Archive: Rabuka stirs bitter media freedom row


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Former Fiji military strongman Major-General Sitiveni Rabuka is now deputy Prime Minister in the civilian interim government. As leader of the 1987 coups d’état, Rabuka closed newspapers and jailed journalists. Now an invitation for him to address a media convention in New Zealand has stirred a bitter controversy. Accusing the conference organisers of “abysmal judgment”, one newspaper contrasted their attitude towards Rabuka with the fate of the recent coup plotters in the Soviet Union who now face charges of treason.  

By David Robie in The Word

An invitation to Fiji coup leader Major-General Sitiveni Rabuka to be keynote speaker at a media convention in New Zealand next month [October, 1991] has plunged South Pacific newspapers and journalists into a bitter row over ethics and press freedoms.

Rabuka, who deposed the elected government of the late Prime Minister Dr Timoci Bavadra at gunpoint in 1987 and abrogated Fiji’s constitution, recently quit the military and was appointed to the interim government as co-deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Home Affairs.

The Pacific Islands News Association — a regional organisation of media publishers, editors and broadcasters — invited the general to speak at its annual conference in Auckland on October 7-11.

Although the previous Labour government twice blocked attempts by Rabuka to visit New Zealand, the present National government has signalled warmer relations between New Zealand and Fiji. It declared there would be no opposition to a formal visa application by the general.

Foreign Minister Don McKinnon said that if Rabuka visited New Zealand he would be offered “the courtesies normally extended to a deputy prime minister”. New Zealand officials now regard the coup leader as a civilian politician. Fiji is due early next year to have a general election under a new republican constitution which is condemned by opponents as “racist and unjust”.

Pro-democracy expatriates living in New Zealand, and the anti-apartheid group Hart, are among movements that have protested against the planned visit. They threaten to mount demonstrations against Rabuka.

Several newspapers and journalists’ organisations have also harshly criticised the invitation. The Dominion published a scathing editorial, accusing PINA of “abysmal judgment” and “ignorance” and a New Zealand Herald report questioned what it called a possible “ulterior motive”.

Journalists jailed, harassed
The NZ Journalists and Graphic Press Union (Jagpro) said it was ironic that PINA had invited Rabuka when he represented a regime that had jailed, intimidated and harassed journalists in Fiji and arbitrarily restricted the entry of foreign journalists — including New Zealanders.

Fiji Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka
Fiji Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka in 2023 . . . Now a champion of free media and free speech. Image: Fijivillage

National secretary Tony Wilton said New Zealand journalists were effectively barred from Fiji and last year the independent radio news service Pacnews had been expelled from the country. Pacnews now operates from Honiara, Solomon Islands.

Wilton noted that “PINA is neither a New Zealand news organisation, as has been reported, nor is it affiliated with the International Federation of Journalists”.

Frank Senge, a leading Papua New Guinea journalist and president of the Pacific Journalists’ Association — representing working journalists throughout the region — said thed the invitation showed “remarkable naivety”. He added that it would inevitably give credibility to the coup leader.

The PJA, founded two years ago, is supported by the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), which represents 150,000 journalists internationally, and its affiliates, Jagpro and the Australian Journalists’ Association.

Suva-based PINA defended its move, saying it was “ludicrous” to infer that it was in any way expressing approval of Rabuka’s role in the 1987 coups. Newspapers in Fiji also rallied to the defence of PINA. The Daily Post said that if Rabuka formally accepted the invitation, “it will be a coup in itself for PINA. It will also demonstrate his courage in standing up [for] what he believes in.”

Among PINA’s fiounders is former Fiji Times publisher Sir Leonard Usher, who was for many years a publicist for the establishment Alliance Party. Many members of the Alliance government defeated in the April 1987 general election — including present interim Prime Minister Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara — regained power throughout Rabuka’s coups.

House arrest
After Rabuka seized power on 14 May 1987, troops were ordered into the offices of Fiji’s two daily newspapers and their journalists were put under house arrest. Foreign journalists were harassed and detained their hotel rooms raided, tapes and notes seized. Radio broadcasts were censored.

The papers were shut again after the second coup four months later. One of the papers, the Hong Kong and New Zealand-owned  Fiji Sun, refused to publish again under censorship and closed. Since then Fiji journalists have faced being jailed without charge, threatened with government licensing of newspapers, and harassed by a zealous Minister of Information, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola.

Reports by the Pacific Journalists’ Association, Amnesty International and other organisations have cited examples of the harassment and intimidation. PINA has also played a role in defending press freedoms and in recent times the harassment has been less marked.

On one occasion, in 1988, the now retired editor of The Fiji Times, Vijendra Kumar, was arrested by soldiers and detained over a typographical error which upset Rabuka. A reporter of the paper was also jailed without charge.

Last month [August 1991], charges of “malicious fabrication” against the publisher of the Daily Post, Taniela Bolea and two staff journalists, were dropped. The journalists had been charged last October [1990] for publishing a news report about plans by students to burn copies of the republican constitution following the kidnapping and torture of Suva academic Dr Anirudh Singh by Fijian soldiers.

In July, a leading Tongan journalist, Matangi Tonga editor Pesi Fonua, was briefly detained in Fiji while travelling to Tonga from Vanuatu. This followed the two-day detention of an Australian Broadcasting Corporation television crew invited by the Fiji Rugby Union to broadcast an international match between the touring England team and Fiji.

The Dominion which has often published outspoken editorials condemning the regime in Fiji was the target of a $1 million libel lawsuit following an article harshly critical of Rabuka written by Wellington businessman Sir Robert Jones. In its recent editorial, the paper mocked a PINA spokesperson for defending the Rabuka invitation by saying that the association had a tradition of asking “outstanding” Pacific leaders to address it.

Government frogmarched
“Rabuka is outstanding first and foremost in being the first Pacific Islander to have overthrown a democratically elected government,” the paper said. “Perhaps PINA believes it is time to acknowledge the achievement of the man who led his guntoting, gasmasked soldiers into Fiji’s Parliament in May 1987 and frogmarched the the lawful government off into custody.”

“Likeminded spirits tried something similar in Moscow last month [August 1991] and all around the world the consensus was that it was the people who opposed them who were outstanding. The perpetrators face charges of treason. Rabuka is lucky, not outstanding.”

The Dominion said that perhaps PINA thought it was time to recognise Rabuka’s “brilliant” military career. In the first coup he sidelined two superior officers and then promoted himself from lieutenant-colonel to colonel. Then he rose to brigadier-general, a year later to major-general.”

The paper noted that Rabuka did not discriminate between the rights of Parliament and those of the Fourth Estate — “he savaged both”. It said it was not clear which of the outstanding achievements commended Rabuka most to PINA, but the organisation’s “abysmal judgment is”.

PINA’s president, Patteson Mae, replied in a statement that Rabuka had been invited because he “obviously is a controversial person whose actions had a profound lasting impact on modern Pacific Island affairs. Only blinkered people could fail to see that.”

The statement also attacked the New Zealand media, saying Rabuka’s attendance would give many New Zealand journalists an opportunity of interviewing him — an opportunity denied to them by restrictions placed by the Fiji government on the admission of foreign journalists, but also by the long and unfortunate marked reluctance of New Zealand media proprietors (with the praiseworthy exception of Television New Zealand and Radio New Zealand) to spend the money it would cost to enable their journalists to develop any serious consistent first-hand cover of Pacific Island affairs.

“Basically, it needs a hurricane or a coup of a free trip to draw the New Zealand journalists to the islands; a pathetic commentary on the media of the country that claims to know the Pacific Islands best.”

NZ media ‘ignorance’
Turning its attack to Jagpro, the statement said the union’s comments were “more evidence of the general Pacific Islands ignorance of a large part of the New Zealand media. Jagpro could easily correct that deficiency by joining or supporting PINA, as some other NZ media organisations have done, notably the Community Newspapers’ Association and the Commonwealth Press Union’s NZ section.”

Fiji Times acting editor Mosese Velia said PINA’s stand was based on the “classic Voltaire defence of freedom of speech . . . I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” He added in an editorial that the unfortunate thing about the condemnation was that it came from “so-called democratic forces — people you’d think would be the first to man the barricades against the enemies of free speech”.

A letter in the next day’s Times from Islands Business Pacific publisher Robert Keith-Reid and editor Peter Lomas praised the paper for its “excellent editorial”, adding,”you probably put it even better than [PINA] did”. Keith-Reid and Lomas also launched into a bitter personal attack on Times news editor Yashwant Gaunder, who is also secretary of the Pacific Journalists’ Association.

Accusing Gaunder of bias and lack of balance in a frontpage story about the controversy, the PINA pair said he should have declared his link with the PJA. “The so-called PJA purports to represent the ‘working’ journalists of the region and has given PINA executives the strong impression that it regards PINA people as opposition and not colleagues. Gaunder . . . has expressed less than complimentary views of PINA and some PINA members.”

The letter added:”We are so far compelled to regard the so-called PJA as being the naive and wistful product of outmoded Australian and New Zealand leftwing thinking.” An editor’s footnote rejected the bias allegations by Keith-Reid and Lomas. But the paper did not point out the undeclared vested interest of the two writers — Lomas has held executive office in PINA and is believed to have “ghosted” the statement replying to NZ media criticisms; both men are key PINA publicists.

Ironically, the following week, on September 13, a meeting of Fiji journalists unanimously approved the formation of the Fiji Journalists’ Association. Representatives from the Daily Post, Radio FM96, Radio Fiji, Fiji Times, Pacific Islands Monthly and freelance writers and photograhers attended the meeting — but nobody from Islands Business magazine. Th inaugural national executive was given a mandate to affiliate to the PJA and IFJ. Said secretary Asaeli Lave, who attended the recent Port Vila conference if the PJA: “We aim to look after the interests of working journalists in Fiji.”

Disagree with editorials
Many Fiji journalists disagree with the editorial view of both Suva newspapers defending the Rabuka invitation — the letters were written by indigenous Fijian editors, one of them widely regarded as an apologist for the regime.

Richard Naidu, a former senior Fiji Times journalist and winner of Fiji’s inaugural journalist of the year award in 1984, believes the controversy should never have arisen. He also says the Fiji papers have missed the point of New Zealand critics and PINA has reacted “defensively and unprofessionally” to the criticism.

“The issue is not about freedom of speech; the major-general appears able to exercise free speech in Fiji and could certainly do so in New Zealand. The issue is why New Zealand journalists should be content to see the major-general on their home turf when the major-general’s government is not content to see them in Fiji,” he said.

“There is one other basic matter here, which professional journalists have regard to in the debate between working journalists in New Zealand and a bosses’ organisation like PINA. In the dark days of 1987, when Fiji journalists were unable to to publish, their New Zealand colleagues, for all their flaws and faults, continued to do what every journalist is charged to do — that is, they got the story out.”

This article was first published in The Word, the official publication of the New Zealand Journalists and Graphic Process Union, September 1991, pp. 2 & 3. The Jagpro conference passed a resolution condemning the invitation to Major-General Sitiveni Rabuka to speak in New Zealand, and declared on the front page of paper: “Rabuka isn’t welcome here, says Jagpro”.

David Robie
David Robie
Dr David Robie was previously founding director and professor of journalism at AUT’s Pacific Media Centre (PMC). He worked with postgraduate student journalists to edit Pacific Media Watch - a daily digital archive of dispatches about Pacific journalism and media, ethics and professionalism. The PMC also jointly published the high profile independent Pacific Scoop news website with industry partner, Scoop Media, and Asia Pacific Report, which David now edits independently in partnership with Evening Report: David is also the founding editor of Pacific Journalism Review (PJR).
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