are instigators and powerful people behind press freedom violations whose responsibility is not always apparent. Whether presidents, ministers, chiefs of staff, religious leaders or the heads of armed groups, these predators of press freedom have the power to censor, imprison, kidnap, torture and, in the worst cases, murder journalists."

That is a reasonable statement but a predator is really a carnivorous animal that hunts, kills, and eats other animals in order to survive.

The use of the word predator in this context is highly emotive. With respect we must submit that this graphic and metaphor is unbecoming of an objective writers' organisation. Such metaphors would sit more comfortably in, for example, a publication of the old Red Guard-type magazine of the Chinese Communist Party. Have these people never left the world of over-grown hippies of university radicals?

Saeed was recently convicted and sent to prison for life for possessing a narcotic substance deemed for supply. The circumstances of his trial and conviction were admittedly bizarre and highly questionable. The convict’s lawyer claims that the police had planted the substance in the convict’s pocket while being held for interrogation. The lawyer also points out that the trial judge barred two defence witnesses from testifying and swearing an oath on the Koran. Under the Mohamedan Shariah legal system in force in the Maldives, swearing an oath on the Koran, under certain circumstances, is enough to acquit a defendant. It is believed that a false oath would result in Allah’s instant wrath and no Mohamedan would risk that.

Not one of the international organisations named above have stated that Saeed had previously been convicted in 2000 and imprisoned for life for drug trafficking and had been pardoned in a general amnesty in 2003. (source: Haveeru and the Indian English language newspaper the Hindustan Times) To our knowledge, no one had ever claimed that he was framed on that occasion for being a journalist. Until about 2001, there was no significant opposition media in the Maldives or run by Maldivians, and so it is unlikely that the convict wrote on controversial issues prior to his earlier drug-peddling conviction.

While the convicted peddler's previous criminal record may not have any relevance to his latest conviction, it is pertinent to mention that he had served time for a serious crime not so long ago.

This web site believes that international organisations may be receiving only a biased view of reports of human rights violations by the Maldive authorities from people with vested interests. It is important that international organisations that advocate justice worldwide make an effort to research all facts before parroting reports received by Maldivians with a political agenda.

In the case of the Maldives this is very important because both the government and the main opposition feel that their success or failure depend on international as much as local public opinion. Both groups feel secure in the fact that the local language is not widely understood outside the Maldive archipelego. Spin doctors on both sides cynically take advantage of this by publishing contradicting statements in the local language and international languages, notably English.

Unless international organisations want a generous dollop of egg on their faces, it is important that they obtain independent, professional translations of documents published in the local Maldive language before commenting on Maldive issues. That is unless they want to be taken for a ride by a bunch of line-and-rod-fishermen in the Indian Ocean.