Radio journalists harassed for reporting on military

October 24, 2000

His Excellency Ratu Josefa Iloilo
President, Republic of Fiji
Office of the President
Suva, Fiji

VIA FACSIMILE: +679-301-645

Your Excellency:

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is alarmed by the recent harassment of three Radio Fiji journalists who had aired a controversial news item alleging divisions within the Fijian military concerning the composition of the interim government.

Military authorities pressured the three journalists to violate a basic professional ethic by disclosing the confidential military source for this report.

On October 20, at 9 a.m., military chief Commodore Frank Bainimarama phoned Francis Herman, chief editor and acting chief executive officer of the state-owned radio station. Bainimarama asked Herman to disclose the source of a news segment that had aired earlier that morning, reporting that certain elements within the military opposed the appointment of Vice President Ratu Jope Seniloli as acting president during Your Excellency’s forthcoming visit to Australia.

Herman told CPJ that Bainimarama had threatened to arrest him unless he identified the anonymous military source quoted in the story. Herman declined to reveal the source.

At 10:30 a.m., around 10 soldiers arrived at the Radio Fiji headquarters in the capital city of Suva, and took Herman into custody, along with news director Vasiti Waqa and reporter Maca Lutunauga. The three journalists were told that Bainimarama had ordered their detention for questioning under the provisions of the emergency decree, which was imposed following the May 19 coup led by George Speight.

As Your Excellency is well aware, Fiji’s constitution is currently suspended, and its civil-liberty protections are not guaranteed under the current state of emergency.

From 11 a.m. to nearly 4 p.m., military officers interrogated the journalists at army headquarters in Suva. According to Herman, the officers pressed them to reveal the name of the unidentified military source from that morning’s report, but did not demand either a retraction or an apology. At approximately 4 p.m., police officers arrived and took each of the three journalists to separate rooms, where they were again interrogated.

Police then escorted the three journalists to the central police station. They were detained for close to an hour, and then released with the warning that they might face charges under state security provisions of the emergency decree.

In a press release posted the same day on the government’s Web site, Home Minister Ratu Talemo Ratakele stated that Radio Fiji had “acted in a manner which can be construed as seriously prejudicial to the national interest, public order, and national security of Fiji,” and said its actions were “tantamount to destabilization.”

In an October 21 interview with Radio Australia, Assistant Commissioner of Police Jahir Khan stated that the journalists had escaped prosecution thanks to a legal loophole. Khan added that government lawyers were drafting legislation that would, among other things, force journalists to reveal the source of their stories.

As an organization of journalists dedicated to the defense of our colleagues around the world, CPJ is dismayed by your government’s blatant disregard for press freedom, an internationally recognized human right. In the absence of constitutional protections and other democratic safeguards, journalists in Fiji are particularly vulnerable to arbitrary abuses of state power. We therefore respectfully urge Your Excellency to instruct army officials to refrain from such authoritarian tactics in the future, and to pledge publicly that press freedom will not be threatened under your interim administration.

In order for journalists to perform their civic duty of reporting the news, confidential sources must be absolutely certain that their identity will be protected. For this reason, we hope your government will abandon its extra-legal persecution of Francis Herman, Vasiti Waqa, and Maca Lutunauga.

We thank you for your attention to these matters, and await your response.


Ann K. Cooper
Executive Director