Editorial: Decrees show NZ must stay firm on Fiji

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Frank Bainimarama
Frank Bainimarama

No doubt it can be tiring for democracies as they fight to ostracise, shame and sanction dictatorships around to their own way of thinking. The despots are seldom for turning. They commonly think and argue in a language of belligerence and conceit that would frustrate a constitutional saint. And so it is for New Zealand and Australia, the Commonwealth and the broader international community on the tiresome subject of Fiji. Envoys ranging from Sir Paul Reeves to Winston Peters have been worn down by the challenge.

Is there a prospect that this most pragmatic of New Zealand governments might set aside its expectations for principled change by the Bainimarama regime and instead consider compromise? In the way of these things, New Zealand would consider using the carrot rather than the stick. It might relax some aspects of the travel sanctions on Fijian officials, negotiate an exchange of senior appointees to the leaderless High Commissions and offer narrow but encouraging words on progress in the relationship. Fiji would agree to do, well, next-to-nothing; perhaps a softening in its rhetoric against New Zealand and Australia and an agreement not to harass our diplomats unduly.

No commitment to a restoration of a proper democracy.

Two developments in Suva provide renewed evidence of the regime's distaste for democracy in any real meaning of the word. They must surely have dismissed any thoughts among transtasman officials and politicians of achieving change by appeasement.

First, Fiji's just-published draft of a Media Industry Development Decree would virtually eliminate freedom of expression in the country. It is a remarkable document, one which would make Zimbabwe proud and Singapore blush. Second, Commodore Frank Bainimarama's crew has issued another decree giving legal immunity to itself and officials over the military coup and subsequent unconstitutional manoeuvrings.

The media decree creates a new media authority with wide powers. It can prevent stories being broadcast or published at times of emergency and "in the national interest", can search and seize documents from newsrooms, can write and force publication of corrections and apologies in print and on air, and will police numerous offences punishable by $100,000 to $500,000 fines or up to five years' jail. The authority wins the right to unfettered interference, authorised to "perform such other matters as [it] may determine to be in the interests of the media".

Media content must not include material deemed against the public interest or order, against the national interest, which offends good taste or decency or creates communal discord.

As well, foreigners will no longer be able to own more than 10 per cent of a media company, probably silencing two existing media voices, and Fijians will be liable to the decree's measures even when they publish or broadcast something while overseas or if they send material to overseas websites.

A media tribunal will hear appeals but its word will be final; the decree explicitly rules out judicial reviews or appeal to higher courts. This is a recipe for media emasculation, and not because it affects media companies. It is the elimination of the Fijian public's right to know, unvarnished, what the powerful are doing in their name.

The decree protecting the regime from prosecution is a more abstract threat to democracy - a coup leader's fantasy that surely, once this sorry interregnum is over, will be declared null and void by a legitimate court - with the case against him then reported by a free press. That time can come, though, only if New Zealand and Australia continue to hold hard to democratic principle and the regime is subjected to the greatest sanction, the decision of the Fijian people to call time on their dictator.

- NZ Herald

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