Tuesday 12 April 2016
It is a great pleasure to speak this evening to the Commonwealth Journalists’ Association, especially because I am a former Commonwealth journalist myself.
And that experience, of being a journalist, I believe has given me the understanding not just of the challenges many journalists face, but also of the crucial importance of having a free media for the protection of democracy, good governance and human rights.
In 1989, after graduating from university in England, I went back to the Maldives. By this time, the State had become more and more repressive. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, at the time, the Maldives was one of the most repressive countries in the Commonwealth, if not the world.
Political parties were banned, NGOs were outlawed, the media was under tight government control, dissent was forbidden, the president was the head of the judiciary, the head of the parliament and only one name that ever appeared on a ballot paper.
Nevertheless, a few friends and I decided to set up a magazine, called Sangu. It was a political publication, talking about corruption and human rights abuses.
In our magazine, we talked about some of the regime’s dirty secrets. We started to expose its ugly underbelly. We shone a light its murkier operations.
Not surprisingly, the regime cracked-down hard on our independent magazine. One night, at around 3am, the police came to my house, raided my home and took me to jail. This was the first time I was taken to prison.
People often ask me how many times I’ve been to jail, or how long I’ve spent there in total. To be honest, I can’t remember. I think I’ve been to prison at least 20 times. And I’ve probably spent about half my adult life in one form of detention or another. And of course, the current Maldives regime is keen to add to this tally.
Anyway, I was eventually let out of jail. And while the regime continued to crack down on Sangu magazine, they were never able to completely stop it, or the ideas that it espoused, namely, democracy, human rights and good governance.
With Sangu, we had created a spark, which eventually turned into a flame, and later became a raging inferno demanding political change. The regime was unable to put out the fire. In the end, they were forced to relent, amend the Constitution and allow political parties. In 2008, the country held its first free and fair presidential election, which I was fortunate enough to win.
As president, I was able to view the media through a different lens, and from a new perspective. And my belief in the importance of a free media was reinforced.
It’s often easier for a government to monitor things through other people’s eyes, than through the State’s own monitoring systems. Newspapers are far quicker, and often more accurate, at letting you know if a policy is working, compared to the government’s own ability to tell if a policy is successful or not.
Bureaucrats tend to tell presidents what they want to hear. Journalists tell them what they need to hear. The free media keeps politicians on their toes… it forces us to be good, transparent and effective.
Of course, in new and emerging democracies – where institutions are weak – you need leaders to appreciate the role the media plays, even when their stories make for difficult reading. One of the main problems we face in many Commonwealth countries is when government target journalists for reasons of political expediency.
When you look at countries where the media is being suppressed, normally it’s because a high level politician wants to cover something up. They want to disguise their own bad governance.
Rarely does a president wake up one morning and think: “lets have a go at the journalists.” Normally, he thinks: “these journalists are uncovering this sensitive issues, we better try and stop them.”
Bad governance, high-level corruption and criminality on the part of political leaders – these go hand-in-hand with the suppression of the media. Targeting journalists is part of the cover-up.
Certainly, in the Maldives, this is something that we’ve witnessed in recent months. It comes as no coincidence that the Maldives regime has stepped up its targeting of journalists – including criminalizing defamation, closing down the country’s oldest newspaper, and arresting dozens of reporters – just when a massive corruption and money laundering scandal has engulfed President Yameen.
To my mind, the Commonwealth must stand up and protect journalists, and other human rights defenders, far better than it currently does. The Commonwealth should be a champion of free media, and a de-facto defender of independent journalists. The Commonwealth Journalists’ Association does admirable work. But the Commonwealth as an institution leaves much to be desired.
Fundamentally, the Commonwealth must move away from this idea that it is a private members’ club. It needs to cease behaving like an institution that merely serves to protect the status quo – however autocratic and corrupt that may be.
The Commonwealth, in short, needs to stop giving legitimacy, and thus helping to prop up, the dictators and authoritarians who abuse their people and flout the values that the Commonwealth is supposed to stand for.
The Commonwealth needs to be able to talk past governments, and speak directly to Commonwealth citizens, and the fourth estate.
For that to happen, I believe we need a Commonwealth Human Rights Counsel, with a Commonwealth Commissioner for Human Rights – who is functionally independent and does not report to the Secretary-General.
This model has been tried before and found to be very successful. Just look at the United Nations. The office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is an excellent model that the Commonwealth should copy and adopt.
If the Commonwealth can seize the initiative and do this, I believe it has a place in the 21st Century. If not, I fear it will continue to become increasingly irrelevant, marginalized and ignored. And that would be very sad.
The Commonwealth is such a diverse organisation, with such an excellent reach to countries right across the world. It would be a tremendous shame to see this go to waste.
So I believe we need to create an informal lobby within the Commonwealth calling for change. This should include progressive members states, NGOs, journalists and Commonwealth citizens. I appreciate that some nations might stand in the way of such reform. But one only need look at history to see how big nations, such as India, who were initially skeptical of the Commonwealth, soon came to understand its importance and power in upholding fundamental human rights.
In fact Nehru, speaking in 1949, recognized the Commonwealth’s role in promoting the ideals of the Indian Independence movement, namely: freedom, human dignity and support for oppressed and struggling people.
Nehru said at the time: “The world has changed, England has changed, Europe has changed, India has changed; everything has changed and is changing.”
And so, in a world that is changing even faster today, I believe the Commonwealth must change.
It must reconnect with its values, and uphold the fundamental principles of democracy, human rights and good governance that the people of the Commonwealth – if not all of its member governments – cherish and support.