A Stagnant Coup


Matai Akauola isn’t the kind of guy to display emotion in public. Like most Fijian men, even when injured on the Rugby field, he usually presents a genial, even-tempered calm. As a leading Fijian journalist the News and Sports Director at the Fiji Broadcasting Corporation no less he’s been there, done that, when it comes to Fiji’s periodic, self-inflicted traumas.

Yet during a morning session on threats to media freedom in the Pacific at the 2007 Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Convention in the Solomon Islands in late May, he was hunched over the table in tears as he related how his family was deeply divided by the continuing governance crisis in Fiji. One of his sons is in the Fiji military, so when he comes home for Sunday lunch after church, the rest of the family have to be very careful with their table conversations. Matai Akauola also told how he could no longer even trust his own staff, as the Fiji Military has its spies and snouts scattered through every newsroom.

The News Director of Fiji TV, Netani Rika, also an extremely experienced Fijian journalist, looked at his colleague in sincere sympathy, and then proceeded to tell a harrowing tale of being summoned to the Fiji Military camp in the northern Suva suburb of Nabua in April where he was severely admonished for a story Fiji TV had run about an alleged Military-caused death on Fiji’s main northern island of Vanua Levu, one of at least three such deaths since last December’s coup. Like Matai Akauola, Netani Rika is a tough, experienced operator who’s usually afraid of nobody. He was expecting to be carried out of the camp on a stretcher after a beating, and felt lucky he was only verbally scared shitless by a senior officer, well known to him, who was prominently wearing a hand gun.

Commodore Frank Bainimarama

Recalling how the Fiji media heroically faced down soldiers sent to occupy their newsrooms on the night of the coup, I later asked Netani why the media hadn’t followed through with industry solidarity when journos like him were being seriously harassed, but rather had reverted to their usually extremely competitive ways. Surely they can’t be ignorant of the many tactics that can be deployed against coups? (I was one of several who scattered the Albert Einstein Institution’s Anti-Coup Handbook around NGO and media contacts in Suva just before and after the coup.) ‘Pigs might fly,’ was Netani’s weary, somewhat exasperated, reply.

At least Matai and Netani were able to travel to Honiara to speak to PINA delegates. The former boss of Fiji Broadcasting, Francis Herman, a widely respected senior media executive, discovered he was on a travel ban list and is now subject to investigation for alleged corruption only when he was about to travel to an academic conference in Melbourne in early July where he was a scheduled keynote speaker. His former boss has spoken forcefully in Herman’s defence. In reply, the corruption investigators are taking their own good time to interrogate him, while he languishes in Suva, unable to take up an AusAID-funded extended media consultancy in Vanuatu.

The Fiji media has reported that corruption allegations against Herman had been made by a disgruntled former Radio Fiji employee. My suspicion is that Herman’s travel ban is no more than payback for Radio Fiji’s reporting on the interim military regime’s so-called ‘clean up campaign’, which has yet to expose and charge a single person for the serious, allegedly endemic, corruption that was one of the main justifications for the coup.

Public critics of the military regime, such as Fiji human rights leader, Shamima Ali, and former Law Society President, Graham Leung, have also recently been prevented from boarding their overseas flights as they lined up at the departure gates at Nadi airport. Clearly, given both were later cleared to travel, stopping them at the immigration counter was simply vindictive harassment. Other critics remain grounded in Fiji, their administrative or legal appeals being ignored or proceeding like a drawn-out kava ceremony.

Matai and Netani’s separate but related stories, to which Francis Herman’s tale can be added, are vivid insights into how badly the Bainimarama coup has come unglued and seriously stagnated. These insights can be replicated across Fijian society, as was in vigorous public display at last weekend’s Fiji Law Society annual conference, where some delegates exchanged loud, and bitterly personal,
condemnations over each other’s respect or lack of respect for the rule of law.

Through the shouting came the measured excoriation of the military regime by former Vice-President, respected senior lawyer and former jurist (as well as Commodore Bainimarama’s High Chief), Ratu Joni Mandraiwiwi. Ratu Joni criticised the regime’s arbitrary sackings and appointments, including the recent appointment of Human Rights Commission head, Dr Shaista Shameem   lawyer and early coup apologist to the post of Ombudsman.

Ratu Joni wasn’t prevented from travelling to Canberra recently to speak at the launch of the excellent book of papers From Election to Coup in Fiji, which was edited by Jon Fraenkel and Stewart Firth. But a few months ago the military government banned two Suva law firms, including Howards for which Ratu Joni’s a consultant from any government legal work.

Deep divisions between pro- and anti-coup groupings are adding to the general uncertainty that pervades the country, particularly its capital. Recent protracted water cuts in the Suva area, and looming restrictions due to drought, just contribute to the unease. Add probable electricity cuts because the dams that feed the hydro-electricity plant in the mountains north west of Suva are emptying, and the situation just gets worse.

Irritation is giving way to looming strike action by Fiji’s large public service. Denied a mandated pay rise earlier this year, and with the economy stagnant and with no sign of a reprieve, nurses are now striking and teachers and and bureaucrats are likely to. The military has been publicly rehearsing riot control tactics, seeking to intimidate intending strikers. Earlier this week, Australia raised its travel advisory warning on Fiji a notch, a move which will also affect the already lower tourism numbers.

The so-called ‘smart sanctions’ and travel bans by Australia and New Zealand on anybody involved with the interim government are noticeably slowing the regime’s expressed desire to return Fiji to democracy as soon as practicable. Major European Union assistance is dependent on the regime demonstrably progressing towards a return to democratic rule
. New Zealand is still smarting over the expulsion of its High Commissioner from Fiji, and Prime Minister Helen Clark is promising to ignore Bainimarama if he attends the 2007 Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Nuku’alofa, Tonga, in October.

Legal cases being brought by the ousted Prime Minister, Laisenia Qarase (who is still in exile on his home island), some sacked senior bureaucrats and coup opponents, will start to see the inside of a court in August. It remains to be seen how Fiji’s apparently compromised legal system handles these matters. Last weekend’s Law Society conference also discussed the standing aside of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Daniel Fatiaki, and what this means for the rule of law in Fiji.

While some observers myself included thoughtfully and extremely reluctantly gave cautious support to the military coup in Fiji, hoping it would be a swift and decisive intervention to wrench the country towards better governance, with an equally swift return to democracy after necessary administrative and electoral reforms, Fiji’s situation is slowly sliding into a messy, grumbling swamp, with no clear indications that it will be drained any time soon. Ratu Joni’s remarks at ANU in early July amply summed up the dashed hopes of ordinary Fijians:

The legal gymnastics one is obliged to perform, all the while chanting the Constitution is intact like a mantra, would test a contortionist. The dilemma is that the legal apologists and their collaborators in the military wished to depart from the Constitution without breaching it. We are still continuing on this Alice in Wonderland journey.

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