By Josephine Latu, contributing editor of Pacific Media Watch
Fiji's military regime has faced fierce criticism from its regional neighbours and international free press advocacy groups over its draconian gag on news media.
Censors have been posted in local newsrooms, news media have boycotted political stories in protest over censorship, reporters have been detained and three foreign television workers were expelled today.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), Pacific Island News Association (PINA), Pacific Freedom Forum (PFF), Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) and the New Zealand-based Pacific Media Centre (PMC) have all made strong statements denouncing the regime for ordering the media to only run “pro-Fiji” stories.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully have also slammed the regime’s moves.
“Australia condemns unequivocally this action by the military rule of Fiji to turn this great country into virtually a military dictatorship,” said Rudd.
McCully discouraged New Zealanders from visiting the island nation.
The IFJ declared that “press freedom in Fiji is in tatters”, comparing the government’s recent actions to those of dictatorial regimes in Burma, North Korea and Zimbabwe.
Since Thursday, the nation has undergone a series of dramatic political steps after the Court of Appeal ruled that Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama's military takeover in December 2006 was illegal.
The next day, President Ratu Josefa Iloilo fired the judiciary, abolished the constitution, and then reinstated Bainimarama as prime minister on Saturday.
Fiji is widely expected to be suspended from the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) and the Commonwealth as a result.
However, the country’s military and political leader claims this is for Fiji’s own good.
“My message to our development partners and our neighbours is that we wish them to work with us to take Fiji forward,” he said during his swearing in to office at the weekend.
Since then, the media have been heavily censored under a 30-day "public emergency regulation" that has led to “information officers” - usually soldiers or policemen - being stationed in news offices around the nation to filter critical content.
Pacific correspondent Sean Dorney of Australia's ABC network and New Zealand TV3's reporter Sia Aston and cameraman Matt Smith were deported today and Fiji Television reporter Edwin Nand has been detained for two nights.
Police are understood to be trying to find out who authorised the supply of footage of an interview with Dorney about censorship to the ABC and New Zealand television.
Fiji Television, the Fiji Sun, and the Fiji Times have stopped running political stories in protest after the Sunday Times was condemned by the regime for running blank spaces instead of censored stories.
“It’s a tragic day for Fiji,” said Daryl Tarte, chairman of the Fiji Media Council. “It’s the final nail in the coffin for the media – if we don’t have a constitution, we don’t have a democracy.”
PINA president Joseph Ealedona said from Papua New Guinea his organisation would do its best to seek dialogue between the Fiji media and the interim government.
“The free and peace loving people of Fiji are being silenced by the barrel of the gun … The regime shows a serious move on the part of the interim government to bring back its people to the dark ages," he said.
The emergency regulation decree act states that any person or entity which fails to comply to media orders may be told to "cease operations".
PFF co-chair Monica Miller warned that this may soon put media employees out of jobs, pointing out how the tactics are “very clearly aimed at one sector of society only."
Her organisation will soon be launching an online petition to support Fiji journalists to be presented to relevant Pacific leaders during World Media Freedom Day on May 3.
Auckland-based PMC director Dr David Robie, who formerly headed the University of the South Pacific regional school of journalism in Fiji at the time of George Speight coup in 2000, called on the regime to end this "ruthless censorship and intimidation".
"A gagged and intimidated media will only lead to rumours, disinformation and more instability," he said.
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