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Blackout ‘breaches’ rife online as Fiji authorities struggle with decree rules

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Pacific Scoop:
Report – By Thomas Carnegie in Auckland

Multiple “breaches” of Fiji’s 48-hour media blackout are appearing online – with apparent impunity.

pacificfijielections logo 200wideThe Fijian Elections Office confirmed yesterday that the blackout applies to the internet, including social media, as well as mainstream media

But in spite of this, several blogs, a Fiji news agency and many political parties have all apparently broken the rules online.

The potential breaches show the inability of the overwhelmed Fijian authorities to monitor the chaotic internet. They also raise questions about why the Elections Decree attempted to criminalise the online world over blackout breaches.

News agencies and blogs
The official media blackout guidelines based on Section 118 of the decree say:

“Media must not allow any political activity, including advertisements, interview and political actors, and conduct debates or commentaries that would be deemed to be advocacy or has the potential to influence voters – eg. No candidate can be interviewed on a radio talkback show [after] 7.30am.”

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The Fiji First advertisement on FBC today.

Despite this ban on advertising, the Fiji Broadcasting Corporation was still running this advertisement for Fiji First on their website until 2pm today.

The advertisement even appeared in the FBC article below about the media blackout, next to a statement by Elections Supervisor Mohammed Saneem.

He said that all political parties must ensure that banners, posters and any other campaign materials should have been taken down on Monday (yesterday) before 7.30am.

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The FBC story about the blackout – and the Fiji First advertisement.

Many blogs have also published commentaries that would seem to breach Section 118.

Fiji Media Wars blogger Marc Edge posted a commentary yesterday heavily criticising Bainimarama. He wrote that Fijian authorities had little influence over the blogosphere.

“The dictatorship thinks it can even prevent overseas media and blogs from reporting what it wants suppressed. This is proof that it can’t,” he added.

fijileaks

The heading of the article posted on Fiji Leaks.

FijiLeaks, published by investigative journalist Victor Lal, posted a comment that the media blackout was a “sinister ploy” to stop damaging information about Fiji First being revealed.

David Robie’s Cafe Pacific and the International Federation of Journalists Asia-Pacific media blogs criticised the decree’s media provisions and the harsh penalties for breache as a “gross violation” of media freedom.

The Reporters Without Borders website also criticised the “out of proportion” scale of censorship.

Pro Fiji First blog Fiji Pundit added a post that commented on Fiji’s need for Bainimarama to be voted in as the nation needed a “home-grown hero”.

These posts all show a strong political leaning and therefore seemed to directly contradict the blackout.

Social media
Section 63(2) of the Electoral Decree says that any person is strictly prohibited to:

“Distribute in any manner (including through telephone, internet, email, social media or other electronic means) any campaign material or communicate political messages, including calls to vote for or against a particular political party or candidate in the election.”

The Fiji Sun also reported that Saneem as saying all campaign materials posted on social media prior to the blackout period must be removed.

“If it is done prior to the date and is sitting there – you should take it down to avoid going to court and finding it out that you should have taken it down.

“It is better that the person avoids breaking the law by taking it down in the first place. This will be the same as someone having put up a billboard with campaign material on it during the blackout period, the person would have it removed because it’s having the impact of campaign while it is present there,” Saneem told the Fiji Sun.

Despite this ban and Saneem’s warning, multiple political parties seem to be directly breaching this rule.

This comes as several parties still have Facebook pages in operation. This includes FijiFirst, SODELPA, Fiji Labour Party and the People’s Democratic Party.

The Facebook pages all have campaign material and communicate political messages.

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Fiji First’s Facebook comment on the blackout.

Fiji First has made an attempt to comply with the ban as it posted a statement that it would not be making any further posts during the 48-hour blackout.

This post is ineffective, however, as Saneem told the Fiji Sun the blackout applies to all social media comment, including those posted before the blackout.

Many people have also now commented on this post during the blackout. This again appears to be a breach as  Section 63(2) says “any person” is prohibited from communicating political messages on social media during the blackout.

Enforcement uncertain
So far only one breach of the blackout has been reported as being investigated. This was reported by The Fiji Times today.

While this article shows potential breaches by both media, bloggers and political parties, it remains to be seen how the election office could enforce them to comply with the law.

It raises into question whether they will even try.

It they do decide to investigate an online breach however, the alleged offender faces a penalty of a fine not exceeding $50,000 or an imprisonment sentence not exceeding 10 years.

Thomas Carnegie is a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies student journalist at AUT University. He is reporting on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course and is Fiji elections coverage editor.