Reporters Without Borders appeals to President Ratu Josefa Iloilo and Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, the head of Fiji’s military government, to repeal measures taken on 10 April that institutionalise media censorship and violate Fiji’s international undertakings to respect the rule of law.
“The military government is heading dangerously towards a Burmese-style system in which the media are permanently subject to prior censorship and other forms of obstruction,” Reporters Without Borders said. “We appeal to the international community, especially the European Union and United Nations, to respond to this manifest desire to restrict the free flow of news and information by speaking out and firmly condemning media censorship.”
President Iloilo suspended the constitution on 10 April and announced a “new legal order”. The next day, he reappointed the head of the armed forces, Commodore Bainimarama, as prime minister, a position Bainimarama has held since a December 2006 military coup.
Since then, soldiers and information ministry personnel have taken up positions inside the print and broadcast media. Officials say their job to prevent the publication or broadcasting of reports that could cause “disorder”, “disaffection” or “public alarm” The media have been told they must “cooperate” and must not criticise the new regime or carry stories that could regarded as “incitement”.
According to the Public Emergency Regulations introduced under a 30-day state of emergency on 10 April, the permanent secretary for information now has complete control over what the news media report in Fiji, and officials have urged the media to report “positive” news. The measures have been widely condemned by regional press freedom groups such as the Pacific Media Centre, which has talked of an “Orwellian era of ruthless censorship and intimidation.”
The authorities have also targeted the international media in the capital, Suva. Reporter Sia Aston and cameraman Matt Smith of New Zealand’s TV3 and Australian Broadcasting Corporation reporter Sean Dorney were forced to leave Fiji today. While not formally arrested, they were given no choice and were escorted to the airport. The police confiscated the material that Aston had filmed on censorship. He said the Fijian media were under “very strong pressure” from the government.
Edwin Nand, a journalist with the Fijian TV station Fiji One, was detained at Suva police headquarters for interviewing an Australian journalist.
The media have responded with protests. The Sunday edition of the Fiji Times was published on 12 April with pages that were completely blank except for this note: “The stories on this page could not be published due to government restrictions.”
Greg Baxter, a spokesman for the company that owns the Fiji Times, News Ltd, said: “We are at this stage making the decision not to publish anything rather than publish something that has been censored.” The newspaper’s editor, Netani Rika, and its publisher were summoned by the information ministry on 12 April and reprimanded for being “uncooperative”. It stopped printing blank pages the next day but seemed to be boycotting all political news.
The staff of the national television station also protested about the censorship on 12 April, when Fijians saw the following message on an otherwise black screen: “Viewers please be advised that there will be no 6 p.m. news tonight.”
Two Fiji Sun editors were summoned for questioning yesterday for publishing a front-page article announcing that the daily newspaper would refuse to cover politics in protest against the censorship. An online chat forum, Sotiacentral.com, decided to close rather than let its members be censored.
Tuiloma Neroni Slade, the secretary-general of the Pacific Islands Forum, said: “The curtailment of media access and freedom of speech and the disregard for judicial independence are especially worrying.” Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said Fiji had become a “military dictatorship.” New Zealand foreign minister Murray McCully said Fiji’s suspension from the Commonwealth and the Pacific Islands Forum was “inevitable”.