Report – By Pacific Media Centre news desk
A draconian draft media law for Fiji proposed by the military-backed regime has sparked immediate protest by news groups, academics and civil society movements.
The draft Media Industry Development Decree 2010 provides for the establishment of a Media Development Authority and a complaints tribunal with the power to fine news organisations and imprison journalists for up to five years.
It also restricts foreign ownership of news media to 10 percent with all company directors required to be citizens of Fiji – a blow to the Rupert Murdoch-owned Fiji Times group, the country’s largest and most influential daily newspaper.
The Times has long been an irritant for the regime, which has sought to gag this newspaper along with Fiji Television.
Both the Fiji Times and Fiji Television were only permitted to join the decree consultations at the last moment after earlier being banned from the talks.
Regime Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum condemned the newspaper again before releasing the draft decree, describing it as “the purveyor of negativity – at least for the past three years”.
All news media groups only had a two-and-a-half hour window yesterday morning to consider the draft decree before the day long consultation with the government.
The International Federation of Journalists, the world’s largest body of newspeople with more than 600,000 members in 125 countries, strongly condemned the regime for the “reinforcement of sweeping censorship” that had been imposed since the abrogation of the Fiji constitution on April 10 last year.
Censorship has been in force since then with regime officials deployed in newsrooms.
The IFJ statement said the federation was alarmed that the draft decree proposed to “invest all power of interpretation over the meaning of fair, balanced and quality journalism” with officials and a Media Development Authority director appointed by the Voreqe Bainimarama regime.
“It is not surprising that Fiji’s regime says it will drop its emergency regulations once the media decree is adopted,” IFJ general secretary Aidan White said from Brussels.
“The decree is clearly focused on the regime retaining control and entrenching its highly oppressive restrictions, not only on the media but on members of the public who might wish to express dissenting views.”
Under the decree, media outlets may be fined up to F$500,000 and individual editors, publishers and journalists up to F$100,000 and/or jailed for up to five years if they do not comply with the “decree’s dictates”.
Offences to such penalties include failure of the print media to run bylines on published articles.
In Fiji, about 50 media organisations and civil society groups were present at the government-organised consultation. They opposed the proposal that the new media authority be led by a director appointed by the Minister of Information.
Instead, they called for an authority management board drawn from a cross-section of community representatives.
“Among the major sticking points during today’s discussions was the make up and independence of the Media Development Authority, the imposition of fines for breaching certain provisions under the decree, and the ability of the media to appeal or seek redress from the Courts if the Media Tribunal ruled and imposed fines against them,” reported Fiji Broadcasting Corporation news director Stanley Simpson.
“Limits on foreign ownership of media organisations in Fiji was also featured, with the proposed decree set to take out Australia’s News Ltd ownership of the Fiji Times.
“The media were also unanimous that the fines currently being proposed in the media decree were too draconian and could easily take most media organisations in Fiji out of business.”
The Fiji Times reportedly asked the government if it could provide written submissions and proposed changes to the foreign ownership section – a request denied outright.
Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum said at the end of the consultation that suggestions and feedback would be taken on board, but he launched an attack on the Fiji Times for not acting in Fiji’s interests.
Pacific Media Centre director associate professor David Robie deplored the “ruthlessly chilling” climate of self-censorship being imposed in Fiji.
“The regime is systematically destroying what has been traditionally one of the strongest media industries in the Pacific,” he wrote on his blog Café Pacific.
“Media improvements were needed. But government authorities have ignored the commonsense independent Media Council review last year and instead been influenced too heavily by the harsh proposals of the discredited 2007 Anthony report.”
A former director of the University of the South Pacific’s development studies programme, professor emeritus Crosbie Walsh, who runs a blog devoted to Fiji issues and is a frequent critic of media bias, cited a Fijilive report saying the “measures are among a wide range of provisions aimed at emphasising fair, accurate and responsible reporting”.
He highlighted the proposed powers for the authority to carry out investigations if it believes that any provisions of the decree or any media code has been infringed.
“It will also have powers to demand documents and information.”
But Walsh was cautious in his assessment, saying on his blog: “I will reserve comments until I have read the decree and studied reactions to it.”
* Further consultations will be held in Lautoka today but the Labasa consultation on the second major island of Vanua Levu has been cancelled.