February 21, 2013 12:00AM
THE importance of maintaining pressure on Fiji's military rulers for a return to democracy has been underlined with the disclosure that 14 of the country's 17 political parties have been summarily deregistered. Media executives face stiff jail terms and fines if they so much as mention any organisation or party that does not have the regime's official imprimatur.
This follows the arbitrary trashing by Commodore Frank Bainimarama of the draft for a new constitution drawn up by the internationally respected expert professor Yash Ghai. It should leave no doubt anywhere - least of all in Canberra - about the difficulties ahead for our near neighbour in the run up to the promised 2014 elections.
The trashing of the constitution - because it provided a blueprint to keep the army out of politics - was egregious enough. Now the regime has made good on a decree according registration only to political parties with 5000 members (10 times higher than the number required in Australia) from specified districts, giving them a 28-day deadline to do so. The 14 have failed to meet the deadline. Additionally, in a move recalling oppressive apartheid rule in South Africa when "banned" parties and individuals were proscribed from being quoted, Fiji's editors have been told they could be fined $27,000 and jailed if they mention unregistered parties.
When Commodore Bainimarama trashed the constitutional draft, Foreign Minister Bob Carr was remarkably restrained in his response, in contrast to New Zealand, which strongly condemned the regime. Senator Carr said he understood why the draft had been dumped, winning high praise from regime supporters. It is unfortunate that Commodore Bainimarama interpreted Senator Carr's response as Australian support for his action. That ill-served the democratic cause, and Senator Carr would be unwise to make that mistake again. He should toughen up on Fiji.
There may be an argument for a nuanced, moderate approach, but Australia, as the regional leader, needs to make its views unmistakably clear when Commodore Bainimarama sets back hopes for a return to democracy. The heavy-handed and authoritarian manner in which political parties and the media are being dealt with is such a case. If Fiji is to return to democracy, it needs more political parties, not fewer; and it needs media freedom, not more draconian restrictions.