Attacks on the Press 1999: Fiji

Relations between Fiji’s lively independent press and the newly elected government of Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry deteriorated badly over the course of the year, as the administration’s near-constant verbal attacks against local media were punctuated by more serious actions.

On June 21, Assistant Minister for Information Lekh Ram Vayeshnoi announced that the government would introduce a bill to regulate print and broadcast media. Even though Chaudhry promised after his election in May not to introduce licensing measures or any other legislation to control the press, the proposed bill would replace the industry-sponsored Fiji Media Council with a new body controlled by the state. The bill had not been formally presented by the end of the year.

In October, the Fiji Media Council announced that the prime minister’s concerns regarding media bias and sensationalism were justified, adding that the council would address these problems by drafting a code of ethics. Chaudhry was invited to inaugurate the new code. He used the opportunity to announce plans for the establishment of a media tribunal with power to award damages.

Chaudhry’s diatribes against the media began even before he was elected, and continued to be a regular feature of his public statements. In a speech delivered in early May, Chaudhry claimed that he was the victim of a conspiracy “by rich media organizations that try and deny the right to the Labour Party to win the election.” And in an address to the Labour Party convention in August, Chaudhry noted that “certain elements in the media, who are no doubt there to protect the interests of the establishment, began a campaign to distort and discredit government’s policy.”

The daily Fiji Times, owned by Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch, was a particular target of the government’s ire. In a June speech, Chaudhry signaled his intention to amend the media laws to discourage foreign ownership of the media. The state owns a controlling share in Fiji’s only other daily newspaper, the Daily Post. On August 21, the Daily Post reported that the Information Ministry had circulated a memorandum among government agencies warning department heads not to place government ads in the Fiji Times, the country’s largest-circulation daily.

And on November 25, government officials told Russell Hunter, the paper’s Scottish editor, that his work permit would not be renewed. The immigration department contended that his position should be filled by a local. The Pacific Islands News Association (PINA)–a press freedom organization based in Suva, Fiji–retorted that the government’s action was intended to curb the newspaper’s editorial independence. Hunter’s appeal for judicial review of the decision was pending at year’s end.

Foreign journalists were particularly vulnerable to government harassment because of the bureaucracy’s power to determine their right to work in the country. On March 12, David Lomas, executive producer of Television New Zealand’s current affairs program “60 Minutes,” was barred from entering the country. Officials told Lomas that his name appeared on a government “blacklist.”

On July 16, Ken Clark, the Canadian chief executive of Fiji Television, received notice from the immigration department that his work permit would not be renewed, and that he would have to leave Fiji by July 25. Though the government ultimately reconsidered its decision and granted Clark a one-year extension, his continued employment was made conditional on Fiji TV’s training of a local journalist to replace Clark at the end of this term.

Fiji’s 1998 constitution promised expanded freedoms of speech and of the press. While Fiji’s media remain the freest, most diverse in the Pacific, a government backlash could quickly wipe out the gains made in recent years.