October 14, 2014

The Mercury: A snake with a taste for soy latte

SEPTEMBER 23, 2014 12:00AM

A soldier mans a roadblock in Suva the day after Frank Bainimarama took over in a bloodle
A soldier mans a roadblock in Suva the day after Frank Bainimarama took over in a bloodless coup in 2006. Picture: AFP
SOY latte. Nice drink, but just the thought of it leaves a bad taste.

This is the preferred brew of Fiji’s true powerbroker – a lawyer, fashion-plate, cunning strategist, smooth-talking charmer who can move like a snake in the grass.
It is not Frank Bainimarama but Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, attorney-general in the military regime who ran Fiji for the past eight years, the primary brains behind the throne.
He is not exactly loved in Fiji but curiously admired by many for plotting the sometimes nasty path for Bainimarama from a military coup in 2006 to winning last week’s election.
Bainimarama, heading the Fiji First party, is now legitimately in power. Aiyaz, who was minister in charge of the election, was comfortably voted in.
But back to soy latte.
I met Aiyaz soon after arriving in Fiji in 2008 for a second stint as general manager of the 140-year-old Fiji Times.
I was sitting with a group at a tourism convention on the patio of a beachfront hotel along the Coral Coast from Suva.
The palms swayed gently in the warm night zephyr as everyone sat around in bula shirts, relaxing after a meal.
I was introduced to Aiyaz by a mutual friend and invited him for a nightcap at our table.
“Soy latte, please,” he said.
“And maybe a nightcap, too?” I inquired.
“No, just the latte, thanks. I don’t drink.”
He wanted to meet the new Fiji Times general manager, and I was keen to meet the strategist behind the military rulers.
We had an issue to get our teeth into. Just that afternoon I had refused to run a full-page government ad in the next day’s Fiji Times that had clear errors of fact in it.
He wasn’t happy and made it clear. My response was that surely, as a lawyer, he would agree that factual errors were not acceptable.
We were not off to a great start – but I did pay for the latte.
A snake with a taste for soy latte
Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, left, and Frank Bainimarama during a 2008 press conference in Suva.
Over the next few months he remained firmly on the Fiji Times’ case.
The military government, and particularly the AG, seemed obsessed with the newspaper and any criticism through its columns or letters.
The paper was the only voice of reason and balance in Fiji, taking the military government to task.
Our editor, Netani Rika, a brave Fijian, infuriated the regime by referring to it as an “interim government”.
The opposition Fiji Sun was on side with the military and sweetly rewarded with a steady flow of government advertising, even though the Fiji Times had a much higher circulation and readership.
We ran letters from all sides, many critical of the military rule, high unemployment, failing economy and lucrative jobs dispensed to military mates in the public service.
Bainimarama would phone Netani, shouting abuse and invective. He was an editor under immense pressure but, if anything, this seemed to steel him.
Some months after the first soy latte, the interim AG and I agreed to meet again, at a cafe in a busy Suva side street.
Aiyaz looked sharp in a nicely tailored shirt and trousers and designer glasses. Under his arm was the official Fiji Times dossier, bulging with articles cut from the paper since the coup: letters, highlighted headlines and captions, stories that didn’t synch in with the rulers’ communications strategy.
I shouted two soy lattes as the conversation proceeded, but there was a chasm between the paper and the politician. In a country where most acquiesced in the military rule, theFiji Times was an obstacle.
Soon after, a letter appeared on our letters page from someone in Brisbane criticising a Fiji High Court decision rejecting a case brought by the deposed prime minister and validating the Bainimarama coup.
The soy latte AG struck – like a viper!
He and the Solicitor General quickly instigated court proceedings against the editor, the general manager and the paper for contempt of court, publicly calling for the High Court to jail Netani and me for running the letter which, they claimed, asserted the judge was biased and corrupt.
Former Fiji Times general manager Rex Gardner at Sydney Airport in 2009 after having been
Former Fiji Times general manager Rex Gardner at Sydney Airport in 2009 after having been deported from Fiji.
Our lawyer advised that we should plead guilty but emphasise there was no attempt to discredit the court.
The litigation was well-publicised and the judge saw it very much through the government prism. Down we went.
The editor was given a three-month jail term, suspended for two years. My contempt charge was dismissed, but somehow I got a 12-month good behaviour bond. The Fiji Times company was fined $100,000.
Just days later, my work permit was revoked and I was very swiftly directed to the airport. A second Fiji Times general manager in 10 months was on his way but was quickly replaced.
The noose tightened on the Fiji Times. Censors were in the newsroom every night, and a government decree had come through eliminating foreign ownership of the media. News Limited had three months to divest itself of this very proudly held newspaper.
Fiji is a land of ironies.
On my first day back at the Times in June 2008, the phone rang and, in a deep gravelly voice, the paper’s star columnist asked to drop by to say hello.
The caller? Sitiveni Rabuka, the leader of two military coups during 1987, who closed the paper for five days during the first coup and five weeks during the second. We had a friendly chat in which even he expressed misgivings about the state of things.
And, so, with Bainimarama legitimately in power, will the Fiji Military Forces fade into the background?
Last week, for the first time in months, members of the FMF marched through the streets of Suva, in an action one observer said was to remind people they are still around.
Their leader, Mosese Tikoitoga, has assured diplomatic missions in Fiji the army will operate within the constitutional democracy.
But military coups have happened with lamentable frequency in Fiji – and while love is in the air at the moment, the balance can be tipped again.
And that would be the ultimate irony.
Rex Gardner is managing director of Davies Brothers Ltd, which publishes the Mercury and Sunday Tasmanian.

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