Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Media expulsions keep Fiji on the Commonwealth outer

The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) has decided to continue the suspension of Fiji from its organisation. The 53-nation bloc readmitted Pakistan due to its recently elected government but decided Fiji would remain outside the pale. CMAG made the announcement in London saying it doubted Fiji would honour its intention to hold elections in the next 12 months. According to Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma, said that both judicial independence and freedom of the media were seriously compromised with media personnel being deported in contravention of court orders.

Fijian dictator Frank Bainimarana rebuffed the criticisms of his regime saying CMAG has failed to “recognise the realities in his country”. He said it was “most unfortunate” Fiji was being judged from a distance without taking the on-ground situation into account. Bainimarana lamented the fact that Fiji was not invited to the meeting to explain its position. "There seemed to have been insufficient effort to understand the practical difficulties of the situation in Fiji," Bainimarama said. However he did not explain his heavy-handed treatment of Fijian media including the expulsion of two Australian newspaper editors in three months despite court orders preventing the actions.

The latest Australian to be deported is Evan Hannah, publisher of the News Corp owned Fiji Times. Hannah was forcibly removed from his home in Suva on 1 May and taken to Nadi airport leaving behind his Fijian wife and young son. From Nadi, he was forced to board a plane to Incheon in Korea before finding a flight back to Australia. The extraordinary dogleg diversion was necessary because none of the local airlines would take Hannah aboard due to the court order explicitly forbidding his deportation. Only Korean Airlines were unconcerned by the writ of habeas corpus keeping him in Fiji. Hannah says the deportation order he saw says he breached his work permit but didn’t say why.

Australian foreign minister Stephen Smith expressed his outrage at Hannah’s treatment one day later. Smith said the Australian High Commission made urgent but unsuccessful representations to Bainimarana and his Foreign Minister to seek an explanation for what happened. Smith called it “unconscionable” that Fiji did not provide any notification or explanation to the Australian High Commission for Hannah’s summary detention and expulsion. “Equally outrageous,” continued Smith, “is the fact that the Fiji regime, despite repeated requests, did not allow appropriate consular access to Mr Hannah.”

Undaunted by the Australian rebuke, Bainimarana threatened further expulsions in the wake of Hannah’s forced departure. In a meeting with heads of news media and the Fiji Media Council in Suva, he refused to explain why Hannah was deported and said others were likely to follow. Bainimarana claimed that “the last thing he would want to do” is close down the media. He called on them to work with the government to move the country forward. Media representatives at the meeting wanted better responses from the government on various issues and agreed to meet Bainimarama on a monthly basis to iron out their differences.

The Hannah incident follows less than three months after the deportation of Fiji Sun editor Russell Hunter. Both were deemed a threat to national security and found guilty without trial of attempting to destabilise Bainimarana’s illegal regime. Both men were hustled suddenly out of the country leaving family behind and both deportations defied court orders forbidding the action. Reporters Without Borders condemned both actions saying “it seems that the summary removal of government critics is becoming the norm in Fiji.” But Bainimarana may not be able to shut everyone up; the Fiji Times retaliated a day after Hannah’s expulsion with the headline “we won’t shut up”.

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