“Hope you’re okay. If you need a lawyer, let me know," said one of 100 unread messages on my phone in the two hours that I hadn’t checked it while out on an assignment. “Office being raided,” said another, this one from a colleague at the Maldives Independent, a news website. The first message now made sense.
Other texts included pictures of uniformed personnel surrounding the office. They had entered with a warrant to search the office premises on suspicion that we were “plotting to overthrow the government”.
The raid was conducted at the office in Malé, the capital of the Maldives, in the afternoon of September 7, hours after the online release of Stealing Paradise – an Al Jazeera documentary about the alleged laundering of about $1.5 billion by the highest offices of government in the island country.
The film, which alleged bribery and corruption by those in power, was based on leaked documents, secretly filmed confessions and text messages obtained from the phones of former Vice President Ahmed Adeeb. It also showed how the judiciary and the Maldives Monetary Authority – its central bank – aided the scam.
Among those interviewed were members of the political opposition, watchdog bodies and the editor of Maldives Independent, Zaheena Rasheed. In her years as a reporter, Rasheed has always had an uncomfortable relationship with the regime and its enforcers. She has been arrested for vocally opposing against a draconian defamation law that details hefty fines and jail terms for those found guilty of slander, received numerous death threats for her relentless reportage, and saw one of her colleagues, Ahmed Rilwan, go missing.
In the documentary too, she was in no mood to hold back. In a memorable sequence, she is seen describing Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen as “reclusive, brutal, corrupt, [and] authoritarian”.
The documentary’s release was one of the most anticipated TV events of the year and had sent the government into a tizzy. The otherwise reclusive ministers and lawmakers started appearing on news panels to discredit the documentary long before it was released.
The state-aligned media, too, went on an overdrive to debunk the film. An article on the website of state broadcaster Public Service Media called it a conspiracy by the opposition and “a foreigner and non-Muslim called Will Jordan”, the producer, with an intention “to starve Maldivian people”. The propaganda worked its charm – on the day of its release, a corporate executive told me about his firm’s senior management gathering in the conference room with bags of popcorn.
In the years since he came to power in 2013, critics of the president have often found themselves in exile, imprisoned and silenced. Knowing this all too well, Rasheed opted for the least unpleasant alternative and boarded a flight out of the country a week before the documentary’s release. On Wednesday, the day after the film was screened, she was followed out by former auditor general Niyaz Ibrahim, who had helped expose the scam.
On the ground
Rasheed’s wise counsel, which she conveyed in a text message shortly after learning of the raid, was that I "go home.” I decided to go to the office instead.
Two policemen were posted on the ground floor of the office building, to secure the building. On asked what they expected to find, one of them smiled, almost sheepishly, and said his superiors would be able to answer.
But the cub reporters at the office were almost gleeful. For an understaffed, under-resourced team, the search warrant was a validation for their efforts – an assurance that the publication had a readership, if little else. A team of five, including those from the forensics department, had checked the drawers, inspected the bathroom and pronounced the staff clean. Before leaving, they had declared that they wanted to take a CCTV feed recorder. It hadn’t been functioning since the past one-and-a-half years, but that seemed to make little difference to them.
By now, sections of the international media, hackles raised after an attack on one of their own, were calling the country’s police headquarters for details. Over the evening, I addressed the concerns of some humanitarian organisations, who were perplexed at the superficiality of the search. Shahinda Ismail, whose Maldivian Democracy Network shares the floor space with the Maldives Independent, called it a “classic case of intimidation.”
Ismail had a point – the raid did conform to a pattern. A week ago, amid increasing talk of an imminent attempt at regime change by the Maldives United Opposition – a coalition of opposition parties – the police had turned up at the one-time residence of former President Mohamed Nasheed, now home to his parents, with a similar warrant authorising them to search the 72-year-old’s house on grounds that he was “plotting to topple the government.”
Nasheed, though currently in exile in the UK, has allegedly been steering the attempt to oust the Yameen’s regime.
“But they didn’t do much raid here,” said Abdul Sattar, Nasheed’s father, said. “They just looked and went off… It looks to me that they were forced to come.”
Sunny side up
The storm once again blew over quickly. By the morning after the documentary’s release, #StealingParadise stopped trending. The government dismissed the allegations as “nothing new” and called them defamatory and biased.
A little later on Wednesday, Yameen’s half-brother and former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who Al Jazeera said had received $50,000 from Nasheed to join an alliance with the opposition, denied having engaged with the former president in exile.
Former home minister Umar Naseer, whom the documentary alleged had failed to adequately investigate Rilwan's disappearance on the instruction of the President, also denied the allegations. The next day, Naseer retweeted a poster asserting his bid for the 2018 Presidential elections.
It was just another day in the tropical paradise.