Spate of attacks on journalists follow recent coup

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New York, July 19, 2000–The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemned recent attacks by forces under the control of rebel leader George Speight and called on the coup leader to respect the right of the press to work freely. The press in Fiji has been operating without constitutional protections since martial law was declared on May 29, and CPJ is concerned that these attacks foreshadow new restrictions on press freedom.

On May 19, Speight with his forces stormed Fiji’s parliamentary complex, taking Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, and at least 30 others, hostage; the group was released on July 13. In the past eight weeks, Speight’s rebel supporters have engaged in a pattern of violence and intimidation against journalists trying to cover unfolding events. CPJ has documented a number of instances of journalists being detained, assaulted, and threatened. In one case, a cameraman was shot in the arm; in another incident, rebels ransacked a local TV station.

“There is no excuse for violence against journalists,” said Ann Cooper, executive director of CPJ. “The most basic norms of civilized behavior as enshrined in international law demand respect for freedom of the press, even during periods of conflict.”

A non-partisan organization dedicated to the defense of journalists around the world, CPJ has documented the following cases of attacks against the press in Fiji:

  • On May 27, Jerry Harmer, a cameraman for Associated Press Television News, was shot in the arm while he taped an armed confrontation between approximately 150 coup supporters and about a dozen government troops. Harmer reported that a rebel soldier had pointed his gun at a group of journalists before firing once and hitting him. Harmer was treated at Colonial War Memorial Hospital in Suva, then flown to Australia for recuperation. In this case, Speight denied responsibility for the media’s safety, saying journalists were there “at their own risk.”
  • On May 28, coup supporters led a rampage through Suva, including a siege of the headquarters of Fiji TV. Fiji TV staff fled the building, while rebels destroyed an estimated $300,000 worth of equipment. The station remained off the air for 18 hours while government troops secured the premises. Local journalists said one hour prior to the attack, Fiji TV’s “Close Up” had examined the legitimacy of the coup in a critical context.
  • On May 29, administrators at the University of the South Pacific shut down Pacific Journalism Online (PJO), the Web site of USP’s journalism students. Vice Chancellor Eselia Solofa explained the decision as a security measure. The last item posted on PJO in May was a transcript of Fiji TV’s “Close Up,” the program that may have prompted the rebel assault on the station. PJO has become an important source of news and information since the coup. The University of Technology in Sydney briefly played host to the PJO; on June 28, the university was said to allow the site to go back up, but prohibited it from posting news about the coup.

  • On June 28, ten foreign and six local journalists were detained by Geroge Speight after a press conference. Involuntarily held were correspondents from The Fiji Times, The Fiji Sun, Fiji TV, FM96 Radio, Sydney Morning Herald, Reuters TV, Agence France-Presse, Australia Broadcasting Corporation, Network 9 and Radio New Zealand. Speight told the journalists that he could not guarantee their safety outside parliament, and that military leaders had ordered their soldiers to shoot-to-kill. He advised the correspondants to spend the night, and some felt they were in danger of being held hostage. Speight released the journalists after an approximate two-hour detention.

  • On July 4, Sitivene Moce, a photojournalist with The Fiji Sun, was detained, threatened, and beaten by Speight supporters. When Moce arrived for a press conference at the parliament buildings, armed rebels accused him of photographing other rebels. Moce denied the charges, but was confined by the rebels, interrogated, and threatened with physical harm. Moce believes the men were in communication with Speight via two-way radio. Eventually they agreed they had mistaken Moce for someone else, and he was released. But as Moce was leaving the parliamentary complex about 30 Speight supporters swarmed him, severely beat him, and robbed him of his camera equipment and personal possessions. On July 10, Speight’s spokesman Jo Nata apologized directly to Moce, but no equipment was returned.