15 February 2012

Repeal of emergency rule has not led to media freedom, say IFEX members

The 12 April 2009 edition of the
The 12 April 2009 edition of the "Sunday Times" was heavily censored under emergency laws; despite the end of emergency rule, IFEX members say the censorship regime is still in force
Jachin Sheehy

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Fiji's military leadership has lifted emergency rule - in place for nearly three years - but has swiftly imposed other restrictions on the media in its place, say the Pacific Freedom Forum (PFF), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).

Last month, the state proceedings decree was introduced, which exempts Fiji's leader and ministers from defamation suits over anything they say in public or private, says PFF. Fiji claims the decree will strengthen public discussion and consultation in the lead-up to planned elections in 2014.

"A leadership which protects itself but not its people from defamation suits cannot expect that to be welcome news," said PFF, which is calling for the decree to be revoked.

The new decree follows the recent announcement by Commodore Frank Bainimarama during his New Year's address to the nation that emergency regulations, in place since April 2009 after a court ruled his 2006 coup unlawful, would be removed to allow preparations for the drafting of a new national constitution, report CPJ and IFJ.

Under the emergency regulations, government-appointed censors were posted to newsrooms to remove any anti-government reporting before publication, say the IFEX members, which led to thousands of news reports being censored.

But a media decree passed in June 2010 that "permanently installed" the emergency regulations' censorship regime remains in force, says IFJ.

That decree introduced penalties, including jail terms, for any reporting that a government authority deems "against the national interest," and altered media ownership laws to ensure the critical, then-Australian-owned newspaper "Fiji Times" to pass to local management, explains CPJ.

"Thanks to both of these measures, self-censorship is so firmly instilled that the repeal of the emergency, unsurprisingly, 'has not led to a sudden blossoming of political debate' in the media," said CPJ, quoting Australia's ABC Radio the week after the laws were revoked.

Plus, says PFF, the lifting of the emergency laws was quickly followed by the implementation of revisions to laws protecting public order, which restrict people's right to assemble and don't allow for legal challenges of the Prime Minister or senior police officers.

To mark the five-year anniversary of Bainimarama's seizure of power in December, CPJ, Human Rights Watch and other rights groups criticised press freedom restrictions and other human rights abuses that have occurred on his watch.

"Bainimarama must scrap the restrictive media decree and encourage public debate if he is truly committed to restoring democracy, his alleged goal for the past five years. Until then, the international community should continue to call him what he is: a dictator suppressing the media to maintain his illegitimate hold on power," said CPJ.

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