Lack of Media Freedom BY PROFESSOR BIMAN PRASAD – LEADER OF THE NATIONAL FEDERATION PARTY
“Don’t read the Fiji Times”. Attorney General and Minister for Justice Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum told cane growers in Seaqaqa in July 2016.
This was obviously in response to this newspaper’s comprehensive coverage of submissions by cane growers and cane growers’ organisations to the parliamentary standing committee on Economic Affairs, which was tasked with scrutinising the Reform of the Sugar Cane Industry and Sugar Cane Growers Fund (Amendment) Bills, commonly known as Bills 19 & 20.
These Bills, if enacted would have adversely impacted and severely eroded the rights and livelihood of growers. Subsequently, despite sustained campaign by Government in favour of the Bills, growers have thrice rejected these proposed legislations.
Of course, the Fiji Times had nothing to do with the opposition shown by growers against the Bills. It was basically a messenger – carrying the message sent out loud and clear by growers.
“Don’t believe everything you read in the Fiji Times”, said the AG to USP students during Budget consultations in May 2017 after a question on salaries of Cabinet Ministers. The AG accused the newspaper of misreporting, in reference to a story on the salaries of Ministers that was in relation to a question asked by a Nadi student during the budget consultations in April 2017.
Shooting the messenger
It has become habitual of this government to shoot the messenger instead of the message. The media industry in this country has been generally under siege since the military coup of December 2006.
Three publishers from the two newspapers were deported in 2008 and 2009 respectively. A then senior minister in the military regime now clamouring for media freedom submitted a paper titled “Is the media playing by the rules?” to the NCBBF – National Council for Building A Better Fiji that formulated the Peoples Charter – which was highly critical of sections of the media.
The period between April 2009 and 2012, especially after the abrogation of the 1997 Constitution on 10th April 2009 and promulgation of the Public Emergency Regulations (PER), was turbulent and devastating for the media industry.
News stories that were not pro-military regime were slashed by the censors.
Censors disappeared from the newsrooms in 2010 after the promulgation of the draconian Media Industry Development Authority Decree, now known as an Act along with other Decrees despite not being scrutinised and ratified by Parliament.
MIDA Act is regressive and suppresses Media Freedom because it imposes restrictions and prescribes heavy penalties.
Press Freedom Ranking
Fiji has been ranked 57th in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index. On the other hand fellow South Pacific nations namely Tonga and Papua New Guinea enjoy slightly better but higher rankings than Fiji. Tonga is ranked 51st while PNG is ranked 53rd. The highest placed regional country is Samoa with a ranking of 22 – 35 places above Fiji.
It is also important to note the rating of Freedom House in respect of level of freedom of each country in the world. Fiji is amongst 58 countries ranked as Partly Free when it comes to political rights and civil liberties. Fiji has a rating of 3 or an aggregate score of 59.
Invariably, media freedom is intricately linked to political rights and civil liberties.
Restrictions and Limitations
Section 17 of the 2013 Constitution – Freedom of speech, expression and publication, while stating there is freedom of the press including press, electronic and other media, has several limitations including making provisions for the enforcement of media standards and providing for the regulation, registration and conduct of media organisations.
This is where MIDA Decree or Act, was promulgated and is now entrenched along with other Decrees of the military regime in Section 173 2013 Constitution. Therefore, this Constitution is subservient to the Decrees and its so-called Bill of Rights, acclaimed by this Government, is useless. And the Freedom of speech, expression, and publication is no exception.
Parliament has the powers to review and even repeal Decrees but it is abundantly clear that this Government will not agree to do so. A Motion to review or repeal the MIDA Decree moved by the NFP and I in Parliament in July 2015 was met with strong opposition from Government and not surprisingly was defeated.
The review of the Decree and Media Industry Development Authority was strongly recommended by the Multinational Observer Group (MOG) that observed the conduct of the 2014 general elections.
The MOG rightly noted that harsh penalties in the MIDA Decree prevented most media outlets from effectively reporting on election issues. The contents of the MOG report in relation to the Decree, MIDA and Media Industry show the ineffectiveness of MIDA.
The MOG also rightly recommended the need for regulation as well as an independent institution to prevent and adjudicate on media bias thus ensuring a level-playing field amongst election participants, as well as a review of penalties in the Media Decree.
The fact that the MOG has recommended for an independent institution proves MIDA’s lack of neutrality because it is a body appointed by Government.
A free, fair, credible and unfettered media industry in Fiji is rendered meaningless if MIDA continues to exist.
What must be done
Media throughout the world is generally regarded as the Fourth Estate – the last line of defenders of democracy, human rights, dignity and justice.
Article 19 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through the media regardless of frontiers”.
This freedom and right is reposed in the people, which the State and politicians must respect at all times.
The NFP Government will repeal the Media Industry Development Decree because we believe the media should not be regulated by the State or any Government.
The NFP Government will enact Freedom of Information legislation so that the media and members of the public have access to official Government documents in order to effectively promote accountability and transparency.
And the current practice of the Government exclusively advertising in one newspaper instead of both newspapers is discriminatory. This will no longer be the case under an NFP Government.
Finally, both radio stations will be given resources for public service broadcast (PSB), instead of allocation of finances only towards the State owned broadcaster.