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Foster says media suffers from ‘deafening silence’

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (PNG Post-Courier, June 5, 2009) – Fiji’s media is suffering a dangerous and deafening silence under the military regime’s new legal order, one of the country’s top journalists says.

Fiji Times associate editor Sophie Foster has braved the wrath of self-appointed Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama by publicly detailing the frustration of heavy-handed government censorship.

"Silence has been so obviously seen, read, and heard across the pages, screens and airwaves of the mainstream media in Fiji,"

Foster said in a speech to the Fiji Women’s Rights Movement in Suva. "(It is) a dangerous, pregnant silence into which many things fall."

For almost two months, officials had been placed in newsrooms to vet stories and exclude publicity of all "negative" issues. The censorship is part of a tough new order imposed by Bainimarama, under whom the country’s constitution was abrogated in April, judges sacked and much-needed elections pushed back to 2014. The military man, in power since a 2006 coup, has increasingly isolated his country from its regional neighbours with his dictatorial style.

Foster said the new Public Emergency Regulation 2009 handed the military "wide-ranging and arbitrary powers to decide what the people of Fiji should not be told". The journalist outlined what it was like to continue to write stories that hold the government to account only to have civil servants come in each night and "systematically attempt to erase any trace of disaffection".

"They arrive after 6pm and leave somewhere around 10. In between that time, they shred to pieces our intrinsic right to freedom of expression," Foster said. She said while the truth is censored out, it still exists, with teachers shortages, blackouts and other negatives they can’t report still continuing. People are still talking, but the fear is that without a public vent, the situation could get dangerously worse, the journalist said. "The danger is when these frustrations build up with no vent, or they reach people for whom there seems to be nothing left to gain, or lose. "It’s of vital importance that the truth be known, that the truth be reported widely and that there be free discussion around matters of community or national interest."

Foster was brave to tell her story, given other journalists who have similarly spoken out since April have been detained and questioned over their actions. Her own newspaper was not able to publish these details of her speech, quoting instead her comments on women’s rights.

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