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Draft Fiji media decree draconian and punitive

Harsh penalties curb hopes for a return to a free Fourth Estate


David Robie

10 April, 2010

Fiji’s draft media decree is draconian and punitive and will fail as a development communication model.

Many aspects of the draft law are deeply disturbing and the harsh proposed penalties for editors and journalists who fall foul of the proposed rules will curb any hope of a return to an independent Fourth Estate.

This will be a blow to media freedom throughout the Pacific and provide a damaging precedent for other politicians in the region keen to rein in a free press.

The draft Media Industry Development Decree 2010 provides for the establishment of a Media Industry Development Authority (MIDA) to “encourage, promote and facilitate” news media organisations and services at a “high standard” and a statutory Media Tribunal to judge complaints against media.

The new provision restricting foreign ownership to 10 percent of a media organisation and directorships to Fiji citizens who have been residing in the country for five of the past seven years, and nine of the past 12 months.

Vindictive section
This is clearly a vindictive section aimed at crippling the Fiji Times, the country’s largest and most influential newspaper, which is owned by a Murdoch subsidiary, News Limited.

The regime wants to put the newspaper out of business, or at least effectively seize control and muzzle its independent stance – seen by the military-backed government as “anti-Fiji”.

While international responses have focused on the serious impact for the Fiji Times group, it will also hit the other two dailies – the struggling Fiji Daily Post, which has 51 per cent Australian ownership, and the Fiji Sun, which has taken a more “pro-Fiji” (ie the regime) line than the Times but has some expatriate directors.

Other concerns about the draft law include:

• Too much power being vested in the ministerial-appointed director of the MIDA and chairman of the Media Tribunal. Both agencies need wider community representation and independence.

• The power to investigate suspected breaches of the decree and to search and seize documents and computer equipment (albeit with a warrant). This would stifle any investigative journalism, although there has been little of that since the 2006 coup.

• A requirement that all news reports publish a “byline” identifying the author. An opportunity for vindictive reprisals from a vengeful dictatorship.

• The power to punish media organisations guilty of an offence under the decree with a fine of up to F$500,000, and individual editors and journalists with a fine of up to $100,000 or a maximum jail term of five years. This is so intimidating that many of Fiji’s better and more experienced journalists will be tempted to leave Fiji if they can – and there has been a steady exodus of media people ever since the first two coups in 1987 – or discourage young people entering the profession.

• The power to proactively investigate a media organisation without a public complaint being filed. This opens the door to vindictive abuse in a climate of dictatorship and the singling out of media organisations that do not toe the regime line.

Better training
There is a case to be made for better engagement by media on national development issues, but this should be achieved through more journalism training and education and more support for the country’s journalism schools and training institutions, such as the University of the South Pacific.

All governments in Fiji – not just the current regime – have lambasted the media ever since independence when it suits them, but have provided precious little support for training and education for the industry.

A government cannot legislate people’s minds. Much more can be achieved by freeing up the media environment, backing off from censorship and engaging with the media in a more cooperative manner.

To get its own side of the story across, the Fiji regime should establish a national news agency like many developing countries do and let the media get on with its job of reporting unfettered in the public interest.

Codes of ethics previously administered by the self-regulatory Fiji Media Council have been incorporated into the draft decree as statutory schedules.

But it is not yet clear what future role the council would have as the authority and tribunal would overtake its powers.

While in a democracy, a media development authority could have merits – especially if it genuinely supported stronger training and education programmes – in a dictatorship it is dangerous. This smacks of blatant and insidious control.

With a decree like this in place in Fiji, who needs censorship?
 


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