Monday, April 13, 2009

Fiji regime crackdown on media but calm prevails

By Shailendra Singh in Suva: Pacific Media Centre

Fiji remains calm days after its President has abrogated the constitution, promulgated emergency regulations, and reinstated the 2006 coup leader, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, as the interim Prime Minister.

Bainimarama’s administration immediately began rule by decree, including a crackdown on the media.

The extraordinary developments followed Thursday’s Appeal Court ruling in the capital declaring that the appointment by President Ratu Josefa Iloilo of Bainimarama and his interim government after the 2000 coup was unlawful.

The challenge was filed by ousted elected Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase against an earlier High Court ruling that upheld the President’s appointment of the interim government.

Hours after the ruling, Bainimarama, in a national address, said he was returning to barracks to comply with the judgment and to await the President’s next move, leaving the nation without a government.

The following day, the President abrogated the constitution, promulgated emergency regulations, dismissed the judiciary and appointed himself as head of state under a new “legal order”.

On Saturday, he predictably reappointed Bainimarama as interim Prime Minister, drawing widespread international condemnation.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully described the move as a serious backward step that would “merely compound the problems faced by ordinary Fijians”.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said Bainimarama’s actions had virtually turned Fiji into a military dictatorship, with the suspension of press freedoms and other actions that would undermine prosperity for the ordinary people of Fiji.

Bainimarama, characteristically, thumbed his nose at the international reaction. In his national address on Saturday, he made it clear that elections would be held in 2014 - after the completion of electoral reforms to ensure equality.

He added that the abrogation of the constitution marked a new beginning for Fiji. “We must rid ourselves of our past prejudices, our past negative influences; we must be focused on building a better Fiji,” he said.

Political tensions
Touted as a Pacific Islands tourism paradise, Fiji has suffered four coups in the past 20 years due to political tensions between indigenous Fijians and ethnic Indo-Fijians.

Indigenous Fijians make up 56.8 percent of the 837,000 population, while Indo-Fijians, descendents of cane farm labourers brought to Fiji from India under British colonial rule, make up 37.5 percent.

In 1987, a third-ranked army colonel, Sitiveni Rabuka, staged two military coups in Fiji to prevent what he claimed was an Indian-dominated government from consolidating power.

The third coup in 2000 was staged by failed businessman George Speight, also in the name of indigenous rights.

In 1986, Indo-Fijians made up 51 percent of Fiji’s population but heavy migration since the coups and lower birthrates since the 1960s have seen their numbers steadily decline.

Bainimarama dubbed his coup a “clean up campaign” against what he described as a racist and corrupt government under Qarase.

The international community, led by Australia and New Zealand, rejected this. With the allegations of corruption against Qarase unproven, they upped the pressure on the military strongman after he backed down on a pledge to hold elections in March this year.

Last week’s developments were a surprise turn of events for the two regional powers. Australia and New Zealand were working on the hope that constant pressure, and threats of exclusion from the Commonwealth and the regional political and economic grouping - the Pacific Islands Forum - would eventually cause Bainimarama to capitulate.

Strategy backfired
The strategy seems to have backfired, and Bainimarama has now not only consolidated his hold on power, but also placed further restrictions on freedoms under emergency laws.

All the mainstream news media newsrooms have had plainclothes policemen and information officials vetting the news since Saturday to stop the publication of any material that is “inciteful”.

On Sunday, the nation’s leading daily, The Fiji Times left blank spaces to mark the spots where stories would have been placed and Fiji Television did not run its normal 6pm news bulletins due to the restrictions.

Three foreign journalists - Australia's Pacific correspondent for the ABC, Sean Dorney, and New Zealand TV3's Sia Aston and Matt Smith - have been ordered out of the country.

In the face of all this, Bainimarama indicated that he was willing to work with neighbouring partners, and would contact them in due course with “a plea” for their cooperation, even while stating unequivocally that his government would stay in power until 2014.

This places Australia and New Zealand in a bit of a quandary. Having taken a tough and uncompromising position previously, they would not want to be seen as being cooperative and accommodating at a time when the regime had become even more audacious.

To many, it would seem as if Australia and New Zealand, instead of Bainimarama, had capitulated, and that Bainimarama had taken on, and won over the two regional power brokers.

Some critics have described Australia and New Zealand’s stance towards Fiji as intransigent and unhelpful.

At the Pacific Island Forum leaders meeting in January, Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare said he was against moves by Australia to push for Fiji’s suspension from the group as punishment for Bainimarama’s backing down on a pledge to hold elections.

"I am of the strong view that adopting an isolationist approach would not be helpful,” Somare had written in a speech released to the 15 ministers while their meeting was in progress.

Moving ahead
The Fiji Sun daily newspaper, in an editorial on Saturday, had predicted the obvious - the return of the interim government - and said it looked set to rule until 2014: “Like it or not, this is the way it’s going to be. It’s time to start moving ahead.”

The paper called on Australia and New Zealand to rethink their attitudes, travel sanctions and advisories. “They have had minimal impact on those calling the shots here,” it said.

While New Zealand has ruled out trade sanctions against Fiji in consideration of the needs of the general population, Australia has so far refused to rule out more punitive measures.

Fiji’s situation, even before the latest developments, was dire. The Reserve Bank in its latest report had predicted that a 2.4 percent growth forecast for 2009 would not be achieved- the economy has been shaken by the effects of massive floods in January and lower tourism forecasts due to the global recession.

The sugar industry, once the mainstay of the Fiji economy, is also in deep trouble. If the European Union refuses to release the F$350 million allocation for the rehabilitation of the industry, it will mean only further trouble for the people of this poor nation stuck in coup cycle they have no control over.

Shailendra Singh is divisional head of journalism at the University of the South Pacific and a research associate of the Pacific Media Centre at AUT University.

Cafe Pacific
Croz Walsh's Fiji
Pacific Media Watch

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