Saturday, July 03, 2010

Surf's up but Fiji Economy and Liberty flat

The Sydney Morning Herald - July 3, 2010

Fairfax journalist Michael Field has been banned from entering Fiji four times by various governments. The country, he reports, is on a downward spiral.

As unlikely as it sounds, Fiji's military regime celebrated its entry into the Arab League this week with a slew of decrees aimed at driving the media baron Rupert Murdoch out while opening doors for global surfers.

The self-appointed prime minister and military head, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, daily hands down decrees that cannot be challenged in any court.

The Compulsory Registration of Customers for Telephone Services Decree sounded plausible, and a children's homework decree sounded promising, but Thursday's Surfing Areas Decree was bizarre.

Yesterday Bainimarama came close to admitting the regime he installed in a December 2006 coup is in grave economic trouble. Last November he ordered the government deficit capped at 3.5 per cent of gross domestic product. Yesterday he said it had ballooned to 5 per cent. When the economy is already fragile, that is a scary figure.

Some of it is nature's fault: cyclones and a severe termite infestation that is destroying buildings and requiring millions of dollars in remedial action.

The government-controlled superannuation scheme has lent well over half of the available investment funds it has to the government. All the government's other loan options are exhausted.

Bainimarama now wants an emergency $F1 billion ($600 million) loan from the IMF to prop up a failing economy - effectively a loan of last resort. He said he would only take it "after carrying out his own assessment … on what is in the best interest for Fiji and her people".

He may have no choice, with the country's sugar industry failing, as much through neglect as through falling prices, and tourism producing lower level revenues. Aid agencies report a severe increase in poverty levels following a 20 per cent devaluation of the Fiji dollar earlier this year and signs of social tensions.

This came to a head last week when the miliary responded angrily to a church pastor who made a prediction that a tsunami was coming. His warning sparked a panic that resulted in schools closing, civil servants failing to turn up to work and funerals and weddings being cancelled. In some villages people left for the high ground. The pastor remains in military custody for violating a decree outlawing rumour mongering.

Bainimarama, anxious to consolidate his power, has disbanded the once influential Great Council of Chiefs and replaced it with a tame version. He has forbidden the Methodist Church, the dominant religion in the country, from holding any of its organising assemblies.

In fact all meetings of any group are outlawed in Fiji, including on one occasion last year when accountants were forbidden from holding an annual gathering. The commodore has said that he is trying to take racism out of Fiji life to create a multicultural state free from politically inspired religion and indigenous culture.

When the Arab League announced the creation of a $US50 million ($60 million) fund for 14 Pacific nations, the heavily censored Fiji press said it was money for Fiji. Bainimarama returned home empty-handed - the pressure mounting on the economy seems to have sent him and the Attorney-General, Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum, on a decree bout.

The Media Industry Development Decree states that journalists and publishers face fines and possible imprisonment for publishing material that is "against the public interest or order … against national interest, offends against good taste or decency [and] creates communal discord". It also says media outlets have to be 90 per cent owned by Fijian citizens. "Fiji Times is the media organisation that needs to comply with the ownership requirements," Mr Sayed Khaiyum stressed.

The Times, owned by News Ltd, is the country's top-circulation daily. It was founded in 1869 and used to run the slogan "first newspaper published in the world today".

Censorship has largely blunted the Times, but a couple of pieces infuriated the regime. ''They don't call the prime minister, prime minister," Mr Sayed Khaiyum said, "they don't carry his New Year's message, they don't, for a example, report on very positive developments on the economy - they focus on negative aspects that we believe is hostile to Fiji and the people of Fiji.''

So all encompassing is the censorship now that one prominent Suva journalist quietly lamented yesterday, "Dear God, please do not let them catch wind of Facebook."

Journalists complain about the inconsistencies of censorship; some stories make it some days, but follow-ups are spiked. News Ltd executives talk of holding the presses as they wait for censors. Often, one senior source said, they have plainly passed the early evening drinking before censoring.

Fiji's unreality was summed up by decrees sent to villages ordering that children do their homework. The Surfing Decree "overrides any existing interest by any person or body in any surfing area". In short, if there is a good wave somewhere, then foreign surfers will be allowed to surf it safe in the knowledge the military say they can, for free.

While the foreign-owned resorts might join the queue of investors complaining about lost revenue, the big losers are indigenous villages around Fiji who have few other ways to make money.

For years Rupert Murdoch famously parked his yacht Morning Glory at Nadi; perhaps he needs to buy a surfboard.

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