Saturday, October 09, 2010

Fiji's Gentler Face Invisible at Home

The Australian, 09 October 2010

Fiji Times editor-in-chief Netani Rika was given no choice but to resign from his job this week.

Frank Bainimarama's fine words at the UN are at odds with steps to gag critics

FIJI'S military ruler Frank Bainimarama used his annual address to the UN General Assembly a fortnight ago to pledge that his government would work with other states towards "sustainable world peace, substantive justice, dignity and respect for all".

However, since then his government has moved to silence its two most effective critics at home: former prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry and Fiji Times editor-in-chief Netani Rika.

Bainimarama told fellow leaders at the UN that Fiji would "become a good and engaged global citizen". But citizens at home who become engaged in public affairs risk losing their jobs or liberty. Jennifer Hayward-Jones, the director of the Myer Foundation Melanesia Program at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, says it is strange that Fiji has been "busy talking up its international diplomacy, while not making any effort at home to demonstrate a more liberal approach".

After being held in police cells for three days, Chaudhry was this week charged with infringing the military government's Public Emergency Regulations, which ban meetings without official permission. Amnesty International's Asia deputy director Donna Guest says the PER regime "is used to violate Fijians' human rights. It acts as a clear deterrent to Fijians seeking to speak and meet freely."

Labour Party leader Chaudhry, whose elected governments were twice deposed by coups -- in 1987 and 2000 -- was on Wednesday granted extended bail and ordered to report weekly to the police. He was charged, along with five other men, with meeting unlawfully at a home in the town of Rakiraki, on the central northern coast of the main island, Viti Levu. Chaudhry pleaded not guilty.

He was also arrested and taken to court in July, charged with money laundering and tax evasion -- charges that he has denied, and over which he is due back in court next Friday. He is seeking to have an overseas judge hear the case.

The PER regime was introduced in April 2009, originally for 30 days, but has been extended ever since.

Chaudhry is general secretary of the National Farmers Union, and the local sugar industry, which is in deep crisis for various reasons, is at the core of his influence. The latest annual report for the state-owned Fiji Sugar Corporation reveals that its liabilities exceed its assets by $31.6 million. Fiji's taxpayers have already bailed out the industry by $164m.

The corporation suffered a $95.7m loss in the last financial year. FSC chief executive officer Deo Saran and chairman Gautam Ramswarup resigned last month.

The European Union, the main buyer of Fiji's sugar, has recently extended its sanctions on Fiji for a further six months.

While its tourism continues to boom -- although discounting is rising and margins are shrinking -- Fiji is experiencing more disinvestment than investment, with domestic and foreign investors reluctant to commit themselves until political stability emerges and the rule of law is fully restored.

Wadan Narsey, an economics professor at the University of the South Pacific, describes the plight of the sugar industry as "disaster, disaster, disaster". About 100,000 people in rural Fiji, out of a total population of 900,000, depend on the industry for their main income. Narsey fears that the worst-case scenario for the FSC -- its collapse, at a cost to taxpayers of more than $165m -- would spell a serious disaster for Fiji taxpayers, the Reserve Bank, and the Fiji economy as a whole.

Chaudhry's Labour Party was accused last month by the regime of posting "mischievous press releases on its website calculated to undermine the government generally, or to bring disrepute to particular government officials".

The releases under question were highly critical of the management of the sugar industry. But after a meeting with the Information Ministry, "we resolved amicably how we will proceed", Chaudhry said. The amicability, however, appears to have swiftly expired since then.

Rika, until yesterday the editor-in-chief of the Fiji Times, has constantly sought to test the limits of censorship and was given no choice but to resign this week.

The newspaper was recently sold by News Limited (owner of The Weekend Australian) -- a move forced by a new media decree issued by the government banning foreign investment above 10 per cent.

The Times had lost all government advertising.

It was bought by the Motibhai group, chaired by Mahendra "Mac" Patel.

New publisher Dallas Swinstead said this week that although the newspaper, founded in 1869, was still in the black, it had lost other advertising too, which also seemed to have been linked to government disapproval.

Thirty staff came to Rika's home on Monday night to commiserate. Several were in tears when the announcement was made in the office about his departure. His deputy Sophie Foster went on immediate leave.

The Times announced on its website that Rika had chosen resignation, which "was described by himself as 'something of a sacrifice' for the good of the company".

News Limited chairman and chief executive John Hartigan, who flew to Suva last month for the formal handover of the Times, says: "From my point of view, Netani was a strong editor who showed very strong leadership qualities at a difficult time."

The newsroom of the Times, as of other media in Fiji, contains a full-time censor. Hartigan says the censor removes material perceived as critical of the regime.

"The second step is to get journalists to publish material which is supportive of the government, and that's what the opposition paper [the Fiji Sun] has started doing."

He says Rika "has been reported as being anti-government; I question that very strongly. He is anti going that second step, writing glowing reports on activities of the illegal regime, and that's where he has come into conflict.

"Had we still been in place, we might have taken a very different view, but we are not."

He says he is "very, very sad" about Rika's departure and hopes "it's not the start of a spiral".

Swinstead, a veteran Australian journalist who was publisher of the Times from 1976 to 1980, says Rika, during a discussion, "said out of the blue, 'I'm going to make a sacrifice and resign.' I was grateful. It's what has to happen for the paper to move on."

He says business in Fiji is "bowling along", and he is impressed by the military leadership.

"It's a helluva undertaking, but very well organised, and however brutal it might seem to us in Australia, it's not all that harsh," he says. "There is no sense here of military control. It's the same old Fiji. "I have very early reached the conclusion that what they are doing is right."

He says an editorial about freedom of speech was recently rejected by the censor, resulting in the paper being delayed, and thus losing sales.

"I did not blame the censor but felt that it was the writer's fault: he could have done a better job."

Russell Hunter, a former editor-in-chief of the Times who was expelled from Fiji two years ago when he was chief executive of the Sun, and who is now development editor of the Samoa Observer, says: "I doubt that Netani will be the only one to leave. The junta would have had a list of 'unco-operative' journalists who will have to go if the Fiji Times is to have any hope of regaining a share of government advertising.

"Their replacements will almost certainly have to have the approval, official or otherwise, of the illegal regime. Meanwhile, daily newspaper sales continue to fall alarmingly as readers turn up their noses at a diet of sport, club news and blatant propaganda."

He laments that "much of Fiji's media is now owned by people for whom it is a sideline interest. They will shamelessly use their media holdings to promote and benefit their core businesses."

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