Ellery Roberts Biddle contributing reporting to this post.
Since last week, fifteen Maldivian journalists have reported receiving anonymous SMS messages threatening them for their coverage of recent deadly street violence in the island nation, an archipelago that lies southeast of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean. The messages came a few days prior to the unexplained disappearance of journalist and democracy advocate Ahmed Rizwan Abdulla, who works for Minivan news, a private news website. “Minivan” means “independent” in local language Dhivehi.
A free speech advocate and prolific social media user, Rizwan is one of the Maldives’ first bloggers and writes on many subjects, including religion, politics, and the environment. Supporters have built a campaign website on his behalf. Rizwan was not threatened by SMS, but did cover the story for Minivan News.
On the morning of Aug. 20, Aishath Aniya (@Aniya_A), another journalist working in the radio 97Minivan, received a death threat. She tweeted:
A threat msg I recieved just now. Today I tagged @PoliceMv & made a couple of tweets. Why does ISIS need me alone? pic.twitter.com/q4oSjq70FN
— Aishath Aniya (@Aniya_A) August 20, 2014
According to Minivan News, Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP Mariya Didi also reported a threat. A message sent via text, from the same number as the message sent to Aishath, warned the MP: “we will not hesitate to disappear you. Have you forgotten you have a small daughter?”
A Facebook user writing under the #FindMoyaMeehaa hashtag suggested that the messages were sent by a party representative suspected of working with ISIS.
Despite the certainty she espoused, the allegation has not been confirmed.
The Facebook page of the Secular Democratic Maldives Movement raised some pertinent questions about the SMS threats, referencing the #FindMoyaMeehaa campaign to locate Ahmed Rizwan Abdulla.
Aishath Aniya receives a message from an unlisted number identified only as ISIS saying that she is next with the tag “#FuckMoyameehaa”. This raises several questions in relation to #FindMoyaMeehaa:
1. Does this confirm that Ahmed Rizwan was abducted?
2. Does this mean that the people trying to instate an “Islamic State of Maldives” have a relation to the abduction?
3. How do they have the capability to send such messages?
4. To what extent do they control or have access to telecommuncations and other infrastructure?
5. To what extent have they infiltrated the police, defense forces and other government agencies?
6. In the light of such questions, can the police even be trusted at all by the average citizen for their protection, let alone to find Ahmed Rizwan?
Political unrest has plagued Maldives since its first democratic presidential election in 2008. The young democracy climbed on Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index immediately following the vote to a peak of 51 in the ranking. After the alleged ouster of President Mohamed Nasheed, however, and journalists considered to be his supporters were threatened and attacked, the country plummeted to its latest ranking of 103. The instability has lead to a rise in gang violence and may be linked to the events of the last two weeks.
It is clear that these combined threats against journalists have hit a nerve among citizens and democracy advocates in the country. As Minivan News editor Daniel Bosley put it:
Global Voices will continue to monitor this story as it unfolds.