Monday 23 Jul 2018 | 12:11 | SYDNEY
Monday 23 Jul 2018 | 12:11 | SYDNEY

What media freedom, Commodore?


Jenny Hayward-Jones


2 May 2008 15:51

The deportation from Fiji today of Fiji Times publisher Evan Hannah is a very disturbing sign of interim leader Commodore Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama’s lack of commitment to democracy. Interim Defence and Immigration Minister Ratu Epeli Nailatikau reportedly said the deportation order was linked to concerns about Fiji Times articles and national security, but no evidence to support that claim has been forthcoming. Coming only two months after the deportation of Fiji Sun publisher Russell Hunter, this action hardly encourages confidence in the roadmap to elections in March 2009.

Ironically, Bainimarama chose to issue a statement ahead of World Media Freedom Day on 3 May saying media freedom in Fiji was secure and constitutionally guaranteed. Bainimarama also repeated a familiar refrain that the media must recognise there were limitations to constitutional guarantees on media freedom and freedom of the press. 

A March report by Hawaii-based consultant Dr James Anthony, commissioned by the Fiji Human Rights Commission, was critical of the Fiji media, recommended that all foreign journalists be deported and that all media houses pay a levy to fund a Media Tribunal to oversee balanced and responsible reporting.  The report was roundly condemned by the Fiji Media Council but has apparently found favour with the interim government.

The High Court’s order prohibiting the deportation and Air Pacific’s refusal to take Hannah on board in recognition of this order (Hannah was deported on Korean Air) demonstrates that Bainimarama’s efforts to crack down on dissent have not yet been wholly successful. An independent and free media is critical to Fiji’s chances of restoring democracy. Fiji’s media is showing strong resolve  in the face of overt threats.  It deserves international support.   

The Pacific Islands Forum Foreign Affairs Ministers’ Meeting on Fiji in Auckland on 26 March specifically mentioned concern about threats to media freedom being inconsistent with the creation of an environment in which free and fair elections could be held. If Bainimarama didn’t fully comprehend the diplomatic language of that communiqué, Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith made it clearer yesterday. 

The interim government may believe it can continue to suppress the media while also persuading the region that it is preparing for elections in March 2009. But does the government have the skills to strengthen the Fiji economy, which has suffered a significant downturn since the 2006 coup? Illegal deportations of media representatives tend to attract international media attention, which will only cause more damage to the confidence of the business community and foreign investors.