Friday, August 15, 2014

Criminalising the public sphere

The public sphere, as conceived by German scholar Jurgen Habermas, is the space in society where people can freely discuss social issues and influence political action. It has been described as “a discursive space in which individuals and groups congregate to discuss matters of mutual interest and, where possible, to reach a common judgment.” The public sphere, according to Habermas, should be open to all citizens, who should be unrestricted in contributing to societal debate. It thus requires the preconditions of freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

The media, according to Habermas, are of particular importance for constituting and maintaining a public sphere. Discussions about the media have therefore been of particular importance in public sphere theory. To Habermas, the height of the public sphere was seen in the early days of newspapers in 19th Century England, where gentlemen would congregate in coffee houses to consider and debate the latest news. With the 20th Century, however, the press began to become co-opted by commercial interests, which appropriated the public sphere for its own purposes of marketing and restricting participation in the political process. Habermas’ seminal book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere was published in German in 1962 but not translated into English until 1989, when his ideas caught like wildfire with Western scholars.

Shamima Ali: “baseless accusations . . . uttered for political gain.”
The relevance for Fiji, of course, is that the public sphere there has been not so much co-opted by commercial interests as criminalised by the state. Nowhere else in the world have prison sentences and fines been written into law in order to restrict participation in the public sphere. The consequences of this draconian action by self-appointed prime minister Frank Bainimarama reached new heights (or depths) of absurdity this week when the crackpot dictator publicly deplored the silence of non-governmental organisations after alleged racist and intolerant comments by opposition politicians. “Where are the human rights organisations now?” asked Bainmarma.
It seems like they are willing to sacrifice values that many of their members hold dear simply to stand in opposition to my Government and its reforms. This isn’t leadership. This is cowardice and political calculation at its worst.
The only problem is that NGOs are prohibited from speaking out on election issues by Section 115 of the Electoral Decree, which was imposed by the Bainimarama’s regime earlier this year and since amended to prevent several opposition candidates from running. This is tantamount to the government putting a muzzle on NGOs and then accusing them of cowardice for not being able to speak. His criticism brought a sharp rebuke from Shamima Ali, chair of the Coalition for Human Rights.
Everyone knows that we spoke out against section 115 of the electoral decree because it more or less muzzled NGO’s in the lead up to elections in September. It took away our rights as citizens to take part in political debates and discussions. . . . This sort of intimidation has forced us to refrain from any political issues. In other words, we adhered to the decree and then now we are being criticized for it.
The Electoral Decree basically disenfranchised NGOs politically, in sharp contrast to the Ghai draft constitution, which would have explicitly provided a role for NGOs in the political process. Instead, their participation in the political sphere during an election campaign may now be punished under the Electoral Decree by “a fine not exceeding $50,000 or . . . a term of imprisonment not exceeding 10 years,” or both.
It shall be unlawful for any person, entity or organisation . . . that receives any funding or assistance from a foreign government, inter-governmental or non-governmental organisation or multilateral agency to engage in, participate in or conduct any campaign (including organising debates, public forum, meetings, interviews, panel discussions, or publishing any material) that is related to the election or any election issue or matter.
The Political Parties Decree  prohibits any trade union officer from standing for election, further constraining the public sphere, and academics have also been shut out of the political process because universities have required them to resign if they want to run in the election. The Media Decree, of course, allows for fines up to $100,000 and prison terms of up to two years for journalists and media organisations that report anything deemed to be contrary to the national interest. As a result, journalists have engaged in heavy self-censorship, at least those not engaged in attacking regime critics on behalf of the dictatorship. As for the rights of freedom of assembly and freedom of association, Amnesty International has done an excellent job in chronicling how they have been curtailed, by decree, in Fiji.

The result has been nothing less than the criminalisation of the public sphere in Fiji, where speaking out can find you lighter in the wallet or, worse, land you in prison. It is the antithesis of the ideal of open public discussion of social and political issues as envisioned by Habermas, and a harsh indictment of the Fiji dictatorship. Will it result in a free and fair election next month? I think you know the answer to that question.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Amnesty International: Fiji must end “climate of fear”

Amnesty International has issued a damning report which calls for the restoration of basic human rights in Fiji, including those of free expression and a free press. “A combination of draconian laws, a pattern of intimidation and harassment of those who are critical of the government, as well as reports of torture and other ill-treatment by the security forces,” it points out, “have created a climate of fear.”

The report comes six weeks before the country is to hold elections intended to restore democracy after almost eight years of military rule. The Amnesty report casts doubt on whether the elections will be free and fair, however, given regime-imposed restrictions on basic human rights, including freedoms of expression, association, assembly, and the press. “Those rights still remain restricted in law, policy and practice, therefore deterring people from speaking freely,” the report states. “Fiji’s current government must commit to protecting and respecting human rights in the lead up to elections, including by lifting restrictions on freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association and refraining from acts of intimidation or harassment against political candidates, civil society organizations, journalists and others.” Amnesty points to the multitudinous decrees imposed by the regime that restrict basic human rights. 
Amnesty International is concerned that the government continues to use decrees to criminalize peaceful political activities and to arrest, detain, fine and imprison people for the peaceful exercise of their human rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. Further, human rights defenders, journalists and trade union leaders in Fiji continue to face harassment and intimidation solely for carrying out their legitimate work peacefully.
The decrees include the Public Order Amendment Decree, the Crimes Decree, and the Media Decree, which include “hefty” fines and even imprisonment for people exercising their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. “A journalist may face two years in prison for publishing something which is not in the ‘public interest,’” the report notes. “A person may be imprisoned for five years for saying something which ‘undermines the economy of Fiji.’ In addition to this, a person attending a public meeting without a permit or who breaches permit conditions can be imprisoned for up to five years and fined $10,000.”
Heavy fines and jail terms can be imposed on the media for publications that “threaten the public interest or order, is against national interest, offends good taste or creates communal discord.” Collectively, these restrictions in law, policy and practice have compromised frank and fearless media reporting.
Contempt of court proceedings have also been used to stifle expression, the report points out, and concerns have been raised about the independence of media outlets, “including a failure to provide equal space to different political candidates and refusal to publish letters or articles which are critical of the government.” The restrictions, combined with heavy fines for breaching the regulations imposing them, have “stifled open debate on key matters of national interest.”
The media must be empowered to publish a diverse range of views, including criticism of government or of political candidates, without fear of retribution. To achieve this, the government should lift existing restrictions on the media and ensure that journalists will not be subject to prosecution, intimidation or harassment for the peaceful exercise of their right to express and publish diverse views.
The report also points to a number of people who have been “subjected to politically-motivated charges for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, resulting in lengthy and costly court battles, including criminal charges against two former Prime Ministers.” A student recently had his government scholarship revoked for “associating in political agendas,” notes the report, “after he had spent a day volunteering with an independent opposition candidate for elections.” It also highlights the arrest of protesters calling for changes in the Constitution and calling for the government’s budget to be made public in 2013 and the refusal of permission for a number of planned peaceful protests. “In addition, the police have disbanded a number of private meetings, including an internal staff meeting of the Fiji Women’s Rights Movement (July 2012) and private gatherings of politicians,” the report notes. “These cases show a disturbing pattern of interference with the right to peaceful assembly and association.”

The Fiji Times . . . deluxe forever
The report calls on the regime to repeal provisions of the Constitution, Public Order Amendment Decree, Media Industry Development Decree, and the Crimes Decree which criminalize freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. It also notes that the rights to form or join a trade union and to collectively bargain, while supposedly protected in the Constitution, have been rendered “almost meaningless” by regime decrees. The Essential National Industries Decree severely curtails the right to strike, bans overtime payments and voids existing collective agreements for workers in key sectors of the economy, including sugar, aviation and tourism. The Political Parties Decree, the Electoral Decree, and the Constitution prevent trade union officials from engaging in political activity or even campaigning on issues such as workers’ rights. “Amnesty International is deeply concerned at the failure to respect workers’ rights in Fiji, including through restrictions on freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association for workers,” states the report, noting that a a high-level mission from the International Labour Organisation was expelled from Fiji in 2012. “The ILO has identified Fiji as one of five countries where workers’ rights violations are the most serious and urgent.” 

It also condemns recent instances of torture, which were condoned by Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, and interference by the government with judges and lawyers contrary to international law and standards. It points to the arbitrary removal of judges, lack of security of tenure, and reports of executive interference in the judiciary. “Collectively, this undermines the independence of the judiciary. An independent judiciary is critical to ensuring that victims of human rights violations can seek redress through national courts.” The report does commit one embarrasing gaffe, attributing a statement made by NFP leader Professor Biman Prasad to Bainimarama. “On 12 June 2014, Prime Minister Bainimarama stated on Fiji One TV, People who are opinion makers, academics, NGOs, trade union officials, they’ve all been banned from taking part in political activities and actually talking about the issues.’” Oops, that was Biman. It didn’t sound like something Frank would say. . . .

Amnesty also published on its website a blog entry by a student activist in Fiji who pointed to the suppression of the draft constitution drawn up by an independent commission almost two years ago and the withholding of several years worth of Auditor General’s reports as evidence of political repression. “Once again the lacking consent and genuinity [sic.] behind such actions, leaves us in a state of repressed dissatisfaction, frustration and worst of all, disempowerment,” lamented Jope Tarai. 
The fact that the Ghai draft constitution was thrown out, after it inadvertently provided opposing views to the regime, indicates the continuing possibility of genuinely laid plans for participation and engagement of the people, to be subjected to the regime’s whims and self-serving interests, at a drop of a hat. . .  . The old Bainimarama one-liner and overused cliché of shaming all old politicians as being corrupt and deceitful, now leaves him no different from them, as he has become the same politician that he loves to malign.
Coup apologists are predictably furious, especially Crosbie Walsh, who claims that Amnesty has been “hoodwinked” by Fiji informants. “I  have donated to Amnesty International for many years but have now stopped,” spat Croz on his blog. “This article provides an example of why I have changed my opinion about the quality of their work.”
Their assessment of the Fiji situation is based on reports from those opposed to the Bainimarama Government. Their allegations are dated, exaggerated, and they appear to make no efforts to verify what they are told. AA was not formed to take sides during an election campaign.
No, Amnesty International was formed to shine a light on human rights violations worldwide, and it has rightly highlighted ongoing and relentless outrages in Fiji. Croz, who quit the blogging game late last year but has recently made a comeback for the election campaign, seems to be saying that those opposed to Bainimarama should not be listened to, making him a veritable cheerleader for the suppression of freedom of expression. He also suggests that any political repression by the regime is either trifling or in the past. Not so, as has been chronicled on this blog and elsewhere. Bainimarama is doing his very best to shut up any political opposition, which will ensure his election, and he is doing it with virtual impunity domestically because the media in Fiji are by and large too intimidated to make much noise about it. The regime is also moving the goalposts on a regular basis across what is already an uphill political playing field for any who dare to oppose Bainimarama. His latest move to amend the Electoral Decree to include a two-year residency requirement for candidates, which renders ineligible three NFP candidates, has opposition parties livid.

Bainimarama is currently in New Zealand campaigning, but ironically the Fijian citizens whose votes he will be asking for have effectively been rendered second-class citizens because under this amendment none of them are now able to run for office. It will be interesting to see how a free press covers his visit. What fun and games! You simply couldn’t make this stuff up, and I’m sure it’s only going to get better as election day approaches. If only Grubby were around to join in the fun. Actually, he’s still here. He’s just lurking, for the sake of his employability in Australia, under his new identity: “Anonymous.” Just try leaving a critical comment on the Crozblog and he’ll jump all over you. That’s right, the international award-winning journalist has been reduced to subsisting as an Internet troll. He and Esther make quite the pair.

UPDATE: Victor Lal over at Fijileaks has dug up a dilly. This letter shows what can happen to your village should someone there speak ill of the regime.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

ASK’s complaints about media coverage absurd

The constipated Attorney-General went on the offensive last week against his favorite target – the news media  accusing them of lacking expertise and being biased. (Yes, the word media is a plural, which no one in the Southern Hemisphere seems to realize.) There is no doubt that working journalists in Fiji lack expertise, most of the best having been driven out of the profession by low pay and the junta’s media repression over the past eight years. But for the most part, Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum’s complaints about a “he said, she said” style of journalism are fairly absurd when one considers that his regime has been pushing “balance” as the highest ideal of journalism, aside from simply asking the government what to report, of course. And don’t get me started on media bias. Then again. . . . .

He’s no doubt having another journalist sacked
Sayed Khaiyum expressed his frustration at reporting of the ongoing election campaign in a press conference at FijiFist offices on Thursday. “I think the level of analysis is very, very shallow,” he said. “Still many of the journalists are very much ‘he said that, she said that.’ They don’t carry out any analysis themselves whereas there should be two to three journalists to carry that out and read facts for themselves. . . . It seems that the media organisations don’t want to go and gather information themselves. They still have this culture of ‘this leader said, the other politician said that’ and that’s all they do, so that’s not very good coverage and what we find again is the lack of media organisation’s [sic.] ability to bring information to members of the public; independent information; correct information but you know also I think some media organisations are still really biased.”

“He said, she said” reporting has its roots in the ethic of objectivity, behind which many news media hide, preferring to let both sides have their say and eschewing any duty to sort out who might be playing fast and loose with the facts. Its danger was pointed up by the rise of McCarthyism in the U.S. during the 1950s, as the junior senator from Wisconsin began loudly proclaiming that he had a list of so many Communists in the government. (The number kept changing.) Most reporters simply reported McCarthy's claims without looking into their accuracy. They turned out to be wildly overblown, but not before the careers of many were ruined by being blacklisted. A turn away from objectivity resulted in the 1960s and today the prevailing ethic is fairness rather than balance and objectivity.

Of course, a more analytical form of reporting would be preferable in Fiji, but it is way beyond anything that journalism as practiced there is capable of providing. Even in advanced democracies with highly skilled journalists, “he said, she said” reporting is the norm. It’s something Jay Rosen of NYU has been railing against for years, even from such august publications as the New York Times. His nagging has had some effect, at least on National Public Radio, which officially repudiated the practice a couple of years ago. In Fiji, where the best and most experienced journalists fled either overseas or into higher-paying positions in public relations years ago, most reporters seem to have difficulty even stringing together a coherent sentence, must less providing insightful analysis. It’s a testament to the poor level of public education, but also to the almost laughable level of journalism education. I’m glad that I was at least able to leave behind one cohort, maybe two, of journalism students who have been well drilled in the basics of reporting, not to mention in what the basic duties of a journalist are. (Hint: Being a mouthpiece for the government isn’t one of them.) That will no doubt be changing with the recent return of the “Journalism of Hope” to a certain regional university.

At issue with Sayed Khaiyum, apparently, are reports both on the economy and on the size of a crowd. When it comes to the economy, the junta obviously prefers the news media to get their facts from government agencies so it can control what is reported. But that wasn’t what seemed to have ASK upset the most. He obviously thought the crowd at last weekend’s “Family Fun Day” put on by his party was much larger than was reported in the Fiji Times.
Anybody who knows how to count will tell you that there weren’t 500 people at Sukuna Park on Saturday at midday; there were more like 5000 people but some media organisations were saying that there were 500 people. I mean these are the kind of things that the media organisations and some of these journalists are doing it deliberately; whether they cannot count or whether they are somewhat not very proactive in terms of getting information, I think this is something that needs to be improved upon.
The issue of crowd estimates is a thorny one for news media, which usually have to rely on the police to provide them. As the police are responsible for crowd control, they usually have a handle on how many are in attendance. I’m guessing that such an estimate was not provided to reporters, who were forced to come up with an estimate of their own and possibly erred on the low side. Or it’s quite possible that from his perspective as a partisan, ASK saw what he wanted to see at his party’s bash and estimated the crowd at closer to 5,000. Media bias, after all, is largely a matter of perspective. It has been well established that partisans see news media coverage as biased against them. It’s known as the Hostile Media Effect and has been the subject of considerable research. It was discovered at Stanford in 1982 when Arab and Israeli partisans were shown the same news coverage from the Middle East and both sides saw it as biased against their side. It is a phenomenon that has been confirmed repeatedly in replications. It is no doubt also extant in Fiji. 

But, perceptions aside, media bias also undoubtedly exists, as has also been confirmed repeatedly by research. I have never quite seen media bias as in Fiji, where some media outlets slavishly promote the junta and others cower against its bullying. The question becomes, will certain media outlets stand up against the bullying and report what is really going on. ASK and his dictator puppet have good reason to be concerned if the Fiji Times and Fiji TV do just that and begin to report what seems to be a bit of an uprising against the regime on the eve of elections next month. The A-G may have just put his foot in it at his press conference when he actually complained about a lack of news media coverage on the defacing of a taxi emblazoned with FijiFist colours (well, more accurately Fiji colours) and apparent death threats against party officials. The story had actually been reported two weeks ago by the A-G’s brother’s TV network. But ASK’s complaining about it opened the door for the Times to report the story.  FBC also ran another story on the vandalism, which has also apparently included the defacing of FijiFist posters. ASK may soon regret opening this Pandora’s Box, because if the trend gathers momentum as a result of copycat attacks, things could get ugly fast for the dictatorship.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Raj to demand media policies: Narsey

According to Professor Wadan Narsey, MIDA honcho Ashwin Raj plans to follow through on his threats to demand written policies from Fiji media outlets, although from the wording of Raj’s ramblings it seems to be print media only so far. The move will come with less than two months to go before the planned September elections which will hopefully return Fiji to democratic rule from military. 

Narsey published on his blog an email from Raj to MIDA director Matai Akauola which asks that it be circulated to Fiji media outlets. In it, Raj seems to seek Akauola’s agreement that such a demand is reasonable. It refers to policies regarding publication of “opinion pieces, [and] letters to the editor.” As usual, Raj takes pains to absolve himself in advance of any possible press repression. “This is an important issue about access and equity and must not be misconstrued as MIDA muzzling media freedom,” he writes.

Raj also appears to back off his plan for a media monitoring unit, which with the coming election might smack just a bit too much of regime intimidation. “The mainstream media unequivocally rejected,” the plan for a media monitoring unit, Raj writes, “even though such an initiative has been undertaken in many advanced liberal democracies that are strong on freedom of expression.” Here he is mistaken, as most media monitoring operations are not government-run but rather done by academics, NGOs, or professional pollsters. To have government scrutinizing news media coverage on the eve of elections would just validate perceptions that Fiji’s ruling junta is tightening the screws on media, which are already heavily co-opted or intimidated. Doubtless media advisors Qorvis scotched this idea.

The full text follows.
Dear Matai,
You will attest to the fact that on several occasions, I have requested the mainstream media to disclose their in-house editorial policy. In the interest of transparency, the public should know exactly the rationale behind the publishing of select articles, opinion pieces, letters to the editor to the exclusion of others. There are some who have received unfettered access and prominence in select media outlets and still lamenting that their contributions are being heavily censored while there are those who are complaining that they have no access to mainstream media at all.
I had also suggested the idea of setting up a media monitoring unit which the mainstream media unequivocally rejected even though such an initiative has been undertaken in many advanced liberal democracies that are strong on freedom of expression.
So the onus is really on the media to substantiate their claim that they have in place an in house editorial policy that ensures that the media is balanced, that they are committed to ensuring access and equity and are transparent at all times.
 This is an important issue about access and equity and must not be misconstrued as MIDA muzzling media freedom. How does the mainstream media ensure that there is balance?
 To date, I have received nothing from the media houses. I am now requiring the media to disclose this.
 Appreciate it if you can circulate this e mail to the media. Can we convene an editors roundtable soon please?
 Regards,
Ashwin. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

In Fiji, one must choose between being an advocate for media freedom and a journalist


By Shaivalini Parmar
Human Rights Watch

In Fiji, one must choose between being an advocate for media freedom and a journalist.
The chairman of the Media Industry Development Authority (MIDA), the government body tasked with regulating the media, advised a prominent local journalist in March to make exactly that distinction in his work—providing a revealing insight on the position of media freedom in the island-nation. In Fiji, the practice of free journalism remains limited by government retribution against those who are perceived as critical of the ruling administration.

Special Broadcasting Service
Parliamentary elections, scheduled for September, should be Fiji’s first democratic elections in nearly eight years. The country has been without an elected government since Rear Admiral Voreqe Bainimarama seized power in a December 2006 military coup. Bainimarama’s government arrested, arbitrarily detained, and imposed hefty fines against journalists.  Foreign journalists, including Sean Dorney of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, who have reported on topics that the government perceived as controversial, have been summarily deported.

Multiple cases of government interference of media

As elections near, allegations of government intimidation and interference with the media have resurfaced. Newsrooms no longer host censors as in the immediate post-coup period, specifically after the Public Emergency Regulations (an act that gave authorities absolute control in determining legitimate journalism) was lifted in 2012.

But the draconian 2010 Media Decree remains in place. The decree imposes severe penalties on any publication that MIDA deems threatening to “public interest or order.” Journalists found guilty of violating the vaguely worded decree can be jailed for up to two years and fined up to 100,000 Fijian dollars. The decree also severely restricts foreign media ownership in Fiji. In addition, the government also issued the Television Amendment Decree of 2012, demanding that all broadcasting comply with the provisions of the Media Decree. It threatened to discontinue Fiji TV’s license if it broadcasted anything perceived of as “anti-government.”

And where official censorship may not occur as blatantly as in the past, this last month alone has seen multiple cases of government interference and intimidation of the media. On June 25, MIDA called for the investigation of two journalism academics from the University of the South Pacific (USP) who commented on the military’s use of torture and on the state of media freedom in Fiji. The authority lambasted the pair, claiming the statements were both unsubstantiated and could cause irreparable damage to Fiji.

In another incident in late June, MIDA denied accreditation to a prominent Fiji-based journalist, effectively barring his attendance of the Pacific Islands Development Forum in Nadi. —an act that was condemned by regional media rights groups for its lack of transparency and due process. 

Pressure on media to provide pro-government coverage

Critics have alleged that there is increasing pressure on local media to provide strictly pro-government coverage. With past contempt cases against local news outlets including the Fiji Times—in 2013 a Fiji High Court verdict imposed on it a fine of 300,000 Fijian Dollars for republishing an article questioning judicial freedom in Fiji—it is likely that publishers will continue to verge on the side of caution. The repercussions from acting to the contrary are too severe.

In a paradoxical move this past month, the government sponsored a series of voter awareness and media training sessions. But without a critical basis for unbiased reporting and open debate, these programs are rendered meaningless. When major news sources are deterred from publishing anti-government views, it creates an unbalanced playing field that will give pro-government parties an advantage in the upcoming polls.

Authorities have met all allegations of censorship and harassment with denialMIDA chairman Ashwin Raj described the USP Journalism academic’s statements as “unsubstantiated and anachronistic,” maintaining that journalists need to stay clear of debating between legality and legitimacy, and contending that journalists continue to hold a “plurality of voices.” However, as evidenced by the authority’s response and subsequent call for investigation, it is clear that certain voices are excluded from that same plurality.

If the government is committed to a democratic transition, it should cease the harassment of journalists ahead of the elections. It is imperative that authorities lift restrictions on the media, including both the 2012 Public Order Amendment Decree and the 2010 Media Decree.

Shaivalini Parmar is a senior associate with the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Will Fiji Times dodge a bullet in Kabakoro case?

Suppression orders are routine in cases of domestic violence in most countries, a fact which apparently escaped just about everyone yesterday after word leaked out that the dictator’s son Meli Bainimarama and his beautiful bride of only six months, Hosanna Kabakoro, had both been arrested and charged after a weekend altercation. Most cases of domestic violence go unnoticed by the media, of course, but this one has a double dose of the news value we call Prominence. Any time celebrities are involved, the newsworthiness of a story goes up, and this one was too sensational for a couple of Fiji news outlets to resist. Unfortunately for them, that is a crime under the 2009 Domestic Violence Decree, which allows for a suppression order to be made on the names of the parties involved. The intent is to protect the victim, of course, but the name of the accused is also usually banned from publication if a suppression order is made because publishing it would tend to identify the victim. The question in this case is exactly who is the victim.

Please don't spoil her beautiful face
After the Fiji Times and FBC ran stories naming the couple on Monday, Director of Public Prosecutions Christopher Pryde sent a memo around to media outlets informing them that a suppression order had been made. He also ordered media to immediately retract any account of the proceedings that had been published or broadcast. It would be impossible to recall every copy of the Times that had been printed, of course, but the newspaper did remove the story it had posted on its website, as did FBC. From the wording of Pryde’s memo, the order was made on Monday morning. It was likely made after regular business hours commenced, or several hours after the Fiji Times would have hit the streets. This could save the Times, which was fined $300,000 for contempt of court a couple of years ago. Another conviction would likely bring an even larger fine, which could potentially bankrupt the newspaper.

The question becomes, did FBC air the story before or after the suppression order was made? According to Google, its story was posted online five hours after the Fiji Times story. If it was aired after the suppression order was made, it could be in hot water. We would be amazed, however, if the regime-friendly broadcaster, which is run by the brother of Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, suffers any consequences. If it doesn’t and the Times does, then there will be much justified howling about favoritism.

The evidence
Word of the story leaked out Sunday on Facebook, with Fairfax New Zealand reporter Michael Field posting a cryptic item that basically dared Fiji media to investigate. “Reliable reports coming out of Suva that a key figure in the military regime is in police custody and his wife is in hospital in a bad way,” he wrote. “Local media too frightened to report.” Field reported the story on Monday, but committed an embarrassing spelling mistake. As if to prove Field wrong, the Times surprisingly ran with the story, perhaps without getting legal advice, reporting that Kabakoro suffered lacerations to her hands and bruises on her body.

According to Repúblika magazine, in a Facebook post that has also been removed, Meli Bainimarama faces four counts of assault, was released on $3,000 bail, was ordered not to have any contact with his wife, and will appear in court again on August 11. Kabakoro was also bailed, according to Repúblika, “but must appear in the High Court in the next court date because her charges are more severe. She is charged with intent to cause grievous bodily harm.” Repúblika also reported that an interim suppression order had been issued, which could spell trouble for the Times and FBC, both of which reported the story after the couple had appeared in court and been released on bail.

To make the story even more newsworthy, Kakaboro is herself a journalist, being an editor at Mai Life magazine and a former Miss Congeniality in the 2010 Miss Teen USA contest. Her family fled Fiji following the 2000 coup and she attended the University of Southern Idaho. She shacked up with Meli Bainimarama, a former soldier who now runs his own company of mercenaries and lives with his parents, and actually moved into the dictator's home with him last year, according to Field. Their New Year’s nuptials were not without controversy, Field reported, although not as much controversy as the wedding of the dictator’s daughter eight years previously. (No wonder the junta slurpers hate Field so much. He gets all the dirt.)
The couple decided to marry on December 21, but a family row blew up and the couple left for Nadi – and a small family-free wedding on New Year’s Eve at a luxury resort. Fiji media sources say local media have been told not to report any of the drama. The daily Fiji Times instead devoted its front page to the Boxing Day wedding of a Fiji clan leader, Anare Peni, 71, to one Merelita Canauvi, 20.
The most prominent person in this story, of course, is the dictator himself, and the blogs are having a field day with the hypocrisy involved. “How many lectures have we had from the leader of Fiji Fist on domestic violence?” asked Fiji Democracy Now. “From the start there has been a contradiction between the high sounding regime rhetoric and the practice.” Not six weeks ago, the dictator called violence against women a “national disgrace” and vowed to crack down on it. “It is time for all of us to think long and hard about the treatment of women in our nation because the continuing level of domestic violence in Fiji,” he said. “Through my government’s initiatives, the police have adopted a policy of zero tolerance of all violence against women.” It will be interesting to see who gets cracked down as a result of this sorry incident – husband, wife, or media.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Some excellent questions from Wadan Narsey

Sometimes we get so overwhelmed with quantity from Wadan Narsey that we lose sight of the quality of his observations. He has been researching and writing about Fiji’s economy for decades, and he has a broad understanding of how things work there. He and I are basically on the same page WRT Fiji media, except that he focuses primarily on ownership, which is my usual perspective. I believe that with the small number of players and the heavy hand of government dominating the media landscape in Fiji, ownership is not yet a consideration. The suppression of voices of dissent is an impediment to democracy ever visiting these shores again. If ever voices of opposition are ever heard here again, that will be a sign that media freedom is increasing.

Professor Narsey has posted a list of questions for MIDA boss Ashwin Raj. While waiting for his undoubtedly eloquent response, I offer my own answers and/or snarky asides, in italics.
“Questions for MIDA and Ashwin Raj”  also sent as Open Letter to Editor 
(The Fiji Times, Fiji Sun, Island Business) 3 July 2014.
Chairman MIDA  
Dear Mr Raj
I totally agree with, and support your constant reminder to the public, that MIDA should not be, and is not just concerned about media freedom and/or media censorship, but also the overall good development of the industry, as is clearly indicated by the name, Media Industry Development Authority.  
I would be grateful therefore if you would answer the following media development questions, which have been raised directly and indirectly in the public arena over the last year or so, some with you as well.  
1.         Earlier in the year, you gave a commitment at the World Press Freedom Day panel that you had written to the editors of the newspapers, seeking clarification of their policies on what letters to publish and not.  
(a)       Could you please tell the public what has been their response and whether MIDA is comfortable with their position.
Newspapers may have a written policy on letters to the editor. It is unlikely they have a written policy on news content. They may have a code of ethics. See Warren Breed’s "Social Control in the Newsroom” (1955) 
(b)       Could you also please ask all the television and radio stations what their policy is on interviewing experts on public policy issues in various fields (for example, the humble field of economics which all political parties, candidates and voters are focused on currently)?    
The foremost Fijian expert on economics is probably running against Bainimarama. Dean Biman Prasad is a keen intellect who puts school-leaver Bainimarama to shame. The media will have to interview him. Professor Narsey would be a close second, with nobody else really close behind, but the media will interview him only reluctantly, as he is well-known for telling the truth.  
2.         As a “level playing field” is an essential part of the development of a free, fair, competitive and transparent media industry, could you please inform the public what is your position on:  
(a) tax-payers advertisement funds being channelled by the Bainimarama Government only to Fiji Sun with The Fiji Times, the oldest Fijian newspaper, being totally denied
This is squarely in the political economy field which Professor Narsey and I share. Money talks, and you knows what walks. The junta has not been shy about putting its money where its marching orders are.
(b) outright subsidies given to FBC via government budget and government guarantees of loans from FDB, with no such subsidies given to either Fiji TV or the other radio broadcasters, Communications Fiji Ltd.
See above. Through the purchasing power of the Fiji government – or more correctly the borrowing power – the junta has been able to import the latest techniques of public opinion shaping. Qorvis is small potatoes in its own country, but by controlling the media, and thus public opinion, it can basically rule Fiji.
(c) the clearly intimidating renewal of the license for Fiji TV on a six monthly basis, while FBC TV suffers from no such restriction 
Richard Naidu was never more correct than when he described it as less a licence than a “good behaviour bond.”  
(d) While Fiji TV’s accounts are available to the shareholders, FBC accounts are not available at all to the taxpayers who supposedly own FBC.
There has been a decided lack of transparency in Fiji, especially on the part of the government.
(e) Mai TV’s “scoop” at obtaining rights to the broadcast of FIFA World Cup (a legitimate entrepreneurial transaction admired in the business world) being forcibly shared by decree amongst the other broadcasters, on financial terms dictated by the Bainimarama Government rather than negotiated amongst themselves as a market transaction.
“Reward your friends and punish your enemies,” Samuel Gompers, 1850-1924. Enough said.
3.         Given that you (and the PS Ministry of Information Sharon Smith Johns) have often publicly admonished journalists to be “robust” and “boldly investigative” in their work, did you query Fiji TV and the owners Fijian Holdings Limited why respected senior journalist and administrator Mr Anish Chand was sacked from Fiji TV on this year’s World Press Freedom day, because of complaints from the Bainimarama Government (as was related to you during the World Press Freedom Day panel at USP).
From all accounts, the order to fire Chand came from ASK. Raj was hired by ASK. And he would query this. . . why?
4.         Can you inform the public what your reaction is to this obvious “intimidation” (to use a euphemism) of a senior experienced award winning journalist, which clearly encourages other journalists to “self-censor” in the interests of their jobs and family welfare?   You might wish to know that well before you became Chairman of MIDA, Anish Chand had also been demoted in 2010 for having friends in the National Federation Party, while another colleague of his at Fiji TV, Merana Kitione, was also removed from her area of expertise and work, for similar reasons.
Only in Bizarro World would Mr Raj be able to give you a reaction to the obvious intimidation of journalists in Fiji, because he has been the one most pro-active in intimidating them.
Yours sincerely 
Professor Wadan Narsey Suva