Fiji should halt censorship and media expulsions

New York, April 13, 2009–Fiji’s interim government must relax its reporting restrictions after the government declared a 30-day state of emergency on Friday, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Three foreign reporters have since been ordered to be deported and one local journalist detained, according to international news reports, and newspapers and broadcasts have been censored.

Australian Sean Dorney and New Zealand’s Sia Aston and Matt Smith, said Monday that immigration officials ordered them to leave the country because of their reporting, according to the news reports. A Fiji Television journalist was also detained for questioning late Monday for reporting on Dorney’s deportation, according to Agence France-Presse. The Australian ABC network named the journalist as Edwin Nand.

Local news reports critical of the government have been banned during the state of emergency, caretaker Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama announced Saturday in a national address marking his reappointment. He had briefly stepped down on April 10 after a senior court ruled that Bainimarama’s military-backed rule–supposedly a prelude to restoring democracy–was unlawful, the reports said. “Information officers” were posted in Fiji’s newsrooms to monitor reports that might incite “disorder,” disrupting several reports on Sunday and Monday, according to international news reports.

“The introduction of blanket censorship during the emergency calls the government’s commitment to restoring democracy into serious doubt,” said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. “The authorities must remove censors from newsrooms, lift restrictions, free detained journalists, and halt the expulsion of foreign reporters immediately.”

Fiji President Ratu Josefa Iloilo declared the emergency on Friday, overturning the constitution and firing the judiciary, after the court of appeal said Thursday that a December 2006 coup–lead by Bainimarama–was illegal, international news reports said.

Dorney, an ABC journalist whose reports were being broadcast on Fiji One, was driven with a military guard to the airport on Monday, according to Agence France-Presse. He had previously told reporters the immigration department had asked him to leave because they were unhappy with his reporting. Officials confiscated footage and a cell phone from Aston, a New Zealand TV3 correspondent, according to The Associated Press. She and cameraman Matt Smith were also asked to leave the country, international news reports said. It is not clear whether any of the three are still in Fiji.

Page two of the daily Fiji Times was blank except for a notice: “The stories on this page could not be published because of Government restrictions,” AP reported. Fiji One replaced an evening news bulletin with the message, “Viewers please be advised that there will be no 6 p.m. news tonight.Three other Australians affiliated with prominent publications have been expelled from Fiji in the past 14 months. Fiji Sun manager Russell Hunter was accused of threatening national security in February 2008 after the paper reported on government corruption. Evan Hannah, Australian manager of the Fiji Times, was expelled for alleged work permit irregularities in May 2008. That paper’s publisher, Rex Gardner, was forced to leave for the same reason in January 2009, according to international news reports.