FIJI’S PRESS, AMONG THE FREEST AND MOST DIVERSE IN THE PACIFIC REGION, endured a tumultuous year, marked by a coup attempt that effectively dismantled the country’s democratic foundations. While former prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry had been a harsh critic of the press during his brief tenure, journalists came under much greater pressure during the months of political uncertainty that followed his ouster.
The crisis began on May 19, when rebel leader George Speight seized control of the parliamentary complex in the capital, Suva, taking the prime minister and many members of his multiracial Cabinet hostage. Chaudhry was the country’s first Indo-Fijian prime minister, but his election in May 1999 clearly did not end tensions between Fiji’s indigenous population and the island’s ethnic Indians, mostly descendants of indentured laborers first brought in by the British in the late 1800s.
Speight, a failed businessman, was a skilled media manipulator in the early days of the coup attempt, disguising his bid for personal power as a crusade to help indigenous Fijians. Speight and his spokesman Josefa Nata, a former reporter, held numerous press conferences within the besieged parliamentary complex, making themselves far more accessible to journalists than did representatives of the government or military.
Despite this media-friendly strategy, rebels loyal to Speight were responsible for numerous attacks against the press: shooting Australian cameraman Jerry Harmer, ransacking Fiji’s only television station, and beating up photographer Sitivene Moce when he attended one of Speight’s news conferences. Rebel violence also prompted the University of the South Pacific to temporarily shut down Pacific Journalism Online, a student-run Web site that had been an important source of news about the crisis.
The government also contributed to an increasingly hostile climate for the Fijian press. On May 29, Fiji’s military chief declared martial law. The next day, he suspended the country’s 1997 Constitution, whose Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of expression. The military-backed interim government, which took over in July, seemed in no hurry to return the country to democratic rule.
In October, military authorities detained and interrogated three journalists from Radio Fiji, threatening to prosecute them for a report on political divisions within the military. The home minister warned that the journalists’ actions threatened national security and were “tantamount to destabilization.” Though the journalists were not prosecuted, their harassment underlined the vulnerability of the press under the emergency regulations. Additionally, the assistant commissioner of police announced that government lawyers were drafting legislation that would force journalists to reveal their sources.
When an army special-forces unit mutinied in November, many feared that the military might seize power outright to restore stability, which would likely have dire implications for press freedom.
The political landscape remained uncertain at year’s end, with the interim government refusing to accept High Court judgments declaring that the administration was illegally installed and that the Constitution remained in force. Meanwhile, Speight and nine of his alleged co-conspirators were in prison awaiting trial on charges of treason and assorted other crimes committed in the course of the rebellion.
Cameraman Jerry Harmer’s shooting figured prominently in a case that became a test of the immunity protections offered to the rebels under the peace accord. In the trial of Isoa Raceva Karawa, a rebel who faced three counts of attempted murder for allegedly targeting Harmer and two government soldiers, a High Court judge reversed a lower court’s acquittal, arguing that the rebels’ failure to turn in their weapons as required by the terms of the agreement effectively nullified the immunity decree.
Jerry Harmer, The Associated Press
Harmer, a cameraman for The Associated Press Television News (APTN), was shot in the arm while filming an armed confrontation between a dozen government soldiers and approximately 200 supporters of coup leader George Speight. The clash took place at an army checkpoint 100 yards (110 meters) away from the parliament compound in Suva, where Speight was holding more than 30 hostages, including Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry.
Harmer said that the rebels aimed directly at a group of journalists who were standing about 10 meters (11 yards) away from the fighting. Rick Rycroft, an AP photographer, saw that a shot was imminent and ducked; Harmer was hit instead. Harmer was treated at Colonial War Memorial Hospital in Suva, then flown to Australia.
Speight later stated that the media’s safety was not his responsibility, saying that journalists were there “at their own risk.”
Speight supporter Isoa Raceva Karawa was subsequently charged with three counts of attempted murder, for allegedly targeting Harmer and two government soldiers, and with illegal possession of firearms. On July 21, a local judge acquitted Karawa on all counts in accordance with a recent amnesty decree.
However, on October 2, Justice Peter Surman of the Suva High Court struck down the lower court’s ruling, stating that the rebels’ failure to turn in their weapons, as required by the peace accord, effectively nullified the amnesty. Karawa’s lawyer appealed this decision.
Rebel supporters of coup leader George Speight ransacked the headquarters of Fiji TV during a rampage through the capital, Suva.
Station staff estimated that equipment worth US$300,000 was destroyed after rebels forced them to flee the building. The station was off the air for 18 hours and relied on military guards to secure its premises while repairs were made.
Local journalists said the attack appeared to be in retaliation for critical coverage of Speight on a current affairs program called “Close Up,” which aired an hour before the attack.
Speight and his supporters had seized control of the parliament compound on May 19 and were holding more than 30 hostages, including Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry. No charges were filed or arrests made in connection with the attack on Fiji TV.
Pacific Journalism Online
University of the South Pacific officials imposed a 30-day suspension on Pacific Journalism Online (PJO), a Web site run by student journalists, without warning and initially without explanation.
Two days later, Vice Chancellor Eselia Solofa said in a statement that the decision was made for “security reasons,” but added that the shut-down would be temporary.
Rebel leader George Speight had launched a coup attempt on May 19, when he seized the parliamentary compound and captured more than 30 hostages, including Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry.
The PJO Web site (www.usp.ac.fj/journ/) carried hourly updates on the unfolding coup. The last item posted before the university took down the site was the transcript of a Fiji TV program that had apparently provoked a rebel attack on the television station.
During the suspension, PJO articles were hosted on a Web site run by the University of Technology in Sydney. On June 28, Solofa allowed the Web site back on the university’s server, but prohibited PJO staffers to post any news about the coup.
Rei Jeli, The Fiji Times
Leone Cabenadabua, The Fiji Sun
Virisila Buadromo, Radio FM 96
Trevor Whippy, Fiji TV
Michael Field, Agence France-Presse
James Regan, Reuters
Harry Burton, Reuters Television
Brad Schmidt, Network Nine
Guy Martin, Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Malcolm Brown, Sydney Morning Herald
Shona Geary, Radio New Zealand
Rebels loyal to coup leader George Speight detained several journalists inside the Fijian parliament compound for about two hours. At the time, Speight was holding more than 30 hostages inside the compound, including Fiji’s Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry.
The journalists included Jeli, a reporter for The Fiji Times; Cabenadabua, a reporter for The Fiji Sun; Buadromo, a reporter for Fiji’s Radio FM96; Whippy, of Fiji TV; Field, a correspondent for Agence France-Presse; Regan, a reporter for Reuters; Burton, a cameraman for Reuters Television; Schmidt, of the Australian broadcaster Network Nine; Martin, a radio reporter for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation; Brown, of the Australian daily Sydney Morning Herald; and Geary, a reporter for Radio New Zealand.
Speight instructed the journalists, who had come for a press conference, to stay inside the compound for safety reasons. When one reporter asked if they were free to go, Speight repeated his admonition. Another was stopped by rebels as he attempted to leave.
The journalists were eventually permitted to leave the complex, but some of them later told CPJ that they felt in danger of being taken hostage.
Sitivene Moce, The Fiji Sun
Moce, a photographer for The Fiji Sun, was detained, threatened, and beaten by supporters of coup leader George Speight inside Fiji’s parliamentary complex, where he had gone to cover a press conference. Speight took control of parliament on May 19 and was holding more than 30 hostages there, including Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry.
Rebels accused Moce of photographing them from a police barricade outside the parliamentary complex. Moce denied this, but was taken to a room where he was threatened with violence by armed men whom he believed were in contact with Speight by two-way radio. He was released after rebels conceded that they had mistaken him for someone else.
On his way out of the complex, Moce was again attacked, this time by some 30 rebel supporters, who beat him severely and robbed him of his camera equipment and personal possessions.
On July 10 Speight’s spokesman, Josefa Nata, apologized directly to Moce for the attacks.
Francis Herman, Radio Fiji
Vasiti Waqa, Radio Fiji
Maca Lutunauga, Radio Fiji
Herman, chief editor and acting chief executive officer of the state-owned Radio Fiji, was interrogated and threatened with prosecution, along with news director Waqa and reporter Lutunauga, after the station reported dissension in military ranks over the appointment of an acting president.
The three journalists were told that Fijian military chief Commodore Frank Bainimarama had ordered them detained for questioning under the provisions of an emergency decree imposed after the May 19 coup attempt led by George Speight. Bainimarama had earlier phoned Herman to demand that he disclose the source for a report that said some officers in the military had opposed the appointment of Vice President Ratu Jope Seniloli as acting president during President Ratu Josefa Iloilo’s impending visit to Australia.
The journalists were interrogated for almost five hours at army headquarters in the capital, Suva. According to Herman, the officers pressed them to reveal the unidentified military source for their radio report, but did not demand either a retraction or an apology. The journalists were then interrogated separately by police officers, taken to the central police station, and released with threats that they could 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 said 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 their sources.
CPJ sent a letter to President Iloilo on October 24, noting that the absence of constitutional protections and other democratic safeguards in Fiji since the coup attempt had made journalists particularly vulnerable to arbitrary abuses of state power, and asking him to instruct army officials to refrain from attempts to control the media.
The following day, CPJ received a formal acknowledgment from Information Minister Ratu Inoke Kabuabola.