FIJI TIMES CHALLENGES LANDS MINISTER

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SUVA, Fiji Islands (August 2, 1999 – Pacific Media Watch/Fiji Times/Daily Post/Pasifik Nius/Niuswire)---The Fiji Times has challenged the Lands Minister, Ratu Mosese Volavola, accusing him of "a display of official paranoia" over the newspaper's coverage of a controversial land issue.

The minister had condemned the paper for a front page report on July 31, 1999 of a chiefly indigenous Fijian landowner's warning of bloodshed if the new government tried to alter lease arrangements under the Agriculture Landlord and Tenant Act (ALTA).

The Marama Tui Ba, Adi Senimili Cagilaba, said landowners would evict tenants and seize their belongings if their land was not handed back.

Volavola said the Fiji Times' reporting of the warning of violence was "irresponsible" and an attempt to belittle the Fiji Labour Party-led government's efforts to resolve the issue.

He also said he would seek an inquiry by the State Law Office to decide whether the newspaper had committed a "possible breach of the Public Order Act with intent to create ill-will amongst our major ethnic communities."

Defending its coverage, the Fiji Times said in an editorial on August 2: "Ratu Mosese, like so many of his colleagues, is misguided, mistaken and misinformed on the role of the media.

"Adi Senimili Cagilaba made a very strong statement outlining her stand on ALTA and the renewal of leases. She warned that blood would flow if the government sought to alter the ALTA arrangements.

"That, for Ratu Mosese's enlightenment, is news. This newspaper is in the business of reporting news."

The Fiji Times, owned by a Murdoch company, said it had consistently called for a solution to the land problem -- and in fact supported the government's policy on this issue.

It said that that without such a solution the whole future of Fiji was under a cloud of uncertainty.

"Indeed, if Ratu Mosese would concentrate his own energies on the real issue -- ALTA -- instead of blasting hot air in the direction of the media, more progress might be made."

The clash over land leases reporting is the latest row between the Fiji Times and the government. The newspaper has been singled out for attack ever since the Labour-led administration won the elections in May.

According to a land resettlement survey conducted by the government, about 5,000 land leases -- mainly held by farmers from the Indo-Fijian minority -- were expiring between 1997 and 2002. A further 8,140 leases would expire by 2028.

The rival government-owned Daily Post condemned the Tui Ba and Opposition politicians for their statements, saying in an editorial on August 2 that this "simply sets back the reconciliation process.

"Threats of war, eviction and forceful take over of properties and belongings will not resolve the issue.

"It is in the interest of the country that the resolution of ALTA leases should not be turned into a political football. Unfortunately, by their actions and words, some leaders appear to be heading that way."

Title -- 2261 FIJI: Fiji Times challenges Lands Minister Date -- 2 August 1999 Byline -- None Origin -- Pacific Media Watch Source -- PMW/Fiji Times/Daily Post, 2/8/99 Copyright -- PMW/FT/DP Status – Unabridged

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