As Fiji’s political crisis unfolds under intense international scrutiny, some critics say the media furore is overlooking some key issues.
Thakur Ranjit Singh, former publisher of the Fiji Daily Post, and Dr David Robie, director of AUT University’s Pacific Media Centre, have criticised “simplistic” media portrayals of the cultural and socio-political complexities in Fiji.
Speaking on Television New Zealand’s digital Media 7 programme last night, they claimed Australia and New Zealand could have done more to head off the current crisis – by interfering less and being more understanding of Fiji’s problems.
Singh, now a community advocate and chief reporter of the Auckland-based Indian Weekender, Dr Robie and TVNZ Pacific affairs correspondent Barbara Dreaver were hosted by Russell Brown in a panel discussing censorship in Fiji and the country’s political future.
Fiji – best known for its mineral water, sunny beaches, rugby and military peacekeepers – faces a deluge of international condemnation over the Easter putsch.
President Ratu Josefa Iloilo abrogated the 1997 Constitution, reinstated 2006 coup leader Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama as prime minister and sacked the judiciary following an Appeal Court judgment by three Australian judges that ruled the interim government illegal. A 30-day state of emergency was declared.
Waves of criticism have reached the United Nations, with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon saying he “deplores” the regime’s actions and calling for a reversal.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and NZ Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully have both condemned Bainimarama and his methods.
“There will be a significant number of New Zealanders who think that this is a regime that doesn’t deserve any indirect support in the way of their tourism dollars,” he told the New Zealand Herald.
But the Fairfax New Zealand website Stuff reported that responses sent to the NZ Newspaper Publishers Association special email address firstname.lastname@example.org showed support for the regime leader’s efforts to clean up corruption and the race-based politics of the previous "democratic" administration.
One Indo-Fijian writer, Anita Thomas, called for Australia and New Zealand to be more sincerely involved in developing solutions instead of pointing fingers from the sidelines.
New Zealand’s Fiji Club president, Alton Shameem, said the UN, Australia and New Zealand should stop “bullying” Fiji and give Bainimarama time to put a democratic system in place.
Ranjit Singh said on last night’s Media 7 panel: “I feel that in the Western media, especially New Zealand media, there has been too much emphasis on reporting what has gone wrong.”
He said more emphasis should be put into rebuilding for the future.
He said the Fiji people had experienced hardships before under the coup culture.
“There is no more shock treatment left for them… We have been in so many situations like that, and it is like this is just another cyclone rising and it will subside,” he said.
Race-based politics Fiji has undergone four coups in the past four decades, including the December 2006 bloodless overthrow that brought the current regime to power.
The coup, led by Bainimarama, had an agenda to clean up corruption and install a “one person, one vote” system to replace Fiji’s current “democracy” based on communal votes from racially gerrymandered electorates.
“Any democracy unable to guarantee equality and social justice for all its people is not worth defending,” said Singh.
The head of Grubstreet media Graham Davis, a Fiji-born journalist, says the Fiji story has taken on a simplistic "good guy, bad guy narrative", at least in Australian media.
"There's no one-man, one-vote in Fiji but a contorted, distorted electoral system along racial lines that was always designed, in practice, to ensure indigenous supremacy", he wrote in The Australian.
However, critics say the military’s approach has been quite arbitrary.
Freedom of speech and the press have been virtually crushed under the emergency regulations decree.
The decision to devalue the Fiji dollar by 20 percent on Wednesday means a hike in inflation, compounded by an order that civil servants over the age of 55 will be forced to retire in two weeks.
Australian and New Zealand leaders have threatened possible expulsion of Fiji from the Commonwealth as well as the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF).
Share blame According to PMC director Dr David Robie, former head of the University of the South Pacific’s regional journalism programme in Fiji, the two developed nations should share some of the blame for Fiji’s current political disorder.
“I think we are seeing the results of Australian and New Zealand policies whose failure over the last two years has driven Fiji to this point,” he told Media 7.
In a separate interview with PMW, Dr Robie said while he strongly condemned the crackdown on media freedom and democracy, the two governments had forced an “unrealistic” deadline for Fiji’s elections, and consistently “pushed Bainimarama into a corner”.
He said the Papua New Guinean Prime Minister, Sir Michael Somare, had in the past showed a more conciliatory approach.
Dr Robie said there was a lack of understanding of the factors that led up to the current upheaval and radical change.
But now Fiji could be facing a situation similar to the rise of Suharto to power and the rise of a military dynasty.
Singh said other development issues needed to be considered and Fiji should not be a case of “trying to impose a First World solution on a Third World problem”.
However, Barbara Dreaver said Bainimarama was losing support - even in his own camp - and the recent political sweeps were an effort to protect himself and his own interests.
Both Dreaver and Robie paid tribute to the courage and determination of Fiji journalists.
Dr Robie warned that a major risk for Fiji and the region was the possibility of a counter-coup arising from within the military with “harrowing consequences” for the Pacific region.
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