Tuesday, April 28, 2009

'Courage under fire' workshop moves to Samoa

Pacific Media Watch

A regional media event aimed at boosting Pacific journalism's capacity to face challenges to media freedom has been switched to Apia, Samoa, next week. Journalists from around the region will gather for the conference.

The Pacific Freedom Forum, UNESCO and Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) "Building Courage under Fire" three-day workshop was originally planned to take place in Suva, Fiji, this week, but was relocated due to the current emergency restrictions in place there.

On April 10, the Fiji President, Ratu Josefa Iloiloi, abrogated the Fiji constitution, sacked the judiciary and postponed elections until 2014. Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama was reappointed and rule-by-decree included a censorship crackdown on news media.

“While we felt that Fiji at this point in time would have been the ideal workshop venue, given our theme, we have a responsibility to ensure the funding support we received is used effectively> This would have been impossible given the emergency regulations in place there,” says PFF chair Susuve Laumaea.

Part of the cancelled event in Fiji was a regional UNESCO World Press Freedom Day celebration on May 3. The current emergency "laws" there make such an event illegal.

“The Fiji media situation shows clearly how media freedom affects all Pacific Islanders - not just those who work in the media. We want to look at ways to encourage that understanding, not just in our newsrooms, but across our communities and in the homes and minds of more Pacific people.”

Laumaea is joining delegates from Australia, Cook Islands, Fiji, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Palau, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and the host country at the media freedom workshop.

“Overall, the intent is not to single out any one country, but to ensure the Pacific context of the universal right to free speech and expression of opinions gets some timely attention and forward-thinking debate from journalists to enhance their everyday work,” he says.

The Pacific Media Centre and NZ Commission for UNESCO will be represented at the workshop.

'Sulu censors' stifle Fiji news media

Sunday, April 26, 2009

‘Sulu censors’ stifle Fiji news media in regime crackdown

Reeling from four coups in two decades, journalists in the Pacific nation of Fiji bravely contesting draconian pressure from a military government are now taking no chances.

By David Robie: Pacific Media Centre

After a flurry of creative challenges to the military backed regime as it entrenched its power in the Pacific Islands nation of Fiji, the news media are now facing the harsh reality of life after the censorship crackdown.

Leading editors and journalists have opted to be cautious following the gag and threats by authorities that they will be shut down if they step out of line.

Not tolerating any dissent since martial law was declared on Good Friday, April 10, the regime has ordered “sulu censors” – so-called because of the traditional Fijian kilt-like garment some officials wear – and police into newsrooms to check stories and broadcasts.

The regime has expelled three foreign journalists, detained three local reporters and questioned many more.

Ironically, the government briefly performed an about face and invited approved international journalists back – but only a trickle have successfully entered the country. Those who have, report no interference.

Fiji, shaken by four coups over two decades, turned its back on democracy after a Court of Appeal – three Australian judges – reversed a lower court judgement and declared the post 2006 coup government illegal.

The following day the ailing President, Ratu Josefa Iloilo, abrogated the 1997 constitution, sacked the judiciary, postponed elections until 2014 and imposed martial law for 30 days.

Coup leader Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama was reinstated as prime minister. He reconstituted his cabinet and devalued the Fiji dollar by a fifth in a bid to shore up the economy.

He is ruling by decree, including media censorship and a legal “shield” for any abuses by military and the police.

'Journalism of hope'
Local journalists have been told to cut out negative news and report “journalism of hope” - a strategy rejected by critics as propaganda.

The regional news agency Pacnews, based in the capital of Suva and providing news on a cooperative basis to 16 countries, responded to threats by pulling the plug on all Fiji news.

This prompted calls for the service to be relocated temporarily in Australia or New Zealand.

The Pacific Islands News Association (PINA), owner of Pacnews, refused to consider moving - at least not until a regional convention due in Vanuatu in July.

Strongly condemning the regime for “bullying” the region’s news media, PINA president Joseph Ealedona, who is general manager of Papua New Guinea’s state-run National Broadcasting Corporation, appealed to President Iloilo to issue a decree for returning a “free media for the sake of the people of Fiji”.

He hoped the military intimidation of journalists would be ended by World Media Freedom Day on May 3. Already a regional media freedom conference organised by UNESCO for Fiji has been moved to Samoa.

A chorus of condemnation has come from global media freedom organisations including the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists, Reporters Sans Frontières (Paris) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (New York).

An RSF statement accused the regime of dealing a “mortal blow” to press freedom and “heading dangerously towards a Burmese-style system in which the media are permanently subject to prior censorship”.

Amnesty International warned that the nation of 890,000 people was living in fear because of the “draconian measures”.

It called for the immediate restoration of the constitution, an independent judiciary and the rule of law.

'Culture of fear'
“The human rights situation in Fiji is getting worse by the day,” said Pacific researcher Apolosi Bose, who had visited Fiji on a fact-finding mission just before martial law was imposed.

“What is developing is a culture of extreme fear and intimidation.”

The Auckland-based Pacific Media Centre called on the Fiji regime of Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama to "end this Orwellian era of ruthless censorship and intimidation".

Initially, the media contested the regime’s crackdown with creative strategies.

The day after martial law was declared and regime censors took up residence in newsrooms, the largest of three national daily newspapers, the Murdoch-owned Fiji Times, ran a largely blank page two and several blank boxes where stories and a political cartoon had been censored.
The editors were warned don’t do it again or face being shut down.

Fiji Television, owned by the nation’s 14 provinces and the state, canned a national news bulletin and blamed it on censorship.

Management were told stop this or be closed.

The Fiji Sun announced in an editorial it would not publish any political stories and other media have now followed their lead.

The Daily Post, smallest of the three dailies, tried humour instead. The paper ran funny non stories, such as “Man gets on bus”, another man watching paint dry for four hours, and a “senior reporter” having leftover roti for breakfast – “as usual”.

Blogs back
But in the end the news media “buckled down” in a climate of fear and blogs are resurfacing, said a prominent journalist. New ones with a news focus include Fiji Uncensored and Coup Four and a Half.

Another journalist, who has written widely for international media, said: “It just isn’t worth the risk now. We have wives and children and with no independent judicial system, we can be detained without charge.”

Other editors and journalists are concerned about how quickly a culture of good news and no politics has taken over at some media organisations.

In May 1987, after the first coup by Lieutenant-Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka, Pacnews refused to be censored and moved into exile for seven years in Auckland (New Zealand) followed by Honiara (Solomon Islands) and Port Vila (Vanuatu) before returning to Fiji.

But now journalists are worried Pacnews and other media are bending too far to appease the regime.

One local journalist told the Pacific Media Centre: “Journalism has sunk so low as a result of the rule by decree that a state radio reporter rang an economist and asked, ‘Can you say something positive about the 20 percent devaluation’.

“Isn’t that shocking?”

Media developments recorded by Pacific Media Watch since 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. The interview was widely distributed to international media.

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 relayed programmes via the ABC transmitters.

April 15: Journalist Kavai Damu from the web-based news service Fijilive was detained for questioning about a story he wrote about the devaluation of the Fiji dollar. He was released later with a warning.

April 16: The regime detained Pita Ligaiula, a reporter for Pacnews, over his stories filed to the international news wire Associated Press. He was released after being held for about 12 hours.

April 22: Government censors forced Pacnews to remove an online story about the UN Security Council's condemnation of the scrapping of the constitution. Editorial staff removed the story, but refused a demand by the censors and police to screen stories.

Instead, Pacnews stopped publication of all Fiji news stories.

The Pacific Freedom Forum, a collective of Pacific journalists worried about growing repression against the region’s media, has launched a news group and blog and has protested over the “spin not journalism” stance of the regime.

And to give its free media message a higher profile in support of Fiji journalists, the PFF has promoted a global online petition.

Dr David Robie is director of the Pacific Media Centre at AUT University. Photo: Radio Fiji.

Blogs rule as Fiji regime cracks down on media

Blogs rule as Fiji regime cracks down on media

By David Brooks: Agence France-Presse

Fijians keeping up with political developments since the media clampdown by Voreqe Bainimarama's military regime this month are turning to a growing band of internet blogs.

The latest political upheaval in Fiji was triggered by the regime's repeal of the constitution on April 10, accompanied by the sacking of the judiciary and emergency regulations to control free speech.

Regime censors have been sent into newsrooms to prevent sensitive political stories being published or broadcast.

Most media have responded by refusing to run any political news, leaving a vacuum quickly filled by the blogs, many contributed to by journalists who have lost their conventional outlets.

Blogs played a part in the 2000 coup and again when military chief Bainimarama toppled the elected government in late 2006, with authorities helpless to restrict them in the same way as the traditional media.

"I think the Fiji journalists are enormously resilient and courageous and they have shown in the past they are very adaptable at dealing with oppressive regimes as they have with the previous three coups," says Pacific journalist and academic David Robie.

Experienced journalists in Fiji are all too familiar with attacks on media freedom after a series of four coups between 1987 and Bainimarama's 2006 takeover.

"But this is the first time we have had really systematic censorship and for getting on for two weeks now," said Dr Robie, an associate professor and director of the Pacific Media Centre at New Zealand's AUT University.

More rumours
Former Fiji Broadcasting Corporation chief executive Sireli Kini said the clampdown on the media was creating more uncertainty, with news being replaced by rumours.

"It's human instinct, people want to know what's happening and when somebody spreads a rumour it spreads like wildfire and it's very destructive," said Kini, who now lives in Auckland.

Some of the blogs have relayed rumours and wild anti-regime rhetoric, but others, such as Fiji Uncensored and Coup Four and a Half, have a strong news focus.

With Fijian journalists contributing material, these blogs are filling the gap left by the muzzled media.

"They have taken over the role of the conventional journalism by informing the members of the public," said Kini.

"Some of them are on the target. There are some well written stories there."

Under the latest crackdown, Bainimarama has announced any person or entity which fails to comply with government media orders may be told to "cease operations".

"We want to come up with these reforms and the last thing we want to do is have opposition to these reforms throughout. So that was the reason we've come up with emergency regulations," Bainimarama said in explanation.

When the censors first entered the newsrooms on April 11, the newspapers and broadcasters devised their own ways of protesting.

Blank columns
The television news bulletin was cancelled and the next day the Fiji Times appeared with blank columns with "This story could not be published due to government restrictions" written across them.

The rival Fiji Post tried a satirical approach, reporting on what staff had eaten for breakfast on the front page.

These reactions angered the regime, which threatened to close down the offenders if there was any repeat.

The government also expelled three foreign journalists who had arrived to report on the upheaval and at least two local journalists were detained but later released because of work they had done for foreign media.

Now the main media are not carrying any political news at all, leaving Bainimarama unable to communicate effectively with Fijians.

"They've shot themselves in the foot by doing this, because by clamping down they've cancelled out any chance of getting their side of the story across as well," said Dr Robie, who was coordinator of Suva's University of the South Pacific journalism programme during the 2000

Judging by past experience, the regime is likely to gradually ease the restrictions.

"I think there will be a loosening in time, but it's hard to say with the degree of paranoia at the moment just what will unfold," Dr Robie said.

Until then, the blogs will continue filling the news void.

David Brooks is New Zealand and Pacific correspondent for Agence France-Presse. Cartoon by Malcolm Evans from Pacific Journalism Review.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Student report slams Burmese military’s ethnic land grabs

By Violet Cho: Pacific Media Centre

Three Burmese ethnic youth and student organisations in Thailand have strongly condemned the military regime’s policy of increasing militarisation and seizing land without compensation.

The forced land confiscations cause widespread problems for civilians throughout Burma, the movements say in a new report.

The report, titled "Holding Our Ground" - documented by the All Arakan Students’ and Youths’ Congress, Mon Youth Progressive Organisation and Pa-O Youth Organisation, says military government mismanagement and militarisation of ethnic lands causes daily suffering for Burmese citizens who do not have enough food and water or enough income to provide education for their young.

According to the report, the regime has confiscated lands for house barracks, outposts and training sites for the troops.

The seized lands are also being used for farming and gardening in order to supplement rations and generate additional income for the troops.

The land grabbing from civilians has increased drastically due to a policy of self-reliance whereby the Burmese army must produce its own food and obtain basic materials.

Aung Marm Oo, chief author of the report, said: “The abundance of natural resources and biodiversity, together with the presence of rebel groups, have seen these three areas suffer a high level of land confiscation as part of the SPDC’s [“State Peace and Development Council”] policy of increased militarisation and the exploitation of natural resources for profit.”

Another reason for land confiscation is government construction and so-called development projects of building dams, mining and destruction of the forest for building roads.

Forced labour
These projects often use forced labour and have disastrous environmental effects in many areas.

Burmese troops have set up their posts in civilian lands to protect international corporations that are working in Burma.

A villager from near Kyauk-phyu township in Arakan state, in western Burma, said: “The army is based there not for waging war but for guarding foreign companies involved in oil and gas exploration in Arakan coastal areas.”

The military regime policy of increasing troop deployments has caused many ethnic villagers to flee, abandoning their land and property. Consequently, tens of thousands of people are fleeing Burma in search of a better life.

The Burmese military is constantly expanding to sustain the continual growth of the regime’s power.

Military infrastructure is developed while civilian needs are repeatedly neglected.

The obsession with increasing the size of Burma’s army is underlined by the fact that in the period 1993-2004, 29 percent of central government spending went on defence, while the corresponding health and education figures were only 3 percent and 8 percent respectively.

Today, the SPDC Army numbers around 490,000; having more than doubled in size since 1989. There are an additional 72,000 people in the Myanmar Police Force, including 4500 in the paramilitary police.

This corresponds to roughly one soldier for every 100 citizens, despite Burma facing no external enemies.

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

Irrawaddy magazine
Holding Our Ground report

Friday, April 24, 2009

Underground 'VJs' expose Burmese horror

By Violet Cho: Pacific Media Centre

REVIEW: A dramatic film exposing the struggle of underground Burmese video journalists who chronicled the monk-led Saffron Revolution has featured in this month’s New Zealand world cinema showcase.

Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country is a mix of original footage of the popular and peaceful protests in September 2007 shot by Burmese video journalists, international media footage and dramatic reenactments filmed from the safety of Thailand.

The military junta brutally crushed the protests and a Japanese journalist was among more than 30 people shot dead.

The footage is strung together through the narration of Joshua, a young and enthusiastic journalist who flees Burma soon after the protests start, after getting some sensitive footage and attracting the attention of police intelligence.

He was investigated but fortunately the police did not realise who he was.

The film, shown at Auckland’s Academy cinema, follows Joshua and his group of young video journalists as they film the oppression by the military junta inside Burma and send it to the exiled Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), based in Thailand, and Norway.

It is the only Burmese independent satellite TV. It is broadcast back into Burma, providing a key source of information for citizens who otherwise have to rely on a mediascape restricted by heavy government censorship.

From Thailand, Joshua continues to coordinate a small group of video journalists who were doing daily documentation of the event. They were one of the key sources of footage for international broadcasters , such as BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera - who were denied access to Burma.

The atmosphere of the film is raw – with lots of handheld cameras and quick editing techniques, designed to give viewers a feel for what it is like being a video journalist in a closed country in crisis.

While Joshua is the main character of the film, we do not see his face – he is only shown from behind. This is for his security, so he can go back to Burma and continue working for media.

Risking lives
Apart from documenting journalists, the film effectively shows how average Burmese people are suffering from economic crisis and military mismanagement and how this was important to push people onto the streets, risking their lives in doing so.

Burma VJ was directed by Danish documentary filmmaker Anders Østergaard and has received international success, being shown at international film festivals. It won an award at Amsterdam Film Festival last December.

As a Burmese exiled journalist, I don’t feel like the film is for me – I was in Thailand reporting about the Saffron Revolution at that time, making daily phone calls so it is an all too familiar story.

I am also less interested in the views of journalists from exile like me, sitting in an office trying to comprehend events.

I would have liked to have seen more from the perspective of those working from Rangoon during that time, as they are working in the battleground.

It reminds me of a journalist friend I met in Thailand a month after the crackdown and was reporting from Rangoon secretly for exiled media.

When the government soldiers tried to crack down and shoot protesters - she was there watching soldiers shoot people and taking photos of it.

She wept when she told me about that. She also had to run for her life.

Out of fear of being arrested, she hid under a car for about two hours, because at that time carrying a camera in Burma was a serious crime.

I would like to see more from the standpoint of people like her.

Violet Cho is the Asian Journalism Fellow at the Pacific Media Centre. Burma VJ has also screened in Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin.

Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country, directed by Anders Østergaard. 84min.

More on BurmaVJ at Hotdocs

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Fiji regime leader's brother slams 'bad guy' image

By Violet Cho: Pacific Media Watch

The older brother of Fiji’s military strongman, Sefanaia Bainimarama, has defended the commodore against criticisms as a “bad guy”, saying many people are involved in the coup.

“I don’t think he is [a bad guy],” said Sefanaia Bainimarama during a panel discussion about the Fiji crisis in the weekly Maori-language Marae current affairs programme on Television New Zealand.

“He [Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama] has been put up as a bad guy, but there are a lot of people involved in this coup and all of these problems. They haven’t come to the fore.

“It’s Frank that’s bearing all this things - all the other people are not visible in there.”

Sefanaia Bainimarama justified the coup by saying his brother was trying to achieve a “peaceful country” for the future. Fiji has been hit by four coups in two decades.

The commodore had to do what was needed - “when the country’s in trouble, somebody needs to step in and take order.”

He also compared the situation in Fiji with countries in Africa.

“We do not want to be like other countries in Africa that are taking arms and fighting with each other - that’s the last thing we need in the Pacific and in Fiji.”

Though international and local media strongly portray Voreqe Bainimarama negatively, some claim he is the only person who can restore a fair and non race-based democracy in Fiji.

But, said Nik Naidu, spokesperson for the Auckland-based Coalition for Democracy in Fiji (CDF), it was the commodore himself who had “stolen democracy from the people”.

On April 10, the Fiji President, Ratu Josefa Iloilo, abrogated the 1997 constitution, sacked the nation’s judiciary, postponed elections until 2014 and reappointed Commodore Bainimarama as prime minister.

The regime has imposed draconian censorship by decree on the media as part of a 30-day martial law.

“The problem in Fiji is not about democracy or elections, it is about some people retaining power, privileges and money,” said Naidu.

“As long as elections are not held to put them back into power that will never be acceptable.

“So they will wait until the time is right for them when they brainwash the population and social engineer people to think in their way. And they can guarantee a result that can put them back into power. Otherwise, they will not have election.”

Naidu confirmed that Bainimarama had choices to put things right and he could also do it.

But “there are other forces that are pushing him along to their agenda,” he said without clarifying this.

Sefanaia Bainimarama said media hype was a big thing that spoiled much in every country in the Pacific, including Fiji.

Sireli Kini, a former chief executive of Fiji Broadcasting Corporation Ltd, said a lot of Fijians relied mainly on radio for their news.

Due to the crackdown on media, Radio Fiji news now hardly carried anything for the people about what was happening in the country at present.

For a good country with good government, there should be media freedom and information was very important, Kini said.

He said people needed to know what was happening and what the government was doing.

If people did not get information, it was hard for them to "react” and they did not know what they were supposed to do about the crisis.

Since the Fiji regime declared martial law, there has been a massive crackdown on media with journalists being asked questions, intimidated, detained - and three Australian and New Zealand journalists were deported.

The government gagged Fiji Television and has forced the regional Suva-based Pacnews agency to self-censor its news on the republic.

Picture: Commodore Voreqe "Frank" Bainimarama. Photo: Radio Fiji.

Media freedom organisations condemn censorship
Fiji on TVNZ's Maori-language current affairs programme Marae [video]

A tale of censorship crises – Fiji and Thailand

By Violet Cho and David Fisher: Pacific Media Centre

While the international media is relaxed about Thailand's Easter political crisis, condemnation is being heaped on Fiji's military regime. Thais and Fiji islanders have woken up to a new era of shadowy rule of law - a challenge for local and foreign journalists alike.

Geographically, Thai and Fiji politics are worlds apart - but the military dictatorship in Fiji and the barely democratic Thai government share a similar view towards independent and alternative media.

Both view media as a threat to their rule, and justify repression through maintaining stability.

Both countries are currently under a state of emergency.

In recent weeks, the fragility of democracy has again been on display in Thailand and Fiji, two popular destinations for Australian holidaymakers, noted the Melbourne Age, making comparisons between the two countries and censorship.

In Fiji, the “systematic dismantling of the planks of democracy” was certainly to the detriment of the country’s long-term interests. In Thailand, the “passionate supporters of the ‘real democracy movement — the urban and rural poor who form the bulk of the electorate” — had eased off their street protests.

On the April 10, Fiji’s President, Ratu Josefa lloilo, revoked the Constitution adopted in 1997. He repealed the state courts, postponed elections until 2014 and declared himself the head of the state.

Then he reinstated the coup leader Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama as prime minister and decreed a 30-day “public emergency” in Fiji.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s government also introduced martial law in Bangkok and areas around the city two days later on the April 12 after a massive protest asking him to step down.

Abhisit has been under pressure to step down from the United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), which is a major anti- government force in Thailand.

Emergency decrees
The emergency decrees highly affect people and allow governments to have full control over media by forcibly stopping publication or broadcast in justification to control the disorder in the country.

Since the state of emergency was introduced, at least five community radio and television stations in Thailand have been targeted with raids, arrests of staff and the confiscation of equipment.

This followed an order from the Internal Security Operations Command for community radio stations to stop inciting unrest or face closure, which was reported in Asia Media Forum.

Other stations in regional areas have reported various forms of threat and harassment by local authorities exploiting the current situation.

So far, one community radio station in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand and DStation TV based in Bangkok have been forced to close.

Under the name of state martial law, the regime in Fiji had threatened human rights defenders and government critics. The government detained and intimidated local journalists and deported three foreign reporters who were filing critical stories.

The journalists - Sean Dorney from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), and New Zealand’s TV3 crew of reporter Sia Aston and photographer Matt Smith - were expelled from Fiji.

The regime detained local journalists who gave interviews to foreign media and news reporting about the situation in Fiji.

The regime also shut down two repeat transmitters belonging to the ABC in the tourist town of Nadi and the capital of Suva, forbidding Fiji journalists to speak to foreign media about the crisis in the country.

Mass resistance
Unlike the Fiji’s military crackdown on media, Thai government mainly targeted the media which clearly links to anti-government groups which – also unlike Fiji - have a presence on the street and are actively staging mass resistance.

DStation, for example, is an important part of the UDD propaganda network, as it is used to broadcast protests and speeches.

Partiality, of course, is no excuse to limit media freedom. What is alarming is how this crackdown on “pro-UDD” media and the UDD in general exposes the deep bias of the central institutions of the state, the monarchy, military, judiciary and bureaucracy, when dealing with political dissent.

No attempts were made to restrict the media of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), the yellow shirt group which occupied Thailand’s Government House for three months last year and Bangkok’s international airport for eight days, causing massive damage to an economy reliant on tourism.

There was never a crackdown on the PAD and there have been no arrests of their leaders, who are part of the Thai elite and have support from the powerful old guard of Thai society.

UDD or red shirt protesters are asking for a representative democracy, and challenging a system that gives huge power to unelected courtiers. They want a system that will provide services for the majority of Thai people, not just benefits for the rich.

In contrast, PAD want an end to representative democracy, replaced by a system where a large proportion of seats in parliament are appointed by the monarchy and military. This explains why red shirt protests are crushed by the military within days, while PAD alternatively have a free hand to protests for months.

Future in doubt
The current conflict in Thailand is a fundamental one: the monarchy is in crisis because the king is old and the crown prince is unpopular, which leaves the institution’s future in doubt.

Any discussion of the role of the monarchy and succession is strictly forbidden, enforced through a lese majeste law, which is the centerpiece of the Thai censorship regime.

The monarchy is a key battleground. The institution conveyed open signals in support of the 2006 coup that overthrew the populist elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra, and directly led to the current crisis.

Thaksin has now openly accused King Bhumibol of giving his blessing to military leaders before the coup and announced that two privy councilors were the masterminds.

The 2006 coup can be seen as a favour to the king, who was threatened by the grassroots popularity of Thaksin. The monarchy gave clear signals supporting the PAD, through Queen Sirkit’s attendance at the funeral of a protester who died during clashes with police.

There was also no dissent from any royals when the PAD in part justified their actions as necessary to protect the monarchy.

The Thai background is a long and complicated story, and is too often left out of mainstream media reports of the Thai crisis. There has been a lot of praise in foreign media for the Abhisit Government’s handling of the crisis, showing restraint and sparing civilian casualties.

But since local media reporting heavier casualties have been censored, and there are no independent investigation, who knows what the story really is?

Partial justice
The “restraint” shown must be seen in comparison with the lack of action against the PAD. It then becomes obvious that Thailand has a partial “justice” system – that goes after red shirts, Thaksin and his supporters and turns a blind eye to crimes carried out by the military (the 2006 coup being an obvious one) and yellow shirts.

Rarely is the term “monarchy” used in foreign media, without descriptors attached such as “much revered”, “Buddha-like”, “loved” and “immensely popular”. How can journalists know this when criticism can lead to long prison terms?

In contrast, international media overwhelmingly condemns the actions of the Fiji government.

Thai and Fiji islanders have woken up to a new era of shadowy rule of law. This is a challenge for local and foreign journalists alike, who will have to walk carefully.

Picture: Thai anti-censorship protesters at Pantip Plaza, a popular IT mall, during a previous rally. Photo: Global Voices.

Violet Cho is the Asian Journalism Fellow at AUT University’s Pacific Media Centre.

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.

The Fiji crisis - behind the headlines

By Fr Kevin Barr for the Pacific Media Centre

Many believe that coup leader Voreqe Bainimarama’s intentions are good and are in opposition to the aims of the previous indigenous supremacy coups. Some think he is power-hungry but others say that he needs time to carry out the necessary reforms and set in place a new non-racial vision for Fiji.

In order to understand the current situation in Fiji we need to go back a little.

In 2000 the democratically elected People’s Coalition Government of Mahendra Chaudhry was ousted by George Speight in a coup involving civilians and some elements of the army. The proclaimed aim of the coup was to protect indigenous Fijian rights. Political hostages were taken, parliament was trashed and orgies held for almost a month. Finally Commodore Frank Bainimarama (newly appointed head of the army) tricked Speight and put down the rebellion and released the hostages.

He took over the reins of government temporarily until he was able to appoint a civilian interim government led by Laisenia Qarase (a banker). The deal he struck was that Qarase and his interim government were not to seek election but be a caretaker government until elections were held. However, Qarase and his team used their position to fight the election. They won and proceeded to introduce very racist or pro-Fijian legislation which discriminated against Indo-Fijians and other races. They even took back into their government a number of people associated with the 2000 coup. Bainimarama objected and by 2006 friction between Qarase and Bainimarama was high and Bainimarama threatened to take over the reins of government if Qarase did not back down on his pro-Fijian legislation. He was very stubborn and refused. Finally on 6 December Bainimarama took over in a bloodless coup.

Bainimarama in charge
Unlike the 1987 and 2000 coups, which were carried out in the name of “indigenous Fijian rights”, this coup was in the name of multiculturalism. Moreover, while the 1987 and 2000 coups sought to protect the economic interests of certain business and traditional elites, this coup aimed to address corruption and economic mismanagement and see that the economy works in the interest of all Fiji’s people (35- 40 percent of whom live below the poverty line).

Despite some opposition from various political parties and other groups, Bainimarama took over and appointed an Interim Government. There was strong opposition from the SDL party (Qarase’s Party) and the Methodist Church (which took a very strong pro-Fijian nationalistic stance in the 1987 and 2000 coups).

Bainimarama tried to unite people by inviting everyone to come together and draw up a People’s Charter – a way forward for Fiji. The Catholic Archbishop (who had firmly stated his opposition to the coup) agreed to be co-chair of the People’s Charter Committee with Bainimarama. Unfortunately the SDL Party and the Methodist Church refused to be part of the Charter and stood in opposition. After 6–8 months of work, the People’s Charter was promulgated by the President. It is a very good document and tries to address Fiji’s problems and show a way forward.

Since December 2006 life in Fiji has been very calm and relatively peaceful. There were three unfortunate incidents of men being taken into police or army custody and dying because of the severe treatment they received. (Courts have since brought the perpetrators of two of the incidents to justice.) Some women’s NGO groups have taken a strong stand in opposition to the Interim Government and the army and have spoken up against any appearance of human rights violations. However, they have a very narrow interpretation of human rights. Other prominent NGOs (such as the Citizen’s Constitutional Forum and ECREA) while condemning the unlawful take-over of government and occasionally voicing opposition to some decisions, have tried to work with the Interim Government in helping to find a way forward.

One constant problem has been the holding of elections. Australia, New Zealand and the countries of the Pacific Forum have been pushing for elections as soon as possible in order to return Fiji to democratic rule. Early on Bainimarama (under pressure) said elections would be held in April-May 2009 but he withdrew this promise. In fact he does not want to have elections until some of the big problems underlying previous coups have been addressed. These are ethno-nationalism (often mixed with religious fundamentalism), the position and authority of the Great Council of Chiefs, economic mismanagement, and most of all the biased electoral process enshrined in the Constitution. Many agree on the need for electoral reform but it was difficult to undertake this because it was part of the Constitution. Unfortunately Australia, New Zealand, the US and the EU have been obsessed with pushing Fiji to have immediate elections. If this happened we would almost surely have another racist government followed by another coup. Elections alone will not ensure democracy.

The media (newspapers and Fiji TV) have taken a very negative approach to Bainimarama and the Interim Government and have often been very unbalanced in their reporting of the news. Despite many calls for a better reporting of the news from within the country the media have taken a very negative stance. The Government expelled the expatriate publishers of two of the newspapers.

Court cases
Qarase took out a court case to challenge the authority of the President to appoint Bainimarama as Prime Minister after the 2006 coup. The three local judges of the High Court unanimously (and without any pressure) declared the President did have the power to do so and that the Bainimarama Interim Government was legal. The case then went to the Court of Appeal. The three judges were from Sydney and they declared Bainimarama’s regime illegal. They said he must resign and that the President should appoint a new caretaker Prime Minister (not Qarase) to be in charge until elections were held as soon as possible. Bainimarama resigned but the President then abrogated the Constitution and said he would rule by decree. He appointed Bainimarama as Prime Minister and basically reinstated the Interim Government. Bainimarama said elections would not be held until 2014. A state of emergency for one month has been declared, foreign journalists expelled and a curb placed the local media. Constitutional appointments are being re-negotiated. The currency has been devalued by 20 percent

To all intents and purposes the country goes on as usual. There is the usual peace but everyone knows that temporary controls have been set in place. No public protests and gatherings are allowed. But day to day life goes on without interruption. Kids go to school, workers go to work, tourists arrive (in slightly less numbers maybe) and no-one is harmed.

With the Constitution abrogated the way is open for electoral reforms to be carried out so that a more free and fair non-racial election can be held. Almost surely the People’s Charter will provide a road-map for the way forward.

After the Supreme Court decision of the Sydney judges (which hopefully was not biased but which nevertheless upheld Australia’s position) I think the rest was inevitable – abrogating the Constitution, the President ruling by decree, clamping down on the media, the appointment of Bainimarama as Prime Minister and the re-appointment of the Interim Government.

Many believe that Bainimarama’s intentions are good and are in opposition to the aims of previous coups. Some think he is power-hungry but others say that he needs time to carry out the necessary reforms and set in place a new non-racial vision for Fiji. Maybe he does not always get the best advice and certainly some mistakes have been made. There is division in the political parties, the judiciary, the churches and the NGO community. Your position depends on the perspective you take.

There has been some religious mirth surrounding the coup. Some called it a “Catholic coup” because many of the army officers involved were Marist Brothers Old Boys (and then the Archbishop became co-chair of the People’s Charter and two catholic priests had non-political positions on the electoral and other boards). Some called it a “Muslim coup” because a number of Muslims took up positions of authority under the Interim government. Again, others called it a “Hindu coup” because it received support from a number of Hindu organizations.

Very recently New Zealand seems to have taken a different stance towards Fiji. The Foreign Minister says perhaps they should not criticise Fiji and harp on about elections. Perhaps they need to offer their assistance and leave Fiji decide what is best for itself. They recognise that Fiji needs to be allowed to solve its own problems in its own way. This has been a dramatic change and a very welcome one. Hopefully Australia and the US will take a similar approach. Because of the strong opposition from Australia and New Zealand, Fiji has been turning for help to India and China and receiving it. This “look north” policy may in effect be a good balance to the previous strong influence of Australia and New Zealand.

Picture: Squatters in Suva - up to 40 percent of people in Fiji live in poverty. Photo: Fiji government.

Father Kevin Barr is economic and social justice coordinator of the Ecumenical Centre for Research, Education and Advocacy (ECREA). He is an outspoken advocate on the issue of poverty and squatters in Fiji.


Saturday, April 18, 2009

Australian, NZ policies on Fiji have backfired, says PMC head

Pacific Media Centre

Australian and New Zealand policies over Fiji have backfired and both countries will need to tread carefully from now on, says Pacific Media Centre director David Robie.

Condemning the crackdown on media and dissent and the purge of the civil service since the Easter putsch, he said on Shine TV a wrong move by Fiji’s neighbours could plunge the Pacific country into a deeper crisis and isolate it from the region.

“China is waiting in the wings”, said Associate Professor Robie in an interview with Allan Lee, adding Australia and NZ had too much to lose if they played their cards wrongly.

He criticised the lack of Pacific affairs coverage in New Zealand media, saying there was not enough contextual reporting.

“New Zealand expects Fiji to fit into a tidy little Westminster democratic box, or model, that we are familiar with,” he said.

But Fiji was now moving into a fundamental power shift that would have far-reaching consequences for the region.

While there was potential for vital electoral and other reforms in the long run, there was also a risk of a Suharto-style military dynasty emerging.

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

In a Radio New Zealand Sunday interview, David Neilson, a member of the Commission of Inquiry into Fiji's 2006 election, said the NZ government could do more to create a robust electoral system in Fiji.

There were many technical issues to overcome to remove 'bias and corruption' in its electoral system.

Shine TV on YouTube

Friday, April 17, 2009

Media not telling the full story, says former Fiji publisher

By Josephine Latu, contributing editor of Pacific Media Watch

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.

Peacekeeping challenged
McCully called on the UN to stop recruiting Fijian troops for peacekeeping, and discouraged New Zealand tourists from visiting the islands.

“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 freefiji@newspapers.co.nz 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.

Dealing with the dictator - Graham Davis
Stewart Firth's reply (former USP professor)
UN not helping Fiji situation: McCully

Thursday, April 16, 2009

PMC on Media7's censorship in Fiji

Censorship in Fiji [April 16]
Media7 takes a look at the Easter gagging of the Fiji news media. featuring Pacific Media Centre's David Robie, TVNZ's Pacific correspondent Barbara Dreaver and former Fiji Daily Post publisher Thakur Ranjit Singh. See previous Media7 Fiji backgrounder on PMC YouTube.

IPI deplores Fiji crackdown on media

Pacific Media Centre

Authorities in Fiji are removing articles from news websites under emergency rules imposed after a court declared the military-backed government illegal. These actions, combined with censorship of other news reports, represent a concerted effort by the government to block access to information in a time of political crisis, the International Press Institute said today.

The censorship and interference with media in Fiji follow an emergency decree imposed on April 10, a day after an appellate court declared the provisional government led by the army commander, Voreqe Bainimarama, to be illegal. In response to the ruling, President Ratu Josefa Iloilo, a Bainimarama ally, suspended the constitution and abolished the judiciary.

Journalists in Fiji told IPI that government censors have “cleaned up” newspaper websites to remove current as well as archived stories. IPI’s sources also said authorities from the Ministry of Information, backed by police officers, have gone into newsrooms and censored articles due to be published in newspapers.

Bainimarama, who took power in 2006 in a military-backed coup, told Radio New Zealand that the media are to blame for the current political turmoil. But IPI director David Dadge called the accusation a “deplorable attempt to hide the truth at a time of political uncertainty”, and called for an end to censorship and the intimidation of journalists. Dadge said:

The military regime is looking for a convenient excuse to mask its failure to restore order, stabilise the economy and allow Fijians to choose their leaders through the ballot box. Contrary to what the regime says, the media can contribute to better understanding and can ease tension in divided societies, and I fear Mr. Bainimarama’s desire for control will only exacerbate the problems in Fiji .

The Public Emergency Regulations imposed on April 10, along with other directives that impose severe restrictions on the news media, forbid journalists to report critically on politics or the government, or to publish stories perceived as inciting violence. Journalists said even stories about recent civil unrest in Thailand were pulled from newspapers for fear they may incite the local population.

Some newspapers in Fiji have run blank pages as an act of defiance after the authorities banned publication of certain articles. Several foreign journalists have been expelled or barred from entering the country.

Three foreign journalists -- Sia Aston and cameraman Matt Smith from New Zealand’s TV3, and Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Sean Dorney -- were expelled from Fiji on April 13. The government also ordered ABC to disconnect its FM transmitters in the capital Suva and in the tourist town of Nadi. This move also affects Radio New Zealand International, which rebroadcasts programmes via the ABC transmitters.

Fijian journalists have been warned not to speak to foreign media about the situation, and some have been taken into custody for questioning.

Graphic: A Malcolm Evans cartoon for PMC's Pacific Journalism Review adapted by Josephine Latu.

IPI statement
Other media reaction
PMC on Media7 [video]

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Fiji regime faces condemnation over media gag

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.

Image: IJNet

Coup Four Point Five
IFJ - Asia-Pacific
Pacific Freedom Forum
Pacific Media Centre
Pacific Media Watch

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

Sunday, April 12, 2009

PMC condemns 'ruthless censorship' in Fiji

Pacific Media Watch

The Pacific Media Centre has condemned the Fiji regime's 'ruthless censorship' of news organisations and called for an end to intimidation.

The condemnation follows a canned news bulletin by Fiji Television tonight and a blank page and story spaces in today's Sunday edition of the Fiji Times by news editors in protest over censored content.

Fijilive also reported "withdrawing" some news items as censors maintained a presence in the country's newsrooms since the 30-day public emergency regulations came into force.

Some journalists reported a "climate of silence" in some newsrooms in response to the censorship.

Associate Professor David Robie, director of New Zealand's AUT University-based PMC, called on the Fiji regime of Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama to "end this Orwellian era of ruthless censorship and intimidation".

"The people of Fiji should be allowed free and unfettered media coverage, especially at this time of uncertainty and anxiety," he said.

"A gagged and intimidated media will only lead to rumours, disinformation and more instability."

The regime earlier called on the nation's media to refrain from publishing "negative" stories about the actions of the President Ratu Josefa Iloilo over the past few days.

On Good Friday, the president abrogated the 1997 Constitution, sacked the nation's judges and declared himself Head of State.

This followed a Court of Appeal judgment on Thursday which ruled that the interim government of Prime Minister Bainimarama was illegal.

The president reappointed Bainimarama as prime minister and Fiji is now being ruled by decree, including one that has imposed newsroom censorship by Ministry of Information officials and police.

Editors were told not to publish or broadcast items that may involve "incitement" and undermine law and order.

Major Neumi Leweni, who is also Permanent Secretary of Information, asked all news media to “immediately refrain from publishing and broadcasting any news item that is negative in nature, relating to the assumption of executive authority on 10 April by his Excellency the President, and the subsequent appointments of the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers”.

Section 3 of the regulations state that anybody or organisation that “fails in any way whatsoever" to comply with the state provisions may be ordered to "cease all activities and operations".

In today's Sunday Times, page 2 was left blank apart from a downpage box that declared: "The stories on this page could not be published due to government restrictions."

Five dummied up story spaces were left blank on page 3 and a political cartoon space on the page 6 opinion section was also blank.

The ministry has reportedly warned the Fiji Times to stop leaving blank spaces or face closure under the decree.

After leaving out an item in last night's 6pm bulletin news due to censorship, Fiji Television pulled its main bulletin tonight.

Cafe Pacific on censorship
Fiji Times editorial - A sad day for Fiji
Croz Walsh's blog comment