Fiji’s emergency ends, but media oppression continues

Fiji’s military leadership on Saturday lifted emergency regulations it had been using to stymie the country’s press since 2009, according to local government websites. Good news? Maybe. Yet the regime still restricts the media, and anyone else who dares to question the legitimacy of the 2006 coup that brought its leaders to power–suggesting they are more concerned about appearances than press freedom.

CPJ has been covering censorship enforced by the emergency regulations since they were put in place by Fiji’s self-appointed leader, Commodore Bainimarama, in April 2009, when censors were posted in newsrooms to excise anti-government reporting before publication. The timing–Bainimarama’s military-backed rule had been pronounced unlawful by top judges, who he subsequently fired–was blatant, and official spokespeople appeared unconcerned about how this appeared overseas: “You can say it is censorship,” one told the press.

Supposedly a 30-day measure, the regulations remained in place even after a media decree was drafted and passed to replace them. That decree introduced penalties, including jail terms, for any reporting that a government authority deems “against the national interest,” and altered media ownership laws to oblige the critical, then-Australian-owned newspaper Fiji Times to pass to local management. Meanwhile, the “emergency” censors stayed in place. Thanks to both of these measures, self-censorship is so firmly instilled that the repeal of the emergency, unsurprisingly, “has not led to a sudden blossoming of political debate” in the media, as Australia’s ABC Radio reported this week.  

So when an Information Ministry representative tells the Fiji Times that “Government will no longer censor the news,” as one did on January 3, or Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum tells ABC Radio, “there won’t be government censors in newsrooms,” after January 7, it’s difficult to feel optimistic. The media decree remains in force, and if that weren’t enough, the lifting of the emergency laws was swiftly followed by the implementation of revisions to laws protecting public order, which strengthen prohibitions on public gatherings or challenging the actions of the prime minister. These are not the actions of a leadership inclined to foster free expression.

Sayed-Khaiyum has not responded to CPJ’s emailed or faxed requests for comment. His remarks to ABC, however, and other official statements, reveal a concerted effort to minimize international condemnation by comparison with other countries. “Would you be able to stand in Australia, if you run a story on your news report and say that [Prime Minister Julia] Gillard is a crook?” he asked. The tone on the government’s website is just as defensive:

No element of the modernization to the Public Order Act goes beyond what other countries have currently in place. In fact, as outlined below, Fiji is not as strict as many other countries.

The bold emphasis, which is in the original, may be the key to understanding what has really changed in Fiji.

To mark the five-year anniversary of Bainimarama’s seizure of power in December, CPJ and several other groups, including Human Rights Watch, criticized press freedom restrictions and other human rights abuses that have occurred on his watch. It is reassuring that the regulations were lifted just a month later, because it suggests the regime is becoming more attuned to international opinion. But it is not enough. This week’s changes merely present censorship in the more acceptable language of public security and media regulation. Bainimarama must scrap the restrictive media decree and encourage public debate if he is truly committed to restoring democracy, his alleged goal for the past five years. Until then, the international community should continue to call him what he is: A dictator suppressing the media to maintain his illegitimate hold on power.