THE FIGLEAF in Fiji has finally been ripped aside. Now we have an unashamedly naked military dictatorship back in power. Inevitable, of course, given the shortsighted Australian, New Zealand and Forum policies that had boxed an increasingly intransigent regime into a corner. But disappointing given that the recent political dialogue had been providing a glimmer of hope.
The Court of Appeal judgment was the final straw for the regime. The Easter “New Order” imposed by the ailing President Ratu Josefa Iloilo – ie. the regime old order back in a new guise – hasn’t flinched from the original mission. Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama still clings to his pledge to change the country’s electoral system away from the flawed race-based system in place since independence (changed after the 1997 Constitution but with no real fundamental difference) and to end corruption.
But the rule of the gun cannot force a change in the people’s mindset and in the long run will be counter-productive. According to law professor George Williams at the University of New South Wales, who had a hand in the 2001 judgment heralding a return to democracy from Bainimarama’s post-Speight military rule, the “pretence of acting within the rule of law [and upholding the 1997 Constitution] has been stripped away” leaving a profoundly uncertain future for Fiji:
The trigger was Thursday's decision of the Court of Appeal, which ordered a restoration of democracy. In 2001, the same court overturned an earlier coup by Commodore Frank Bainimarama. On that occasion the military stood down, the 1997 constitution was restored and fresh elections were held. Many had hoped that history would repeat itself.Based on his definition of a coup (Bainimarama’s in 2000 after Speight was really the fourth, followed by the fifth in December 2006), Fiji has just had its sixth on Good Friday.
In the meantime, editors, journalism and the news media have an unenviable job ahead of them – trying to pick their way through the Fiji minefield and maintain some level of media freedom and independence in the current climate of censorship and self-censorship. Expulsion of expatriate Australian publishers under the glare of immediate glare of international media publicity over the past year was one thing, the day-to-day unsung hard graft and risks now facing courageous local journos is quite another. Café Pacific believes Fiji is now entering a sinister era where journalists are stepping out of the regional rhetoric of media freedom and may face real dangers as suffered in many other developing nations.
The regime has ordered news media to comply with a new 30-day emergency rule regulation which restricts coverage. Police and soldiers along with Ministry of Information censors have been placed in the capital Suva’s newsrooms to check stories being broadcast, printed or posted online. The censors have been dubbed the "sulu subeditors". Media have been ordered not to run anything negative about the President’s abrogation of the constitution and the return of Bainimarama as prime minister. The military chief said:
We must be patriotic. The necessary regulations are in force. I’m sure we will all – including the media – cooperate with the authorities."Cooperation" was displayed with today's edition of the Sunday Times, which reportedly carried a blank page two, five stories missing from page three and a blank political cartoon. The Fiji Times has decided to not publish any items that have been censored. It displays a bold box on page two declaring: "The stories on this page could not be published due to government restrictions." However, it is understood that editorial management have been ordered to meet with the Deputy Secretary for Information, Major Neumi Leweni, and he has told the Fiji Times to drop the blanks or face complete shutdown. Fiji Television's 6pm news bulletin tonight was also gagged.
Ironically, buried in the Appeal Court judgment by the three expatriate judges - Justices Randall Powell, Ian Lloyd and Francis Douglas – was a strong statement defending the independence of the Fiji judiciary, including a rebuke against some commentators – including journalists – for their “ sustained and virulent” personal attacks on the country's judges:
Some of the commentators have descended into personal attacks, sustained and virulent, against Chief Justice Gates and several other High Court judges. This has not, to the close observation of members of this court, deflected the Chief Justice and other High Court judges from their judicial oaths, their duties, and their endless work in bringing Fiji a fair and functioning judicial system. It must be remembered that a fair and functioning legal system can substantially alleviate the situation of a people who aspire to democratic rule in times of instability.And now, the rule of law has been removed - and elections shunted back until 2014.
- The rule of law has been displaced by the force of arms
- Will regime shut the Fiji Times?
- Fiji president reappoints Bainimarama
- Tough media censorship in Fiji
- Fiji court rules Bainimarama’s regime illegal
- The full Appeal Court judgment at Pacific Media Watch
- PMC condemns 'ruthless censorship'
- Regional scrutiny of media freedom