Fiji’s draft media decree threatens long-term restrictions

New York, April 7, 2010—Fiji’s military regime should withdraw a draft decree that would regulate media ownership and news content, while authorizing the imposition of fines and prison terms for violations, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. 

Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, who has maintained a supposedly temporary military rule since seizing power in a 2006 coup, announced the decree shortly before a compulsory three-day meeting with media representatives began today, according to international news reports. A new media development authority would enforce the regulations, which could be enacted soon after the consultations finish, the reports said. No exact date was specified.

The decree would replace the official censors whom Bainimarama posted in newsrooms during a state of emergency imposed in April 2009 when a senior court called his regime unlawful. The draft decree forbids content that might provoke “communal discord” and sets penalties up to 100,000 Fiji dollars (US$51,000) and five years in jail, according to international news reports. 

“It is deeply concerning that Prime Minister Bainimarama’s military government is attempting to codify censorship measures introduced during last year’s state of emergency,” CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney said. “This decree would shore up the government’s power to restrict the media at a time when independent reporting should be promoted as a necessary step towards re-establishing democracy.”

Media companies would have to be 90 percent owned by citizens of Fiji under the decree, a clause that would oblige the nation’s largest newspaper, Fiji Times, to change hands. The Times, currently owned by an Australian subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., has consistently challenged the government’s legitimacy since it took power. The paper’s Australian manager and publisher were among several international journalists expelled in the past two years.

Local journalists have been repeatedly detained and questioned as part of Bainimarama’s campaign to crush media opposition to his continued rule, CPJ research shows. He had originally pledged to restore democracy to Fiji by 2009, according to international news reports.