In a piece last year titled Just The Good News, Thanks Sean Dorney reported on the new censorship regime being imposed on Fiji’s journalists. At the time, the country’s military government called that a "temporary" measure, but now local journalists have finally got a look at the new rules the Government wants to replace them with.
A draft of what the regime calls its Media Industry Development Decree was published this month by Commodore Frank Bainimarama’s government. The draft is not good news for press freedom, being squarely aimed at controlling media ownership and management.
The draft limits foreign ownership of any media organisation to just 10 per cent, and stipulates that any director of a media organisation must be a Fijian citizen who has resided in the country for five of the past seven years, and for nine of the past 12 months. Such a rule is very far from the relaxing of the censorship promised by the Bainimarama Government.
The new rules very clearly affect the country’s oldest and most influential daily, the Fiji Times, which is wholly foreign-owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited. As David Robie, longtime Fiji resident and director of the Pacific Media Centre told newmatilda.com, "There has been a hate relationship with the Fiji Times ever since the coup in December 2006. The newspaper is the only one in the country with the resources and editorial strength and depth to challenge the regime."
According to the Times‘ own story on the decree, Fiji’s Attorney-General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum is rather sanguine about the consequences of this, and sees "selling shares" as the paper’s only option.
For its part, News Limited’s spokesman, Greg Baxter has said that the company has "made a representation to the Fijian authority to find a way to resolve the issues" and is "awaiting the outcome of those representations". The decree "raised some important commercial issues for the Fiji Times that need very careful consideration," he said.
There is significant support in Fiji for the leadership’s moves on the media. "The argument runs: why should the country have such a powerful media organisation being foreign-owned and not supporting the country?" explains David Robie. The Fiji Times‘ editorial and management staff "have their backs to the wall," he says. "I don’t really think the regime wants to close the Fiji Times — it just wants the Times to ‘mend its ways’."
The terms of the decree will also hit the country’s two other dailies — the struggling Fiji Daily Post, which is 51 per cent Australian-owned, and the Fiji Sun, which has adopted a more "pro-regime" line than the Times but also has some expatriate directors.
Would the regime then decide to buy shares in those newspapers — most particularly, in the Fiji Times? "It may be a bottom-line approach," says Robie, "if the Fiji Times doesn’t change. But this would be disastrous for the country (and the regime) as military governments cannot run newspapers." Indeed, a previous (elected) Fijian government took control of the ailing Fiji Daily Post. It was a failure and the government finally sold its 51 per cent share-holding — to Australian publishing interests.
For the time being, there is no specific timeframe for the implementation of the new decree. The Government is still working on it after a consultation was conducted behind closed doors in Suva for three days in mid-March — a consultation that included officials from Fijian media as well as representatives from the Citizens’ Constitutional Forum Limited (CCF), Fiji Media Watch, the South Pacific Commission and other interested parties.
Most of them are now urging the provisional government to reconsider the draft, and expressing concerns about a lack of independence of the new structures that the draft decree establishes: the Media Industry Development Authority and the Media Tribunal. They are also asking for reduced penalties: as it stands, organisations that breach the decree are liable for a fine of up to $279,000, and journalists face prison sentences of up to five years.
Last but not least, they warn that the vagueness of the terms used in the draft — which bans media from publishing or broadcasting material that is "against the public interest or order, is against national interest, offends good taste or decency, or creates communal discord" — leaves the document open to a very broad interpretation.
Following the flurry of criticism over the decree’s text, some observers have nevertheless warned against strong public opposition to the project. "Media have in the past contributed the environment for uncertainty, instability, ethnic hatred and tension through some of their style of reporting [so]it’s important that the media decree should be discussed fully by all the parties," Fijian political sociologist Steven Ratuva told newmatilda.com.
A leader of the expatriate Fijian community in Auckland, Sunia Raitava, told Pacific Media Watch that although he did not share many of the Government’s aims, at least some of their actions were genuinely motivated by a determination to fix some of Fiji’s problems (pdf). "There are still coup makers lurking in the background, waiting to cause trouble," he says. Raitava also voices another sentiment that Fijians sometimes express in response to lectures from foreigners about what is happening in their country: "I am Fijian; only Fijians really understand what is happening."
As well, according to the former Fiji Daily Post publisher Thakur Ranjit Singh, Western media need to remember that government control of the press was not invented by Bainimarama’s regime. Indeed, Singh himself and a colleague were ousted from their positions by the previous elected government of Laisenia Qarase. As he writes in a speech to be delivered today in Brisbane to mark World Press Freedom Day, between his own ousting and Bainimarama’s 2006 takeover, "no Indo-Fijian [was]allowed to take charge of any news media in Fiji."
According to Singh, the best strategy to promote media freedom in Fiji does not appear to be direct confrontation: "Shooting pellets and stink-bombs of academic and first world media rhetoric at Bainimarama would be ineffective, as he appears to have developed a thick skin, impervious to international grandstanding." Robie seems to agree with this analysis, reminding us that the regime has just validated a decree giving Bainimarama "immunity from prosecution over his coups", and deplores what he sees as the "mess" that Australia and New Zealand have made of their attempts to put pressure on Fiji in the past: "It has mostly backfired and forced Bainimarama into taking a far harder line."
At the moment, neither of Fiji’s two powerful neighbours seem ready to stand up for media freedom in Fiji. The New Zealand Foreign Minister, Murray McCully, said there has not been a lot of good news out of Fiji since its suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum a year ago, and hopes new talks can be scheduled with Commodore Bainimarama. And we can reasonably doubt that the whole issue is a priority for Australia — Canberra still hasn’t replaced the former parliamentary secretary for the Pacific, Duncan Kerr, who resigned late last year.
Meanwhile, the military has promised it will hold elections four years from now. Until those elections are held — assuming they are — the country and its journalists appear more than ever at the mercy of the Bainimarama regime.