Reporters Without Borders is deeply concerned about the impact on press freedom of a proposed Media Industry Development Decree that the military government unveiled yesterday, regarding it as an authoritarian imposition by a regime with no democratic legitimacy.
The press freedom organisation urges Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama to carry out proper consultations on the draft decree, which is unacceptable in its present form.
“Nowhere is press freedom mentioned in this proposed decree, which appears to be designed to enable the military government to tighten its grip on the media – control of media ownership, control of content and control of the dissemination of news within the country,” Reporters Without Borders said.
“The three-day consultation period is also much too short and gives the various parties, including the media and press freedom organisations, absolutely no chance to submit counter-proposals,” the organisation added.
Fiji fell 73 places in the 2009 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, and is now ranked 152nd out of 175 countries. After the military suspended the constitution in April 2009, soldiers moved into newsrooms for several weeks and censored copy before publication, while several foreign journalists were expelled.
The military, who seized power in December 2006, “invited” the media to participate in the three days of “debate” about the draft decree that began yesterday. The prime minister insisted that representatives of all the media take part. “Nobody is going to escape this consultation,” he said.
Attorney general Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum said: “This decree will establish a media code of standards in ethics and practice while emphasizing fair and responsible reporting. The media must be accountable to the people of Fiji in terms of contributing to the development of Fiji.”
Despite the threats, several media representatives criticised the project, while journalism professor David Robie deplored the imposition of a “ruthlessly chilling” climate of self-censorship and accused the regime of “systematically destroying what has been traditionally one of the strongest media industries in the Pacific.”
When the decree goes into effect, the media will be supervised by a state agency called the Media Industry Development Authority while an Independent Media Tribunal will hear complaints against the press from the public.
The proposed penalties for violations will be severe. The media will face fines of up to 500,000 Fiji dollars (more than 200,000 euros), while reporters, editors and publishers will face up to five years in prison.
By requiring that all Fijian media be 90 per cent owned by Fijian citizens, the decree also targets the Fiji Times, which is owned by international media magnate Rupert Murdoch.