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