TVM Haze

The world has changed so much in the past few decades. The sheer amount of information we have accessible at our fingertips is sometimes hard to comprehend. If you are a person who has the privilege of internet access, the only excuse you have for your ignorance is yourself.

So what then, can we say about a regime that chose to keep its subjects ignorant? For the longest time, all the way until 2008, the Maldivian public had access to only one public TV channel. Television gets a lot of flak for being responsible for dumbing down populations; but I am of the opinion that the people that hold such views are often people who have been spoiled for choice when it comes to such media.

Television Maldives, or TVM, was founded on March 29th 1978; the same year that one of Asia’s longest ruling dictators came to power. It would remain the only local TV station for the entirety of his rule. The 2nd TV station to be formed, DhiTV, was inaugurated by him in 2008; timed perhaps so that he can claim that he had allowed more than one TV station to operate during his 30 year rule from 1978 to 2008. There was also of course TVM Plus, a short lived paid iteration that started around the turn of the century – but it was so lacking in original content that it could barely classify as its own fully fledged channel.

To say the content on TVM was controlled would be an understatement. The quality of content was also quite terrible; with very few shows featuring original works by locals. The majority of what we saw were pirated shows and music videos that always looked as if they were covered in grease, and shot through a tattered veil. My memories of the Disney Classics for instance are caked in this grime. Cartoons such as this would be shown in the afternoon, starting around 5 o’clock. They would end abruptly at the call for Magrib and Isha prayers from around 6-7 and would return only with the news at 8. If you were lucky they’d continue where they left of the next day; and if they didn’t, too bad! The best you could do was hope that they’d have a re-run at some point.

The news itself would always talk more about the terrors going on in places such as Palestine more so than anything that was remotely relevant locally; with such news being mostly restricted to the goings on at schools, or to Maumoon inaugurating some new building. The opposition would always be characterised as thugs. Instead of using the word “protest” they would always use negative lingo like “disturbances” and “threats to the peace”.

The pirated foreign content was always heavily censored. This ranged from eliminating images of people drinking, kissing, hugging and having sex, to the bizarre removal of scenes where people take their coats off after being outside. The most paradoxical part about all this was the need to still show content and maintain the façade that Maldivians are still hip consumers of Western culture. For instance there were several music video shows that would show after the 2PM news, around 2:30, that were presented in English that focused almost entirely on Western music. Most of the videos shown on it would be entirely incoherent due to the majority of the video being censored out. The fact that they accomplished this, with music videos at least, was by constantly looping the “halal” sections made the whole affair incredibly confusing. For example “It wasn’t me” by Shaggy mostly consisted of looped footage of his conversations with Rikrok; along with the former constantly getting out of his car. Yet the song was so popular that a cover version sung at the interschool singing competition, in which the song lyrics were adapted to be about the local tale of Foolhudhiguhandi and Aiminaabee’, remained a hit for almost a year.

The most loved original content was without a doubt the various dramas and music videos made by the local film industry. Most of this was however incredibly lacking in imagination and consisted almost entirely of songs, and often entire movies, ripped off from Indian cinema. In this regard the local film industry was, and still is, utterly shameless. To make things worse the strict censorship laws and stifling atmosphere of those times meant that the subject matter was always mundane; dealing with enthralling topics such as standard domestic dramas and infidelity. Still, there is probably a lot we could learn from the analysis of media produced by the film industry in those times. What were the common themes? What was left unsaid in these dramas?  In what ways were the flamboyant dances of Indian cinema adapted to the apparently pious and god fearing Maldivian market? You could write a whole book about the psychology and sociology behind tight skin coloured cloth that some music stars used to cover exposed areas such as midriffs during their dances.

Most of the interesting content on TVM surfaced during Roadha mas. During this month of fasting most people stayed up late into the night so as to have a final meal before the day ahead. This provided a great excuse to create several late night programs; many of which were interactive game shows where contestants could call in to participate. Also of note is how the broadcast of Baibalaa tournaments during this time may have indirectly played a part in the creation of the many gangs which call Male’ their home. Most of these gangs started off as “sports clubs” and to this day maintain that façade of legitimacy in their operations. Framing it as a politician funding a sports clubs activities just sounds so much better than the mafia paying off hired thugs.

The Maldivian populace, desperate for entertainment, were forced to adapt. When I was growing up piracy was the norm. If the state, with all its vast revenues from tourism, cannot afford to buy original tapes to show on their channel; then what hope does the average citizen have of obtaining such luxuries?

One of the options was the local pirate tape rental. They’d have a vast library of murky copies that you could rent for 10 ruffiya a week. Sometimes my mother would rent something as a treat for my sister and myself; and we’d rewind and watch that tape until we’d memorised all of it. Sometimes multiple times a day. You could say this is common practice worldwide for kids that grew up with VCRs before the internet; but these weren’t clear copies. These were copies, much like the ones shown on TVM, with such terrible video quality and reverberating audio that you could barely decipher what was going on in some scenes. We were just that starved for entertainment.

One of the other options was to invest in a satellite dish. Some of the incredibly rich even had paid subscriptions. Most people, however, used decoders which let you access almost all of the paid channels for free. My uncle had such a set up, so we ran a cable all the way from his house to our TV. We couldn’t change the channel and were forced to watch whatever his decoder had been set to, but it was still much better than only having access to TVM. When my uncle got rid of his satellite, we put a cable in from my aunts; and when it was time for Dragon Ball Z, my sister and I would call them up to see if they could maybe change the channel to Cartoon Network for an hour. We must have been quite annoying.

In the 2000s some cable operators did begin service; but their catalogue was severely limited and overpriced. The pirate satellites still remained the better option. Some enterprising individuals even figured out that some Indian subscription services worked all the way down south in the Maldives; leading to rooftops being dotted with that particular type of dish for quite a while until the service providers became wary and began cancelling accounts.

These foreign cable stations provided a window to a greater world that Maldivians simply did not have access to in the past. They also served a strange form of self-validation in our own existence. I remember people proclaiming with astonished voices that “even the BBC” was reporting on events such as the historic protests of 2004. To finally see tyrants like Maumoon grilled by foreign journalists during the 2008 elections was nothing short of a revelation. The questions asked in the Al Jazeera video below, for example, are questions that very few local journalists would have even dared to ask back in those days. Mohamed Nasheed did not get imprisoned for his work with Sangu by accident.

101 East speaks to Asia's longest serving leader Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and opposition candidate Mohamed Nasheed at the Maldives' first free elections. In this edition of 101 East, we look at this turning point of democracy in Maldivian history and ask both presidential candidates why Maldivians should vote for them. - Al Jazeera English

Despite all these avenues for consuming pirated foreign content, the amount of local content was still shockingly low. With the advent of the internet, self-publishing, and more affordable technologies, this has changed quite a bit. Anyone can now create a show and post it onto places YouTube for the whole world to see. And there are now several local TV stations that compete with TVM as well.

Yet Maldivian media remains in its infancy, still struggling to find an identity from the years of that information blackout. In a way we are now undergoing our first renaissance of the creative arts. I am sure the Maumoon regime would like to take credit for this, but I think it has more to do with the world advancing as a whole rather than any conscious effort by them to improve the situation.

During Mohamed Nasheed rule, perhaps to distance his fledgling democracy from the days of dictatorship, TVM was renamed to MNBC One. But not for long. The station was so close to the hearts of the regime and its supporters that it was one of the first government buildings stormed and taken over by mutinying police during the coup of 2012; after which it was promptly renamed back to TVM. Some people say this is because the “secret” meaning of MNBC was not “Maldives National Broadcasting Corporation” but “Mohamed Nasheed Broadcasting Corporation”.

I think it was because TVM was like a mother to many regime loyalists. TVM back then was our way of communicating with our god, Maumoon. The days he gave Friday sermons were the days that the mosque was most packed. And of course these sermons were broadcast live on TVM for everyone at home, mostly women and children preparing lunch for the pious men who are busy praying, could soak it in as well. They find comfort in the nostalgia of those “peaceful” days of ignorance. In the endless songs of nationalism, penned by none other than god himself. Even now many people moan about the loss of the “peaceful” Maldivian community to the chaos of “politics”. Back then we never heard about the people that were abused and tortured in Maumoon’s prisons, so many people took this lack of information to mean that everything was OK. Back then many of the rural islands were, and still are, poverty stricken and lacking in basic development; which many people from the capital interpreted as “the simple life” that we are so missing out on today. Many of these people have never had to live “the simple life” and are simply tourists who exotify the rural islands they visit during their holidays. Even well into the 2000s, while those in the capital complained about slow internet, many in the islands still lacked proper sewage systems and electrical plants.

Yet still many people long for the days that we spent lost within that TVM haze. The drone of the no signal tone and the coloured bars that went along with it while I waited for programming to start are still burned into my mind; and much of this programming the Maldives has yet to overcome.