Is there press freedom in Fiji?

by Savea Sano Malifa in Vienna*

During the International Press Institute (IPI) World Press Freedom Award convention in Vienna on 11-14 September, the writer was asked to submit a brief summary what he thought was happening to press freedom in Fiji.

This is that summary.

Today in Fiji press freedom no longer exists. It is effectively being silenced by military leader and interim prime minister, Frank Bainimarama. It started on 28 June 2010 when Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyu formally announced the Fiji government’s Media Decree had become law.

The new law dictates, in part, that “the content of any media service must not include material which is against public interest or order, against national interest, offends good taste or decency, or creates communal discord.”
It also requires that every article published in a newspaper must have a byline. The law warns that journalists convicted of breaching the decree are liable to a fine not in excess of $F500,000, and their editors and publishers are liable to fines not in excess of $F100,000, or imprisonment for five years, or both.

In addition, the law limits the foreign ownership of media companies in Fiji to no more than 10 per cent, and allows majority shareholding to be held by either Fijian citizens or permanent residents. It also gives three months for foreign-owned companies to comply or cease to operate.

As a result, the Fiji Times, the country’s oldest newspaper owned by News Ltd of Australia, is understood to be looking for a buyer. It is not clear what the country’s second biggest newspaper, the Fiji Post, also owned by an Australia who holds 51%, is planning to do.

But the media law is part of the government’s multi-racial, multi-cultural reform programme apparently aimed at streamlining the distribution of wealth in the country.

Although the programme is designed to help indigenous Fijians improve their earning power, it fails miserably to bridge the widening gap already existing between them and their now much wealthier counterparts, who are mainly immigrants.

In fact this gap has been a worrying one. It is seen as the major cause of the series of political coups that have been plaguing society – especially the indigenous part of it – since the mid- eighties.

And now Frank Bainimarama comes along, thinks he can solve the problem by chasing away foreign business owners, give opportunities to local people so that they can help enrich themselves, and he’s finding himself running smack into more tenacious problems than he had envisioned.

The point is that you just can’t solve problems of this nature with dictatorial decrees using military muscle. Which means the Fijian military strongman is obviously blinded by power he thinks he can. We say this because many have tried before him, and many have failed.

Now the idea that the Fiji Times is likely to close down is said to be causing much worry to the company’s employees numbering close to 300 – the majority of whom are indigenous Fijians – and their families.

Which is just the opposite of what Bainimarama has been trying to do; he is seen to have been putting the pressure on foreign investors so that they pack up and leave, and then allow the locals to take over.

However he has apparently misjudged those he has wanted to help. Because instead of showing any interest at all in Baniamarama’s plans, many of them are understood to have started looking at emigrating to either New Zealand or Australia in the hope of finding jobs and a better life there.

Meantime, Bainimarama’s unchallenged media law, which deprives the people of his country of their freedom of expression and right to know, has created another problem. It has caused frustration among members and supporters of the region’s biggest media body, the Pacific Islands Media Association (PINA), based in Fiji.

Since PINA has been keeping quiet about the Fiji government’s repulsive media law, its disappointed supporters and critics decided they could not remain silent any longer.

The first to speak up was the Vice President of PINA John Woods, who is also the managing editor of the Cook Islands News.

During an interview with Radio Australia, he was asked: “[It seems] the base of it is that you’re protesting against the Fiji media decree. Can I just ask you what in particular you are most upset about that this decree introduces?”
Mr. Woods answered: “Well, the obvious strictures of insisting that foreign investment be reduced to a tiny percentage, that journalists are subject to imprisonment and horrendous fines if they contravene the decree’s restrictions. These things are oppressive, barbaric, and in themselves are enough reason to pull PINA out of Fiji, which should have been done long ago, and for at least the organisation to speak up and challenge the military puppets who have invented this ridiculous, barbaric 19th century set of rules.”

That was on 1 July 2010. Mr. Woods then resigned as PINA Vice President in “disgust.” PINA’s president, incidentally, is a Fijian.

It was then that during online discussions a group of media owners including the writer, senior journalists and concerned media personnel, decided they no longer wanted to be part of PINA.

They agreed that PINA was no longer effective in what it had been entrusted to do – which was to promote and defend press freedom in the region, ensure the free flow of information was encouraged, so that the public was not deprived of its right to know.

They decided then it was time for a new media association in the South Pacific apart from PINA – and not in opposition to it – to be established.

On 10 August a meeting was held in Apia, capital of Samoa, attended by media representatives from Hawaii, Cooks Islands, Samoa, Tonga, Australia, with internet linkup to others in Fiji, Vanauatu and Papua New Guinea.

On 12 August they duly formed a new regional media association and named it Pasifika Media Association (PasiMA). In Samoa, Pasima means concrete fortress.

“It is where we intend to house press freedom so that we can promote, protect and defend it in there against dictatorial governments that are likely to emerge from around the South Pacific,” the group said.

This writer was elected Chairman of the Board, publisher Kalafi Moala of Tonga was elected Vice Chairman, and John Woods was elected Chairman/Treasurer. PasiMA has since been legally registered and is located in the premises of the Samoa Observer in Apia.

And just before we left for Vienna, we received word the American Embassy’s donation of $US10,000 for PasiMA’s website has been received.

And so to clear up any uncertainty, the writer repeats there is no press freedom in Fiji today. In comparison press freedom is respected by the governments of Samoa, Tonga, Cook Islands, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and other smaller ones in the region.

This writer also wants to say that Fiji’s problem cannot be solved by Bainimarama’s media law and his racial and cultural reforms. Those problems can only be solved with democracy in place, and freedom of the press respected.

And lastly, he wants to make it known that PasiMA will work hard to make sure press freedom is returned to the people of Fiji where it belongs. He says this knowing that tyrants come and go but press freedom and democracy are in the Pacific to stay.

*Savea is one of 60 journalists honoured worldwide by the International Press Institute (IPI) as its World Press Freedom Heroes to commemorate its 60th anniversary in Vienna and Bratislava, Austria.