By Alison Martin
The prospect of a genuine democracy in Fiji remains a hazy ideal. As long as draconian media censorship provisions remain in place, the promised elections of 2014 cannot be democratic.
Recent calls for Australia to increase its engagement with Fiji do not adequately address the reality of media censorship under Prime Minister Commodore Bainimarama’s authoritarian regime. If we are to pursue friendlier relations with Fiji, the removal of media regulations must be promoted.
Citing the failure of Australia’s existing diplomatic relations with Fiji, the Lowy Institute’s Jenny Hayward-Jones recently recommended opening dialogue and increasing engagement with the regime. To an extent, such calls echo the policy shift in Australia’s dealings with Burma — and it is certainly true that Australia’s isolationist policies toward Fiji appear to have fortified Bainimarama’s regime against outside influences. Current US policy in the Pacific Islands also recognises the importance of more direct engagement with Fiji, including reintegrating it into international institutions.
There are undeniable benefits to taking a more collaborative approach with Fiji as it moves to elections in 2014. If Australia assists and oversees this process, it is crucial that the current reality of the state of freedom of expression in Fiji is not glossed over.
Speaking at a UNESCO conference marking Press Freedom Day last year, former deputy editor of the Fiji Times Sophie Foster cited the results of a survey (pdf) she had conducted of journalists in Fiji. All journalists questioned stated they were not able to report freely thanks to tough media censorship laws and self-censorship. Such "self-censorship" may manifest in journalists being selective about the type of stories they cover, or simply about the way in which they cover stories about the government and military.
Under the Public Emergency Regulations, broadcasters and publishers must submit all material to the Permanent Secretary for Information prior to broadcast or publication. If they fail to do so, they may be shut down. The Permanent Secretary for Information may prohibit the broadcast or publication of material that he believes may "give rise to disorder … or promote disaffection or public alarm, or undermine the Government". Early responses to censorship regulations included the publication of blank spaces in newspapers where censored articles and cartoons had been removed.
ABC Pacific Correspondent Sean Dorney, formerly based in Suva, said that following the printing of these blank spaces, the Permanent Secretary for Information contacted the Fiji Times and threatened to shut it down if it did so again. A number of journalists responded by going online, however many internet cafes have been shut down to restrict independent news bloggers. More recently, the leader of an NGO in Fiji noted that journalists were self-censoring in their coverage of the unrest in Egypt. Restrictions to media freedom may become less visible over time because the pre-emptive self-censorship of the media will result in fewer incidences of journalists being punished for violating censorship regulations.
Current measures adopted by Australia and other actors within the region have been ineffective in supporting democracy and freedom of the media within Fiji. The ineffectiveness of sanctions and travel restrictions is clearly compounded by media censorship. Why? Because the Fijian public is uninformed as to the motives behind such measures and therefore less likely to connect them to the actions of the regime.
Although Bainimarama has stated his commitment to holding democratic elections in 2014 a number of times, he has also stated that he doesn’t trust the people of Fiji and that in order to restore democracy the government would need to "shut some people up".
Last year, Bainimarama warned the 2014 timetable may not be met unless Fiji received assistance from Australia and New Zealand: "If you look to 2014 and we’re not ready because of constant interfering, we are not going to give up a government to a political party, a government that’s not prepared to go into an election."
Even in the unlikely event that he is voted out in 2014, Bainimarama has stated that the military would monitor the new government "to see the path taken by the new government is on the same track". Such emphasis on the military support enjoyed by Bainimarama make it clear that a lack of media freedom is not the only obstacle to democracy in Fiji.
Hayward-Jones’s recommendation that Australia "build and lead a new coalition" of partners to assist Fiji with electoral and constitutional reform therefore seems fair enough. A show of goodwill toward Fiji may potentially counter Bainimarama’s clear and growing hostility regarding Australia. A more cooperative relationship may also allow Australia to add a level of scrutiny to the process. However, the first priority of a coalition of partners must be the progressive development and protection of a functioning media.
Genuine democracy requires an informed voting public. This hinges on an effective, independent media, free to facilitate debate and report on events and issues. The elections of 2014 will be inherently undemocratic as long as the Fiji government continues to tightly control the information it allows its citizens to access. If Australia engages with Fiji without also developing a focused and comprehensive strategy for the achievement of media freedom, such engagement may serve to strengthen and further entrench Bainimarama’s authoritarian regime. By increasing dialogue with the Fiji government without specific benchmarks for change — such as independence for newspaper editors — Australia risks legitimising what is clearly a repressive regime.
Any strategy aimed at improving dialogue and engagement with the Fijian government must be directly associated with concerted, comprehensive programs supporting the protection and promotion of freedom of the media. This must also include strict stipulations around the provision of support and assistance for the transition to democracy being conditional upon the progressive removal of draconian media censorship laws.
As long as censors remain in Fiji’s newsrooms, there is no hope for genuine democracy.