Your country. My country. We are a nation that has been through change. We are a people in transition.
I was just a kid when the push for democratic reform began. The entire nation was erupting with calls for change. The voice for more freedom and human rights for some 350,000 citizens of this island nation resonated from the northernmost coast of Thuraakunu island to the artificial island-city of Addu in the south. But, as expected from a boy counting his adolescent years, I was naïve. All I could see was the destruction that came along; burning down of police stations in capital Male, vandalism of public and private property, and violent confrontations between protestors and security forces.
Yet, I was convinced. Change had to come. And it was time.
The pro-democracy movement took a life of its own. It did accumulate vestigial elements from the regime. The beauty of the movement lay in its willingness to forgive everyone’s past sins and accept them into its ranks. Within the movement stood a man who single-handedly made me believe in the concepts of democracy and equal rights for all. Mohamed Nasheed, a human rights champion, became my idol because he, unlike anyone else, had an ideology I found my solace in. The one-time fearless journalist waged a war of conscience against a dictatorship that had its iron clad fist and far reaching arms stretched out, reaching all corners of the archipelago.
The struggle lasted longer than I had wanted. Yet, we crossed the threshold to achieving what we had set out to. We welcomed a new president. We celebrated. We cheered. With a smile on our faces, we greeted a new dawn in our nation’s history. It was the dawn of democracy for our country.
Or so I thought. A few years down the line, we are still a nation that has been through change. We are still a people in transition. It appears that we are also on a roller coaster ride. Our patience, understandably, seems to have reached its limit.
Just last week, my colleagues and I at Mihaaru, Maldives’ only newspaper, were slapped with a two-year ban that threatens not only our jobs, but a career we all have dedicated our whole lives for. A court ruling dictates that no former employee of Haveeru can work at any media outlet in the country for two years. Mihaaru, the reincarnation of the country’s oldest and only newspaper Haveeru, is home to some of the finest writers and journalists in the country. From being amongst the defenders of free speech, my colleagues and I are on the verge of being rendered homeless and penniless. Our career on course for a sudden death. Our livelihood in uncertainty. Our families begging their country – yours too – to show mercy.
The unprecedented court ruling concerning former Haveeru employees shreds our constitution into so many pieces. Our rights as human beings – and as citizens of this nation – are in jeopardy. The repercussions of the latest court ruling forces us to go well beyond our everyday calls for press freedom. My colleagues and I have put aside our fears for our future and worries for the plight of our families. We have courageously defied the unconstitutional court order. We have vigorously defended our constitutional right to work at any place of our choosing.
We are aware of the consequences of our show of defiance. But what else can we do except carry on doing the only thing we know how to, all the while hoping that our country will find within its web of corruption and repressive actions a tiny fraction of space to offer us reprieve? But for how long can we last in a fight against a corrupt system? How long until the system overwhelms our resolve? A country that shamelessly strip more than 50 of its citizens from their fundamental rights, and continues to do so to so many others like us, would not hesitate to completely crush us to the ground if need be.
We are not the only victims of this injustice. Three publications have been forced shut in the past six months. Haveeru found its rebirth in the form of Mihaaru, but our friends at Channel News Maldives (CNM) are still fighting for their own survival and that of their families. Their only crime was, like us, to do their job. But the demise of CNM will not deter the spirit of the team behind the publication, and those who have sacrificed so much in order to stay true to the principles of journalism. They will have their comeback. And more will join the journalism family.
Free media and free speech are just the start to a long list of rights and democratic values under threat in a nation that could have been the perfect example of democratic change for other Muslim nations. More pressing issues are undeniably at hand.
The Supreme Court has recently upheld two death sentences after investigations and trials conducted in a highly questionable manner. Maldives is set to witness the execution of its first citizen in 60 years. One can argue on the religious grounds surrounding the death sentences on Hussein Humam Ahmed and Ahmed Murrath, but are we going to waste our time and allow the murder of two of our own at the hands of a corrupt state? Where do we stand on our Islamic moral compass? Are we, as Muslim Maldivians, going to be party to this state-sponsored killing?
Our nation has failed us. We have failed our nation. And in the process, the state with all its might has clamped down on every fundamental right we fought so hard to attain. Journalists are viewed as traitors. Civil rights activists are considered enemies of the state. Peaceful demonstrations are met with brutal force. Prison cells await any kind of dissent. Politicians from across the political spectrum are up for sale. Our democratic aspirations have been forced to find a new home in the dark corners of the internet and social media.
Yet, I am convinced. Change has to come. And it is time.
Times have changed. But several years down the road, we are yet to find answers and solutions to safeguard our ailing democracy. Perhaps there are none. It may very well be the harsh reality we as a nation and as a people are faced with. But let’s not forget; this is my country. This is your country too.