Fiji press freedom still in limbo

The state of press freedom in Fiji remains under a cloud after the country’s recent general election – its first in more than eight years – with little indication publishers will pursue changes to prohibitive media regulations.

The Newspaper Works contacted several senior media members based in Fiji who were unwilling to comment on the country’s media regulations and whether they would seek a review of the government’s current controls on local newspaper, radio, TV and internet media. Offices of the Fijian government also failed to respond to questions related to media regulation or potential reform.

Fijian media outlets are bound by the Media Industry Development Decree 2010, which was instituted under the military government of Frank Bainimarama, four years after the coup that first brought him to power. His leadership was formalised last week when his Fiji First Party was elected to office, with about 60 per cent of the vote.

The decree provides authority for the issuing of fines and jail terms on journalists and editors if any material “is included in the content of any media service which is against the public interest or order, is against national interest, offends against good taste or decency or creates communal discord.”

In the lead up to the general election, the Fijian caretaker government led by Bainimarama made it a requirement for all media stories related to the election to be vetted by the country’s Media Industry Development Authority before publication or broadcast.

Government officials claimed that the restrictions were implemented to allow voters to not be swayed by “incessant campaigning before polling so that the voter can decide without any influence or undue pressure,” according to election supervisor Mohammed Saneem.

The International Federal of Journalists acting director Jane Worthington, who condemned the media blackout in a statement last week, told The Newspaper Works that and change to domestic media regulation in the wake of the election was an highly uncertain prospect.

“At this stage, all we can say is only time will tell as to any changes made to media laws in the country,” she said.

“The IFJ experience of Fiji is that it’s an environment that has been tough and unsupportive of the media for a long period of time.”

Despite the onerous restrictions of the decree, Fiji Sun publisher and chief executive Peter Lomas defended the state of media regulation in the country. He said that the Media Decree had improved the journalistic standards of local media and therefore should remain in effect.

“The code of ethics in the Media Decree is the same as that under the former self regulatory, well meaning, but totally ineffective Media Council,” Mr Lomas said.

“The Media Decree also at the same time ended unhealthy domination and manipulation of the Fijian news agenda by foreign ownership and management.

“Fiji now has a thriving totally locally owned and run news media. We have far more diversity than any Australian or New Zealand market of a similar size.”

Mr Lomas rejected the idea that the pre-election media blackout affected fair and balanced coverage of the election – despite its explicit warning that the editors, publisher or owner of news organisations that publish election related stories without prior approval “shall be liable upon conviction to a term of imprisonment not exceeding 5 years”, per section 118 of the Electoral Decree 2014.

“The drama over the media blackout here was strange,” Mr Lomas said. “Other democracies have the same. Why so much noise about Fiji?”

“The blackout period brought calm. It enabled voters to make their own considered decisions.”

“This after an intense campaign marred by some desperately playing the race and religion card in an effort to defeat Voreqe Bainimarama’s Fiji First party.”

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