Following the election of a new president in the Maldives in November 2013, national and international civil society groups hope the new government will respect the fundamental rights of its citizens and ease restrictions on citizens' rights which characterised the outgoing regime. CIVICUS speaks to civil society activist and founder of the Voice of Women (VoW) Maldives, Thilmeeza Hussain, about the challenges faced by civil society during the previous regime and the sense of optimism among civil society groups about the opening up of spaces for civil society by the new government.
1) What are the objectives of the Voice of Women (VoW) and what are some of the main activities VoM has undertaken to strengthen civil society in the Maldives?
The main objectives of the VoW are: to create a society where men and women work side by side, mutually respecting each other's rights; to empower women so they are able to stand up for their rights; to generate opportunities to effect change for the advancement of women through development, support and inspiration of women as leaders; to promote women's leadership in sustainable development, the environment and climate change; to build respect for human rights in the Maldives in general by creating awareness of the rights of women and to document human rights violations, domestic violence, or sexual abuse that takes place specifically based on gender. Below we highlight a few activities we have undertaken in advancing human rights in the Maldives:
- We made contributions to the Bill on Sexual Harassment tabled by Rozaina Adam to the Parliament, April 2013.
- We carried out a gender sensitization workshop for the teachers of Lhaviyani Kurendhoo School on the occasion of World Health Day, April 2013.
- We actively advocated to protect the rights of women working in Maldivian Civil Service by aggressively lobbying to remove CSC President Mohamed Fahmy, after the Supreme Court dismissed parliamentary findings in a sexual harassment matter and permitted him to return to work. We organized protests, sent letters to the members of the Parliament and the Speaker and did various lobbying activities on social media.
- We were invited to take part in the first International Women's Earth and Climate Initiative held in September 2013 in New York.
- We actively lobbied the international community to raise awareness on various human rights violations, violations of the rights of women and the general clampdown on civil society by the previous government after the coup d'etat on February 2012.
2) Civil society in the Maldives faced severe restrictions particularly after February 2012. What was the environment for civil society to operate in like before the election of the new government on 16 November 2013?
Restrictions on civil society organisations and attacks on civil society activists and representatives of the media increased over the 16 months before the election of the new government in November 2013. These attacks escalated when the first democratically elected government was overthrown through a coup d'état on 7 February 2012. After the coup, the government used heavy-handed tactics to deal with institutions and civil society organisations that opposed its actions. On 18 March 2013 for example, the Ministry of Home Affairs had announced that it would dissolve approximately 1300 of 1853 legally registered NGOs for allegedly failing to adhere to reporting requirements and elect executive committees. The Minister's assertion that only 200 NGOs had complied with reporting and governance requirements created uncertainty about the criteria being used to punish some NGOs and let others continue with their activities. Civil society groups raised concerns about the future of the NGO sector in Maldives and were of the view that the Minister's statement was part of the government's attempt to restrict freedom of association and silence dissent in the country.
The Maldives Police failed to prevent an arson attack on the only television station that broadcasts views different from those of the government on 7th October 2013 despite repeated requests for police protection. Early in October 2013, Transparency International expressed grave concerns over the safety of staff and volunteers of the Transparency Maldives chapter after staff members were intimidated and threatened with death. Furthermore, restrictions were placed on international reporters who came into the country to cover the presidential elections initially scheduled for 7 September 2013. Representatives of civil society were threatened with death, and with litigation giving way to self-censorship of the media.
3) ...and there were specific attacks on media houses and journalists aimed at clamping down on freedom of expression?
Soon after the February 2012 coup d'état, the environment for civil society and media was reminiscent of the pre-2008 autocratic era when fear and silence was the norm. The government continued to threaten civil society groups and media outlets with litigation, and physical attacks against journalists were common. The police and government selectively targeted media outlets and prevented them from accessing the president's office and security services. Specific media outlets were victims of physical assault by the police. Arson attacks on television stations were common.
For example, in October 2013 several masked men forced their way into Raajje TV station – the only TV outlet that broadcasts views contrary to those of the government and assaulted the guard on duty. They then proceeded to douse the station's equipment and the building with gasoline and set them on fire. Raajje TV had been threatened several days before and had officially filed complaints and requested protection from the police. These requests had been completely ignored.
In addition, Asward Waheed a journalist working for Raajje TV was attacked by several men using iron rods on the streets of Male' the capital city. He was viciously beaten and lost his vision in one eye and was intubated as he struggled for his life. He was later flown out of the country for surgery. The perpetrators were charged with possession of a deadly weapon and not attempted murder and they were not convicted of any charge.
The media watch dog of the Maldives, Maldives Media Council (MMC) was regularly accused of biased against media outlets aligned to the political opposition.
4) What are the expectations from civil society regarding civil society freedoms for the new government?
The election of a new president has ushered in a new era in politics in the Maldives and we hope with the governments' relationship with civil society. We are optimistic that the government will work with civil society to improve democratic freedoms and good governance in the Maldives. We are also hopeful that the new government will adhere to its international human rights commitments and respect the rights of expression, association and assembly of its citizens. In any democratic country, the media plays an instrumental role in holding its government to account and publishes information without fear of harassment or intimidation. We hope this will be the new trend in the Maldives. We are also confident that previous restrictions on NGOs will be lifted and that an enabling environment will be created for civil society.