Fiji Times

SUVA, Fiji (May 18) – Freedom of speech, one of the great freedoms of democracy, was badly mauled in Fiji yesterday.

It was first wounded on December 5, 2006 when the military imposed a State of Emergency and attempted to censor the news. Since then the mainstream media has resisted censorship in all its forms but reality has meant many journalists and editors felt a need to be restrained in their reports and comments.

The mainstream media, however, has still managed to provide honest and accurate reporting on events sometimes at great personal risk.

Very quickly after December 5 there came into existence a number of alternative outlets, internet-based sites called blogs (short for weblogs) that began to comment on the political situation and attempted to break news. In some cases they were very successful.

The advance of technology and the freedom it has given the ordinary person to interact with others worldwide has been amazing. It has also been a thorn in the side of repressive governments which have struggled to close off what they see as a threat to their rule.

Yesterday, sadly, Fiji's administration joined that list when the military finally succeeded in closing Fiji's access to at least one blog that had been highly critical of them. It must be expected that more will follow.

One of the benefits of mainsteam media is that it is not anonymous and can be held accountable. Internet bloggers are not bound by any rules or ethics and the site that was closed off certainly contained material that was militant, defamatory, racist and, in some cases, blatantly incorrect.

The Fiji Times in no way supports or endorses that level of personal attack or deliberate misrepresentation but it must be recognised the blogs were an ultimate example of freedom of expression and acted, to some extent, as a safety valve for frustrations that could not be aired elsewhere.

A government comfortable with its behaviour would have been seen the criticism as a nuisance to be ignored. Shutting them off will also prove to be a hollow victory as the means to get around the blocks are simple and freely available.

Other governments have found that closing off the internet is impossible, short of cutting off the whole country which would be a disaster in this inter-connected, global economy.

Importantly for Fiji is what does it now make of Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama's vow to uphold the Constitution and its integral value of freedom of expression?

It seems the military found the heat in the kitchen too much, but rather than get out it decided to burn the house down.

What will it set fire to next?

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