By Patrick Craddock
“THE QUESTION,” said Humpty Dumpty, “ which is to be master – that’s all.” Fiji’s Commodore Bainimarama is the Master, and has been since he took over the country in his coup of December 2006.
But Bainimarama is no fantasy story and his reality is getting more painful for Fiji as he publicly tries to humiliate Fiji-born academic Brij Lal, and Australia and New Zealand. At the same time the former head of Fiji’s land forces Colonel Jone Baledrokadroka tells the media he has applied for a protection visa to stay in Australia, as he would not be welcome back in his own country.
It’s nearly three years since Bainimarama’s coup. Promises were made, in large numbers. The coup had many supporters from all walks of life. Supporters? Perhaps that’s the wrong word - delete "supporters". Let me say that Bainimarama had support from good meaning citizens who wanted a better Fiji. They decided to give their backing to some of the changes the army commander promised: less corruption; respect for the rule of law; respect for the Constitution and an end to official racism.
Alas, the Constitution vanished, as did the aged and manipulated president who had given the army his support. But he left with some honour unlike the legal profession. Judges were sacked, some were reinstated, while others walked away.
Lawyers found their registration for their profession was being placed in the hands of a registrar. They shouted and raved, but to no avail.
Graham Leung, a Fiji lawyer, saw the interim government of Bainimarama leading the profession into a mess.
“The situation has been made worse by the dismissal of the judges and a judiciary which is now even more dysfunctional. More recently, the regime took over the licensing of lawyers, removing the power to grant licenses to practice from the law society to the Registrar of the High Court, an army appointed major.”(1)Marching orders
Democracy was given its marching orders. It kept moving into the distance until it found the date 2014. Then Bainimarama said: “Stop”. Democracy paused. It is still awaiting a cue to talk.
Ratu Epeli Nailatikau has been made President. That decision used to rest with the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC), suspended in April 2007 by Bainimarama. After abrogating the 1997 Constitution he went on to tell the media: “There is no Great Council of Chiefs”.
Traditionally the country’s chiefs, the GCC, had entrenched provisions in the 1997 Constitution with powers to appoint the President and Vice-President. The GCC did not want Ratu Epeli Nailatikau as President. Their powers are now gone and rest with Cabinet.
The army man of choice is in the President’s seat and he is able and willing to tell the country which way to look and act, an example of the military ignoring a huge cultural factor in the history of Fiji which was the power of the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC). Even the colonial power understood the need to get chiefly support to maintain stability in Fiji. Bainimarama has walked all over the cultural heritage of the GCC. But, if he cares to think about his action, he can be sure that at this moment there are chiefs throughout all the islands of Fiji who want to see him removed and their power restored.
Democracy requires educated and intelligent civilians. But there are now four colonels in charge of regional administration, where before there were civilians in charge. It begs the question of why the civilians were ousted – were they incompetent or corrupt, or perhaps less pliable than colonels who would obey directives from the chief?
If the coup leader has an agenda for a better Fiji, when and how will it happen? The Citizens’ Constitutional Forum (CCF) is expressing concern about the role that the Chief Registrar, Ana Rokomokoti, is playing. Harsher critics of the military regime ask on their blog sites, what independent judiciary - where is it?
When the army abrogated the Constitution, it dismissed the judiciary. Later, some judges were reinstated. The ever-smooth Attorney-General also spoke about the independence of judges. Aha, say the critics, take the word “independent” and supplement it with the expression “and loyal to the wishes of the army commander.”
The CCF is expressing concern that a Decree gazetted on 20 July 2009 has given superior powers to the Chief Registrar, making that office more powerful than the highest court of Fiji.
It watches the role of the registrar going well beyond its traditional role.
“Any prosecutions by the Chief Registrar would violate the UN Basic Principles of the Independence of the Judiciary and the Bangalore Principles of Judicial Conduct.” (2)As the legal system faltered, the media was silenced. The reputable big voices of radio, TV and print have been monitored, each by minders. The pressure to stay silent was supposed to be there for only a few weeks, but now many months down the track the voices of media are politically quiet unless they decide to praise the leader and avoid criticism of his failure to deliver on his promises.
'Freedom to report'
In the last few days we have the obscenity of the Attorney-General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, insulting young student journalists at the University of the South Pacific by telling them that the media have freedom to report on all types of stories provided they are accurate and balanced. He asks:
“Is there a restriction? Are journalists being locked up? Are journalists exactly been told what to write? No”. (3)Has Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum forgotten what happened to Netani Rika, now editor of the Fiji Times who was taken to the army barracks where he was threatened and intimidated? And what excuse can Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum give when professor Brij Lal, a leading authority on Fiji is picked up from his home by the military. Do they take him to the police station? No. He is interrogated in the army barracks and deported from Fiji the next day. None of this information is placed in the main media, but it is reported on numerous blogsites, dedicated to the coup aftermath. On the same day as Brij Lal is kicked out from Fiji, I access Radio New Zealand International and encounter an amazing statement.
Major Nemani Vuniwaqa says Professor Lal was not expelled.
“Dr Brij Lal was in Fiji on a visitor’s permit and according to our records he had left the country on a flight to Australia. He was not expelled from the country as claimed by him. (4)Listen to more of Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, who during the last three years, has used his undoubted ability to prepare slippery reasons why Bainimarama is always in the right.
"The fundamental issue as far as the media control at the moment is concerned is that you do not have politicians being reported. That’s the basic thing.”Basic freedoms
The “basic thing” is freedom of speech, surely and accuracy. While suppressing and monitoring news, the army media censors ignored a statement published on the website (Fijilive, 23 August 2009) from a Ministry of Housing and Squatter Settlement official, Peni Bakewa, who said at a workshop on housing that at least 40 percent of people living in Fiji’s squatter settlements are capable of buying their own homes.
Father Kevin Barr says it is untrue.
“It was a very irresponsible statement with no basis in research. It was simply a repeat of an old paper produced by the Ministry some years ago based on poor statistics and even poorer analysis. I confronted Peni about his statement and he admitted it was baseless and relied on old rumours within the Department.” (5)Professor Biman Prasad, an economist at the University of the South Pacific, is calling on the military backed regime to lift the tough censorship on news media or risk growing corruption and a major financial institution collapse. He appealed to Bainimarama, saying his wish to create a “new Fiji” would be thwarted without a free media noting,
“The government’s attempt to stamp out corruption is laudable. However, without a free media, its attempt to do this will be thwarted.” (6)Echoing a past coup, Biman Prasad said Fiji’s largest financial institution, the Fiji National Provident Fund, was at risk because of management and questionable investments.
He noted that shortly after the coups of 1987 - coups by Sitiveni Rabuka, the National Bank of Fiji collapsed and taxpayers lost F$250 million.
“Corruption flourishes in an environment where the media is curtailed. In addition, the government can have more legitimacy if it allows the media to operate independently. “This would help restore confidence in the country and we could see a faster level of economic growth.” (7)Prasad mentioned “legitimacy”. Bainimarama would like that. It has evaded him and may do so for a long time, unless more civilians decide to serve in his interim government. But, civilians contemplating working for the interim government are justifiably worried that they may have problems in the future when they find out that they may be on the NZ banned list when they apply for visas. I took that point up with one observer of the Fiji situation. He commented sadly that until New Zealand lifts its travel visa ban on such civilians there would be a stalemate in relations between the two countries. His opinion is that it is up to NZ to make the first move. A fair point? Should civilians working with the interim government be eligible for visas? It could be a move towards developing a democratic regime in Fiji.
But we have to ask questions too about achievements that the interim government has made, or is working towards. During 2008 the National Council for Building a Better Fiji (NCBBF), worked on the draft of the People’s Charter. Members said they were independent. But Commodore Bainimarama and the Catholic Archbishop co-chaired their main meetings and supplied the NCBBF with government funds. The draft of the People’s Charter is a Fiji version of the Declaration of Human Rights, but with specific recommendations on reducing poverty, resolving land issues, providing more jobs, improved educational opportunities and removing racial provisions from government legislation. It was put together by input from more than 200 people representing numerous factions of society in Fiji. Bainimarama and the Secretariat of the NCBBF acted fairly and these sectors of the community who did not give any input of ideas did so of their own choice. By December 2008 the draft of the Charter was approved. Bainimarama promised to get it up and moving at the earliest opportunity. Now, almost a year later the draft of the People’s Charter has survived the demise of the Constitution and the sticking plaster placed firmly on the mouth of free speech.
The draft of the people’s charter is an achievement, as it sets a guideline for what can be achieved. To call it a blue print is to grace it with more than it contains in content. It is riddled with rhetoric… we believe, we affirm, we reaffirm. But the message is lacking in detail although it set some guidelines, such as making land available for both housing in rural and urban areas with the government playing a key facilitating role.
A keen observer and worker on the progress of housing is Father Kevin Barr. In a presentation in July of this year he said that the Housing Authority (HA) is a commercial enterprise which charges reasonable market rates and seeks to make a profit. According to its mandate, it provides “commercial housing” for those who have incomes between $6500 and $16,500 and can take out loans of $20,000+. With only 17 percent of the workers in Fiji earning over $20,000 the HA has limited impact on developing housing for workers when 50 percent have incomes below $10,000 a year.
Barr asks the relevant question about how land lots and rental land can be made available to those families who live well bellow the $20,000 threshold required of the HA. He notes that there are plans to erect 1560 Public Rental Units and develop 4712 Housing Authority lots by the end of 2013 supported through a low interest loan from the Chinese Exim Bank.
But the poor are still left behind. With only $4 million maximum being provided to housing, and $23 million to tourism, it looks as if the present government lacks any effective policy for housing the poor. Barr says in his article that housing provides social and political stability. Each morning Bainimarama could look at the squatter figures for Fiji, with nearly a 100,000 people living in makeshift homes along the way from his office to the airport at Nausori, a one-hour drive. On resolving housing issues for the poor, the interim government barely seems to have got moving.
The draft of the People’s Charter recommended the setting up of a special council to see the progress of the Peoples Charter. That at least has been accomplished and the National Peoples Charter Advisory Council (NCPAC) is the body to monitor the implementation of the Peoples Charter. The Chairman has said that the NCPAC will receive reports every six months from Permanent Secretaries in all Ministries and Departments. Their next reports are due on his table next month.
Education funding and educational opportunity remains a key issue especially at this time of the year. Scholarship opportunities have been announced. The interim government in its the media releases make no mention of quotas for ethnic groups and states that ability will be the key part of criteria. For that decision many poor but able students will be grateful.
From outside Fiji it looks as if educational money is going down the drain. Fiji now has three universities for a population that is under one million people. There is the University of the South Pacific, which various Fiji ministers have tried to control and failed, as it belongs to the wider region of Pacific countries and gets most of its money from overseas countries, including Australia and New Zealand. The second, the University of Fiji gets much of its money from its the sponsor, the Arya Pratinidhi Sabha of Fiji, a body that has operated in the country for 100 years and has supported the provision of primary and secondary education. In its five-year development phase, it estimated that around $10 million is needed to develop the basic university facilities.
Now, we have a third. In November 2009 cabinet approved the Fiji National University Decree to establish the Fiji National University (FNU) to open next year, 2010. It will consist of six state-owned institutions: Fiji Institute of Technology (FIT), Fiji School of Medicine (FSM), Fiji School of Nursing (FSN), Lautoka Teachers’ College (LTC), the Fiji College of Advanced Education (FCAE) and the Fiji College of Agriculture (FCA). It has not been made clear, but you can bet your last Fiji dollar that government will take good care of the finances of this organisation and control it too. But just what advantages are to be gained from joining these six institutions together and calling it a university. There will be costs. University number two said it requires around $10 million over the next five years. What will university number three cost?
The government already loads most of the education onto organisations other than itself. A report on education produced by its London Office of the Fiji High Commission observes that:
“Government operates only 2 percent of the primary schools, 8 percent of the secondary schools, 8 percent of vocational and technical education schools, and 2 out of the 5 teacher training institutions. The government realises that for ongoing economic development, the country needs an educated and skilled workforce.” (8)Exactly. Fiji needs young people with good education and numerous skills. So why are there no penetrating questions being asked in the media by journalists about where a third university fits into the education system? Surely there is need for more and better primary and secondary education to benefit the nation than establishing a third university.
We come back to the media being gagged and intimidated. This is Sophie Foster associate editor of the Fiji Times, talking at the annual University of the South Pacific journalism awards on 28 November 2008:
“We live in a time when the media industry is under increasing attack on several fronts – we exist in a time of rapid changes in technology which are reshaping the revenue streams of those in the industry; we have had four coups in the last two decades – and this has placed direct pressure on the way we operate; we have a high migration rate which includes highly trained journalists and the skills they offer; we have also over the past two years seen journalists and other news staff personally threatened while doing the job that members of the public expect them to do.” (9)One man in Suva, holding numerous government posts wants to lead the way. As I write this, Commodore Bainimarama has once again attacked both Australia and New Zealand through its diplomats. He is: Prime Minister and Minister for Public Service; People's Charter for Change; Minister for Information and Archives; Minister for Finance and National Planning and Sugar; Minister for Provincial Development, Indigenous and Multi-Ethnic Affairs.
Except for one, all coups in Fiji have been conducted by the military and one of their unfortunate achievements is to ensure that every year since 1987 one percent more of the population moves into the slums of poverty. And it’s getting worse. You doubt it, Commodore?
Ask Wadan Narsey. He is a critic, but his homework or research is thorough. In his lecture he says
“…the incidence of poverty in Fiji has probably increased from the 35 percent it was in 2002-03 to more than 45 percent today.” (10)The interim Attorney-General said recently over Radio Fiji that the fundamental issue with media control at the moment was that politicians were not being reported. Ironically, Sophie Foster would agree with him,
“There is no doubt that the media industry is facing a tremendous challenge trying to defend the right of people to freedom of expression. "Even as I speak, that challenge continues, as a group of civil servants systematically attempts to erase any trace of “dissent” or “disaffection” in the media. They arrive after 6pm and leave somewhere around 10pm. In between that time, they shred to pieces our intrinsic right to freedom of expression.”(11)I am sure the media of Fiji, would be happy to question in depth the man who is Prime Minister and Minister for Public Service; People’s Charter for Change; Minister for Information and Archives; Minister for Finance and National Planning and Sugar; Minister for Provincial Development, Indigenous and Multi-Ethnic Affairs so they can freely report without censorship, to analyse and quote both the multi-minister and his critics on the state of the Fiji nation three years on from 2006.
Patrick Craddock worked in Fiji for more than 12 years at the University of the South Pacific in Suva in using radio for education and lecturing in broadcast journalism. During 2008 he prepared radio programmes in Hindi, Fijian and English for the National Council for Building a Better Fiji explaining the draft content of the People’s Charter for Peace, Change, Progress and Prosperity.
1 Remarks by Graham Leung in paper for the Fiji Institute of Accountants Congress, Sheraton, Denarau, Nadi, 12 June 2009
2 Media Release. CCF, 28 October 2009
3 Radio Fiji. Interview, 30 October 2009
4 Radio New Zealand International News, 5 November 2009
5 Email interview, P. Craddock 8 September 2009
6 Pacific Media Watch Nius, www.pacmediawatch.aut.ac.nz 17 October 2009
7 Pacific Media Watch Nius, www.pacmediawatch.aut.ac.nz 17 October 2009
8 Paper on Education (undated). High Commission of the Republic of the Fiji Islands, London
9 Sophie Foster. Presentation at USP, Suva. 28 November 2008
10 The Rev. Paula Niukula Lecture, 5 April 2009. Marine Studies Lecture Theatre, USP. (Rev Niukula died on 21 April 1996.
11 Fiji Women’s Rights Movement. Speech at Emerging Leaders Graduation, 28 May 2009