Maldives: How An Islamist News Portal And Its Founder, Who Want The Country To Take Funds From China, Are Running 'India Out' Campaign
Islamist news portal Dhiyares and its founder Ahmed Azaan are running an 'India Out' campaign that relies on Chinese propaganda to whip up anti-India sentiment in the Maldives.
In May 2020, when the Maldives called out Pakistan's attempt to target India at a virtual meet of the Organisation of Islamic Countries and defended New Delhi against the allegations of Islamaphobia, Maldivian journalist Ahmed Azaan was visibly upset.
"Maldivian Ambassador...thinks accusing India of Islamophobia is "factually incorrect". Why don't you ask the millions of Muslims in India who are suffering from the Islamophobic policies of the Indian government?," Azaan, the founder of news portal Dhiyares, said.
When the ensuing conversation turned into a discussion on Indian and Chinese "interference" in the Maldives' foreign policy, Azaan made another intervention. China, he said, has "never" interfered.
That this assertion came from a Maldivian journalist — founder of a major online news outlet no less — was shocking.
It was only two years ago that President Abdulla Yameen, under whom the Maldives junked its 'India-first' foreign policy and embraced China, had lost power. Chinese interference was clearly visible in Yameen's engagement with India, or the lack of it, back then.
This was neither the first time Azaan had defended China nor the last.
At one point, Azaan also attacked the government of the Maldives for not allowing a Chinese research vessel to enter into Maldivian waters. These vessels collect data and map the seafloor, which could then be used for the deployment of submarines in the region.
Since last year, the journalist has been arguing in favour of seeking financial assistance from China despite the Maldives' bad experience with Chinese funding in the past.
Under Yameen's regime, the Maldives had borrowed heavily from China, mostly for economically unviable projects. This almost pushed the country into a debt trap — Male owes China around $1.5 billion (could be as high as $3.5 billion), a huge sum for a country with a gross domestic product of around $4.9 billion.
"Our neighbors are getting funds from China, but we aren't getting any. Why?," Azaan said on Twitter in May 2020.
Next month, he asked why the Maldives wasn't taking loans from the "China-led" Asian Infrastructure Development Bank when many countries has used the option due to the pandemic.
"We don't have permission from India to borrow?," he asked.
On multiple occasions over the last two years, Azaan has accused India of blocking the Maldivian government from taking financial assistance from China. At one point, the journalist even suggested that China's loans to Sri Lanka were "help" that the Maldives should also look to avail, ignoring the fact that similar loans have pushed Colombo in to a debt trap, forcing it to hand over the Hambantota port to Beijing for 99 years.
In June last year, Azaan accused the Maldivian Democratic Party of President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of demonising China. Solih's government has restored ties with India over the past two years, which were significantly damaged under President Yameen.
The journalist is also known for his anti-Modi tirades. From labeling the government as "Hindu extremist" to accusing it of "trying to change the demographics of Kashmir", Azaan has been running an anti-India campaign through his media outlet and its sister publications.
Over the last few weeks, Azaan's campaign has intensified. The campaign is no longer limited to using the choicest abuses for Prime Minister Narendra Modi or pushing Chinese propaganda through his publications.
On target now are the relations between India and the Maldives, Indian investments in the country, including projects bagged by the Indian private sector, and Indian diplomats stationed in Male.
The campaign is positioned against Indian military presence in the Maldives, Azaan and his publications would have you believe.
However, the attacks are targeted against Indian infrastructure projects, which China would be willing to take over the day they are available.
In recent weeks, Azaan's Islamist portal Dhiyares and its sister publication The Maldives Journal, have published multiple misleading reports on Indian projects in the country, including the construction of a police training academy in Addu City and a harbour and dockyard at Uthuru Thilafalhu.
Reports in Dhiyares and The Maldives Journal suggest that these projects are aimed at increasing India's military presence in the country, which, officials say, is limited to technical assistance to the Maldives.
Azaan has filed a request under the country's Right to Information Act in the Ministry of Defence seeking data on the number of Indian military personnel stationed in the Maldives. When the request was denied, his portal Dhiyares took the issue to court, where hearings continue.
Since then, the issue of Indian military presence in the Maldives has been used by Azaan and Dhiyares to put out disinformation, which in turn has been used to fuel the 'India Out' campaign.
"India has already established their military presence in three important regions of the Maldives...They justify their presence...by using the excuse of operating the Dornier aircraft “gifted” to the Maldives by India, while maintaining their presence in Addu and Laamu atoll under the guise of operating similarly “gifted” helicopters," a report in The Maldives Journal said recently, toeing the line taken by Yameen's party.
Many observers, including Maldivians, have said that reports in Dhiyares and The Maldives Journal have disregarded facts on Indian presence to whip up anti-India sentiments in the country.
The Islamist portal has also been targeting Indian diplomats in the Maldives. When the Indian High Commission registered a protest with the Maldivian government on the portal's campaign against Indian diplomats, Dhiyares and The Maldives Journal responded with more misinformation.
"The constitution of the Maldives guarantees freedom of expression as long as it does not violate any tenets of Islam," the Islamist publications said, accusing the Modi government of trying to silence journalists.
"What is this government’s foreign policy? Being India’s puppet?," Azaan said on Twitter, launching a triad of attacks on Indian diplomats.
'India would annex the Maldives like it took over Sikkim, the Maldives is the second Kashmir, Islam is under threat' are some of the running themes in Azaan's Tweets and articles in Dhiyares.
Azaan and his portals have also presented India as a 'threat to Islam' in the Maldives, where it is illegal for citizens to be anything other than Muslim.
That Azaan has been toeing former President Yameen's line on India in the name of protecting the interests of the Maldives is no secret.
"In 2023, we need to elect a nationalistic leader who can stand up to bullies like India. Someone who will not compromise our sovereignty. Reversing these agreements will be tough, but not impossible," Azaan said recently, in line with what his news portals have been arguing.
"President Yameen, the only leader capable of defending the country’s position in the turbulent Indian Ocean," read a headline of an article in The Maldives Journal in December 2020, around the time the 'India Out' campaign was launched.
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