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SUVA, Fiji Islands (Oct. 27, 1999 – Pacific Media Watch/Fiji Sun/Fiji Times/Pasifik Nius/Niuswire)---Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry has lambasted the Fiji Islands news media in his strongest attack since being elected to power in May, and warned that the media industry could face regulation if it does not "act responsibly."

He has also indicated that his Government was considering the setting up of a "swift justice" Media Tribunal to provide remedies in defamation cases.

Speaking at the launching of the independent Fiji Media Council's "Media Code of Ethics and Practice" on October 26, 1999, he singled out four media organizations for a bitter attack - the Fiji Times, Fiji Sun, Fiji Television, Ltd. and Islands Business news magazine.

According to the Fiji Sun on October 27, which made no mention of the Prime Minister's criticism of the Sun over being fined for contempt of court earlier this month, the other three media groups were accused of "lying" to the public and manipulating facts.

The Fiji Sun reported Chaudhry as saying that since taking office, his Government had been disgusted by some elements in the media who had used newspapers and television to further their own personal agendas to discredit the Government.

"The media in Fiji needs to take stock of how it is behaving and whether it is facing a crisis of ethics," Chaudhry said.

"When day after day a particular reporter writes nothing but anti-Government stories with facts manipulated and distorted to discredit and embarrass the Government, one is left in little doubt as to what the agenda of that particular reporter is."

The Prime Minister referred to a series of front page stories and editorials published, particularly by the Murdoch-owned Fiji Times, to support his allegations.

He also singled out individual journalists and at one stage had a verbal sparring match with one journalist he criticized, Islands Business publisher Robert Keith-Reid.

Chaudhry also made it clear his Government would remove the present monopoly enjoyed by Fiji Television, Ltd.

The Fiji Times reported on October 27: "Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry warned last night that media legislation was a possibility.

"The state, he said, had the task of preserving the fragile fabric of a multiracial society which was why such regulatory measures were being considered.

"The media was not above the law, and media freedom was not total freedom," he said.

According to the Fiji Sun: "The media last night got a taste of its own medicine as the Prime Minister slammed the lack of professionalism among some local journalists and then warned them of new regulatory measures.

"There was nervous laughter from the floor and tension mounted as those used to criticizing were themselves criticized."

The Prime Minister proposed a Media Tribunal that would deal with cases of libel and defamation where members of the public had been personally injured, maliciously or unfairly, by media reports or subjected to character assassination.

"The state believes that the aggrieved in this respect has the right to swift justice rather than wait for years to go through a long drawn out process in the conventional courts of law," Chaudhry was quoted as saying.

But news media industry personalities said such a tribunal would undermine the authority of the self-regulatory Media Council.

"I think [the idea] is a disgrace - an absolute disgrace," said William Parkinson, Managing Director of the Communications (Fiji), Ltd. broadcasting group and President of the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA).

The Fiji Sun said in an editorial headlined "The responsibilities of the rights": "Media in a multiracial society should be mature when reporting of 'bloodshed' on land issues and other sensitive issues. It should be mindful of the repercussions and consequences such a report would have on the population.

"Such reports, while making people more aware, also lead to a build-up of resentment.

"Such reporting could be a hindrance to policies of unity.

"On the other hand, the media has a duty to society. It is a watchdog. Its main duty is to ensure a transparent and accountable government and it should be left free to do its job.

"The media seeks to make those in authority accountable. And this freedom must be protected at all costs.

"With freedom comes responsibility. Juggling the two is a major occupation. That is where the test is!"

Title -- 2418 FIJI: Prime Minister lambasts media Date -- 27 October 1999 Byline – None Origin -- Pacific Media Watch Source -- PMW/FS/FT, 27/10/99 Copyright – PMW Status -- Unabridged

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