Friday, June 01, 2007

Fiji military declares war on bloggers

The Fijian military has told students at the University of the South Pacific that if they are responsible for contributing to anti-Government blogs, their Fijian Affairs Board scholarships will be terminated. Land force commander, Colonel Pita Driti warned the students they would be tracked down and several were taken in for questioning earlier this week. The move is the latest salvo in the war between Fiji’s unelected government and the country’s bloggers. Most of these sites have sprung up since last December’s military coup that took Frank Bainimarama into power.

Fiji International Telecommunications Limited (FINTEL) is the only provider of internet technology in the country. Last month a FINTEL spokesman confirmed the interim administration asked them to shut off access to the offending blogs. The government had asked for access be cut off for "national security" reasons.

A senior administration officer of the Public Service Commission has also been questioned by army officers in relation to anti-army and anti-regime blogs. Sites including Intelligentsiya, Why Fiji is Crying, and Discombobulated Bubu have broken stories that have embarrassed the interim government since the coup.

The mainstream media has also suffered censorship in the wake of the new regime. In December last year, the country’s largest newspaper the Fiji Times was forced to temporarily suspend publication after the military ordered the paper not to publish any "propaganda" against the new political leadership. The military raided the papers offices and shut it down saying it would not tolerate it publishing any views that opposed those of the Army.

Commodore Frank Bainimarama seized power in Fiji in December last year. For months prior to the coup, he had threatened to throw Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase from office over what he called government corruption and controversial proposed laws that planned to give amnesty to the failed 2000 coup plotters. When Bainimarama finally did take over in a bloodless coup, he claimed the takeover would be temporary, and that a caretaker government would be installed and fresh elections held.

But having established himself as Prime Minister in January this year, Bainimarama has changed his tune about the freshness of the elections. In February he set out a “roadmap” that would lead to elections in 2010. He claimed the long lead-up time was needed to restore Fiji's poorly performing economy and reflected the military's "aspiration'' to remove corruption from government.

His announcement came just a day after the 16-nations Pacific Islands' Forum Eminent Persons’ Group Report (pdf) called for elections in 18 months to two years to restore democracy. That report did not comment on the legality of the coup, which it said was a matter for the Fijian courts to resolve but expressed concern that Bainimarama had linked the election timetable to the anti-corruption drive. The report also condemned the ongoing state of emergency which it said was a major obstacle to the return of normality.

The coup was Fiji’s fourth coup in twenty years. All are related to tensions between ethnic Indians and native Fijians. The first two coups occurred in 1987. In May that year, Lieutenant Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka led armed soldiers into parliament and seized power from Prime Minister Timoci Bavadra, head of a recently-elected multi-racial coalition government. Rabuka’s aim was to restore power to indigenous Fijians. Unhappy with political progress from the subsequent negotiations, Rabuka staged a second coup in September. He declared Fiji a republic with himself as its leader, and withdrew from the Commonwealth.

Rabuka held on to power for another 12 years. In 1999 Mahendra Chaudhry came to power on another multi-racial ticket. A year later his government and Fiji’s economy was wrecked when businessman George Speight launched another coup. His support was boosted by claims that ethnic Indians were plotting to seize indigenous-owned land. Speight led a gang who stormed the government buildings and kidnapped 36 government officials including Chaudhry. They held them captive for two months. While the siege continued, President Ratu Mara sacked the government for being “unable to exercise their duties”. Commodore Bainimarama then stepped in and announced on radio and television that he had taken over the government. He signed an accord with Speight to end the hostage crisis and release the prisoners. Speight was arrested shortly afterwards.

Bainimarama handed back power to civilians and appointed Qarase as the new prime minister. Although the Fijian High Court would later declare the interim government as illegal, Chaudhry would never return as leader. However since the 2006 coup he is now back in favour. Bainimarama appointed him interim Finance, Sugar Reform and National Planning Minister in the military-backed interim administration.

However evidence of abuse of freedom of speech is mounting since the coup. Reporters Without Borders gave several examples of censorship in the direct aftermath of Bainimarama’s latest takeover. They include the arrest and deportation of editor-in-chief of the Fiji Daily Post, Australian national Robert Wolfgramm and the threatening of the Post’s reporter Jyoti Pratibha’s family. The army has also questioned businessman Imraz Iqbal and trade unionist Kenneth Zinck who both made critical comments of the regime. At least two people who write regularly to the letters editor of the Fiji Times have also received threats.

Reporters Without Borders have now condemned the decision of military authorities in Fiji to block access to blogs. The group issued a press release stating it objected to the misuse of "national security" argument to increase Internet control. "This is an unprecedented step in Fiji. In a country where the press is regularly threatened by the authorities, the new policy of filtering the Net is worrying," it said. However Tony Yianni of the Fiji Times remains undaunted by the government’s heavy-handedness. "I think the military needs to remember an age-old truism in a battle between guns and pens, pens always win,” he said.

No comments: