Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Century old Fiji Times falls victim to media crackdown

Baltimore News - 30 June 2010

The Rupert Murdoch-owned Fiji Times, the Pacific island-nation's oldest newspaper, is being forced out of business.

The newspaper has fallen victim to a ruthless media crackdown by the military "government" which seized power in a coup in December 2006.

The crackdown is a further extension of tight laws and regulations that already control newspapers, radio and television in the country, as well as online media. The new act, "The Media Industry Development Decree 2010," has been universally condemned.

Under the new "law," the Fiji Times has been given three months to sell out to local interests or close. Mr Murdoch's News Limited will need to be removed as owner within 90 days or the newspaper will be closed, according to Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum of Fiji's Attorney'General's office. Foreign entities are no longer allowed to own more than 10% of any media enterprise.

Established in 1869, the 141 year old Fiji Times is the largest daily newspaper in the country. The 'Times has maintained its independence through three coups in the nation. Since Army Commodore Frank Bainimarama seized power in the latest government-overthrow on 5 December 2006, the Fiji Times has maintained its independence holding the military dictatorship to account. When the coup took place the military placed armed army officers as censors in the country's major media outlets, including the 'Times, to prohibit the publication of any "propaganda." The 'Times refused to publish under those conditions and a day later the military relented and allowed the more than century-old newspaper to publish without censorship.

A rocky road followed however with the newspaper, and its readers, subjected to ongoing harrasment by the military. Following the Fijian constitutional crisis last year, censorship was reintroduced at the Fiji Times. Censors were placed in the newsrooms of the paper.

Foreign journalists are also subject to the country's new censorship laws. Fiji now maintains a "blacklist," and writers that have penned articles unfavourable to the "government" are arrested on arrival, detained, and usually deported. Fairfax journalist Michael Field is one of those on the "blacklist," and was deported back to New Zealand after arriving in Fiji on June 15 in 2007.

On February 26 2008 Russell Hunter, the publisher of the Fiji Sun, was deported despite an order issued by the High Court to stop his expulsion. The deportation drew local and international condemnation because of the threat it posed to media freedom in Fiji.

Mr Hunter, an Australian, was seized in his home and was held in custody overnight before he was placed on a flight the following morning from Nadi to Sydney.

A statement released at the time by the "government," said: "This declaration follows a proper investigation by the relevant authorities, which clearly established that Mr Hunter was conducting himself in a manner prejudicial to the peace, defence, public safety, public order, security and stability of the sovereign state of the Fiji Islands." '

On arrival in Sydney Hunter told a press conference: "The trouble is there is no law in Fiji, the law is what certain people say it is on any given day, and if you don't like it, then you can argue that at length," he said.

"It's leading to chaos, it's leading to economic chaos, the Fiji economy is in a shocking is difficult to see where the end of it is."

Two editors of the Fiji Times were also deported fom Fiji over previous run-ins with the Bainimarama regime, one in 2008, and the other in 2009.

Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith has condemned the latest media crackdown implemented by Bainimarama.

“We worry very much that this arbitrary move sends a very bad signal as far as future investment in Fiji is concerned, let alone the very bad signal it sends in terms of freedom of expression, freedom of speech, and democratic rights,” Smith said Tuesday.

Former prime minister Sitiveni Rabuka, who led the first coup in 1987, but was democratically elected in 1992, said Tuesday the Fiji Times had been very critical of his own leadership, but that the newspaper had "served Fiji very well" for more than a century. "It has been a pioneering and strong newspaper," he said.

News Limited CEO and Chairman John Hartigan said the decree further eroded the "basic tenets of democracy" in Fiji. News Limited is the Australian arm of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, and is the owner of the Fiji Times, which it has owned and operated for 23 years.

"This illegal government has retrospectively withdrawn permission for foreign media investment in Fiji, which is not only grossly unfair but will inevitably be enormously damaging to Fiji's reputation as an attractive investment opportunity," Mr Hartigan said.

Speaking to the national Australian newspaper, The Australian, he said it would be unlilkely that a prospective buyer for the newspaper, which employs 180 journalists and up to 1,000 people indirectly, would be found in the face of the "draconian restrictions."

"One of two things is likely to result from this, closure of the Fiji Times or a takeover by a compliant new party by the end of September," Mr Hartigan said. "Regardless, either of these scenarios means a voice of democracy that has campaigned tirelessly on behalf of the people may be silenced."

Mr Hartigan also took aim at the Australian government for not doing enough to get Bainimarama to hold elections.

"For its part, the Australian government has brought little pressure to bear on the military government to hold elections, restore democracy or re-establish the depleted power of Fiji's judiciary, outside of travel bans on regime leaders and their families," he said.

New Zealand Media Freedom Committee secretary Tim Pankhurst said the measures were part of a disturbing trend towards dictatorship, and another reason New Zealanders should boycott travelling to Fiji.

"I believe that individuals should take action against them (Fiji's military regime) by not holidaying in Fiji," Mr Pankhurst told NZPA.

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