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New ownership restrictions threaten leading newspaper

MELBOURNE, Australia (Radio Australia, June 29, 2010) – The Australian-based international media group News Limited has expressed outrage at Fiji's decree requiring media organisations to be 90 per cent locally owned.

News Limited - sole owner of the Fiji Times newspaper - called the move by the interim military government "an appalling assault on free speech and a terrible blow for the fragile economy of Fiji".

[PIR editor’s note: ?Radio Australia reports that the Australian-based group News Limited has been given three months by Fiji's military-backed government to sell its media interests there or be forced to close. The decree regulating the country’s media went into effect on Monday. The final decree, as highlighted in a draft released earlier this year, will create a media authority and tribunal based on similar models used to manage the media in Singapore. It will also limit foreign ownership of media operations to just 10 per cent. Foreign owner have been given three months to comply or face closure.]

Chairman and chief executive John Hartigan says the decree is a deliberate attempt to force News Limited to sell the business and pull out of Fiji altogether.

He says it retrospectively withdraws permission for foreign media investment, setting a precedent that will unsettle foreign investors in other industries.

Mr Hartigan says the jobs of nearly 200 Fiji Times staff and nearly 1,000 others involved in selling the newspaper are now at risk.

News Limited says it will now explore any options it may have to remain involved in media in Fiji.

Fiji's interim Attorney-General denies that new media laws have anything to do with silencing opposition to his government

The Fiji Times has been a strong critic of the coup-installed interim government.

Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum conceded that the Fiji Times "has been there for quite some time".

But he told Radio Australia's Pacific Beat program: "The ownership requirements that have been set have got nothing to do with the criticms of the Fijian government.

"It's to do with a policy direction that media organisations, like many other countries have regulated, need to be owned by locals because of the powerful nature of media organisations."

Mr Sayed-Khaiyum said media groups "need to be part and parcel of the development process of a country, particularly developing countries like Fiji."

Fiji's top law officer did not think the newspaper group would necessarily be forced to close in Fiji.

"They have obviously got various options," he said. "One of the major ones, obviously, they can sell down the foreign content to local owners."

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