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     Volume 6 Issue 23 | June 15, 2007 |

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Maldivian Magic

Aasha Mehreen Amin

(continued from last week)

The crash course in South Asian media continues; remarkably there are no sleepers among delegates despite jetlag. Every session proves to be interesting and not once do I have to resort to intricate geometric pattern drawing in my notebook. How can I not listen, these are some of the most seasoned journalists and experts, talking about the exciting changes happening in South Asia. Never having been much of a SAARC enthusiast, I am beginning to realise the possibilities of unity and true friendship between countries that share far too much in common to ignore each other.

Kanak Dixit, editor of Himal, a well-known South Asian magazine from Nepal, speaks impassionedly about the catalysing role of the press in mobilising a people's movement against a tyrannical regime in 1990, much in the same vein as Bangladesh's mass movement against autocracy, curiously, in the same year. Dixit adds that there is a sense of energy in Nepal, with the ability to speak unfettered which has a huge impact on the society. He emphasises the importance of developing a professional vernacular media which is the ultimate instrument of political change.

Andrew Whitehead, the India Country Director of the BBC World Service Trust in New Delhi, introduces the concept of citizens' journalism that the trust has been actively supporting. He shows us a video clip of how women grassroots activists are trained and equipped with recorders and mobile phones to turn into radio reporters and contributors for a weekly programme broadcast in Hindi on All India Radio. The programme has made significant inroads in HIV AIDS awareness and has managed to get the attention of the government. Suman Basnet, a gentle-mannered Nepalese, the Regional Coordinator for the Asia Pacific region of AMARC (World Association of community Radio Broadcasters) explains the power of community radio giving the example of a radio station in a remote area of Nepal where the member of every household is an employee of the station so that the voices of the entire community can be heard.

Things get even more lively when we are treated to a video clip presented by Aniruddha Bahal, founder and editor-in-chief of Cobrapost.com, an Indian news and views website. It is a clip from an investigative report that shows Indian Parliamentarians blatantly taking bribes from a citizen (actually a reporter with a hidden camera) for presenting a question in Parliament. Eleven MPs have been expelled from parliament as a result of the report. Bahal, also co-founder and former CEO of Tehelka.com, a famous news website, talks of the challenges of running news websites that are so dependent on ratings. He laments that there has been a serious atrophy in public interest with more enthusiasm for entertainment than news.

There are so many more interesting bits of information that I will take back home and that I will never be able to write about comprehensively. Binod Bhattarai, director at the Centre for Investigative Journalism in Nepal talks about the power of political blogging, how even in the days when a state of emergency had been declared and the media was severely restricted, an anonymous blogger made public how the media was being harassed and intimidated.

More serious issues are to come as the conference proceeds. In a session titled Censorship, Safety and Impunity we listen to the harrowing account of Asoka Dias, Director Station, Sirasa FM and Sirasa TV (Sri Lanka) who had to deal with the death of a colleague he had sent to cover a news event. He had assigned a three-member crew to cover the last day of the presidential election of Chandrika Kamaratunga in 1999. At the end of the rally a suicide bomber detonated a bomb. The 27-year-old camera assistant of the crew died on the spot and the two others were badly injured. Dias describes the dilemma of a news editor of putting colleagues in danger for the sake of news, of having to give the news of his colleague's death to the bereaved family. Javed Nazir, former editor of Frontier Post, an aggressive pro-democracy English newspaper published in Pakistan in the 80s and 90s, talks about his own experience of being intimidated by the government, the dreaded 'midnight knock at the door' before being picked up by police, of being imprisoned for speaking out and having his newspaper close down.

There are other speakers bringing new dimensions of press freedom, ideas that are being implemented and can be replicated in any of the countries we are from.

Yet all this intellectual stimulation cannot dampen our enthusiasm as we are told that we will be going on a fishing trip after the conference ends. So what if most of us have never gone fishing in our lives, one of the ministry officials gave me an almost hundred percent guarantee that I would come out of the boat with fish in my hand, fish that would be barbecued and served during our grand dinner at an island called Kuda Bandos. Of course I am completely convinced that this will happen and happily join the gang. At first I am on a big white boat with white plastic chairs for the guests to sit. But there are too many of us; a big group of Maldivian journalists plus my friends from the ministry will be coming along so we are split into two teams. Two Sri Lankan, one Nepalese and myself decide to join the smaller boat while the others stay on in the bigger, more glamourous one. Soon we are charging off into the sea; never have I seen such shades of blue and turquoise. Never have I been on such choppy waters. Our Nepalese colleague suggests we abandon our white chairs and just sit on the deck floor. This proves to be very prudent for I soon find myself rolling all over the place along with the water bottles we have brought. It all becomes a rather boisterous party as some of the young journalists along with Hawwa, my friend from the Information Ministry start beating on a dhol while others frenziedly dance. The men do hilarious song and dance routines imitating raunchy film songs and all I can do is giggle hysterically while holding on to dear life.

Soon we reach the lagoon where there are supposed to be shoals and shoals of fish. All I see is water and a darkening sky. Everyone, except eternal sceptics like me, take position with their fishing rods and bait. Meanwhile Hawwa takes me on a precarious adventure to the front of the deck while the boat sways violently against the gale. By the way, nobody is wearing a life jacket, not even non-swimmers like me. An hour or so later there is no sign of fish. Personally I think it is the raucous we have created earlier that has probably scared the fish away.

But defeat is the last thing we will admit to our rivals on the other boat. As we go back we sing and dance even harder, laugh derisively when our competitors tell us via cell phone that they have caught three fish. We lift up a carton (carrying tuna bait) and show them it is full.

When we come back for the sumptuous dinner hosted by Haveeru News, our fishing failure is exposed. I have caught not a single fish, nor did I even pretend to, but am exhilarated by the experience.

There are many wonderful gems I will take back with me from the Maldives. The high tea at Bandos, for instance, where everyone plays a Maldivian version of Dodge Ball while I and a few others witness a spectacular crimson sunset followed by a breathtaking starry, full moon evening on the beach. A fellow delegate sums it up: "you don't need anything, no conversation, no description, just drink in the beauty".

The ride around Male which Hawwa, Assistant Director Research of the Information Ministry and my friend, graciously takes me on her smart white car is amazing, not so much because I get to see the city but because I get to meet her four adorable kids, all with names starting with H. When I hug her six-year-old daughter, I am overwhelmed with emotion, I think of my own little girl back home and how much I miss her. The kids are funny, talkative and treat me like an adored visiting aunt. We go to the park, eat ice cream and coconut juice and take pictures near the seashore. The boys, ten and eleven are video game freaks and the eldest daughter, a national champion swimmer, who has just finished her O'levels wants to get into the police academy. I am a little taken aback by the self-assurance of this young girl, something that I find in all the Maldivian women I have so far met, all of whom ride motorbikes.

It is finally time to leave. We get an assorted gift hamper from The Ministry of Information and Arts wrapped in shiny purple wrapping, a last gesture of the incredible hospitality we have experienced from beginning to end. I leave the shores of Male city, again at an unearthly hour when everyone is fast asleep, save Abeer, the official from Maldivian Television who has been assigned to receive and see off all the delegates, who comes to pick me, perpetually red-eyed, sleep deprived, yet unwaveringly cheerful. Zaheer, another teenaged protocol officer accompanies him. Then, at the last minute, it is the reticent Ibrahim on his motorbike, who comes rushing in to accompany us to the airport. Ibrahim, smiling his shy smile, the first Maldivian I have met, the first friendly face holding a placard with my name on it when I arrived, is also the last one I see as I am about to board my plane.

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