Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Provocative expulsion another chapter in Fiji media witchhunt

“PROVOCATIVE”, says the Paris-based media freedom group Reporters sans Frontières. The regime is “targeting us”, says the Fiji Times chief editor Netani Rika. “Fight on”, says expelled publisher Rex Gardner. He believes that if the Fiji media keep campaigning for freedom of information, the media will survive. His final message to his embattled Suva paper was:
I'm being kicked out of the country. I don't write what goes in the papers. Until the people who put pen to paper are being harassed as much as I am, I don't think there'll be a problem.
My freedom doesn't exist anymore but I think media freedom will exist if the newspapers push hard enough and continue to fight for their right and the public's right to freedom of information.
The onus is on the media to report sensibly and carefully and truthfully and cover all the facts and keep pushing for the public's right to know because that's the most important thing. Media freedom is one thing but it's the public's right to know that's so very, very important.

And the Fiji Times itself said “Time to get real”, pointing out the inconsistencies in the government claims against Gardner. Although the Fiji Times admitted guilt in the contempt of court case over a published letter to the editor (purportedly from Australia) that attacked the coup legality judgment and the judiciary, Gardner was pointedly not convicted by the judge:
Justice Thomas Hickie was abundantly clear in his ruling on the matter. Let us once again state for the record that Gardner was not convicted by the court. Instead, he was discharged conditionally and had signed all applicable documents pertaining to the course on Thursday, less than two hours after the case ended. We know the work permit has not expired and that the court did not find Gardner guilty. This means that the excuses given by [Commodore Voreqe] Bainimarama and [Immigration Director Viliame]Naupoto for the deportation are not the real reasons for Gardner's removal.

In fact, Gardner’s work permit was due to expire next month and he would have been leaving the country anyway. But as RSF said, this was a provocation aimed at the Pacific Islands Forum, and may well have hardened the PIF resolve against the Fiji regime. Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister, Sir Michael Somare, did his best to stave off a bad outcome for Fiji, even issuing a copy of his statement during the special forum appealing for no “isolationist” penalty being imposed on Fiji.
But at the other end of the PIF scale, Australia and New Zealand were pushing for their hypocritical hardline ultimatum. Finally, Fiji was given until May 1 to announce elections by the end of this year or face expulsion and other sanctions.

A recent Café Pacific posting has been cited at length by Global Voices writer John Liebhardt with a reasonably balanced account of the bloggers debate on the “harsh” court response to the contemptuous letter. For the record, Café Pacific hasn’t softened its earlier criticisms of the media “climate of contempt”. But in the final analysis, media freedom must be defended at all costs if "democracy" is to be restored.
Improvements in the Fiji media cannot be achieved by systematic witchhunts against targeted news organisations. If the current regime and previous Fiji governments had spent even a fraction of their legal bills on sustained and committed media training and education in the country, then substantial progress would be made.

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