With election season in full swing, the emphasis on transparent democratic values frequently takes centre stage in campaign rhetoric. Calls for good governance and fostering an environment for independent, pluralistic debate often receive more attention than the existing reality warrants.

Revised and enacted in 2008, the current Maldivian Constitution articulates the democratic values of its citizenry. Article 4 states, “All the powers of the State of the Maldives are derived from, and remain with, the citizens.” This constitution, for the first time, delineated the separation of powers and underscored the necessity for a well-functioning fourth estate, in alignment with the democratic principles on which the new constitution was founded.

Successive governments have played pivotal roles in shaping this media landscape through legislation and executive orders that dictate the functioning of state-funded media. State-funded media in the Maldives has a rich history that spans over six decades, with Dhivehi Raajjeyge Adu and Television Maldives holding a broadcast monopoly until 2008. While the advent of private media has since introduced a range of perspectives, the significance of state-funded media remains considerable.

So, why revisit this issue when a pluralistic environment ostensibly exists? The term “dhaulathuge media,” or state media, has become a frequent refrain among candidates contesting the September 9 elections. As this term gains traction in everyday language, it poses a serious threat to the constitutional freedoms cherished by Maldivian society.

In the Maldives, state-funded media operates under the Public Service Media (PSM) Act, further muddying the waters. Politicians often exploit this terminology interchangeably to advance their narratives, whether advocating for media freedom or its antithesis.

While “State Media” and “Public Service Media” may seem analogous, they serve different functions and operate under distinct guiding principles. State Media are largely government-controlled and serve as platforms for disseminating government policies, narratives, and viewpoints. Public Service Media, conversely, are generally funded by the public through mechanisms like licence fees or taxes and aim to operate autonomously from government interference. Their primary objective is to serve the public interest by delivering unbiased, high-quality journalism, alongside a diverse range of educational, cultural, and entertainment content.

Although the 2008 constitution promotes the latter, various pieces of legislation enacted over the past decade have dictated the operations of state-funded media organisations with little to no oversight of their intended purpose.

Currently, what masquerades as “Public Service Media” serves as little more than a mouthpiece for incumbent governments. Its management is appointed by the executive branch, undermining its purported autonomy. Politicians opposing the government often speak of reforming state media to align with constitutional freedoms, but once in power, they utilise state-funded media to propagate their own agendas.

The casual use of the term “dhaulathuge media” is perilous. As it becomes ingrained in daily discourse, the purpose of a functioning Public Service Media—as an overseer of the actions of all three branches of the state—becomes increasingly nebulous.

Candidates for the 2023 Presidential Elections have largely omitted the reform of state media from their policy platforms, yet they persist in using the term “dhaulathuge media” to advance their own agendas. 

As Article 4 of the constitution emphasises, the state’s affairs begin and are derived by its citizens. With this critical tool for an informed electorate compromised, the very spirit of the 2008 constitution is at risk.