Media Freedom Leading Up To Fiji Elections Questioned

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Critics worry self-censorship hinders proper reporting

By Liam Fox

MELBOURNE, Australia (Radio Australia, June 10, 2014) – Concerns about media freedom in Fiji are again being raised as the country gets ready for its first democratic election in nearly eight years.

But Communications Fiji Limited, or CFL, dismisses those concerns.

"I can tell you there's been no pressure, there's been no calls, no threats made," said CFL news director Vijay Narayan.

"We report on whatever we want to report on."

CFL broadcasts 60 news bulletins a day in three languages from its studios in Suva.

Some critics say CFL hasn't faced any pressure because it's taken a pro-government line.

Mr Narayan rejects that.

"Is being balanced being pro-government?

"Some people have that perception because they've just taken one side.

"When the coup occurred they (CFL) covered one side, they covered the other side."

Mr Narayan says the balance in the network's coverage can be seen in its coverage of recent criticism of the Prime Minister's claim to have the political support of the country's chiefs.

Media observers claim the government's 2010 media decree is an example of ongoing intimidation.

It bans anything from being printed or broadcast which is not in the public interest.

Journalists who breach the vaguely worded provision can be jailed for up to two years.

"You have legislation that makes it very difficult for publishers to deal with anything that appears to be critical of government and you have five years of journalists not asking tough questions, probably becoming complacent, apathetic, even lazy if you like," said former Fiji Times editor Natani Rika.

Mr Rika left the English language daily in 2010 after the owner, News Corp, was forced to sell the business to comply with the regime's local ownership rules.

"Prior to that there was some incidents of detention by the military and the police and the smashing of my car and attempt to burn my home," he said.

Mr Rika says while there are no longer censors in newsrooms as there were in 2009 - the media decree means self-censorship is pervasive.

"All these conditions come together to form a climate I suppose of media that is unlikely to be able to provide a critical analysis of what's happening leading up to the elections," he said.

There is one publisher pushing the boundaries.

Republika magazine's readership is small but it's doing what no other publisher is: providing in-depth analysis of current affairs and a space for non-government opinion.

"If it was any other time in Fiji's history, what we are doing, people would not bat an eyelid but I think its just because we have decided to give voice to people and issues that have for quite a number of years now," said Republika editor Ricardo Morris.

Mr Morris says although censorship and intimidation is less overt, the media is still far from free.

"Everyone knows if you get on the wrong side of the Attorney-General, for example if you report something that he doesn't like, if you are overheard saying something that he feels is not right and you shouldn't be saying there are implications for you and your company."

And although Mr Morris continues to publish what we wants to - he's under no illusions about the impact of his coverage on Frank Bainimarama's government.

Neither does he think Fijians will be adequately informed when they cast their votes in the September elections.

"Right now, I don't think that people are being informed to the level at which they should be informed about the issues that are at play simply because a lot of the issues the media will not touch or will sort of skirt over," he said

Natani Rika agrees, saying coverage of the campaigning ahead of the September poll could highlight the timidity in the mainstream Fijian media.

"What troubles me is that because the media is unable, or unwilling to cover some of these issues it'll lead to a lot of hearsay and rumour, unsubstantiated accusations and that's not healthy going into an election campaign," Mr Rika said.

But Communications Fiji Limited's Vijay Narayan is confident his readership will be able to make an informed decision about who to vote for.

"We are reporting on everyone, on what they are doing and of course we are not favouring any one particular party," he said.

"We will remain balanced throughout."

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