If you are new to this blog, a few words about why we are here: Maldives is about to conduct its first multi-party presidential election. The incumbent, President Mahmoon Abdul Gayoom, is the longest-serving ruler in Asia. After some 30 years in office he is running for a five year term. There are eight registered parties, but not all parties have candidates and at least one candidate is an independent without a party.
I first consulted TV Maldives last February and March. Previously, its newscast had the reputation of “propaganda read by children.” The country had no tradition of a free press, with reporters sometimes being jailed as dissidents. The reporters, anchors and producers I was training had an average age of 19 and most had no more than a tenth grade education. Led by a news director and CEO who were willing to take chances, we worked together to establish editorial freedom for the newsroom.
There are many moments when I realize I am witnessing events that Maldivian children will someday study in the history books. All of the parties have just signed an agreement on access to state-run TV and radio coverage during the election campaign. At this meeting, the CEO, program director, news director and marketing director of TVM, as well as the radio news director of VOM, proposed guidelines for news coverage, free programming time and paid advertising. It’s a deal that American candidates would envy… free 15-minute blocks of political programming time and free studio time for the parties to record their programs. Paid spots at bargain prices. A 15 second ad on the morning news program for as little as the equivalent of $26 dollars. Journalists will be allowed to exercise editorial judgment regarding news coverage, but TVM will keep records of candidate and party appearances and an independent news council will look into any complaints of unfairness. I don’t blame the party representatives for being a bit skeptical. After all, some of these people did jail time for opposing the government in the past and now they are being offered a free airtime to conduct a spirited national conversation about the future of this country. After meeting with TV CEO Ali Khalid I can say with certainty that the commitment to fairness is sincere and comes from the highest level.
Note: The ruling DRP party did not send a representative to the meeting but is said to support the coverage agreement.