David Robie: Fiji media fights on for free press

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Voreqe Bainimarama staged the country’s fourth coup in December 2006. File Photo / Greg Bowker
Voreqe Bainimarama staged the country’s fourth coup in December 2006. File Photo / Greg Bowker

Editors, broadcasters and publishers are struggling to defend the last vestige of a free press in Fiji in the face of a draconian media decree aimed at gagging two of the country's three daily newspapers.

Other critics of the military-backed regime also face a tough future.

The draft Media Industry Development Decree 2010 features harsh penalties for journalists and news organisations which breach vaguely worded content regulations.

The decree warns media not to publish or broadcast material that is "against the public interest or order, is against national interest, offends good taste or decency, or creates communal discord".

It also caps foreign ownership in media organisations at 10 per cent.

Breaches under the decree can lead to a F$500,000 fine against news groups, or a fine of up to F$100,000 for individual journalists and/or being jailed for up to five years.

The government "consulted" news media and non-government organisations last week and Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum said some "useful suggestions" were being considered. A further consultation is planned before the decree becomes law.

"We are coping by focusing on our principles (since getting balance is out at the moment) of getting important information to the public - such as health, education, the economy and industries," said Fiji Broadcasting Corporation news director Stanley Simpson.

"It is important also, despite not getting the other side/point of view, of letting people know what this government is doing, or aims to do, because - like it or not - they are in charge of the country's future right now."

Many critics see "vindictive sections" in the decree aimed at crippling the Fiji Times, the country's oldest, largest and most influential newspaper and 100 per cent owned by a Rupert Murdoch subsidiary, News Limited.

The regime wants to force the newspaper, founded at Levuka in 1869, to "change its mindset" - seen by the government as "anti-Fiji".

About 170 people are employed by the newspaper and their livelihoods are at stake.

Two Australian publishers of the Fiji Times have been deported on trumped up grounds since military commander Voreqe Bainimarama staged the country's fourth coup in December 2006. The High Court also imposed a hefty F$100,000 fine against the Fiji Times in early 2009 for publishing an online letter criticising the judges for upholding the legality of the 2006 coup.

While international responses have focused on the serious impact for the Fiji Times group, the terms of the decree will also hit the country's two other dailies - the struggling Fiji Daily Post, which has 51 per cent Australian ownership and is also a critic of the regime, and the Fiji Sun, which has taken a distinctly "pro-Fiji" (i.e. the regime) stance but also has some expatriate directors.

The draft decree follows a year of "sulu censors" keeping tabs on newsrooms after the 1997 Constitution was abrogated by the regime at Easter in 2009, the judiciary sacked and emergency regulations imposed.

Responses to the proposed law have been mixed within Fiji, but international press freedom groups and other media have strongly condemned it. Paris-based Reporters Without Borders criticised the regime for tightening its grip on media, noting that Fiji had fallen 73 places in its annual freedom rankings. Fiji is now placed 152nd out of 175 countries.

The International Press Institute said the Fiji media had struggled with "censorship and draconian media regulations". Freedom House is about to release a new annual global media report in which Fiji takes a sharp tumble.

Most Fiji journalists are reluctant to speak out publicly with their jobs potentially on the line. But some have contributed postings to some of the 72 post-coup blogs about Fiji or shared insights with their Pacific colleagues on cyberspace networks.

Other Pacific journalists see the draft law as a dangerous precedent for the region, one that could be emulated by unscrupulous politicians in other countries as a strategy to control the media.

Dr David Robie is director of the AUT University Pacific Media Centre and a former head of journalism at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji. His media blog is Café Pacific: www.cafepacific.blogspot.com

Pacific Media Centre - www.pmc.aut.ac.nz

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