No colonel of truth in Fiji


Share post:

For a year, journalists in Fiji have had to live with censors posted in the newsroom. Now a new media decree threatens huge fines and five years in prison for reports “against the national interest”. It is a dangerous precedent for the entire Pacific region, says David Robie. Cartoon by Peter Nicholson

By David Robie

When an Indo-Fijian academic and former trade unionist turned up on Fiji’s shores from Hawai’i in June 2007, invited to conduct a media industry “review’, few took him seriously. Whatever Dr Jim Anthony’s expertise in other fields, news media was certainly not one of his strengths.

Also, it had been decades since he had lived in Fiji and he seemed out of touch.

Two Australian publishers of The Fiji Times have been deported
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. Cartoon: Peter Nicholson/The Walkley Magazine

And then there was a niggling question about the legitimacy of his mission. He had been commissioned by then Fiji Human Rights Commission director Dr Shaista Shameem — no friend of Fiji news organisations — to study media freedom and the future of the industry in the Pacific country.

“Negative reactions of the media industry to human rights scrutiny in the public interest are not unique to Fiji,” Shameem said. “Other human rights commissions have faced similar obstacles — such as the South African Human Rights Commission.”

Dr Anthony immediately  clashed with local news media companies and the self-regulating Fiji Media Council and they refused to cooperate with him. He persevered in an atmosphere of hostility and produced a 161-page report branded by his opponents as “racist” — for a sweeping claim that the industry was dominated by eight white expatriates — and “riddled with inaccuracy”.

Ironically titled Freedom and Independence of the Media in Fiji, the report was discredited and appeared to have sunk into oblivion. Yet now Dr Anthony has come back into focus. His recommendations were adopted as the basis of a draconian draft decree widely regarded as a sinister threat to the future of a free press in Fiji and across the South Pacific.

Fiji’s Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum claims the Media Industry Development Decree 2010 “takes the already established rules of professionalism, of media behaviour — or how they should behave — and gives it teeth”.

Singapore-inspired “teeth”
The “teeth” include rolling Dr Anthony’s primary proposals for a Singapore-inspired Media Development Authority and an “independent” Media Tribunal into this proposed law along with a radical curb on foreign ownership, wide powers of search and seizure and harsh penalties for media groups and journalists breaching the decree.

The authority and tribunal would be empowered to fine news organisations up to F$500,000 and to fine individual journalists and editors up to F$100,000 — or imprison them for up to five years — for violations of vaguely defined codes such as publishing or broadcasting content that is “against public order”, “against national interest” or “creates communal discord”.

Foreign ownership is retrospectively restricted to a 10 percent stake in any media organisation and directorships must only go to Fiji citizens resident in the country for five of the past seven years, and nine of the past 12 months.

Many critics see this as a vindictive section aimed at crippling The Fiji Times, the country’s largest and most influential newspaper, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited. The regime wants to put the newspaper, founded at Levuka in 1869, out of business, or at least effectively seize control and muzzle its independent stance — seen by the military-backed government as “anti-Fiji”.

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  or publishing an online letter criticising the court 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 percent Australian ownership, and the Fiji Sun, which has take a distinctly “pro-Fiji” (that is, pro-regime) stance but also has some directors.

John Hartigan, chief executive of The Fiji Times’ parent company News Limited, warned that the decree raised “important commercial issues” for the newspaper. “We have made representations to the Fiji authority to find a way to resolve these issues and are awaiting the outcome,” he said.

Year of ‘sulu-censors’
The draft decree follows 12 months of “sulu censors” — so-called because of the traditional Fijian kilt-like garment some officials wear — keeping tabs on newsrooms after the 1997 Constitution was abrogated by the regime in April 2009 and martial law declared.

Responses to the proposed law have been mixed within Fiji, but other media groups have strongly condemned it. 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 152 out of 175 countries.

The Pacific Media Centre branded the draft decree as “draconian and punitive” and the Pacific Freedom Forum said it would “deal a death-blow to freedoms of speech”. The International Federation of Journalists criticised the regime for investing authorities with the power to define the meaning of “fair, balanced and quality” journalism.

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.

Already the Suva-based Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) and its regional news cooperative Pacnews are facing a dilemma — to stay and risk being compromised, or to leave but have less lobbying influence on the regime. PINA vice-president John Woods, editor of the Cook Islands News, has called on the organisation to relocate out of Fiji, describing PINA as “dysfunctional” and “kowtowing” to the regime.

One Suva old hand, who had been a star reporter at the time of the first two coups in 1987, admitted there were some good aspects to the decee, such as encouraging training and enforcing the codes of ethics: “But it simply continues the censorship — although now in a camouflaged form.”

Dr David Robie is an associate professor at Auckland University of Technology, director of the Pacific Media Centre and editor of Pacific Scoop. He was formerly head of journalism at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji. This article was published first in The Walkley Magazine, No 61, May-June, 2010.

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).
- advertisement -

Related articles

20 people wounded in Indonesian police crackdown on Papua protest

Asia Pacific Report At least 20 people were wounded when police used batons, water cannon and tear gas to...

Open letter criticises ‘colonial’ French agency, media over Kanaky sexual violence allegations

Pacific Media Watch A controversial report by a French metropolitan not-for-profit about sexual and sexist violence in France’s overseas...

Rainbow Warrior sails Pacific seeking evidence for World Court climate case

By Sera Sefeti in Suva International environmental campaign group Greenpeace’s flagship Rainbow Warrior is currently sailing across the Pacific,...

West Papuan solidarity group condemns arrest of 21 activists protesting 1962 ‘tragedy’

Asia Pacific Report An Australian West Papuan solidarity group has condemned the reported arrest of 21 activists protesting in...