Friday, February 29, 2008

Fiji clamps down on free speech

In the wake of the Russell Hunter deportation, Fiji’s military rulers have now announced further crackdowns on the country's media. The so-called Fiji Human Rights Commission has released a report (pdf) on media independence and freedom which recommends that all existing work permits in Fiji's media industry not be renewed, and no further permits be issued. The commission also advocates law changes imposing penalties on media outlets that publish material that incite sedition or breach the Public Order Act.

The sedition laws are based on similar draconian laws that hamper Singapore’s media. The report was completed without any input from Fiji's media industry, which says it had no confidence in its author, Hawaiian based academic Doctor James Anthony. The deported Russell Hunter said Fiji's interim government doesn't want anyone working in the country's media who it can't control. "It's a blatant attempt to exclude people who they fear, or dislike," Hunter told Radio Australia.

Hunter himself was declared a prohibited immigrant on Tuesday under the Immigration Act which stated that a non-citizen became a prohibited immigrant if the minister deemed the person had been conducting himself in a manner prejudicial to the peace, defence, public safety, public order, public morality, public health, security or good government of Fiji. The real reason for his eviction was the fact that his newspaper had run a series of articles accusing Fiji's Finance Minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, of tax evasion. The junta’s response, according to the New Zealand Herald, was “a blatant act of intimidation against a newspaper trying to do its job”.

Hunter was the editor of the Fiji Sun. Today his newspaper reported the discrepancies in the story between the Immigration department and Fijian court officials over a court order to prevent Hunter’s deportation. The order was issued by High Court judge Justice Jiten Singh early on Tuesday morning before the Air Pacific flight left the airport. A senior court officer at the registry in Suva faxed the order to the immigration office in Nadi before the aircraft departed. However, immigration officers at the airport denied the existence of such an order. A lawyer for the Fiji Sun said that the order was sent and would have been received by immigration officers well before the flight departed. This, he said, was a very strong case of contempt of court.

Hunter’s deportation was strongly condemned by Australian and New Zealand governments. Meeting in Canberra this week, Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd and Helen Clark condemned the Fiji government's decision and demanded the country’s military leader Frank Bainimarama keep his promise to hold elections in 2009. However, Helen Clark suggested she didn’t believe this was likely to happen, saying it was “inconceivable that you can hold open, free and fair elections if you have media intimidation”.

International media organisations have also joined in the chorus of disapproval. Press freedom body Reporters Without Borders said his expulsion is unacceptable and contrary to all of the Fiji government’s international undertakings. The International Press Institute, which represents editors, media executives and leading journalists in over 120 countries, called on authorities to stop using Fijian immigration laws to silence outspoken journalists. The Australian newspaper said the “deplorable abduction and deportation of newspaper publisher Russell Hunter underlines that nation's standing as a banana republic ruled by a sinister dictatorship”.

Fiji has long had issues with the notion of freedom of the press. One of the first actions of the 2000 armed coup was to shut down the website of the journalism department of the University of South Pacific in Suva. The student online newspaper “Pacific Journalism Online” had been covering the crisis with stories, pictures and updates since the violence started in May 2000. University administrators shut it down after ten days due, they said, to threats against the university and students.

That same year, the government under Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry also introduced a government-imposed media council to replace Fiji’s independent self-regulatory council. They issued a directive for all government advertising to be placed on the government-controlled Daily Post. As part of a systematic campaign against the Fiji Times, the authorities told its Scottish born editor-in-chief they had rejected his application for a renewed work permit and gave him 28 days to leave the country. That man was Russell Hunter, for whom history has now repeated itself. Today’s military junta are little different – all Fiji’s rulers seem intent on waging a war of attrition against independent media.

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