Parliament’s Finance Committee has appointed a seven member sub-committee to discuss how media subsidies allocated in the state budget will be distributed. The recommendations will then be reviewed by the main committee and submitted for debate in Parliament.
Finance committee member MP Riyaz Rasheed told newspaper Miadhu that the committee was currently receiving submissions from media organisations and expected to make recommendations by the end of the week. Early discussions include splitting the amount allocated in the budget, about Rf4 million (US$307,600), between radio and newspapers at a ratio of 3:2.
Managing Editor of Miadhu Abdulla ‘Gabbe’ Latheef said that distributing the subsidies “just to media the Majlis likes is not fair. This money should be divided by the [soon to be elected] media council, not the Majlis.”
“For instance, they are only considering print and broadcast media for subsidies, not internet media,” he claimed. “Media in the Maldives is not only TVM and DhiTV.”
Latheef said that media subsidies in the past had not benefited staff, “only newspaper owners.”
Finance Minister Ali Hashim told Minivan News that any subsidies provided would take the form of training and capacity building, such as scholarships, rather than direct financial assistance.
“We will work with the [Maldivian Journalists] Association,” he said, but added as a caveat that “any form of hand outs compromise independence.”
Latheef said he feared the MJA was turning into the “Opposition Journalists Association”, as it had recently issued a press release reporting on a ‘meeting of editors’ to which it had failed to invite Miadhu.
Former Information Minister and Independent MP Mohamed Nasheed, who is not part of the committee deliberating on media subsidies, said he did not favour “cash handouts” but rather supportive subsidies, such as “10 to 15 percent of the electricity or water bill, rent, or the cost of training human resources.”
“Subsidies should be given for capacity building and upgrading quality of service, not necessarily cash-in-hand,” he suggested.
While he acknowledged that subsidies risked compromising media independence, Nasheed observed that media “is oxygen for democracy and a fundamental right in and of itself. You can’t compare it to something like subsidies for the fishing industry.”
“There needs to be a universal set of rules [for media subsidies] allocated through the government’s annual budget; they should work and earn it, and meet a set of criteria.”
Nasheed noted that during his time as Information Minister be formulated policy to stop newspapers “linked to people in the government” receiving direct subsidies in the form of rent assistance or lump sums for machinery.”
“This allowed the mushrooming of several papers favouring the then-opposition,” he noted.
Regarding the former government’s indirect subsidisation of media through advertising, Nasheed suggested a “one plus one” model whereby government ads would be rotated through the country’s largest newspapers. The current government moved all government advertising to an in-house gazette, a move that did not endear it to the country’s largest newspapers or the MJA, which has previously claimed that the unique economic situation and limited population of the Maldives is not conducive to 100 percent ad-funded media.
However Nasheed suggested “it’s a misnomer that this is a limited market. When you spread the papers out and see what they charge per centimetre, you can see what they’re getting in terms of advertising. But while they say how much they print, there’s no independent statistics for their circulation or how many people actually read the paper.”
“Nobody does these surveys and the papers are not willing open their records to the government,” Nasheed said.
Adjusting to an environment of competition and free expression was “today’s challenge [for the media],” he claimed. “Three years ago the challenges were very different, when the struggle was finding space for dissent, and the giving of that space. Today’s challenge is building credibility and capacity.”
Beyondthe issue of media subsidies, Nasheed said, “now we need to enshrine the principles of media freedom in our laws, build an independent institution that protects and consolidates media freedom, and introduce proceedures for the public to make complaints.”
The Department of Information has meanwhile short-listed 14 candidates out of the 35 who applied to be members of the Maldives Media Council.
Those selected by the Department as candidates for the seven seats include Ahmed Mizmad, Ali Hashim, Fathimath Ishan Ali, Mohamed Azim, Abdul Hadhee, Ali Waheed Hassan Manik, Ibrahim Ismail, Mohamed Fareed, Aishath Aniya, Abdul Raheem, Ahmed Abdulla, Shujau Hussein, Anas Ali and Ahmed Faisal.
The department considered whether the candidates were eligible as stated in the Media Council Act, while giving priority to those without a stake in a media organisation, business, political party, or NGO, the official said.
The 14 candidates have a range of backgrounds including education sector, religious studies, politics, business and gender, the department said.
Representatives of 20 media organisations will vote on April 20 to elect seven members to the council. Information Department acknowledged some of them were from discontinued newspapers and magazines, but said they were eligible for voting.
“We can include them under the law, as long as they don’t dissolve the organisation. So we have decided to include them as well,” he added.
Representatives of DhiFM, DhiTV, Radio Atoll, a ceased newspaper called The Voice, Haveeru, E-Sandhaanu Magazine, Hiyama Magazine, Vanni Magazine, Minivan News Online, the now stopped Minivan Daily, Aaila (Family) Magazine, VTV, Navaranna, Sungadi, the disbanded Manas Daily, Manas Magazine, Haama Daily, Miadhu Newspaper, Television Maldives (TVM) and Youth TV would be voting in the election.
The MJA has expressed concern that several of those shortlisted “are editors of magazines and newspapers that have been dissolved, and some of titles the MJA has never heard of.”
“The MJA does not believe that the power of the Media Council should be given to these people,” it said in a press statement.