Honourable Ministers; Delegates from friendly neighbouring countries; UN officials; members of the press; everyone present here, Good afternoon:
I have a written speech here, but I would like to actually share on this day my own thoughts and I hope I will not be so much moving away from what my Press Secretary and my Press Office wants me to say.
To start with, the core government position and values are very clear with regard to press freedom and freedom of information. We want to be as fair and as free as it is humanely possible in the world – not as free as it is possible and dictated by South Asia or dictated by the regions or even the United Nations boundaries or whatever boundaries. We want to have a free press and we want to do this because we strongly believe that freedom of press is important for consolidating democracy and we also strongly believe that development can only be achieved through a free press and through a transparent and a free discourse of ideas.
These are not ideas that we have come up with just today because we are in government but these are ideas and beliefs that we have fought for a very long time. I can see many people present here in this hall who have stood with us for a very long time in trying to achieve, in trying to come where we are today.
I will not mention the word ‘responsible journalism’. That is very often a phrase used by politicians when they want to gag. I have actually refrained from using this word at all. So in my mind, all journalism is responsible. How responsible it is, of course depends on where you are standing and how you are reading it. When you are praising me, of course I might see them as very responsible and someone else might see it as something very irresponsible.
So I have always thought and felt that any amount of criticism, especially in these formative years should be tolerated and should be digested and let them, themselves come up with their own ideas of responsibilities, their own thinking and their own framework of how they want to behave and how they want to report to the public.
In my mind, we will always be in the news because we have news – not because we have forced others to write about us, not because we pay others to talk about us, not because we have government subsidised newspapers to print about us. One of the very first things that this government did after coming to government was stop printing the pro-government or the pro-party newspaper that we had. This was called Minivan Daily and in fact that is one of the very first newspapers that came with the new idea during the last four months. So we basically at a very great huge cost to ourselves – because there was nothing and no one to report the government point of view, we understood the deficiency, the gap it would create – we felt that best cause of action would be to stop that. We did this with the experience or some of the historical lessons that we have learnt through time.
Every time when governments change, what tended to have happened is they abolished the previous regime’s newspapers. Now if you want to identify some papers as regime papers in the past, you can still go ahead and do that and you can actually go ahead and dissolve them. And you can actually stop all sorts of government subsidies to them and you can control them. That’s still possible. All the regulations are still there, all the laws are still available and all the powers are still in tact with the presidency. So in fact we didn’t want to do that, and therefore, what we did was exactly the opposite of what other governments in the past have done which was to deregister or dissolve or harass the previous government’s newspapers and come up with new ones.
I have been criticised by many among my friends and our party for having done this and therefore not been able to bring the government viewpoint across and I agree with them that we are unable to bring the government viewpoint across. So we are hoping that there will be at some point in time hopefully, that people would start realising that a certain news agency is not actually coming out with the truth or being so called responsible. People themselves will decide to stop reading it, listening to it and therefore I hope that we believe that market forces will dictate them to come out with reasonably accurate reportage.
In my mind this is already happening. A number of private, very dynamic news agencies have been shifting their line or shifting the manner and the outlook in which they write. So people are very fairly reported I would say. So I think our plan is working and we will hold on to this at whatever cost. Even if that means the government is unable to maintain support we would have to do that through our means. Let the press do whatever they want to do and let us stand in podiums, in gatherings and in meetings and see how far we are able to bring the govt view point across.
In the last few months a few things have happened. I’m not saying we are absolutely brilliant and there is nothing we should do about it and there is nothing we should correct upon. Of course, there is a lot that we can still do and what we have to do is quite substantial and challenging.
But I have last month ratified the Maldives Broadcasting Corporation Bill, and to remove state broadcasting corporation from the executive powers and then actually come out with legislation through the Parliament. Now this legislation was drafted by the opposition, the legislation was voted upon by the opposition, it had nothing to do with us and I still ratified it. In fact, the ratification also creates all sorts of structural problems and procedural issues but still I felt that even with the cost of these difficulties, the best course of action was to ratify it and see how it works. I hope that it will work. And even if it doesn’t work I hope that we are smart enough to understand that this is not working and therefore find other ways to try to patch it up and try to salvage it. I ratified the bill because in my mind it was possible to work it out. The flaws that it had were not structural – they were procedural flaws and in my mind these flaws can be overcome.
We have also with the help of Article 19 drafted the third version of the broadcasting bill. In terms of freedom of information, the third bill has now gone into the Parliament. Twice it has been rejected and then again we presented another bill hoping that the Parliament would accept it.
I believe that with the necessary amount of pressure from the public, the Parliament will also listen to what is being said and hopefully they themselves will go ahead and proceed with the bill and make it a law.
I can assure you, whatever comes from the Parliament in terms of press freedom and information and so on, I am willing to sign it. There is no point me standing out here on top and saying I know a whole lot more than what other 77 parliamentarians have decided upon. But many of my friends would disagree with me saying that the Parliament can be very politically motivated and therefore, not in the best interest of the public and the greater good. But as it is, the best we have found is multi-party democracy. There is no other alternative for democracy other than that and therefore, we are going to stick with it and we are going to go ahead with it. So I hope that the Parliament will come out with a bill and we will be able to enact that to law as soon as possible.
There are other issues that I would like to mention. When I was first arrested, there was a gentleman who was from one of the best literary families of this country – Ahmed Waheed. He is the brother of Madulu Waheed, the present Chair of the Maldives National Broadcasting Corporation. He is also brother to many good writers. He was writing for the same magazine as I was working at that time. And when he was finally released from prison, he has become totally retarded and he has stropped writing, thinking, talking even conversing with anyone. He is an excellent writer. You couldn’t get better prose in the Maldives than from him. Actually you couldn’t get better prose from outside that family even now. And for me this whole talk press of freedom has always kind of consolidated itself in this person. And I was sitting next to his cell. He was there for 7 months and I was there for 18 months. But after 7 months, he broke and we are unable to salvage him at all. I’m not saying this just to indicate and point out that the previous administration was vindictive or trying to point out their ways and means and methods, but just to point out that this is what we have been facing.
Very often changes in government bring in a slight spring of freedom. And that is suppressed the sooner the government is able to consolidate power. So usually that process takes about 4 – 5 months. I am glad that we have passed that 4 – 5 months and we have been able to have a good grip on government without gagging or without harassing the press.
There was one instance where the Information Department deducted five points of an available 100 points because of some reportage. Other than that, I’m glad to say, I am very pleased to say that we have not done anything. I have our Home Minister here. We do not have any journalists in prison and we do not intend to have any journalists in prison.
A lot of the very creative journalists today are still not inside the structures that we are talking here. But a lot of the very vocal journalists today are in a sense, because they are connected to the previous government’s different news agencies, there is reluctance on the part of many to actually accept simply their viewpoint. But as I said, because there are other alternative platforms, other alternative ways showing and airing your viewpoint, it doesn’t really quite matter what a single group or a single journalist or a group of people are doing. We are, in my mind, able to get the message across. And I don’t, even when we had the TV Maldives within our limit, I have restrained. I have never rung them up and told them this is how the news should look like. But very often I feel that I know how the news should look like, not because I am the President, but because this is also my trade and because this is a trade I have always enjoyed a lot and I like reading, I like writing and I like watching the news. But we haven’t done that.
I think they are improving. They are coming along fine. I don’t intend to be, again, condescending on them for saying they are coming along fine and that they are nice chaps. I’m not actually going along those lines but I just simply feel that we have been able to achieve a lot in the past 15 – 16 months.
This was not an overnight work. And it is not just this government’s work. I see Ibra here, I see many people who had stood along with us for a very long, long time. So, we are now able to sit at the sideline and watch it and I’m sure that this would become the beautiful idea of a free press that we want to see.
What we want to see is not necessarily what is available in South Asia. What we want to see is what is available in our minds, in our aspiration, in our dreams. And that is, to be able to read a good newspaper to watch a good film, to say what you feel like saying and then still be intact and live with your family and not to be harassed and not to be afraid of what you have said.
I can assure you this will go on. I will not touch the press. We will not harass them but we neither want to subsidise them. But right now we are still subsidising the press, especially in terms of land. And this is very sad. The government has subsided one of the very big newspapers with land and the government is unable to subsidise any other paper or any other institution with land. So that’s really quite sad but I am told everyday that we should stop that subsidy to that newspaper, but then again because it is one of the most established newspapers, whatever side they may take, it is still one of the most established newspapers, very well laid out and also with nice pictures and so on. So, we will have it but by having it I’m always being attacked by or criticised by other media for not doing anything for them. Recently the parliament has ratified some amount of funds for the press and I hope that the parliament would fairly distribute that among all the news agencies.
All in all I think we are having a good time. I remember, even in the last press freedom day, we had a tough time. A number of us were arrested on that day. Fortunately, I was already under arrest at that time so I didn’t have to be arrested on that day again. But we have been able to walk away from that.
So again, please have a very free discourse, discussions, conversations and let us come to an understanding on how we maybe able to go forward, whatever the government can do in terms of lobbying the legislations, in terms of getting our party aligned behind press legislations that has to come from the parliament, I will try my best. Very often it is not so easy for me to reign them in even though they are my party MPs but I will give my best shot at it.
Again, thank you very much. Thank you UNESCO. It is great that United Nations is here and they are engaged in our nation building process. It is excellent that we are able to tap into the very vast resource of experience that the UN system has on these matters. But very often, a lot of us are very frustrated by long huge bureaucracies in trying to get things moving. But after 15months in government, I also kind of understand why or I am condemned to say that I understand why the bureaucracy has to be intact. But please understand it is the substance that we are looking for and not the process. No one has asked me to give an excellent process but everyone is asking me to give them some substance. So we should never have the process overriding the substance.
Thank you very much.