The Edition


Atrocity, Outrage and Action; Inside the court of public opinion

Mariyam Malsa
17 September 2020, MVT 11:18
Protesters amid a demonstration held on the streets of Male' City, against all forms of sexual violence and to hold perpetrators and the authorities accountable, on June 29, 2020. PHOTO: NISHAN ALI / MIHAARU
Mariyam Malsa
17 September 2020, MVT 11:18

In January 2020, a spectrum of state authorities were kicked into action to bring justice for a 2-year old in Kanduhulhudhoo, Gaafu Alif Atoll.

The impetus for action came from a core group of society that brought their concerns to the gates of the Ministry of Gender, Family and Social Services. These individuals were widely supported by Maldivian citizens that voiced their heartbreak and outrage for the victim on social media platforms.

Not too late after, the victim's grandfather and great grandfather, the perpetrators, faced charges for their crimes, inspiring public relief and support.

Sadly, this ‘sequence of events’ does not represent a stand-alone occurrence.

The pattern of atrocity, outrage and action is easily discernible in a variety of recent cases which revealed social and structural issues with far-reaching impacts on ordinary lives.

In December 2018, the death of seven-year-old Rawshan Jian led to the wide condemnation of lax regulations governing construction sites. The subsequent state response saw tightened controls on construction sites scattered across Male'.

Fire safety standards came under scrutiny following a blaze that originated in a chemical storage facility on September 20, 2019, resulting in one death and the displacement of 400. In the wake of the largest blaze recorded in the capital, the government ordered the swift relocation of chemical storages away from the heavily residential island of Male’.

On August 29, 2019, a speedboat travelling from Nolhivaranfaru to Hanimaadhoo in Haa Dhaalu Atoll capsized due to rough weather, killing five individuals. In the aftermath, the parliament accepted a resolution seeking to mandate wearing life jackets while travelling at sea.

These tragedies are among only a few of the handful of issues that resulted in commendable government action that ultimately led to greater safety for Maldivian citizens. However, the path to securing these changes was far from ideal and is symptomatic of a flawed system.

Twittering justice

In theory, a victim can lodge their case with Maldives’ Police, the Employment Tribunal, the Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM) or another body, depending on the nature of their grievance. The institution in question is then legally mandated to launch an inquiry into the matter and penalize those who are identified as being culpable.

However, time and time again, innumerable citizens reveal that this process fails to yield results.

The most recent and obvious example to pick from might be the string of sexual abuse allegations raised by women against state-appointed officials, including now-sacked Tourism Minister Ali Waheed, President Office's Secretary of Communications Hassan Ismai and the Fisheries Ministries’ Communications Director, Ahmed Fazeel.

Several of these victims reported having formally submitted their case to the relevant authority, only for a note to be made on a sheet of paper and filed in a nondescript cabinet in some government office.

However, when they went public with their stories, often via Facebook or Twitter, the results or atleast response, proved nearly instantaneous. In certain cases, top officials personally replied with assurances that the case would be investigated. Some of the alleged perpetrators were even placed under suspension for the duration of the inquiry.

Protesters holding signboards during a demonstration demanding justice for victims of sexual assault. PHOTO: NISHAN ALI/ MIHAARU

Even if leveraging public opinion appears to have prompted certain institutions to put greater effort in some circumstances, the pattern of atrocity, outrage and action raises a number of questions and concerns.

For instance, while there are numerous systems in place to ensure the provision of justice, is it fair for certain cases to be expedited or prioritized in response to public pressure? If so, when can the public expect progress concerning hundreds of other similar cases?

Furthermore, it appears that justice impinges on the virality of a post and the momentum it can generate within Maldivian social media circles. The unpredictable nature of this selection means that of the many injustices taking place, only a handful of stories courageously shared online receive the attention they deserve.

On top of this, even promises to solve cases that were fulfilled, seem to cast aside structural and policy level reforms - important processes that experts insist are necessary to effectively deal with complex social issues.

Since not all issues brought to the court of public opinion are addressed, these days the public receives a steady stream of anecdotes on institutional failure. Occasionally, this pent-up energy is seen spilling over into the real world, when citizens decide to protest in demand of accountability and urgent action.

A situation that, incidentally, is not in the interest of any government to let happen, alongside an ongoing global pandemic.

Where there is smoke, there is fire

At present, the government is still under fire for its handling of recently observed protests, during which numerous citizens protested against the prevalence of sexual assault, while even more expatriates raised their voices over exploitative mistreatment and unpaid salaries.

Expressing concerns for ‘national security’, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a declaration on July 14, stating that all protests, demonstrations and public gatherings could only be held with prior permission from the Maldives Police Service. The sentiment was echoed by the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Community Empowerment as it urged NGOs and civil societies to ensure that their actions do not pose a threat to national security.

However, experts maintain their stance on hotly discussed social issues, attesting to the seriousness of gender-based and the magnitude of human trafficking concerns in Maldives, as well as the fact that the tragedy-ridden status quo is being exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In light of the above, several Maldivians have expressed the opinion that there is not much room to claim political motivations. Instead, it appears that the restrictions, as well as any direct or indirect effort to negatively portray organizations or people demanding accountability, are poorly received by the public.

Similar to state responses to concerns voiced on social media, perhaps this heavily criticized reaction also demonstrates the inability of those on the policy side of things to read between the lines.

Ideally, these expressions were only meant to be taken as cues to instigate and inform more sophisticated reforms.

Although the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has laid unimaginable burdens on policymakers, wide swaths of the electorate have pointed out that the path forward will involve prioritization of key issues at the policy level, rather than restricting criticisms or drawing the line at virtual lip service.

Despite the government’s reactive response to crucial concerns raised via social media, as well as the defective pattern that has grown around it, public expression still holds real meaning and serves to show policymakers where additional, perhaps proactive, effort is (over)due.