Censorship continues to suppress Fiji’s media

New York, May 13, 2009–Fiji’s military government, which has been questioning several local journalists in custody, should immediately rescind emergency regulations censoring the island nation’s media, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

At least a dozen local journalists have been interrogated by police since the regulations came into force on April 10, according to The Associated Press. Initially introduced for 30 days but recently extended until June 10, the regulations forbid “negative” reports about the military regime and give government censors discretion over all news content, according to international news reports. Three foreign journalists were also deported last month and police briefly detained Fiji TV journalist Edwin Nand for publishing an interview with one of the deportees, according to international news reports.

“Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama must halt this blatant intimidation and silencing his critics,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ Asia Program Coordinator. “The media in Fiji should be allowed to report on political developments without fear of official reprisal.”

The military regime’s rules–which abrogate the constitution–were enforced the day after top judges declared its 2006 coup, led by Bainimarama, and subsequent interim rule, illegal, according to international news reports.

Restrictions on news outlets will be lifted only if they comply with standards set by the Ministry of Information, government spokesman Lt. Col. Neumi Leweni told the Fijilive news Web site today. “At the moment you can say it is censorship,” Leweni said.

At least two journalists were held recently for two days before being released. Police in the capital, Suva, arrested Fijilive journalists Dionisia Turagabeci and Shelvin Chand on Saturday and held them until Monday, according to local and international news reports. Turagabeci’s report on Australia’s view of Fiji’s government, and Chand’s on the release of security officials accused of killing three civilians from jail, were each removed from Fijilive soon after publication, according to The Austalian newspaper.

The PACNEWS news agency, run by the Pacific Islands News Association, announced today that it was relocating outside of Fiji, according to The Fiji Times.  Suva-based PACNEWS journalist Pita Ligaiula, was also detained for 24 hours on April 15, according to the Pacific Freedom Forum, a media freedom group, and local Web sites. Some reports said that Ligaiula, who also works for The Associated Press in Australia, was questioned about news reports appearing overseas. It is not clear where the news service will move to. “We would want to be in Fiji as it is in the center of the Pacific but our work as an independent news agency is becoming increasingly more difficult,” The Fiji Times quoted PACNEWS’ board chair Joseph Ealadona as saying.

A meeting held in early May by the Pacific Freedom Forum–which took place in Samoa instead of Fiji due to the political climate–hosted Times editor Netani Rika, who described the pressures his newspaper faced, including inconsistent censors and the growth of blogs filling the void with rumor as well as news, according to the international blog aggregator Web site Global Voices Online, which analyzed online reactions to the forum. Rika said the government has ordered Internet cafes to close at 6 p.m. to limit the exchange of views that were not subjected to Ministry of Information clearance, according to a transcript of his script published by the Coup Four and a Half blog.