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April 19, 2010 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

But what about an independent media?

Salient Editor Sarah Robson looks at the most recent decree proposed by Fiji’s military government to further curb the freedom of the Fijian media.

The military regime in Fiji has recently released a draft media decree, which could see journalists and publishers in the turmoil-stricken country punished for criticising the government.

The proposed decree, conspicuously titled the ‘Media Industry Development Decree’, could see Fijian journalists faced with an NZ$73,000 fine, or up to five years in jail, if their reports are critical of the military government. Publishers could also be fined if their reports do not carry a byline.

The decree also seeks to limit foreign ownership of media organisations.

The decree is just another step being taken by the military government to censor the media and control what is being said locally about the disputed regime. The Fijian news media have been dealing with strict censorship for over a year now, and this decree, once formally declared, will replace the current censorship arrangements.

How did Fiji get to this point?

Fiji’s recent history is turbulent, with several coups and constitutional crises dominating the political landscape over the last twenty years. Commodore Frank Bainimarama’s 2006 military coup led to a constitutional crisis last year, and has resulted in strict restrictions being placed on the news media.

Former Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, with the support of the Great Council of Chiefs and the Methodist Church, applied for a legal ruling on the coup. The coup and the interim government established in its wake was ruled invalid by Fiji’s Court of Appeal.

A day after the ruling was handed down, President Ratu Josefa Iloilo sacked the judiciary, overturned the 1997 constitution, declared himself the head of state and reappointed Bainimarama as Prime Minister. Bainimarama reappointed all his cabinet ministers to their previous posts.

Implications for the media

Restrictions were placed on the news media in the immediate aftermath of the constitutional crisis. Censors were posted in news rooms across Fiji, to ensure that only “positive” news about the military regime went to print. Criticism of the government and its actions was not tolerated.

The restrictions led to the arrests of several local journalists, as well as the explusion of a number of foreign correspondents.

In May last year, Associated Press reported that government spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Neumi Leweni said that if given a choice, he would leave the censorship and controls on news media in place for “the next five years”.

Leweni said the government had seen “good” results since the controls were put in force. He claimed the Fijian media had an “irresponsible” bent, and focused on negative news about the regime.

Reporters Without Borders say that a number of editions of the Fiji Times have appeared with blank spaces, accompanied by the words “the stories on this page could not be published because of government restrictions”. It seems that the media is not going to take any restrictions on its freedom lying down.

Enter April 2010 and the ’Media Industry Development Decree’

The announcement of the proposed media decree has provoked alarm among advocates of press freedom. Reporters Without Borders commented that “Nowhere is press freedom mentioned in this proposed decree, which appears to be designed to enable the military government to tighten its grip on the media—control of media ownership, control of content and control of the dissemination of news within the country.”

Fijian Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum said the decree “will establish a media code of standards in ethics and practice while emphasising fair and responsible reporting”.

“The media must be accountable to the people of Fiji in terms of contributing to the development of Fiji.”

The Dominion Post reported that the draft decree would “make it an offence for any media to include material ‘against the public interest or order, which is against national interest, offends against good taste or decency [and] creates communal discord’.”

Tim Pankhurst, Newspaper Publishers’ Association Chief Executive and New Zealand Media Freedom Committee Secretary told The Dominion Post that “soldiers overseeing the media is a characteristic of a dictatorship”.

Pankhurst sees the moves as an extension of the restrictions put in place last year.

“It is disturbing that the regime is now moving to cement in place emergency regulations imposed a year ago that have seen censors installed in newsrooms.”

The decree would also impose new regulations on ownership of media organisations. It states that in every media organisation “all the directors … be citizens of Fiji permanently residing in Fiji”.

Furthermore, the decree says that “at least 90 per cent of the beneficial ownership of any shares … must be owned by citizens of Fiji…”

Presently, Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited wholly owns Fiji’s biggest and oldest daily newspaper, the Fiji Times.

The decree may force Murdoch’s company out of Fiji.

The decree says that any person who does not meet these requirements “must resign or divest themselves of any directorship or ownership within three months from the commencement of this decree”.

Fiji’s military leader Bainimarama himself says that his government “cannot and will not allow vested interests to take over the national interest”.

The prospects for media freedom in Fiji—under the present military regime—do not look good. It is now up to media outlets in the rest of the Pacific to maintain pressure on the Fijian government.


About the Author ()

Editor for 2010, politics nerd, panda fan and three-time award-winning student journalist.

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