July 18, 2013

Fiji party pays price of unpaid paper bill

BY:ROWAN CALLICK, ASIA-PACIFIC EDITOR From: The Australian July 18, 2013 12:00AM

THE Fiji Labour Party, one of only three parties registered under new rules decreed by the military regime, has been suspended for failing to pay the leading pro-government newspaper to publish its financial data.

Fiji formerly had 17 parties, but just three qualified for registration this year, including by submitting details of 5000 members each who are required to live in different, specified regions of the country.

A fourth organisation, the People's Democratic Party, a Labour splinter group, has also been formed recently, but is not yet required to provide its financial data.

Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama has said he would stand at an election he has vowed to hold by September next year, saying: "I am confident I will win."

But he has yet to form or join a political party.

Registered parties are required to reveal to the Registrar of Political Parties all their assets and liabilities, including those of their office-holders and their spouses and children: personal incomes, business connections, directorships, gifts and expenditure. Registrar Mohammed Saneem published this information in the Fiji Sun, which in recent years has become the government's most stalwart media supporter.

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He then instructed the parties to pay the $23,000 bill - of which Labour's share was $3670. The party's net assets comprise $17,400.

If the party - led by former prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry, who receives no income from it - does not comply it stands to be deregistered within 60 days.

Labour cannot operate or even present itself as a political party until it pays the bill.

Australian journalist Russell Hunter, who was deported from Fiji in March 2008 when he was the Fiji Sun's chief executive, said yesterday: "As a former CEO there, I can see the revenue from this being useful.

"But I suspect it might have been wiser to put it to tender, as the Sun will now be seen beyond all doubt to be the regime's mouthpiece. And as far as I can tell it hasn't covered its own involvement in the story.

"How all this will play when the rule of law is restored in Fiji is anyone's guess."

Dalip Kumar, registration officer for the National Federation Party, the country's oldest surviving party, which agreed to pay its $3440 bill, nevertheless complained in a letter to Mr Saneem: "The government decided which media to publish the information, and agreed to the charges levied.

"My party did not have any opportunity to negotiate with any media for publication at a cheaper rate. We have calculated that there were at least 310 column centimetres of blank space in the five pages of our advertisement."

Notices by the registrar took up a further half-page, for which the party had to pay. Mr Kumar described the charge as "excessive, harsh and unconscionable".

The Social Democratic Liberal Party has had to pay the most - about $15,000 - and senior official Tupeni Baba said this would seriously affect the party, most of whose income comes from small donations.

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