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Fiji: New media oversight proposed

Bloggers, blog commenters and forum posters are commenting on the draft media decree released by Fiji’s government that would replace censorship rules established under the emergency regulations in place since shortly after the country’s constitution was abrogated in April 2009.

The Media Industry Development Decree 2010 (download here) would establish an authority to oversee content and media ownership issues; a media tribunal to hear complaints from the public; a code of ethics for journalists and laws governing media ownership. The head of this new authority would be appointed by a government minister and charged with the power to investigate and to subpoena people and information (including computer documents).

The authority will insure the media will not publish material:

-    against the public interest or order;
-    against the national interest;
-    that offends good taste and decency; and,
-    creates communal discord.

Other highlights of draft decree includes:
-    Publishers and editors found breaching media codes could face up to FJ $500,000 (about $258,000 US) in fines and/or a prison term not exceeding five years. Reporters, if found guilty of violating the code, could face a fine up to FJ $100,000, or US $51,500, and/or a prison term not exceeding five years.
-    A tribunal, whose chair must be qualified to be a judge, will hear and determine complaints referred by the authority, considering cases regarding media standards, media disputes and complaints from the public.
-    Only 10 percent of ownership of each media outlet can be foreign-based, meaning 90 percent of owners must be permanent residents of Fiji, spending five of the previous seven years in the country, nine months out of 12.
-    A person who owns a “beneficial” interest in one media outlet cannot hold more than five percent of a second media organization.
-    The minister in charge of media and information will have emergency powers to prohibit the publication or broadcast of information which could create disorder, undermine the government or breach the peace.
-    No court or commission will have the jurisdiction to challenge the legality  of the decree, any decision of the authority, the tribunal or the minister.

Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum said the decree, which is undergoing consultations this week, would emphasize “fair, accurate and responsible reporting.” He also pointed out that media organizations will be held responsible to comply with these codes.

Radio Fiji reported that some of the 50 members of the media and other organizations who gathered for the consultation in Suva, the country’s capital, worried the media authority would not be independent because its head would be appointed by a government minister. Journalists also unanimously opposed the amount of fines for breaching media codes, especially without the right to appeal. Worries also surfaced about who would define “good taste” and “decent.”

Debate from within and outside Fiji took place regarding the limiting of foreign owners in Fiji’s media. The country’s oldest and largest paper, the Fiji Times, is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited. The paper has sparred with the government of Frank Bainimarama since dissolving Parliament and deposing the elected Prime Minister in December 2006. The decree’s rules, as currently written, would force foreign owners to divest from the media outlet within three months after being formalized. The Australian reported the company would be forced to withdraw from Fiji, closing down the Fiji Times, creating the loss of 170 direct and 100 indirect jobs. John Hartigan, Chief Executive, said the company has attempted to resolve the ownership issue with Fiji’s government.

Let’s start with journalist and academic David Robie, who previously taught in Fiji and writes Café Pacific.

Had the Fiji news media got their act together and improved things on their own accord, rather that persevering with the “toothless tiger” Fiji Media Council with all its overdue faults, this draconian draft might have been headed off…

Now we have a ruthlessly chilling climate of self-censorship being imposed in post-coup Fiji. A year of censorship since the 1997 constitution was abrogated on April 10 is taking its toll. Soon we will have a generation of journalists (average age in Fiji is less than 25)that will barely know what it was like to work in a genuinely free press.

The regime is systematically destroying what had been traditionally one of the strongest media industries in the Pacific.

Media improvements were needed, true. Especially over “fairness and balance”. But government authorities have ignored the commonsense independent Media Council review recommendations last year and instead been influenced too heavily by the harsh proposals of the discredited 2007 Anthony report.

Café Pacific also provides detailed responses to certain conditions of the draft decree.

Sparring with the media has become a concern of every government in Fiji (like elsewhere). However, critics worry that because Frank Bainimarama’s government is unelected and yet has no constitutional checks-and-balances in place, it can easily force this bill on the media.

On the other hand, government supporters and critics of Fiji’s media claim that the country’s press has often published one-sided stories and accusations that often put the government in power in poor light and help lead to inter-ethnic tensions between the indigenous Fijian majority and the minority Indian population, descendants of workers brought over by British who ruled the country until 1970. Bainimarama came to power claiming to help lead Fiji to a post-ethnic state.

A comment from Reality check at Crosbie Walsh’s blog, Fiji: the Way it Was, Is and Can Be provides some historical background to this proposed decree.

…Because a racist government in a bastardised democracy tried to push through laws disadvantaging 40 per cent of the population. They were warned to back off and didn't. So…

You could say the same about the Fiji Times. A generation of young journalists in Fiji were brought up thinking they had the freedoms of their mentors in Australia and NZ. They were paid peanuts so the best ones like Richard Naidu went off to pursue careers more worthy of a grown-up. Those who stayed were badly trained, semi literate and arrogant. They produced stories that were wrong, half wrong, one sided or badly executed.

Their bosses didn't do enough to ward off their mistakes and were more interested in profit than good journalism. And people who weren't very good in the first place were promoted beyond their abilities. Some of these took it upon themselves to mount crusades on various issues, align themselves with partisan politics and make fiery speeches in international forums demanding even more freedom. Instead of reining them in, their foreign bosses encouraged their undergraduate petulance.

Staying with the same blog, commenter Invictus claims:

It is the responsibility of any news organisation to disseminate news in a Fair “Free from favouritism or self-interest or bias or deception; conforming to established standards or rules” and to be Balanced “Equality of distribution”

Wallop. That's the Fiji Times and like the SDL [the governing party overthrown by the present government], it only has itself to blame. We now have a Singapore-style regulated media and the rest of us will just have to get used to it. But let's not kid ourselves that it's all the IG's fault [Interim regime: the present government]. There's plenty of blame to share around.

The former is self explanatory yet it eludes Senior and junior journalists at the Fiji times whereas the latter is significant in that it’s “discriminative” and compels the journalists to exercise due diligence and be self-conscious when distinguishing between partiality and impartiality.

However given the current state of affairs within the Fiji Times journalists to that extent are deficient in all aspects of the prescribed norm of journalism.

To be fair the Fiji Times was infact a news organisation worthy of its status where news was disseminated in a fair and balanced manner to a wide and varied audience pre-1987, it was an era when journalists were educated and intelligent enough to be apolitical.

When the Fiji Times chose to align itself with a philosophical system based purely on ethno- nationalistic ideals it became a powerful voice for the Fijian cartel for which to perpetuate itself.

Another commenter, TheMax, reports:

The new media decree doesn't curb anybody's freedom of speech at all but what it does is curb media organizations from manipulating news and reports to suit devious agendas that has nothing to do with making Fiji a better place or taking the country forward. The decree makes media organizations accountable because right now they are not accountable to anyone.

From New Zealand, Idiot/Savant writes in No Right Turn:

The result of this is clearly intended to be a silent, complaint press, which parrots the government line unquestioningly. And that is incompatible with democratic values. But then, if the military cared about them, they'd still be in their barracks, rather than running the country.

Finally, from Jonno at the Fiji Board Exiles:

So who wants to be a newspaper reporter in Fiji?

  • Josephine Latu

    Thanks for an informative piece.

  • http://www.corallaw.com Robert Rogers, Esq.

    Wow. A free press, with all its issues, is still necessary for an effective democratic process. I hope the ship will be righted.

  • Pingback: Global Voices in Italiano » Fiji: le nuove leggi sui media porteranno a un giornalismo migliore?

  • Karen Patrick

    Fiji has seen the dangers of media disinformation leading up to the 2000
    coup, as well as the slanted editorial opinions and selective coverage.
    What is really disturbing, that this media cartel has labeled this
    inquiry on Fiji TV, as “selective” and highlighting a hypothetical risk
    that, Fiji Human Rights Commission could “invoke causes of Human Rights
    to control the media”, according to the Fiji TV report. bankruptcy options

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