Tuesday 16th June 2020
The thuggish-like tactics of police culminating into harassment, intimidation and questioning of University of the South Pacific Staff and Students is disrupting education of students as well as work of the staff, and causing them mental anguish when they are sitting for their exams.
The questioning of the USP Librarian Elizabeth Fong by police this morning is yet another example of Fiji fast turning into a police state with scant regard for the rights of people and their fundamental freedoms of speech, assembly.
Academic freedom is the cornerstone of every University, USP is therefore no exception. While Fiji may brag about being the host country and the largest financial contributor to USP, one cannot hide the indisputable fact that Fiji is the biggest beneficiary of the regional tertiary institution.
Elizabeth Fong is renowned for her principles and ethics. Her desire for good governance, transparency, accountability and above all to uphold and cherish academic freedom is renowned and well respected.
We believe that her questioning by police is a prelude to many others being questioned under the pretext of COVID-19 regulations and Public Order Act after their massive show of support for the now suspended Vice-Chancellor.
We therefore deplore police for using COVID-19 social distancing restrictions to harass and intimidate USP staff and students. This is ridiculous and nonsense when no social distancing is being practiced in supermarkets, municipal markets, buses and other public transport, restaurants, malls and on the streets.
Even functions where the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers are chief guests do not have social distancing. Last week we saw a perfect example of this when the Prime Minister was chief guest at the opening of the Namoli village seawall.
But police action against USP staff and students goes beyond this. There is no doubt COVID-19 regulations are being used to harass and intimidate them for exercising their democratic and constitutional right.
Don’t we all want good governance, transparency, accountability and rule of law to be upheld and practiced at all times? Or is Fiji an exception?
There is a familiar pattern to the current round of police tactics. First there was persecution of politicians and even some were arrested. Then police denied repeated applications for march and assembly permits by workers to voice grievances over the erosion of worker rights and even arrested many of them who were peacefully gathered to protest against termination of their contracts.
These acts of intimidation and the selective application of our laws has made Fiji a laughingstock in the face of our Pacific Island neighbors. It has made Fiji look imperious and arrogant—this is not the Pacific way.
The events going on at USP are deeply concerning. For me personally, as the parent of a USP student and as a taxpayer. I do not want to tell my daughter to quietly accept it when her rights are being trampled on. Or, to turn a blind eye to corruption and to the abuse of office. I want her to grow up in a society where she can be free to express her views openly—no matter how outrageous they may be.
I call on the Fiji Police Force to exercise caution and professionalism in the conduct of their duties. They should conduct themselves in a way that makes the people trust, not fear them.
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