Pita Ligaiula, a Fijian journalist with the regional newsagency PacNews, was escorted out of the PacNews newsroom in Suva on 15 April by two police officers and a senior Fiji Ministry of Information official, Viliame Tikotani. Tikotani is one of Fiji’s new cadre of censors.
They work for Lieutenant Colonel Neumi Leweni, Permanent Secretary for Information, Communication and Archives, who is, thanks to Fiji’s Public Emergency Regulations, effectively the country’s new chief censor.
Leweni was a Major until a week or so ago but he has been promoted since assuming control over everything that is broadcast or printed in Fiji’s mainstream media.
Pita Ligaiula was taken down to the Central Police Station in Suva for interrogation. His alleged "offence" was that he had sent stories to the international news agency, Associated Press, about what was happening in Fiji. He was released the next day without being charged but with a warning not to upset the military-led Government again.
He was the third local journalist to be hauled away by the police in the first week of Fiji’s "new legal order". Since then there have been half a dozen Fiji media people picked up, held overnight, warned and released.
The first journalist to be taken in was Edwin Nand who works for Fiji’s main television broadcaster, Fiji One. Edwin had interviewed me on 13 April shortly after I was told I was being deported under Section 16 of Fiji’s new Emergency Regulations. His interview with me was never broadcast locally but it was sent to New Zealand and on to Australia.
Nand was held for two nights at the Central Police Station and I did not find out about his predicament until my deportation flight arrived in Sydney on 14 April.
The censorship being imposed by Leweni upon the local media in Fiji is total. No criticism whatsoever is allowed of Commodore Bainimarama or anything he does or wants.
Under Section 16 (1) of the Emergency Regulations (titled "Control of Broadcast and Publications"), if the Permanent Secretary for Information "has reason to believe that any broadcast or publication may give rise to disorder … or promote disaffection or public alarm, or undermine the Government" then Leweni "may, by order, prohibit such broadcast or publication".
Under sub-section 2, any "broadcaster or publisher" must submit to Leweni "all material for broadcast or publication before broadcast or publication".
Anybody who refuses can have their media activities shut down.
There is not much point trying to mount a legal challenge to the way the Fiji Police Force, which is headed by another military officer, Commodore Esala Teleni, interprets Section 16 of the Emergency Regulations.
For one thing, at the time of writing there are still no judges in Fiji. They were all sacked when the Constitution was abolished on Good Friday, the day after a Court of Appeal declared Commodore Frank Bainimarama’s Interim Government illegal.
For another, Decree Number Nine issued under Fiji’s new legal order prohibits any court from having "the jurisdiction to accept, hear and determine any challenges whatsoever" to any decree made by the President.
That Ninth decree, "The Administration of Justice Decree 2009" goes even further under a section titled "Transition". "For the avoidance of doubt," it says, "any proceeding, of any form whatsoever" that was underway in any court in Fiji challenging almost anything done by the Government since Commodore Bainimara’s coup on 5 December 2006 "shall wholly terminate immediately upon the commencement of this Decree".
The Emergency Regulations were imposed initially for 30 days but they have already been rolled over once. Leweni is very pleased with the results of his censorship rule. "The people of Fiji are now experiencing a remarkable change from what used to be highly negative and sensationalised news to a more positive, balanced and responsible reporting by the media," he said in a statement in early May.
Here is an example of Fiji’s new "responsible" reporting. It reveals how an extremely damning statement by the European Union was transformed into what Leweni regards as a "positive" and "balanced" story.
The European Union’s Commissioner for Development Cooperation, Louis Michel, had "expressed deep regret and disappointment regarding recent regressive developments in Fiji". Among those developments he listed the abrogation of the constitution, the sacking of all the judges, the delay in general elections until 2014 and the curtailment of freedom of speech.
"These developments," Michel’s statement went on, "are unacceptable for the international community. Commitments must be respected. An early and inclusive domestic political process leading to a return to constitutional order and democracy in Fiji will allow us to provide assistance to Fiji, at a time when global economic prospects are becoming increasingly difficult."
However, after Leweni’s censors had finished with it, that statement appeared on the Fijilive news website as: "Fiji’s largest donor, the European Union, has again extended a helping hand. Louis Michel, the European Commissioner for Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Aid, today said the EU wants to assist Fiji ‘at a time when global economic prospects are becoming increasingly difficult’. The EU is looking to provide substantial financial support to rescue the sugar sector and help restore the economy."
The European Commissioner for Fisheries and Maritime Affairs, Joe Borg, who is visiting Australia was shocked at how Commissioner Michel’s statement had been relayed to the people of Fiji.
Borg reiterated in an interview with me that developments in Fiji were "completely unacceptable" to the European Union. "Actually," he said, "… virtually all financial assistance has been suspended."
The Fiji media is still trying to resist the censorship. Early on, the Fiji Times tried putting blank spots where censored stories would have gone, but the next day Leweni warned them he would close their business if that continued.
Netani Rika, the editor of the Fiji Times, told a media conference (titled "Courage Under Fire") in Samoa last week that the newspaper’s journalists were still reporting stories from all angles but much of what was written was being spiked by the censors. "Every story is covered in detail as if we were working in a truly democratic country without the current restrictions," he said. "Each day we challenge the censors by putting every possible news item before them. Sometimes we are lucky and the occasional story slips through the net. On those days we celebrate quietly."
Rika also said the latest crackdown was not surprising. Since the coup in December 2006, he said: "We have been threatened, bullied and intimidated. Our cars have been smashed, our homes firebombed." He said it would be easy "to roll over and practice self-censorship" but he paid tribute to his journalists whom he said had risen to the challenge. "They have bravely stood up to intimidation, rejected censorship and recognised that when a nation is controlled by usurpers it is imperative that the public’s right to know is protected at all costs."
Leweni remains deeply unhappy with this attitude. Asked on Fijilive on 13 May how long the censorship would continue he said: "It depends on the media outlets. If they’re willing to comply […] you’ll see an end to this. If they don’t, then I can tell you that this PER [Public Emergency Regulations] will be there for a long while."
"If I was given the choice," Leweni told Fijilive, "I’d leave it (the censorship regulations) there for the next five years."