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BAINIMARAMA WON’T BE ‘BULLIED’ Outsiders don’t understand

By David Robie

SUVA, Fiji (Fiji Sun, September 16, 2009) – Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama has vowed not to be bullied by Australia and New Zealand, and has defended his curbs on Fiji’s news media.

"I’m trying to do what is good for Fiji, not what’s good for Australia and New Zealand," he told Maori Television’s current affairs programme "Native Affairs" presenter Julian Wilcox in an interview broadcast Monday night.

But he added that Fiji "treasured" its traditional relationship with both countries and blamed the neighbouring governments for the current strained relationship.

Commodore Bainimarama said New Zealanders did not understand democracy in Fiji and he hinted that an improvement might come in relations with New Zealand if Prime Minister John Key "changed his views" on Fiji.

He said it would be "a good thing" for the future relationship if New Zealand appointed a new high commissioner to the vacant post in Suva.

Commodore Bainimarama was interviewed in Suva during "48 hours in the Pacific’s military zone" last week, as the bilingual Maori and English public broadcaster billed the special report.

The wide-ranging Wilcox interview and a report by Carmen Parahion grassroots responses from Fiji Islanders coincided with a brief visit to Suva by the special Commonwealth emissary, former NZ Governor-General Sir Paul Reeves.

"This is our one and only chance to right the wrongs. We have had four coups. We don’t want any more coups," Commodore Bainimarama said.

No Secret

Asked by Mr. Wilcox why he had seized power in December 2006, Commodore Bainimarama replied: "It was no secret that what we wanted to do was get rid of corrupt practices [under the previous elected government of Laisenia Qarase], get rid of the racial policies that were around us – especially the racial policies that were going to take our country down …

"It boiled down to the public service not doing their thing … their bit.

"We have removed just about all the people for abuse of authority, abuse of office and abuse of funds. These people were part of the elite group…

"It was nepotism throughout and we could see that. So we wanted to get rid of it."

Commodore Bainimarama called for more understanding of the complexities of the Fiji political and social system and why changes were needed.

"People see this nation as a failed state. The European Union sees it as a failed state. The Commonwealth, the whole reason why they have suspended us is that they see this nation as a failed state.

"The [Pacific Islands] Forum, Australia and New Zealand see this nation as a failed African state.

"You have a preconceived idea of what is happening [in Fiji] when you don’t understand what is happening here … and people don’t want to understand because you want to interfere in the way we do business.

"In fact, right now … Australia is trying to get us out of the United Nations peacekeeping [role]. What benefit will there be for the Australians? Would it benefit the Maori, for instance; would it benefit the Aborigines if we were removed from the UN peacekeepers?"

Wilcox: "You feel Fiji is being bullied by, principally New Zealand and Australia?"

Commodore Bainimarama: "Yes, because you don’t understand what is happening here, what we’re trying to do.

"All you see is the military removing an elected government and it wants to remain in power for the next five years [until an election in 2014].

"Yes, we removed an elected government – for good reason. We wanted to bring about development in this country. We wanted to bring this country forward instead of keeping us in the old cannibalistic days."

Asked why Commodore Bainimarama had not left it to elections and democracy to make political reforms, the prime minister said the politicians "don’t want reforms – if they bring about reforms, they won’t be elected".

Commodore Bainimarama said an authoritarian government was needed to make the political and electoral reforms in Fiji needed to ensure no more coups would happen.

"In Fiji, you don’t come up with your own vote. Your vote is dictated by the chiefs, it is dictated by the Great Council of Chiefs, it is dictated by the provincial councils, and it is dictated by the [Methodist] Church.

Not Democracy

"So it’s not your vote. So don’t tell me that it’s democracy."

Asked by Wilcox about media censorship, Commodore Bainimarama said: "The press is still churning out newspapers. The TV station is still on, the radio is still on.

"What we have censored is irresponsible reports, that’s what we have censored."

Wilcox: "What exactly does that mean?"

Commodore Bainimarama: "That you report the facts. I am sure Maori Television understands that …

"The media are free to express what they want – just say the right things, don’t say rubbish."

Challenged to talk to the people of Fiji about how they viewed his regime, "Native Affairs" reporter Carmen Parahi contributed a segment on responses from ordinary Fiji Islanders.

Taking a quick break from a game of touch rugby at Lami, Radio Fiji sports reporter Sikeli Qounadovu said: "Life goes on. The politicians are causing the headaches, while we are enjoying ourselves.

"He [Bainimarama] has done a lot for the rural areas of Fiji compared to other leaders … We let them do what they think is for the good of the country."

Positive View

However, some media were less complimentary.

Fiji Times editor-in-chief Netani Rika, recent winner of the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Pacific Media Freedom Award and who came in for personal criticism from Commodore Bainimarama during the interview, was not available for on camera comments.

But he declared that the *Fiji Times* would continue its independent role.

Merana Kitione, news manager of Fiji Television, described the daily censorship operation, adding it was "business as usual" at the station.

However, asked by Ms Parahi if Fiji Television feared being closed, she replied: "I can’t answer that question – no comment."

A Native Affairs studio panel discussion following the Commodore Bainimarama interview featured a former senator, Dr Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, and Nik Naidu, spokesperson of the Auckland-based Coalition for Democracy in Fiji.

Both speakers argued for dialogue with the Bainimarama Government. But while Naidu called for a free media to enable wider debate with the Fiji public, politicians, civil society and aid donors, Dr Nailatikau said dialogue needed to exclude the media.

Asked by Wilcox to put media censorship in Fiji in perspective, Naidu claimed: "If this was Fiji, what would happen is the military would be here by now, close down the station, most probably put all of us into custody, and this programme would not air."

Naidu also added it was an irony that Commodore Bainimarama was now calling for New Zealand to post a new high commissioner to Fiji when the military government had twice before expelled NZ high commissioners.

Dr Nailatikau said Fiji’s elected politicians had in the past divided the country with racism and the regime was contributing to a sense of unity.

This is an edited version of a report by David Robie, convenor of Pacific Media Watch and director of AUT University’s Pacific Media Centre in Aucklan

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