Monday, November 23, 2009

Seizure of licenses a “very bad signal”, Stephen Smith says


The Fiji military regime’s seizure of broadcast licences is a “very bad signal” for international investment and freedom of speech in the Pacific nation, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith says.

Mr Smith said on Saturday that Fiji’s interim Attorney-General and Communications Minister Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum had been given new powers, which he had used to strip the licences of broadcasters “at whim”.

The action was carried out by decree, which does not allow any court or other agency to overturn the decision.

“The interim Fiji military government has made changes to its broadcasting and communications arrangements and has effectively seized licences and reallocated those licences without compensation to the original broadcasting licence holders,” Mr Smith told reporters in Perth.

“(It has) absolute power to renew or redistribute them without any compensation to those whose licences are stripped.”

The Australian newspaper reported TV and radio stations were broadcasting this weekend on a temporary basis while awaiting a directive from Mr Sayed-Khaiyum.

He is regarded as the government’s second most powerful figure after military commander and Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama.

Anyone broadcasting in contravention to the minister’s directions can be jailed for five years, The Australian reported.

It said the dominant television broadcaster, Fiji TV, was owned by Yasana Holdings, which represents the 14 ethnic Fijian provinces and also owns the monopoly Papua New Guinea TV broadcaster EMTV.

It was now expected at least one frequency would be reallocated to the government-owned Fiji Broadcasting Corporation, which operates a radio service and has expressed an intention to establish a TV network.

The Australian’s report said the corporation’s chief executive, appointed earlier this year, was Riyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, younger brother of the attorney-general and formerly a TV journalist.

Mr Smith said the move was an escalation of the military regime’s efforts to impose itself on its critics.

“The military regime has consistently set out to impose itself on those voices in the media, and those voices in the Fiji community who articulate criticisms of the interim regime,” he said.

He said it also sent two bad messages to the international community.

“It sends a very worrying signal so far as sovereign risk is concerned,” he said.

“We know that Fiji’s economic circumstances have deteriorated significantly since the military regime came to power.

“That’s been compounded by the global financial crisis, so we continue to be very worried about Fiji’s economic circumstances.

“But the effective seizing and reallocation at the whim of the interim attorney-general and minister for communications will send very bad signs to the international investment community.

“Of course it also sends another bad signal so far as freedom of speech and human rights in Fiji is concerned.”

Mr Smith said he would raise the issues surrounding Fiji’s military regime with his counterparts at the Commonwealth Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Trinidad and Tobago beginning on Tuesday.

Fiji was suspended from the commonwealth after it refused to commit to holding a general election in 2010.


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