My college friend Zaheena Rasheed is a journalist in the Maldives, a Muslim island nation off the coast of India. Zaheena has fought for basic political freedoms there since she was a teenager. She now writes for an online, English language newspaper, Minivan News. Minivan means ‘independent’ in the Maldivian language of Dhivehi.
For Zaheena, yesterday was scary.
“Dark night in Male (the Maldivian capital),” she wrote on Facebook. “I received a death threat at 5:39 pm saying ‘you will be killed/disappeared next.’”
Vandals destroyed her office’s CCTV camera and launched a machete into their door.
Maldives is best known in the west for its high end island resorts and low-lying terrain that’s vulnerable to climate change. But what a lot of people don’t know is that Maldives is a country grappling with the confluence of democracy and religion. The past few years have been marked by political instability and and the ever-growing influence of radical Islam.
The Maldives was governed by dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom for 30 years. During that time, people left their home islands and migrated to the capital island Male, seeking services. Now, about 100,000 people pack into the capital island that measures a mere 2.2 square miles.
In 2008, Gayoom was ousted in a peaceful, democratic election, and replaced by now ex-president Mohammed Nasheed. I went to the Maldives with Zaheena in 2009. Democracy was an exciting, burgeoning force then — people felt their votes had made a difference.
But in early 2012, Nasheed was forced out by a military coup. And a month ago, Zaheena’s colleague Ahmed Rilwan, a journalist and active pro-democracy blogger, disappeared at knifepoint. He has not returned.
According to Minivan News, a recent report implicated radicalized gangs in Rilwan’s abduction.
I cannot help but contrast Zaheena’s political reality with my own. I have never had to fight for basic political freedoms. I enjoy freedom of the press every day, when I come into work and sit down to make phone calls and write stories. I might occasionally have to deal with a sticky bureaucracy of people who don’t want to talk — but that is very different than a text message threatening death.
I’ve spent the day and night worry about Zaheena’s safety. It’s hard not to, especially just after American journalists Fames Foley and Steven Sotloff were beheaded on camera by a militant from the so-called Islamic State.
In college, Zaheena and I spent endless nights giggling and and talking about our families and our boyfriends and our dreams. We both settled into the same career: telling true stories because it’s essential to healthy democracies and healthy communities.
But in the North Country, I can practice my craft without having to look over my shoulder. For me, independent reporting doesn’t have the same personal price.