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Survival of Fiji Times now on a knife-edge

A censored copy of the Fiji Times immediately after abrogation of the constitution in April 2009: Now a new decree controls the media. Photo: PMC/File

Asia-Pacific Journalism

25 August, 2010

Time is running out for the 141-year-old influential newspaper as it has only a month to divest 90 percent of its Australian-ownership – or be forced to close down. Shannon Gillies reports.

Military dictatorship in Fiji has thrown the survival of the Pacific’s longest running English-language daily newspaper in jeopardy.

The Fiji Times has served its host nation since it was founded in Levuka in 1869 – 141 years ago.

But now it faces an uncertain future, thanks to a recently adopted media decree imposed by the ruling military-backed regime.

The Media Industry Development Decree, made law on June 25, has made it virtually impossible for the Fiji Times’ owners, Sydney-based News Limited, to hold on to their Fiji newspaper.

The decree states that any media organisation based in the island nation must be 90 percent locally owned. Only a 10 percent stake may be held by foreigners.

News Limited has 90 days to sell with no hope of an extension from the government. Expressions of interest closed on August 9 and so far no announcement has been made about any sale of the newspaper.

No one from the Fiji Times is prepared to comment publicly about what the decree has done to the paper or on the general state of the Fiji media itself.

No comment
Fiji Times managing director Anne Fussell said she would not make any comment on the paper’s situation at the moment. News Limited corporate affairs director Greg Baxter said given the sensitivity of the issue and risks confronting the company’s staff in Fiji, he could not comment.

The decree has been strongly condemned by media commentators as an assault on freedom of the press and a national New Zealand reporter has slammed the Fiji government move as “oppression”.

But the Fiji government claims its hand was forced by the media into passing the decree.

Government spokesman John Penjueli said the decree was the military-led government’s answer to “irresponsible journalism” that had encouraged division and racism on the island prior to 2009.

On April 10, 2009, the Fiji constitution was abrogated.

“The media remains free to report on anything, provided its reports are balanced and accurate. In fact, constructive criticisms of government are encouraged because these help provide a check on the performance of civil servants and government agencies,” said Penjueli.

Since the decree came into effect, the media had shown a dramatic improvement in regards to its reports, he said.

Draconian decree
“Admittedly, these are early days, but the government anticipates that things will only get better.”

Scoop co-editor Selwyn Manning said the decree was draconian. The decree was designed by the military regime as a media-freedom busting bill.

The way the Fiji Times owners had been forced out - as well as any other foreign investors who might have invested in local media - made it easier for the regime to assert control over editorial strategy and policy.

“The short term consequences are clear, the military regime is able to destabilise foreign-owned media, such as the Fiji Times, to a degree where its fiscal structures are affected,” he said.

“The legislation erodes the business’s value in real money terms, and renders it unable to continue to pursue an editorial policy that is independent of the military regime’s censors.

Long-term, the legislation re-establishes a nationalistic strategy that was conceived within a state of isolation and motivated by a military regime determined to control criticism of its domestic affairs.”

This legislation infringed on press freedom, he said.

Denied information
“My concern is that without arguments that represent the views and values of Fiji’s neighbouring countries being expressed or tested through non-regime-controlled media, then the Fijian people will be denied information that is their fundamental right to consider.

“The regime has embarked on a battle to control the public sphere in Fiji. This legislation is just another stepping-stone toward complete information control.”
The public needed to care because Fiji was an important state in the Pacific, said Manning.

Fiji has one of the largest island state populations and its economy and infrastructure are vital to the Pacific. It hosts numerous public, political, and academic regional facilities.

Fiji’s disengagement from Pacific regional affairs will further erode living standards of the Fijian people and allow a social condition where human rights abuses will be in evidence but remain largely unreported, said Manning.

Fairfax Media’s Auckland-based Pacific affairs reporter Michael Field said the decree had made it almost impossible to get an “on-the-record” quote from any critic of any aspect of Fiji life.

“The martial law decree thus has the immediate impact of freezing open discussion on anything,” he said.

The “ill thought out” decree had hurt the choice people had of openly criticising their government, Field said.

Oppressive law
He described the law as “oppression” designed to stop criticism of the regime.

“It denies fundamental human rights for a large part of the population of Fiji.”

The decree would ultimately result in a diminished Fiji news media, he said.

“Fiji use to be blessed with a diverse and lively news media. Now it has a cowered and frightened one.”

Pacific Media Centre director David Robie branded the decree as a flawed and sinister precedent for other South Pacific nations that have long eyed curbs on the media. He regards the decree as dangerous for the entire Pacific, not just in Fiji.

“Fiji has long had a proud tradition of a vigorous and free media. It had already been suffering after the censorship regime for a year. Now the decree codifies the climate of censorship,” said Dr Robie, who is also convenor of the Pacific Media Watch free press project.

“Soon there will be many younger journalists who have only experienced working in the media under the pressure of censorship and self-censorship. They will not know how a free media should act.”

Corrupt politics
This media law was part of a military-led "revolution" against a corrupt political system.

“Fiji will never have a political system that parallels NZ, for example. Fiji has cast aside the trappings of its colonial-imposed democracy and is trying to create a new society and fairer institutions.

“Media is part of this ‘revolution’ and the regime wanted to get rid of the Australian-owned Fiji Times newspaper for a long time.

“The NZ media needs to be less hypocritical and to get to grips with this process of momentous change rather than being continually judgmental. History will ultimately judge this revolution.”

Penjueli said the media decree was the product of an analysis of media legislation of countries around the region, including Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore.
Following the study, a team visited the relevant ministries in Singapore as well as Singapore’s Media Development Authority to review their operations and to learn from their experience.

Following this visit, draft legislation was developed and stakeholders consulted before the finalised decree was endorsed in late June 2010.

“The government’s main intention is to encourage the media to be responsible and balanced and where possible to focus on development journalism and the journalism of hope,” he said.

“Government also anticipates that by restricting overseas control of media to only 10 percent, Fiji’s national interests will be kept paramount.”

'Journalism of hope'
Penjueli said the term “journalism of hope” equated to “positive journalism”.

“Journalism of hope” was related to a journalist’s attitude or the content they produced.

“Such journalism does not necessarily mean the absence of criticism. For constructive criticism is healthy and acceptable particularly if they add value to the bigger picture (or message) which is the overall objective of government’s reforms – a better, united and prosperous Fiji.

“Criticism as an end in itself is destructive and therefore discouraged.”

Shannon Gillies is a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies student on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University.


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