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Background and earlier reports: 

PMW items 2466, 2465, 2464, 2459 

SUVA, Fiji Islands (November 27, 1999 – Pacific Media Watch/Pasifik Nius/Niuswire)---Fiji's Assistant Information Minister Lekh Ram Vayeshnoi has renewed Government attacks on the leading daily newspaper, the Fiji Times, accusing it of having a double standard over ethics.

Writing in a letter to Fiji's Daily Post published on November 27, 1999, Vayeshnoi said it appeared that the Fiji Times had "two codes of ethics - when it suits their agenda and the other when they are made to comply."

He added, "It is ironic that that this same paper purports to uphold the ethics of journalism but is quick to bail themselves out when questioned about the veracity and authenticity of some of their questionable reports.

"Is this not a breach of the [new national] code of ethics they, along with other representatives of the media, launched only recently?"

His criticisms came as the Fiji Times, owned by Rupert Murdoch's News, Ltd. group, reported that three staff journalists had asked their lawyers to press defamation proceedings against a Fiji Labour Party-led coalition government backbench member of Parliament, Muthu Swamy.

The MP caused an uproar in Parliament on November 24 when he made bitter personal attacks on acting editor Netani Rika, political reporter Margaret Wise and reporter Matelita Ragogo.

Allegations under parliamentary privilege of drunk and disorderly charges leveled against two reporters and an imputation of embezzlement against the third journalist were rejected in a Fiji Times editorial which accused the Government of waging a vendetta against the newspaper.

An allegedly stolen photograph of one of the journalists was also used by Swamy in the Parliament attack.

However, the editorial did confirm some details of a charge against one journalist, and also said a charge against another journalist had been withdrawn.

The legal action by the three journalists was reported to have been taken over a letter by Swamy published in the Fiji Times on November 26 with an editorial note saying that it had been edited on "legal advice."

[Although defamatory accusations made in Parliament are privileged in the Fiji Islands, a statement or letter outside the House is not protected for publication].

Replying to the Fiji Times' vendetta allegation, Swamy said the newspaper was being "defensive" and criticized "inaction against media ethics" breaches.

"Until you practice what you preach, no one will take you seriously," added Swamy.

"Publish this letter if you have the guts."

A brief editorial footnote replied, "We do indeed have the guts. But does Mr. Swamy have them in sufficient quantity to repeat his claims outside Parliament?"

Opposition Leader Ratu Inoke Kubuabola said, "Mr. Swamy's attack using a stolen photograph brought parliamentary debate to an all-time low.

"It is not good enough for Prime Minister [Mahendra] Chaudhry to distance himself. This is gutlessness of the worst kind.'

The Fiji Women's Rights Movement also condemned the recent verbal attacks on women in Parliament, including against the journalists.

"These attacks are akin to a 19th century witch hunt and have reduced Parliament to a school boys locker room," said coordinator Gina Houng Lee.

According to the Fiji Sun, she said the credibility of journalists' work should not be associated with their personal lives.

"If the MPs have an issue with the Fiji Times then they should attack the Fiji Times and not the individual journalists," added Houng Lee.

PACIFIC MEDIA WATCH is an independent, non-profit, non-government organization comprising journalists, lawyers, editors and other media workers, dedicated to examining issues of ethics, accountability, censorship, media freedom and media ownership in the Pacific region. Launched in October 1996, it has links with the Journalism Program at the University of the South Pacific, Bushfire Media, the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism, and Pactok Communications, in Sydney and Port Moresby.

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