Thursday, April 08, 2010

Media Decree Receive Unfavourable Review from Industry

07 April 2010

Presenter: Campbell Cooney, Pacific correspondent
Speaker: Russell Hunter, former Fiji newspaper executive; Deb Muir, Internation Federation of Journalists Asia-Pacific spokeswoman

COONEY: Since Good Friday last year, when Fiji's military-backed regime scrapped the country's constitution, Fiji's media has been censored - barred from using any story that is negative about the interim government, rules enforced by continuing emergency regulations. This week, public consultations are being held on a new decree which will govern media operations in Fiji. Those taking part are being given two-and-a-half hours to read the draft documents before discussions with the draft to be returned at the finish and no copying allowed. But sources in Fiji have provided a copy of the draft to the ABC. The documents preamble says the decree will ensure...

DECREE: 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 content of any print media must include a byline and wherever practical, the content of any other media service must include a byline.

COONEY: That 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...

DECREE: 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.

COONEY: Deb Muir is with the International Federation of Journalists and she is unimpressed with what she has read in the draft.

MUIR: 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. These offences include the omission of bylines on any print media article. I quickly consulted a few legal experts and they have never heard of such a thing and the comment was that this would be unlikely even in Kyrgyzstan.

COONEY: In early 2008, the then-chief executive of the Fiji Sun newspaper, Russell Hunter, was expelled from Fiji. He now works in Samoa for its national newspaper, the Samoa Observer, but he keeps a close eye on what goes on in Fiji's media. Mr Hunter says the draft decree is disappointing.

HUNTER: It delivers control of the media into the hands of the junta. 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 provisions from very substantial fines and terms of imprisonment, up to five years, now this is draconian.

COONEY: The censorship in Fiji not only regulates local media but also those organisations based there. The regional media organisation the Pacific Island News Association and its wire service, Pacnews are based in Suva, and it has accepted the censorship of its stories leading to criticism from PINA members and repeated calls for it to relocate. The interim government has said the decree will end the censorship, that it will allow more free and open reporting. But the draft makes it clear while emergency regulations to enforce censorship of stories will come to an end, the new decree puts censorship into law.

DECREE: 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.

COONEY: As well...

DECREE: Any broadcaster or publisher upon direction by the minister must submit to the minister all broadcast or publication material before its broadcast for publication.

COONEY: And if that is not warning enough, and the media organisation decides the story is still worth doing, then...

DECREE: 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.

COONEY: Deb Muir, from the IFJ.

MUIR: 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.

COONEY: 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...

DECREE: 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.

COONEY: 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. It's also one which the interim regime has repeatedly made it clear it does not like. Russell Hunter believes the restriction on foreign ownership is aimed completely at the Fiji Times.

HUNTER: In effect, the Fiji Times is going to be expropriated. It will be forced into a fire sale and does not take a lot of guessing as to who what the nature of that new ownership will be. It will be very much constructed by the junta. Now 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.

COONEY: News Limited was contacted by the ABC for comment, but was not prepared to say anything until it had perused the draft decree. As mentioned this week, public consultations on the draft are being held around Fiji. Mr Hunter believes it will be inacted soon after that process is finished.

HUNTER: They will want to exercise this authority very quickly. They will look for a "casus belli", if you like, they will be spoiling for a fight. They are going to pick on the Fiji Times and Fiji TV probably. But even they are going to be damaged by fines of half-a-million dollars. That is a very large chunk of anybody's revenue.

COONEY: But Russell Hunter says the interim regime has no intention of taking any public input on board.

HUNTER: I don't think there is any doubt - as we've seen so often, consultation is a sham

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