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Open letter to Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama

Open letter to Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama

Published on Tuesday 29 June 2010.
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Commodore Frank Bainimarama Prime Minister Suva Fiji Islands

Paris, 29 June 2010

Dear Prime Minister,

Reporters Without Borders strongly condemns your decision to promulgate the Media Industry Development Decree yesterday, as it marks a dangerous step backwards for press freedom and media development in Fiji.

Fiji’s press was a model for the rest of the Pacific for many years. The presence of newspapers, radio stations and even TV stations displaying a significant degree of independence allowed Fijian journalists to do their duty as professionals.

This decree means that Fijian journalists now risk being jailed at a time when the international trend is for press offences to be decriminalised. It provides for prison sentences for those who endanger public order and the public interest. Journalists and media executives can be tried before a Media Tribunal, which will also be able to intervene in print and broadcast media content.

This is deplorable. Above all it will reinforce the already significant level of self-censorship that has existed since the coup d’état that brought you to power n 2006. It is true that this decree is not as repressive as the 2009 Public Emergency Regulations that institutionalised prior censorship, but it enshrines a desire to control and censor the media.

As a result of the Public Emergency Regulations, criticism of your government’s policies has virtually disappeared from the Fijian press. Journalists can still cover business, society, culture and sports but there is no longer any critical analysis of the country’s now extremely curtailed political life.

The only newspaper that has resisted government control is the Fiji Times, which is now directly threatened with the possibility of disappearing as a result of a provision of the Media Industry Development Decree requiring 90 per cent of the shares of any Fijian news media to be locally owned. The country’s most popular newspaper, the Fiji Times, is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s Australia-based press group News Limited. Under the terms of the decree, News Limited now has three months to sell it or close it.

Drafting a law specifically to punish a publication that is considered overly “negative” is unacceptable. We note, for example, that the law insists that a news organisation’s executives must all be Fijian citizens and must have been resident in Fiji for at least three years. The aim of this is to prevent experienced foreign journalists from being put in charge of the Fiji Times or any other Fijian media.

In order to intimidate media owners and journalists and stress the firmness of your government’s position, attorney-general Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum said: “I wish to make it clear that any media organisation which fails to comply with this requirement shall cease to operate as a media organisation, and shall also be liable for an offence under the decree.”

We also deplore the fact that the Public Emergency Regulations are still in place despite government promises that they would be lifted.

Because of your government’s obstinacy in wanting to censor your country’s privately-owned press, we support the adoption of international sanctions aimed at condemning the promulgation and strict application of these regulations and decrees. It should be noted that Fiji fell 73 places in the 2009 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, and is now ranked 152nd out of 175 countries.

We urge you to end your country’s international isolation by rescinding the Public Emergency Regulations and the Media Industry Development Decree. As things stand, your policies are preventing the international community, including the European Union, from resuming close cooperation with Fiji. The repressive regulations that you have introduced punish the Fijian people and jeopardise the development aid that the economy and society need. It is up to you and you alone whether your country continues to run this risk.

We hope you will give our comments your careful consideration.

Sincerely,

Jean-François Julliard Secretary-General

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