Fiji’s repressive media decree takes effect

New York, June 28, 2010—A new Fijian media decree that formalizes repressive government control of the media could force the outspoken Fiji Times to close within three months, according to international news reports.

Fiji Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum announced at a press conference today that the Media Industry Development Decree, drafted in April, is now in effect, according to local and international news reports. The decree requires all media outlet directors and 90 percent of shareholders to be citizens and permanent residents of Fiji. Sayed-Khaiyum set a deadline three months from today for media organizations to comply or cease to operate, the news reports said.

The clause targets the Times, which has been owned for 23 years by News Ltd., the Australian arm of Rupert Murdoch’s New York-based News Corp., according to international news reports. “At this stage Fiji Times is the media organization that needs to comply with the ownership requirements,” Sayed-Khaiyum said during the press conference, according to a report on the Times’ Web site.

The decree’s other measures forbid news broadcasts “against the national interest or public order” and reporting without a byline, with a government-appointed tribunal to adjudicate complaints, the reports said. Penalties for noncompliance have been reduced since the April draft, but still include hefty fines and potential jail terms, according to the reports.  

Military leader Frank Bainimarama banned reporting critical of the government under emergency regulations in April 2009 after a court ruled his 2006 coup unlawful. The Fiji Times was among many media outlets to question Bainimarama’s failure to meet his pledge to restore democracy by 2009. Sayed-Khaiyum said today that censorship would continue for the next three months, according to the Times.  

“Frank Bainimarama’s government must repeal this decree and cease restricting news content,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “Bainimarama took power promising a return to democracy, but his actions are increasingly dictatorial.”

News Ltd.’s Australian office did not answer calls and e-mails after local business hours today. John Hartigan, News Ltd. chairman and chief executive, said in a statement there was “no doubt that this move is designed to force our hand in selling the business and pulling out of Fiji,” according to The Associated Press.

The Fiji Times, the country’s oldest newspaper, has come under increasing pressure in the past few years, with at least two senior Australian staff members deported after officials questioned their work permits, according to CPJ research.

The April draft threatened publishers, editors, and journalists with fines of 100,000 Fiji dollars (US$50,000) and five-year jail terms for breaching the decree, according to an AP report in April. That has been revised to 25,000 Fiji dollars (US$13,000) or two years in prison, according to Agence France-Presse. Media organizations still face up to 100,000 Fiji dollar (US$50,000) penalties.