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BAINIMARAMA’S MEDIA DECREE ‘VERY TROUBLING’ Wide industry condemnation of new restrictions

By Campbell Cooney MELBOURNE, Australia (Radio Australia, April 7, 2010) – There has been wide spread criticism of Fiji interim government's draft media decree which appears to enshrine censorhip in law, put journalists at risk of jail terms and fines, and could force the Fiji Times newspaper out of Australian hands.

The decree is due to replace emergency regulations placed on the media organisations last year when the President scraped the constitution and placed Frank Bainimarama in charge of the country.

Public consultations are being held this week on the new decree, but those taking part are being given just 2.5 hours to read the documents before discussions with the draft to be returned at the finish and no copying allowed.

Sources in Fiji have provided a copy of the draft to the ABC.

The documents preamble says the decree will ensure:. "The content of any media service must not include material which is against public interest or order, against national interest, offends good taste or decency, or creates communal discord."

The decree goes on to say that the content of any print media must include a byline and wherever practical, the content of any other media service must include a byline.

Those rules will be enforced by a media development authority and a media tribunal with the power to address complaints, demand documents, search news organisations and also the homes and property of their staff.

Those the authority finds guilty of a breach: "Shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding $500,000 [Fiji] or in the case of a publisher or editor or journalist, a fine not exceeding $100,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years, or to both."

The International Federation of Journalists' Deb Muir says she is unimpressed.

"The IFJ is extremely worried that the decree allows the authority and tribunal that it would set up to have the power to call for any documentation, to enter media offices, to seize materials and equipment.

"But even in doing this, the decree itself would directly contravene the regime's own code of media conduct which said that confidential sources should be protected. It's extremely worrying that the decree allows for fines of up to about Australian dollars 300,000 and or prison of up to five years for a range of offences."

Former Fiji Sun newspaper executive editor Russell Hunter, who was expelled from Fiji, is now working in Samoa for its national newspaper, the Samoa Observer.

Mr Hunter says the draft decree is disappointing.

"It delivers control of the media into the hands of the junta," Mr Hunter said.

"This media authority does not have to wait for an individual to file a complaint. It can act on its own. And this is one of the many worrying aspects in this piece of so-called legislation. It becomes a dictatorship, if you like, of the media by the state."

The censorship in Fiji not only regulates local media but also those organisations based there, including the Pacific Island News Association and its wire service, Pacnews.

The decree states: "When the minister has reason to believe that any broadcast or publication may give rise to disorder and may cause undue demands to be made upon the police or the military or may result in a breach of the peace or promote disaffection or public alarm or undermine the government and the state of Fiji, the minister may by order prohibit such broadcast or publication."

If the media organisation decides the story is still worth doing, then: "Any person or entity which fails in anyway to comply may be ordered by the Commissioner of Police, upon advice from the minister, to cease all activities and operations."

The International Federation of Journalists' Deb Muir says the draft decree is clearly intended to formalise the sweeping censorship that has been in force in Fiji for a year under so-called temporary decree.

" It's not surprising therefore that the regime says it will drop its emergency regulations once this decree is adopted, because basically it re-enforces the sweeping censorship that has been in Fiji for the past year."

The draft of Fiji's new media decree also sets restrictions on how much foreign ownership is allowed. Currently, there are no restrictions.

The draft decree says: " Up to 90 per cent of the beneficial ownership of any share or shares in a company or any interest in the nature of ownership, partial or total of any other person holding any interest in a media organisation, must be owned by citizens of Fiji, permanently residing in Fiji."

If adopted, that measure will have an impact on the Fiji Times newspaper. It's majority owned by News Limited and is the country's most widely circulated publication.

Mr Hunter believes the restriction on foreign ownership is aimed completely at the Fiji Times.

"What this does for investment confidence is shattering. So what they are saying is, you can invest in Fiji, and News Limited has a very substantial investment there, but if we don't like you, we'll just take your property from you and give it someone we do like and that is exactly what is going to happen," Mr Hunter said.

Fiji's Attorney General Aiyaz Siayad Khaiyum revealed that the Fiji Government does not trust the Fiji Times.

In summing up the day long Media Decree consultations in Suva, Mr Khaiyum said: "a lot have been said about Government and the Fiji Times, we've taken your comments on board it is no open secret that Fiji Times is hostile to us. "

"We believe they are hostile to us. They don't recognise us. They don't call the Prime Minister as the Prime Minister as I've said in the media before," Mr Khaiyum said.

The Fiji Times' owner, News Limited, has declined to comment.

"The document raised some important commercial issues for the Fiji Times that need very careful consideration. Our company has had a very long association with Fiji and we remain 100 per cent behind the country and its people. It would be premature to make any comment on what action Fiji Times will be taking in response to the proposals."

The consultation moves to Lautoka in Western Fiji tomorrow.

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