Monday, April 20, 2009

Media freedom groups keep up pressure over Fiji censorship

By Violet Cho: Pacific Media Watch

International media freedom organisations and human rights advocacy groups continue to raise concerns over freedom of the press and civil rights in Fiji.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has appealed to the Fiji’s regime to repeal its gag on the media.

On Good Friday, President Ratu Josefa lloilo abrogated the 1997 constitution, sacked the judiciary, postponed elections until 2014 and reinstated coup leader Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama as prime minister.

He also declared martial law for 30 days in Fiji.

Since then, the regime has gagged Radio Australia broadcasting repeater stations in Fiji, imposed censorship, and intimidated, detained and deported journalists.

The IFJ also urged the regime to avoid international isolation.

It argued that harsh government suppression of both foreign and local media risked isolation from international communities and this would “greatly harm the people of Fiji”.

“There is no right to propaganda,” said Aidan White, general secretary of the IFJ.

'Warped view'
“Fiji’s military leaders have a warped view of the role of a healthy media if they believe that they are entitled to media reporting that put them in a good light, regardless of their actions.”

The International Press Institute also condemned the regime’s crackdown on media.

David Dadge, director of IPI, said the regime’s strong control would only accelerate the problem in the country and he called for an end to censorship and the intimidation of journalists.

In response to Bainimarama, who blamed media for the Fiji political turmoil in an interview with Radio New Zealand, Dadge argued that it was a “deplorable attempt to hide the truth at a time of political uncertainty”.

Instead, he said: “Contrary to what the regime says, the media can contribute to better understanding and can ease tension in divided societies.”

The Pacific Media Centre at New Zealand’s AUT University condemned the regime’s "ruthless censorship" and harassment of media organisations.

Associate professor David Robie, director of the PMC and a former head of the University of the South Pacific regional school of journalism in Fiji during the 2000 coup, criticised the government repression of media and dissidents.

Dr Robie praised Fiji journalists for a “creative and courageous” response to martial law.

'Burmese-style system'
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) appealed to Fiji’s president and coup leader to reverse the regulation against media institutions and the Paris-based organisation also compared Fiji military government with Burma’s military dictatorship.

“The military government is heading dangerously towards a Burmese-style system where the media are permanently subject to prior censorship and other forms of obstruction,” said RSF.
The Pacific Freedom Forum, an advocacy group of journalists, criticised the intimidation and detention of journalist.

"This bullying behaviour on the part of Fiji authorities will only serve to still further focus attention on that country's situation, because the story will still, eventually be told," PFF chair Susuve Laumaea, of Papua New Guinea, said.

Amnesty International said Fiji’s military government’s “draconian measures” had systematically caused deteriorating human rights in the country and civilians were feeling insecure living in the unstable country.

A Pacific researcher for Amnesty International based in London, Apolosi Bose, said after a fact-finding visit to Fiji: “What is developing is a culture of extreme fear and intimidation.”

He added: “The government’s emergency regulations, which include exoneration of police and soldiers from responsibility for actions, even when they cause injury or death, are having a major impact.”

In the statement, Amnesty International also said that the regime had threatened human rights defenders and government critics as well as detaining reporters.

Key actions
In key developments since the repeal of the constitution on April 10:

April 13: Three foreign journalists - Sean Dorney of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and Sia Aston and photographer Matt Smith from New Zealand’s TV3 - were expelled from Fiji.

April 13: Fiji Television reporter Edwin Nand was detained for about 36 hours over an interview he did with expelled Australian reporter Dorney.

April 15: The regime ordered ABC to shut down its two FM transmitters in the capital Suva and in the tourist town of Nadi. This move also affected Radio New Zealand International because it also relays programmes via the ABC transmitters.

April 16: The regime detained Pita Ligaiula, a reporter for Pacnews, a regional news agency owned by Pacific Islands News Association (PINA), over his stories filed to the international news wire Associated Press. He was released after being held for about 12 hours.

According to IPI, the regime has warned Fiji journalists not to speak to foreign media about the political crisis and some journalists have been taken into custody for questioning.

The regime announced in a change of policy it would accept “approved” foreign journalists into the country. It also asked local reporters to practise the “journalism of hope”.

Meanwhile, news media organisations in the country such as the Fiji Times, the Fiji Sun and Fiji Television have stopped publishing political stories after the regime warned the Sunday Times not to carry on publishing blank spaces or it would be closed down

Violet Cho is the Asian Journalism Fellow at the Pacific Media Centre.

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