Pacific Media Watch

2 August 2010

FIJI: Global Integrity blog challenges media decree

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Will Fiji's June media decree catch up with its reputation?

Norah Mallaney

6942 LONDON: Earlier this year, I spoke with journalist and media educator Shailendra Singh on  the effects that the 2006 coup d’etat in Fiji had on media freedoms  
there. In our online exchange, Singh highlighted the perseverance of  his colleagues -- many Fiji journalists publish anonymously through  
online outlets and regional blogs to escape the overt government  pressure on publishing.

Fiji has a legacy of strong, critical journalism and Singh’s well-chosen words suggested that his sector would reemerge to embody  its former identity. However, a law passed last month may serve as an ominous sign that Singh and his colleagues will have to wait longer than anticipated.

In June, new media regulations were enacted in Fiji amid an outcry from regional and international media freedom watchdog groups.

Pacific Beat, Radio Australia’s Pacific region program, reports that  along with creating a new Media Regulation Authority to oversee the sector, the new decree also grants this group with the power to demand  that journalists reveal their sources for reports pertaining to corruption or abuse of power.

Another major change introduced is the restriction on ownership of  media outlets, which must now be 90 percent owned by permanent  residents and citizens of Fiji. Following this, the Fiji Times, one of  the nation’s oldest and - before 2007 - arguably its most critical  newspaper, will be closed. The paper is under the complete ownership of  Rupert Murdoch’s Australian company, News Limited.

The fate of another local newspaper, Fiji Daily Post, is also  uncertain, reports Cafe Pacific.

Despite the bad news for foreign investors, the decree may bring a bit  of relief to reporters inside Fiji.

According to Pacific Beat, the new regulations do free some personal  burdens on individual journalists. For example, the fines for slander have been cut in half — F$50,0000 rather than $100,000 – and maximum  jail time has been decreased from 5 years to 2 years.

Amnesty International has spoken out against the changes as they still  allow for government to imprison critical journalists, and Russell  Hunter, former managing editor at the Fiji Times, labels any positive reforms as “cosmetic". Pacific blogs had been abuzz in the weeks surrounding the signing of the decree, fearful that the law further consolidates government power over the media while also limiting the role of international actors.

But a former University of the South Pacific development studies academic thinks the international community has too quickly jumped to assumptions. Professor Croz Walsh critiqued the analysis presented by  the International Federation of Journalists.

The IFJ denounced the decree as a “coercive and ultimately destructive law". Walsh agrees that the decree has the potential to be misused, but he cautions international observers, stating: “There are concerns about how the Decree will be used (and I shall write about these as time goes on) but it is not the draconian document its critics would have their  readers believe.”

While trying to avoid Prof Walsh’s label as “another well intended but uninformed and unbalanced denunciation from offshore expert", the powers extended to Fiji’s Media Regulation Authority are a cause for concern.

Any law that allows for journalists to be forced to reveal confidential sources threatens the independence of reporting. But, yes, whether or not this government media council uses this right has yet to be proven.

In the month since the decree was enacted, we at Global Integrity have not noticed any drastic shifts in reporting in Fiji. However, we invite  
the opinions from journalists inside Fiji or from outside media experts. - Global Integrity Commons/Pacific Media Watch


Pacific Media Watch

PMC's media monitoring service

Pacific Media Watch is compiled for the Pacific Media Centre as a regional media freedom and educational resource by a network of journalists, students, stringers and commentators. (cc) Creative Commons