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Fiji: Will new media laws lead to better reporting?

Claiming it will introduce media transparency and responsible reporting, Fiji’s government enacted new media rules, establishing a code of conduct for journalists, strengthening local ownership stipulations and creating a set of fines and prison terms to be levied against reporters and media institutions for potentially breaking guidelines.

The wide-ranging decree covers everything from advertising to children to overseeing news content, largely adopted from the proposal released in April. Ostensibly, Fiji's government will forbid news and media organizations from broadcasting content against the public interest, the national interest or anything that creates communal discord in the Pacific nation divided roughly 60-40 between the majority indigenous Fijians and the largest minority group, ethnic Indians.

The decree creates a media development authority, which will register and oversee media operations through the ministry of information. The power to interpret and apply most media law will be left to a media tribunal, appointed by the country’s President, which will investigate complaints from the media authority and the general public. The tribunal will be able to force corrections in news stories, impose fines and propose prison terms to reporters, editors and media owners for breaching media codes.

The government left its proposed media ownership rules largely the same, stipulating all directors and 90 percent of “beneficial shareholders” of media organizations must be Fiji citizens who have spent three of the past seven years in the country, staying at least six months per calendar year. As pointed out by Fiji’s Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, the ruling directly affects the country’s oldest newspaper Fiji Times, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited. The company has 90 days to comply with the new rule, he said.

International reaction
Much like April’s draft, international observers largely decried the new law. The International Federation of Journalists says it merely codifies the strict Public Emergency Regulations that have been in place since the country’s president abrogated the constitution and appointed the Bainimarama government to a five-year term. In a letter to Fiji’s leader Frank Bainimarama, Reporters Without Borders said the new law “marks a dangerous step backwards for press freedom and media development in Fiji.” Blogger Crosbie Walsh understands problems could exist implementing the decree, “but it is not the draconian document its critics would have their readers believe.”

Cross ownership
“Section 39 sub-section 4 of the decree states that no person may act as a director in more than one media organisation and they have been given 12 months to comply with the cross ownership requirements in the Media Decree,” writes Coup 4.5.

However, the blog points out Fiji's leader Frank Bainimarama is responsible for the following posts:

Prime Minister and Minister for Public Service; People's Charter for Change; Minister for Information and Archives; Minister for Finance and National Planning and Sugar; Minister for Provincial Development, Indigenous and Multi-Ethnic Affairs. The dictator is also the Commander of the RFMF.

And, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum's current portfolio reads like this:

Attorney-General, Minister for Justice, Electoral Reform, Public Enterprises and Anti-Corruption, Industry, Tourism, Trade and Communication.

Coup 4.5 continues:

In defending the media degree, the regime’s media propagandist [Minister of Information, Sharon Smith-Johns] pointed out similar legislations etc abroad. The difference is most legislations have come from governments who were given the democratic mandate to act and not through the barrel of the gun.

In any case, while Sharon-Smith Johns was busy defending the section on cross-media ownership in the decree, she herself was running around to other assignments, in her capacity as Acting Permanent Secretary for Information, National Archives and Library Services of Fiji.

What difference is there in her holding the various portfolios, which is closely related, and by those who equally have vested interests in cross-businesses?

One worry about the cross media ruling centers on Mai Life, a cultural magazine co-owned by Richard Broadbridge, who also runs the private television station MaiTv.
From the blog Babasiga:

MaiLife is a great magazine with informative stories, is on the move with today's Pacific world, is inclusive of stories about a variety of Fiji people. We do want it to survive the decree's subsection about cross media ownership…

And of course, the Fiji Times owners/staff will have to seriously comtemplate their future as well. I do not like monopolies and want diversity of views in the media, but this is an organization of long standing in Fiji and a reputable newspaper. Certainly it runs rings about Fiji Sun with its little stories of watermelons and so on. Of course there is a trade-off when overseas companies do business in Fiji, but the journalists are local and about two hundred people do have jobs! The Australian media (radio, TV, and print) have had a field day criticizing what has happened, or might happen in three months. A more balanced view is that local ownership shared with overseas investors is desirable but how to get the right balance is debatable.

The real fight?
Some commentators debate whether the new media rules will professionalize reporting. However, many see this media law as about a fight between the Bainimarama government and its nemesis the Fiji Times. Some feel it is a brave institution fighting for freedom. However, in some quarters, few tears will be spilled for the paper's potential demise in its current state.

In a comment on the blog Fiji: The Way It Is, Was, and Can Be, Joe said:

Now it hurts, doesnt it? The writing was on the wall for a long long time. All that was asked of the media was for a fair and balanced reporting. They (one in particular) chose to ignore it, now pay the price, or on the contrary, the employees will pay the ultimate price. Nobody messess with a military. They dont say “this” and do “that”….

  • Atu Qiolevu

    FREE Fiji bula – A journalist in a free country is envied by your fellow journalists in Fiji where the basic human right to know the truth is gagged by regulations passed by the military regime. Our freedom is trampled on, our rights removed, we have to write under guard, with fear of torture is we cross the line. JC said ‘You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.’ Vaya Con Dios

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