Editorial: Bainimarama's attempt to further oppress media worrisome

Last updated 05:00 10/04/2010

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OPINION: The freedom of the media clearly remains a totally alien and undesirable concept for Fiji's self-appointed leader, Commodore Frank Bainimarama.

The military strongman's government this week released its proposed Media Industry Development Decree. This would end the present practice of having military censors inside the newsrooms of the Fijian media to decide what can be published. Replacing this would be a chilling and punitive set of rules aimed at intimidating journalists into submission.

The decree, to be enforced by a media authority appointed by the regime, would provide for fines of NZ$344,000 for news organisations that failed to comply with it.

Individual journalists whose work was deemed to be critical of Bainimarama's regime would face fines of up to NZ$69,000, which would be crippling in Fiji, and a possible five-year prison term. To ensure the authorities knew who had written a story, it would also be an offence not to identify the journalist concerned.

And, in a clear attack on the Fiji Times, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp and has previously been critical of military regimes, foreign ownership of media outlets would be limited to 10 per cent.

The regime claims its decree is intended to encourage responsible journalism, but nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, it aims to ensure the news media cannot perform its democratic role of holding Bainimarama's unsavoury government to account and promoting free and frank debate on issues of public interest.

It is true the decree is only a draft and it could be changed as a result of consultation with media groups, but significant amendments to the draconian policy should not be expected.

The regime has an invidious track record of clamping down on the news media. Aside from the present newsroom military censors, it has previously expelled foreign journalists and newspaper publishers deemed to have given a false impression of post-coup Fiji.

And the quality of the consultation may be questioned as the Fiji Times and Fiji Television, which has also been critical of the regime, were initially barred from the talks and were brought in only at the last minute.

For New Zealand, where the freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democracy, Bainimarama's renewed attack on the media will be another niggle in its relationship with Fiji.

After the expulsion for spurious reasons of three successive top diplomats in Suva since the 2006 coup, there were hopes earlier this year that relations with Fiji had turned a corner.

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Talks between Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully and his Fijian counterpart led to an agreement to increase diplomat numbers in each other's nation. But, in a deliberate act of provocation, Bainimarama's government proposed that a coup leader, who would normally be banned from New Zealand, become a counsellor in Fiji's high commission.

This action and now the media oppression must reinforce the need for New Zealand to have a no-nonsense approach to Fiji. This must include examining the inconsistencies in the ban on Fijian sporting teams.

New Zealand, under International Rugby Board (IRB) rules, cannot prevent Fiji competing in the Wellington Rugby Sevens tournament or next year's Rugby World Cup. But the Commonwealth Games Federation can and has banned Fiji from participating in this year's games in India, due to Bainimarama's failure to announce an early election date.

The Fijian leader's recalcitrance must raise the issue of whether nations such as New Zealand and Australia should be pressing for the IRB to follow the Commonwealth's lead and suspend Fiji.

This might simply reinforce Bainimarama's obduracy, but it would be a blow to his regime's prestige if its Sevens team was barred from the world stage. And it would reinforce New Zealand's depth of feeling about the unacceptable breaches of democracy and human rights in Fiji.

- The Press

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