By Shailendra Singh in Suva
Fiji’s draft media decree continues to be criticised from within and outside the country, but the government is showing no signs of backing down or softening any of its provisions.
Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum has described international coverage of the draft decree as unbalanced and bordering on the hysterical. He told Radio Fiji recently: "(Again), I would suggest very strongly that most of these sorts of comments are not objective but
actually political in nature."
"I would also attribute some of this hysteria to some local media organisations that are probably whipping up this frenzy and trying to portray an image of Fiji that is far from the truth," he added.
Breach of content regulation or disclosure provisions of the proposed law could lead to a maximum fine of $F500,000 (about US$258,000 ) for the media company concerned, and a maximum fine of F$100,000 (about US$52,000) or a maximum jail term of five years, or both, for publishers, editors and reporters.
Critics of the government say that it has no one to blame but itself for any negative perceptions about Fiji or the draft decree.
After all, it was only last year that then President Ratu Josefa Iloilo abrogated the country’s charter, formed an interim government that is to remain in power until 2014, and then reappointed as prime minister Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama, who has ruled Fiji since staging a coup in 2006.
Freedom of expression and of the press have also been under heavy strain under the Public Emergency Regulations (PER) that, said the Suva-based Citizens’ Constitutional Forum, would only be replaced in name by the proposed Media Industry Development Decree 2010.
According to the forum’s executive director, Rev Akuila Yabaki, the draft decree only "allows strict media censorship to continue in Fiji".
"PER and censorship must be lifted so that citizens of Fiji can enjoy the right to receive and impart information and diverse opinions," Yabaki said.
The Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), for its part, said that the draft decree invests all power of interpretation over the meaning of fair, balanced and quality
journalism to officers and authorities appointed by the Bainimarama regime.
"This decree is clearly focused on the regime retaining control and entrenching its highly oppressive restrictions, not only on the media but (also) on members of the public who might wish to express dissenting views," the IFJ said in a statement.
At the same time, IFJ general secretary Aidan White said it "strictly limits the ability of Fiji’s media to regain its role as a critical watchdog on the accountability of power-holders, and must be substantially rewritten or withdrawn".
Among other things, the draft decree calls for the formation of a Media Development Authority whose powers would include compelling media outfits to disclose the documentation they performed for their stories. The body would also be exempt from legal proceedings unless it can be shown that it acted in bad faith or without care.
Offences outlined in the decree meanwhile include publishing or broadcasting material that is against public interest or order, offends good taste or decency, or creates communal discord.
The draft decree’s miscellaneous provisions also hand the minister concerned wide-ranging powers to stop broadcast or publication in an emergency. Precisely what constitutes an "emergency," however, is not defined.
The same minister gets to appoint, as well as dismiss, the director of the Media Development Authority.
According to Prime Minister Bainimarama, the proposed decree will set a better relationship with the media.
But the draft law was already clouded in controversy even before it was tabled on April 7, withmedia organisations and interested parties complaining that they were not given enough time to scrutinise the 49-page document.
Those who registered for the consultations were asked to collect copies of the draft at 8 a.m. or 90 minutes before the consultations began at the Holiday Inn Hotel in Suva.
They were also not allowed to make copies of the document, which they all had to return afterward.
The international media monitor Reporters Without Borders, however, apparently read enough to issue a statement on April 8 that said the draft decree is an "authoritarian imposition by a regime with no democratic legitimacy".
"Nowhere is press freedom mentioned in this proposed decree, which appears to be designed to enable the military government to tighten its grip on the media – control of media ownership, control of content, and control of the dissemination of news within the country," the organisation said.
The draft decree is reportedly modeled after Singapore’s media laws – which has not exactly provided any comfort to the local and international media.
In the 2009 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, Singapore was ranked 133rd out of 175 countries.
Then again, it still bested Fiji, which fell 73 places from its position the previous year and landed on the 152nd spot in the index.
It remains to be seen whether the draft decree would improve or worsen that ranking.
What looks certain, however, is the draft becoming law. Although Attorney-General Khaiyum has not given any timeframe or date for its promulgation, he has said that it would be implemented in due course.
Shailendra Singh is head of journalism at the University of the South Pacific. This article was originally published with the Inter Press Service. Cartoon: Malcolm Evans, Pacific Journalism Review.
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