Saturday, May 15, 2010

Ben Bohane's retrospective on Pacific war reporting

BEN BOHANE is travelling from Vanuatu to Brisbane tomorrow for an exhibition launch of his photo collective with a retrospective of his best war reportage over the years. He is without peer in South Pacific photojournalism, but his remarkable career actually began with a five-year stint in South-East Asia covering warfare in Afghanistan, Burma, Cambodia.

According to his profile on Degree South:
[Bohane] got the first interview with opium warlord General Khun Sa in 1991 and in 1992 he was reportedly the first foreign traveller to go overland from Kabul to Moscow in 80 years.

In 1994, Ben returned to Australia and began covering the much under-reported Pacific region.

He has spent the past 12 years specialising in “Conflict and Kastom” throughout Melanesia and black Australia. While covering every major conflict in the South Pacific – Bougainville, East Timor, Fiji, New Caledonia, West Papua, Papua New Guinea, Maluku, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and West Papua - he traveled and lived with a variety of tribal and rebel groups and was thereby able to secure the first pictures of BRA (Bougainville Revolutionary Army) leader Francis Ona in Bougainville and the only interview and pictures of Guadalcanal warlord Harold Keke before he surrendered to Australian troops.

He has perhaps the largest contemporary photo archive of the South Pacific in the world. His photographs are collected by the New York Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art and the Australian War Memorial.
Pacific Journalism Review published a photoessay by Ben Bohane in September 2006 (v12 n2) to mark his "Black Islands: Spirit and war in Melanesia" exhibition in Sydney's Australian Centre for Photography. His work has also appeared in Geo, Time, Newsweek, The Guardian, Rolling Stone and other publications. He also regularly makes documentaries for the ABC and SBS in Australia and other networks.

Bohane has just returned from an assignment for SBS Dateline reporting on the controversial huge Exxon LNG project in the Southern Highlands. Militant landowners claim this will turn into "another Bougainville", where a 10-year civil war was fought over the massive environmental and social destruction wrought by the Panguna copper mine.

Photo: Ben Bohane



Friday, May 14, 2010

Audio flashback to Rabuka's first Fiji coup

AN EXCERPT from a documentary about the original Fiji coup led by Lieutenant-Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka on 14 May 1987. It was made by University of the South Pacific journalism students a decade later. In 1997, Patrick Craddock, a former Radio New Zealand producer, was
working at USP in Suva with François Turmel, a former
BBC journalist who established the the Fiji-based regional journalism training programme with French support. As part of an exercise in documentary making, the students collected audio interviews with people who had
experienced the 1987 coup in Suva.

Interviewees included Sam Thompson, news editor of FM96 radio who broke the story about the coup; a radio journalist at Radio Fiji; Dr Tupeni Baba, a politician in the Fiji Labour Party-led coalition government of Dr Timoci Bavadra; the police chief appointed by Rabuka, students, staff of USP and people attending an NGO workshop.

At the time, none of the participants wanted to be identified by name with this documentary and no names were included in the production details. The documentary was seen as an exercise for USP journalism students and was never broadcast. Most audio interviews were done on location. The programme is now a small part of the history of the period.

Producer: Patrick Craddock, USP Media Centre.

Picture: Sitiveni Rabuka on 14 May 1987. Photo: Fiji Times

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Fiji coups: 'Out of the barrel of a gun'

Flashback to the original Sitiveni Rabuka coup – 14 May 1987:

“OUR chiefs,” said Taniela Veitata, now an Opposition MP, “are really the guardians of the peace in Fiji.” A day after he and his Taukei colleagues had been plotting the next stage in the plan to depose Prime Minister Timoci Bavadra, Veitata was laying down the law in Parliament about racism.

“Peace is quite distinct, Mr Speaker, from the political philosophy of Mao Zedong where he said that political power comes out of the barrel of a gun. In Fiji, there is no gun. But our chiefs are there; we respect them …”

Seven minutes later, at the stroke of ten o’clock, ten soldiers wearing gasmasks burst into the chamber.

“Sit down everybody, sit down,” barked the squad leader, a captain disguised by a balaclava and brandishing a 9mm pistol. “This is a takeover. Ladies and gentlemen, this is a military takeover. We apologise for any inconvenience caused. You are requested to stay cool, stay down and listen to what we are going to tell you.”

Lieutenant-Colonel Sitiveni Ligamamada Rabuka, dressed in a suit and a sulu stood up in the public gallery. He strode towards the Speaker – his uncle, Militoni Leweniqila.

“Please stay calm, ladies and gentlemen,” Rabuka said. “Mr Prime Minister, please lead your team down the right,” the colonel said. “Policemen, keep the passage clear. Stay down, remain calm. Mr Prime Minister, sir, will you lead your team now.”

Outside in the corridor, Ratu Finau Mara, son of the former Prime Minister [Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara], stood making sure the passage was clear. A back-up team of about 12 soldiers in full combat gear and armed with M16 assault rifles waited there. Moments earlier, Finau Mara had been making room in the passage for the soldiers to enter Parliament.

Shocked, Bavadra, his cabinet ministers and MPs were led outside at gunpoint to two waiting military trucks and ordered to get in.

Education Minister Dr Tupeni Baba, noticing uncertainty on the face of a soldier near him, made a gesture of resistance. “We’re not going on the trucks,” he said.

Dou raici koyo, sa lako yani oqori,” snapped the captain. “Watch out for that one heading your way.”

Rabuka grabbed a loaded M16 from a nearby soldier and cocked it at Baba’s head. Baba, the most outspoken of any of the indigenous Fijian ministers, moved but still protested defiantly.

[Excerpt from David Robie’s Blood on their Banner: Nationalist Struggles in the South Pacific (Zed Books, London, 1989), pp. 218-219.]

Flashback to the George Speight attempted coup – 19 May 2000

At precisely 10.50am, [Deputy Prime Minister Dr Tupeni Baba] was stopped in mid-sentence as three men, two holding guns and one walking calmly towards the Speaker's chair, entered among screams.

That is when our complaints about being stuck in Parliament just about stopped - guns? We looked at each other, realised our good fortune and started counting the gunmen.

[Speaker Dr Apenisa] Kurisaqila was demanding to know: "What is this? What is this?'

In a more composed manner with his books in hand, Dr Kurisaqila said: "This is an illegal takeover!'

Within seconds all seven doors were shut by gunmen and [a group of Fiji Institute of Technology students in the public gallery] were told to leave.

In the press gallery, we were told to stop recording things, stop writing and just remain seated; the door to our room was locked from outside.

In the meantime, George Speight was telling Dr Kurisaqila to sit down. He turned to Opposition members and told them to leave the chambers. All left except Opposition Leader Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, Sam Speight (George's father), Jim Ah Koy and Ofa Duncan.

Speight's repeated request for the lot to leave was backed with a gunshot at this point; Dr Kurisaqila and these Opposition members refused to budge…

[Excerpt from Matelita Ragogo's article "The day of the parliamentary gunmen". She was one of three journalists reporting in the parliamentary press gallery on the morning when Speight’s gunmen walked in. From the University of the South Pacific journalism students’ coup archive.]

And Fiji, 14 May 2010… what of the so-called "coup culture" set in motion by Rabuka? The man who led the country's first two coups last month publicly apologised for his actions and has been on a personal journey of seeking forgiveness from its victims. He told the Fiji Sun:
“On this personal journey I am trying to go to all the victims of 1987 to apologise for what I did,” he said. He began in 1997 with Queen Elizabeth II when he was then Prime Minister. After carrying out the coup, Rabuka severed
ties with the British monarchy and declared Fiji a Republic.

“I also tried to return my OBE (Order of the British Empire) medal but Queen Elizabeth told me to keep it because I earned it before I carried out my 1987 actions,” he said.


Rabuka has also apologised to the family of Dr Bavadra; Defence Minister Ratu Epeli Ganilau, son of the former Governor-General and the Fiji's first President Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau; and to former junior officers.

But in the end, too little too late. Rabuka unleashed a damaging culture that has devastated Fiji for more than two decades, crippling the economy and political and social institutions. A legacy of ruin.

Pictures: Top: A Rabuka coup soldier in 1987. Photo: Matthew McKee (from Robie's Blood on their Banner). Above: A Speight gunman in 2000. Photo: Joe Yaya/USP coup archive).

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The unapproved Fiji military dictionary (Part 2)

COUP: A Fiji custom first started in 1987 where the celebrants promise a better future. It is held about every five years

Example: The banker said to the coup leader please take this F$200 million and say nothing about it, as the bank does not want it back.

Weapons of Mass Destruction: Guns paid for by the taxpayers of Australia and New Zealand and given to the coup leaders who say prayers and promise to protect babies, old people and the poor.

Example: We say prayers so that they will leave us alone to enjoy our poverty and ill-health in our own hovels.

China: A generous donor who is yet to show us their weapon of mass destruction.

Example: We are communists, and one day you will share all your wealth with us.

Fiji Sevens:
Formerly the personal property of Waisale Serevi; a game that provides supporters temporary amnesia when they contemplate Fiji’s future.

Example: I used my weekly pay to go to the match and Traps Bar afterwards. I then went home and beat my wife. I was angry because she asked for money when she knew I had already spent it.

Newspaper publisher: One who is damned to live somewhere else after publishing the news (see Dante’s Inferno for more examples).

Example: He was sent back to Australia although he wanted to live in Suva.

People’s Charter: The eleven pillars or commandments given to Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama with the help of the Catholic Church.

Example: Moses broke the tablets given to him by God ... The modern way is to shoot holes through them and win the heart and minds of the population.
Attorney-General: A person who has the ability to wear all the colours of the rainbow and use all the letters of the alphabet in any one day and smile and smile and smile.

Example: I do not talk out of the side of my mouth, because that would be too obvious to anyone who was looking and listening to me. My totem is a tsunami, and I invite all my critics to come to the beach and see it when it arrives.

Contributed by Patrick Craddock. Cartoon: Malcolm Evans and Pacific Journalism Review.

Fiji military dictionary (Part 1)

Friday, May 7, 2010

PNG ombudsman the toast of media freedom

By David Robie in Brisbane

Five months ago, he was the target of would-be assassins. Now he is the magnet for politicians wanting to rein in the powers of his state corruption watchdog.

But Chronox Manek is one of the most popular public figures in Papua New Guinea and thousands of ordinary citizens flocked to a peaceful protest this week against a controversial draft law aimed at curbing his powers.

And he charmed his way to the hearts of freedom of speech and free media advocates gathered in Brisbane for the annual two-day UNESCO World Press Freedom Day conference marking May 3.

Manek, Papua New Guinea’s Ombudsman, is the scourge of the coalition government led by founding “father” Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare – and a problem for Opposition politicians as well.

However, many journalists and public activists see him as a courageous and determined campaigner against corruption by public figures.

More than 7500 citizens took part in Tuesday’s Port Moresby protest against legal amendments – the so-called Maladina Bill, named after the sponsoring MP Moses Maladina – they claim will undermine the Ombudsman Commission.

Corruption epidemic
After marching on Parliament House in Waigani, the demonstrators delivered a petition of 20,000 signatures demanding a halt to the legislation curbing the commission’s powers.
The petition follows several weeks of public protest and condemnation over what critics describe as serious erosion of governance in this country where corruption is an epidemic.

Maladina’s Parliamentary Committee into the Ombudsman Commission tabled amendments impacting on both the commission and the so-called Leadership Code governing conduct by politicians and top civil servants.

One of the critical changes block the commission’s current powers to freeze public funds suspected of being used for corrupt or improper purposes.

The bill also imposes a four-year time limit on investigations, effectively blocking the ability of the commission to probe historical corruption cases.

Another provision means that politicians and civil service heads that breach the Leadership Code will no longer be able to be tried in criminal courts.

The bill has passed two readings with unanimous parliamentary support in spite of the public criticism. However, although the last vote was 83 to nil in favour of the draft law, the Opposition now says that it had been misinformed over the provisions and is now opposed.

Prime Minister Somare, Treasurer Patrick Pruaitch and several prominent government figures are currently being investigated by the Ombudsman Commission.

'Speading misinformation'
Somare has accused the Ombudsman Commission of “spreading misinformation” about the bill, but the final reading has been delayed until July.

Transparency International recently ranked PNG as the 151st most corrupt out of 182 nations.

In Brisbane, Manek spoke in two freedom of information panels in the conference hosted by the University of Queensland.

While saying the free expression and free press provisions in Article 19 of the Universal Human Rights Declaration were enshrined in the country’s constitution and that the courts enforced these rights, he added there was a major problem.

“This is about the availability of records – it is very low priority for government business,” Manek said.

“It is all very well being entitled to the information, but in many cases the government is unable to supply it because of the poor state of official records.”

At the time of independence in 1975 and for several years later, the importance of records and information management had been in good health.

'Fell off the rails'
“But somewhere along the way it fell off the rails,” Manek said.

He said it was the duty of the government to provide basic information to its citizens and to build trust.

The role of the media was important too.

“The government uses the National Broadcasting Corporation with talkback and radio and television to get policies across to the public. That’s a good start,” he said.

“But with media freedom goes great responsibility for the news media.
“Freedom of the press is not a privilege, but a responsibility.”

The media could do more to get information before the public and “we need more investigative journalism”.

He challenged the upholders of the nation’s information policy to recruit “honest” people to rebuild the open culture.

Last December, Manek was left for dead after several gunmen opened fire on him outside his home, gangland style.

They blocked his car as he waited for his driveway gate to open and fired through the windscreen of his Nissan Patrol.

He was hit in the shoulder but he told The National newspaper after the attack that a point-blank shot aimed at his chest glanced off the vehicle door.

Photo of Chronox Manek by David Robie

Thursday, May 6, 2010

An open letter to the commodore

Bula Frank,

I AM sure you prefer being called by your first name, rather than being than being called coup leader. I know you see yourself as a saviour – but may I say that you seem to be a slow saviour. You move … snail slow towards democracy, vinaka. From 2006 to 2014 is tomorrow and then Election Day – a special day, which I hope will be long, prosperous and full of fair play to the people.

Your media decree is a genuine way to boost the economy. Over the next four years you will be able to make a considerable amount of money from media organisations by collecting F$100,000 from journalists when they refuse to disclose their sources about their news story with the person who said in a mild manner… that your policies
Encourage people to think carefully and restrain themselves from voicing their negative views of the army.
To pay your fines, senior journalists will be able to mortgage their homes, take their children away from school, postpone paying the doctor, ignore their donations to the church and cut back on the food budget.

But… Frank… I see you have been thoughtful of the needs of journalists and left a loophole. Non-payment of the $100,000 fine will allow any journalist to go to jail and be clothed and fed at state expense. Good thinking.

I am sure your self-appointed judges will ensure married journalists with children will get a priority to go to jail before young single reporters. Perhaps, you can lock up the junior journalists at the army barracks. Your men know to do that.

The numerous $500,000 cheques collected from the media organisations will mount up and you will soon have enough money to legally buy The Fiji Times. With a little bit of luck (or military strategy) by 2014 you will own all the media in Fiji except perhaps the internet.

Internet story
It will be sad for you to miss out on owning the internet. It is among your harshest critics and I know that sometimes the information is wrong and often offensive. But, then how else do the people of Fiji, and the rest of the world finds out about Fiji in all its black, white, grey and khaki colours?

A short story for you about the internet. During 2000 when George Speight had his coup, the big Fiji media of radio, TV and the newspapers were uncertain about how to deal with him. The limited information they could glean was crucial for the public to hear and crucial too for the outside world. Getting information out to the rest of the world was difficult.

At the time I was working at the Media Centre of the University of the South Pacific. We managed to record news reports from radio and TV. That information along with on-the-spot reporting by student journalists was forwarded several times a day through the internet to media organisations in New Zealand, Australia, the US and Britain. This process continued for many days even after the overseas journalists arrived. Some of those students now hold key media positions in Fiji.

I no longer teach journalism to students in Suva, but if I was, I would still be helping them understand, learn and practise the Fiji Code of Ethics. It’s a sound code. I would want them to be fearless and to ask questions on the many facets of the problems and needs of society.

Young journalism students could ask… why do you need so many years in power to develop a new Constitution?

I would encourage them to think on questions about how you are dealing with the growing number of poor people in Fiji. Various blogsites tell me the poor are now half the population. Why are there more poor people now than in 2006 – you and your soldiers have been in charge of the country for a long time?

I would get students thinking too, on why we need so many military men in key administrative posts. Hopefully, they are all working towards putting themselves out of work and replacing their jobs posts with civilians. Are they?

About elections
Student journalists may ask you questions on democratic practice? In New Zealand, there are elections every three years. When the voters dislike the government, they tell it to go … and the government goes. Helen Clark went, John Key will go too.

Citizens in Britain are in the middle of a cliffhanger election to decide who they will want to lead the country for the next few years. The citizens’ decision this week does not bode well for the present government, but then democracy is difficult.

I hope you agree with me? If not, what will happen after 2014 when a decision by a civilian elected government angers you or perhaps a junior officer who has modelled himself on your behaviour?

To close off the tutorial and leave students thinking, it would be useful for them to reflect on this recent statement on democracy.
Pacific Beat Story from Radio Australia March 2, 2010
Fiji's military backed regime has announced that any politician, who has played a role in the country's politics, since 1987, will be banned from contesting the promised elections in 2014. The announcement has been made by interim Prime Minister Commodore Frank Bainimarama ...
A reply would be appreciated. Please post it on your favorite blog site

Vinaka
Patrick Craddock
Aotearoa

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Fiji censorship by 'legal camouflage'



ON World Press Freedom Day's eve in Brisbane, the Australian journalists union - Media, Arts and Entertainment Alliance (MEAA) - threw a party for Aussie hacks and the UNESCO flacks attending the two-day conference at the University of Queensland. A "South Pacific soirée" to be exact. Guest speaker Sean Dorney had to compete with a cacophony of riverside fireworks to be heard. The latest "press freedom" edition of the Walkley Magazine was launched there too. Along with a 13-page report card on the state of media freedom in Australia, the following article on Fiji was also published:

No colonel of truth in Fiji

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 and five years in prison for reports against the national interest. It's a dangerous precedent for the entire Pacific region, says David Robie. Cartoon by Peter Nicholson.

When an Indo-Fijian academic and former trade unionist turned up on Fiji’s shores from Hawaii by invitation to conduct a media industry “review” in June 2007, few took him seriously. Whatever Dr James 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.

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.”

Anthony immediately clashed with local news media companies and the self-regulatory 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 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.

Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum claimed 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”.

Decree 'teeth'
The “teeth” includes rolling 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 who have been residing 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 and owned by a Murdoch subsidiary, 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 for 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 (it hasn't been publishing lately), which has 51 per cent Australian ownership, and the Fiji Sun, which has taken a distinctly “pro-Fiji” (that is, pro-regime) stance but also has some expatriate directors.

John Hartigan, chief executive of the Fiji Times' parent company News Limited, warned 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.

Mixed responses
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 last year and martial law declared.

Responses to the proposed law have been mixed within Fiji, but other media groups have strongly condemned it. Paris-based 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 152nd 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.

Most Fiji journalists were reluctant to speak out publicly with their jobs potentially on the line. But many contributed postings to some of the 72 post-coup blogs about Fiji or shared insights with their Pacific colleagues on cyberspace networks.

Dangerous precedent
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. 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 decree, 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 in AUT University’s School of Communication Studies, director of the Pacific Media Centre in New Zealand and editor of Pacific Scoop. He was formerly head of journalism at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji. His media blog is Café Pacific.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Fiji regime stands firm over draft media decree

By Shailendra Singh in Suva

Fiji’s draft media decree continues to be criticised from within and outside the country, but the government is showing no signs of backing down or softening any of its provisions.

Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum has described international coverage of the draft decree as unbalanced and bordering on the hysterical. He told Radio Fiji recently: "(Again), I would suggest very strongly that most of these sorts of comments are not objective but
actually political in nature."

"I would also attribute some of this hysteria to some local media organisations that are probably whipping up this frenzy and trying to portray an image of Fiji that is far from the truth," he added.

Breach of content regulation or disclosure provisions of the proposed law could lead to a maximum fine of $F500,000 (about US$258,000 ) for the media company concerned, and a maximum fine of F$100,000 (about US$52,000) or a maximum jail term of five years, or both, for publishers, editors and reporters.

Critics of the government say that it has no one to blame but itself for any negative perceptions about Fiji or the draft decree.

After all, it was only last year that then President Ratu Josefa Iloilo abrogated the country’s charter, formed an interim government that is to remain in power until 2014, and then reappointed as prime minister Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama, who has ruled Fiji since staging a coup in 2006.

Freedom of expression and of the press have also been under heavy strain under the Public Emergency Regulations (PER) that, said the Suva-based Citizens’ Constitutional Forum, would only be replaced in name by the proposed Media Industry Development Decree 2010.

Censorship continues
According to the forum’s executive director, Rev Akuila Yabaki, the draft decree only "allows strict media censorship to continue in Fiji".

"PER and censorship must be lifted so that citizens of Fiji can enjoy the right to receive and impart information and diverse opinions," Yabaki said.

The Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), for its part, said that the draft decree invests all power of interpretation over the meaning of fair, balanced and quality
journalism to officers and authorities appointed by the Bainimarama regime.

"This decree is clearly focused on the regime retaining control and entrenching its highly oppressive restrictions, not only on the media but (also) on members of the public who might wish to express dissenting views," the IFJ said in a statement.

At the same time, IFJ general secretary Aidan White said it "strictly limits the ability of Fiji’s media to regain its role as a critical watchdog on the accountability of power-holders, and must be substantially rewritten or withdrawn".

Among other things, the draft decree calls for the formation of a Media Development Authority whose powers would include compelling media outfits to disclose the documentation they performed for their stories. The body would also be exempt from legal proceedings unless it can be shown that it acted in bad faith or without care.

Offences outlined in the decree meanwhile include publishing or broadcasting material that is against public interest or order, offends good taste or decency, or creates communal discord.

Wide-ranging powers
The draft decree’s miscellaneous provisions also hand the minister concerned wide-ranging powers to stop broadcast or publication in an emergency. Precisely what constitutes an "emergency," however, is not defined.

The same minister gets to appoint, as well as dismiss, the director of the Media Development Authority.

According to Prime Minister Bainimarama, the proposed decree will set a better relationship with the media.

But the draft law was already clouded in controversy even before it was tabled on April 7, withmedia organisations and interested parties complaining that they were not given enough time to scrutinise the 49-page document.

Those who registered for the consultations were asked to collect copies of the draft at 8 a.m. or 90 minutes before the consultations began at the Holiday Inn Hotel in Suva.

They were also not allowed to make copies of the document, which they all had to return afterward.

The international media monitor Reporters Without Borders, however, apparently read enough to issue a statement on April 8 that said the draft decree is an "authoritarian imposition by a regime with no democratic legitimacy".

Grip tightened
"Nowhere is press freedom mentioned in this proposed decree, which appears to be designed to enable the military government to tighten its grip on the media – control of media ownership, control of content, and control of the dissemination of news within the country," the organisation said.

The draft decree is reportedly modeled after Singapore’s media laws – which has not exactly provided any comfort to the local and international media.

In the 2009 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, Singapore was ranked 133rd out of 175 countries.

Then again, it still bested Fiji, which fell 73 places from its position the previous year and landed on the 152nd spot in the index.

It remains to be seen whether the draft decree would improve or worsen that ranking.

What looks certain, however, is the draft becoming law. Although Attorney-General Khaiyum has not given any timeframe or date for its promulgation, he has said that it would be implemented in due course.

Shailendra Singh is head of journalism at the University of the South Pacific. This article was originally published with the Inter Press Service. Cartoon: Malcolm Evans, Pacific Journalism Review.

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