Tuesday, March 23, 2010
How the Fiji regime's censorship contradicts the People's Charter
Analysis – By Professor Wadan Narsey
For more than three years, the Bainimarama regime has been in effective control of the governance of Fiji, and even recognised as such by international organisations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and Asian Development Band.
Bainimarama says he will not hold elections until 2014, by which time he thinks the principles of his “People’s Charter” will have been fully entrenched in all processes of government.
But the current media censorship not only takes away our citizens’ basic human right to freedom of expression, it totally undermines the values, commitments and pledges made in the military government’s own Charter.
Since this military regime will, by 2014, have been the effective government for eight years (longer than any elected government), why does it not follow the good governance principles laid down in its own Charter- the need for every government to be open, transparent and accountable to the public, which, in the absence of a democratically elected Parliament, can only be through full media freedom.
Full media freedom is even more vital for public service efficiency, given that the civil service is being gradually militarised in key positions, posing serious problems for the Public Service Commission and the use of tax-payers funds: how ensure that these military personnel behave as fully professional civil servants and not as army personnel, uncritically taking orders from their superiors?
How will the military government be judged by history, if the public service and the economy fail to perform, cocooned by the media censorship?
Surely, both the military government (however long it stays in power) and Fiji have everything to gain and little to lose, if the Public Emergency Decree and the media censorship are removed.
The continuing media censorship
For several months now, the military government has totally censored the media - television, newspapers and radio, removing any news item deemed to be critical of government, their policies and their performance.
At a personal level, Fiji TV or the radio stations no longer bother to interview me for comments on economic issues; while most of my newspaper articles are censored.
Most recently, the military’s censors stopped the publication of an article pointing out the pervasive economic implications of Fiji’s long term demographic changes relating to our ethnic mix: the effects on our education system, the composition of our labour force,
future entrepreneurship, dependency ratios (a key demographic factor in wealth accumulation), and ethnic patterns of consumption, of great relevance to the businesses world. There was nothing overtly political in this article.)
But this military government’s censors decided that the Fiji public will not be allowed to read this article.
The irony is that while they keep repeating that their Charter will guide this country for the foreseeable future, their media censorship contradicts their Charter at every turn.
Do not forget that the Charter started off (page 2) that “We the People of Fiji affirm that our Constitution represents the supreme law of our country, that it provides the framework for the conduct of government and the people”.
But any protection that the 1997 Constitution may have provided against unfair media censorship, went out the window, when Bainimarama abrogated the Constitution in 2009.
But the rest of the military government’s Charter is still a great supporter of our fundamental right to freedom of expression, even if the Military Censors are not.
The Charter Values
Among the values that the Charter espouses (page 4) is “respect for the diverse cultural, religious and philosophical beliefs”. The section on “Moving Forward Together” says “our nation is in urgent need of genuine, trust-based dialogue and peace building for which qualities of humility, compassion, honesty and openness to other views and interests are essential”.
But some people’s views and philosophical beliefs are not respected by the military censors, and will not be allowed to be aired in public, however genuine, constructive and peace building.
Then the Charter states (page 6) “our nation must have a freely and fairly elected Parliament...” and “we believe in an executive government answerable to the Parliament, an independent judiciary, and Security Forces that ... are answerable to the government and Parliament in accordance with our Constitution”. But given that Bainimarama will not give the people of Fiji an elected Parliament until 2014, only media freedom can ensure accountability to the public.
The Charter states (page 7) “we believe in a strong and free civil society as vital to democracy, good and just governance....”. But for the military government refuses freedom of speech or assembly.
Then again that Charter states “we aspire for Fiji to be an educated, knowledge-based society where all our people have access to education and continuous learning...”. But
the military government decides what knowledge the people have access to, through their censorship of the media.
While the Charter says “we must use our individual and collective knowledge and skills to develop our country”, the military censors are deciding that the skills and knowledge of some individuals (anyone who disagrees with the military government) will not be made available to the public.
The Charter goes on (page 8) “We reaffirm our recognition of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all individuals and groups, safeguarded by adherence to the rule of law”.
But Military Decrees, including the Public Emergency Decree which implements the media censorship, now define the law - when there is no emergency at all in the country.
The Charter’s key pillars
Pillar 1 of the Charter talks about “sustainable democracy and good and just governance”. It states (page 11) “The government must be fully accountable to the people of Fiji through Parliament and its procedures”.
The Charter says that to oversee governments, there must be independent and well resourced offices of the Ombudsman, Human Rights Commission, Auditor-General, and FICAC. And “The government must publish timely public reports with adequate details so that the people of Fiji are aware of what is being done in their name and with their taxes”.
But the current military government does not abide by this Pillar: it will not make public the Auditor-General’s Reports for 2007 or 2008. And it is unlikely that there will be any Auditor-General’s Report on government expenditure and revenues for 2009.
The Charter’s Pillar 3 on “ensuring effective, enlightened and accountable leadership” points out that a critical problem in the past has been that “our leaders in most cases have failed to involve us in making the major decisions that affect our well-being and our daily lives”. But this criticism applies equally to our current leaders.
The military government does not consult any of our people’s chosen leaders on major decisions on taxation, government expenditure, sales of government assets, control of public companies and assets through board appointments, and hiring and firing of civil servants. Even the workers’ pension fund is in the control of the current military government, without any accountability to the workers or the pensioners, or the public.
While the Pillar identifies amongst the ideal qualities necessary for any future leaders of Fiji to include “openness” and “accountability”, the media censorship will not allow it.
Militarisation of the civil service
It is clear that the military government is steadily appointing military personnel to key civil service positions, perhaps in the hope that there will be increased efficiency.
But this poses a major problem for the Public Service Commission. Civil servants are required to give their professional advice to their superiors, disagreeing if necessary with their superiors, a vital mechanism to protect tax-payers’ interests from wrong political decisions.
But professional military personnel have been drilled all their lives to blindly obey orders coming from their superiors, without question, even if they think that the orders or decisions are wrong. So how can the PSC and Jo Serulagilagi convert these military appointees into professional civil servants?
The PSC has another problem. Military personnel are trained for military duties, not complex public service. Some may be good, some may be unsuitable. How can the PSC, which has little role in the appointment of these military civil servants, remove any for non-performance?
Pillar 4 of the Charter on “enhancing public sector efficiency” wants a public service which is “accountable”. But how can the public sector be accountable to the Fiji public, when the media is not allowed to publish many stories highlighting problems in the public sector?
While the Charter aims (page 21) to “remove political interference in the public sector”, what the public continues to see is the military government’s frequent hiring and firing of civil servants and board members.
It is well known that most civil servants and board members, for fear of losing their positions, are afraid to disagree with the decisions made by the military government.
Over the last three years, some of this military government’s policy mistakes which have wasted taxpayers’ valuable funds (remember the initial school bus-fares fiasco?), may not have occurred if civil servants’ advice had been followed from the beginning, and the public had been freely allowed to express their views through the media.
With the pervasive media censorship, the public currently has little knowledge of any other bad policy decisions which might also be wasting tax-payers’ funds. But by the time the public finds out the facts, it will be too late- like the National Bank of Fiji (NBF) disaster or all our agricultural scams which have cost tax-payers hundreds of millions of dollars.
It should be obvious to the public that Bainimarama is now performing like all the previous elected or unelected prime ministers we have had (Mara, Rabuka, Chaudhry, and Qarase): regularly getting in touch with people throughout the country, promising tax-payers’ funds for roads, bridges, water, disaster assistance and advocating development initiatives in general. He is also (unilaterally) tackling long-standing problems like the reform of land tenure and national identity.
But if he ever stands for elections down the line (he would only be following in the footsteps of Rabuka and Qarase!) he will be judged not just on the goodies he hands out today, but also by his performance in managing the economy and taxpayers’ funds.
Note that despite Rabuka’s absolute and populist rule in his first few years in power after 1987 (Fiji oldies, remember that period?), eventually he was voted out. And just read today what indigenous Fijians themselves are writing (albeit anonymously) about Rabuka on the blog sites.
It will be in Bainimarama’s long term political interest or his personal historical record, that his military government does not waste taxpayers’ funds.
For that, an important safety mechanism is accountability to the public through full media freedom, especially when there is no elected parliament which can hold government to account as is so powerfully advocated by the Charter.
The Charter’s commitments and pledges
On pages 37 and 38 of the Charter document, there is a long list of what we, the people of Fiji agree to “Commit to”.
We can agree with every single one of them- even where it says we “support the Constitution and the People’s Charter” as the foundation for building a better Fiji.
We can also agree with the Charter where it requires that “we hereby pledge, as citizens of Fiji”, to uphold and be guided by all these commitments through “our own individual conduct and conscience” while “holding responsible and accountable those who hold positions of leadership and responsibility” (i.e. including the current military government).
I believe that my media contributions are fully in keeping with what the Charter requires us to commit to and pledge as responsible Fiji citizens.
So why do the military censors ban my articles from the Fiji media, even the recent innocuous one on the economic implications of Fiji’s long term demographic changes?
Drawing the line
Where do we draw the line?
Friends tell me: “Why get distressed over this little issue. Accept that you are living under a military dictatorship. Just do your work and enjoy your life."
But, a decent life, even according to this military government’s Charter, requires freedom of expression and freedom of the media.
And it distresses me deeply and daily, that these basic human rights have been removed from my life, while there are other erosions of freedoms, some subtly, some openly.
At my workplace, where we should expect an uncompromising defence of academic freedom, one can find oneself unreasonably excluded from politically sensitive situations, such as a university meeting with an international mediator on Fiji’s political crisis, or the university’s participation in an international meeting (where the Fiji government representatives may be present) to discuss the impact of the global financial crisis on the Pacific.
A few weeks ago, an anonymous telephone caller from the army (“Jack”- no surname) warned me that somewhere (he mentioned the Fiji Golf Club) I had been overheard saying negative things against the “government of the day”.
Jack told me to remember what had happened to relatives of mine who had been deported back to Australia. I said, “sorry, I am a Fiji citizen, without any PR elsewhere. And in any case, if I disagree with the government of the day, it is on policies and principles”. But Jack called again the next day and repeated the same message.
It is distressing that we do not even have the freedom to speak among friends at public places, in case someone overhears and conveys some garbled version to the military intelligence who can then threaten you, for no reason at all.
What does this powerful military government have to fear from elderly academics like me?
And why are military personnel being encouraged by their superiors into this kind of unethical and unprofessional behavior? Once entrenched, such disregard for basic human rights will be difficult to eradicate. Who doubts today that had it not been for the successful 1987 coup by Rabuka, those of 2000 and 2006 would have been far less likely.
The Fiji public placidly accepts the media censorship’s erosion of our freedom of speech- a fundamental human right. Surely this is not some “minor issue”.
We forget that just as small waves can slowly erode a solid shore, grain by grain, until the mighty coconut tree falls over, so also can a good society deteriorate into misery and a climate of fear, if we fail to defend every single one of our precious basic human rights.
I am happy to follow this military government’s Charter, but all of it, not just the bits that this military government chooses to follow.
It is a sad indictment of all those people who formulated and supported the Charter, that they remain totally uncritical of this military government’s media censorship, which contradicts their Charter at every turn.
Surely this Military Government (and the FTIB) know that investors cannot have full confidence about investing in an economy where there is pervasive media censorship?
And without this investment, our economy will stagnate (as currently), leaving this military government with an uphill task of dealing with our increasing problems of unemployment and poverty, while undermining the military government’s record as an efficient manager of the economy.
Surely, both this military government (however long it stays in power) and Fiji, have everything to gain and little to lose, if the Public Emergency Decree and the media censorship are removed. And there is an end to personal intimidation.
Dr Wadan Narsey is professor of economics at the University of the South Pacific and an independent media commentator. Pictures: Top: Censorship of the Fiji Times after martial law was imposed on 10 April 2009. Middle: Regime strongman Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama. Bottom: Dr Narsey. Photos: Radio Fiji.
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