Big Brother stalks newsrooms in Fiji

I’ve had a soft spot for Fiji ever since my dad took me to see my first rugby international at Twickenham when I was about 10 – England versus this island that I’d never heard of. They played a really exciting, open passing game, they were very big lads, and they got walloped. But the whole stadium clapped them off the park for the style and passion with which they’d played. My dad bought me a Fiji rosette afterwards. 

Then my friend Jon moved for a while to the Cook Islands and returned with a passion for the islands of the South Pacific (and various cautionary tales about mixing beer, cricket and motorbikes). It was in fact he who alerted me to the current situation in Fiji, which I’ll admit had pretty much escaped my notice.

 What on earth is going on there?  

There are reports, backed up by a recent Amnesty research mission, of threats to journalists and human rights activists and of government censorship of the media. Government censors have allegedly been placed in newsrooms to ensure that only ‘positive’ stories are printed, leading to some newspapers printing blank pages in protest. I’ve also heard that some foreign journalists have been expelled from the country. 

The country is governed by a military ruler, Frank Bainimarama, who initially took over in a 2006 coup. Despite the country’s highest court ruling that this was illegal, he was reinstated as interim Prime Minister earlier this month and has asserted his legitimacy, saying that there may be no democratic elections for another five years. 

Thankfully the UN Security Council have condemned the ‘undemocratic’ regime, urging that elections are soon held. This may come as something of a surprise, given that China – a Security Council member which wields the power of veto – is accused of propping up the Bainimarama government with millions of dollars in aid. Hopefully this will exert some pressure on the authorities. 

But the situation continues to get worse. Our researcher was in Fiji earlier this month and told of a strong and intimidating military presence on the streets, and of a ‘culture of fear’ which is crushing freedom of expression.  Fijian people now only hear what the government wants them to hear. People’s emails are monitored by the authorities. And the rule of law has totally broken down: judges and lawyers have been stopped from entering court buildings and many judges and judicial officers, including the Director of Public Prosecutions and the head of the Fiji Law Society, have been placed under house-arrest. 

The situation is totally appalling, conjuring up images more reminiscent of the Iron Curtain than the South Pacific.

We need to see a relaxation of controls on freedom of speech so people can talk about the situation that they are in and human rights monitors can expose violations of international law. The rule of law must be restored immediately, with judges reinstated and the constitution restored.  

I hope people will spread the word about this, as it’s a story that too few people are talking about. And with an economy that relies heavily on tourism, public opinion may have some impact on the authorities. I certainly won’t be dusting-off my rosette for a while.

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