Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Press Freedom

FIJI: Coup Leaders Gag Media

Shailendra Singh

SUVA, Dec 5 2006 (IPS) - Fiji’s leading daily newspaper and sole television station have suspended operations after attempts to censor their news by the military, which seized control of the country on Tuesday, ousting the elected government of Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase.

Military representatives went to the office of the Fiji Times newspaper in the capital in the evening and ordered the paper not to publish any “propaganda” against the new political leadership.

Fiji TV was paid a similar visit and also ordered not air images or statements issued by Qarase or members of his cabinet. Fiji TV’s news director Netani Rika said when the soldiers arrived at his station at 7:30 pm they said they were there for the protection of the staff.

Later, when the soldiers changed that to saying they did not want any statements from the Qarase administration to be put on air, Rika informed them that his staff could not work under such conditions. “We will come back when we are independent and uncensored,” Rika said. The late-night bulletin from the country’s only TV channel was cancelled.

Earlier, the military commander, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, declared at a press conference that he had deposed the Qarase government and assumed executive powers. One of his first acts was to appoint former army doctor Jona Baravilala Senilagakali as interim prime minister until fresh elections are called.

Bainimarama has been opposed to Qarase’s pro-ethnic Fijian government ever since it won a second five-year term in May, accusing it of being soft to those behind Fiji’s last coup, in 2000. He said he hoped that the new government would mend the ”ever-widening racial divide which currently besets our multicultural nation”.

Fiji’s first coup in 1987 and the two others that followed were carried out by indigenous Fijians unwilling to share political power with ethnic Indians, who were brought here by British colonialists as indentured labourers, but now control most of the economy.

Qarase came to power in 2000 under an arrangement brokered by Bainimarama with armed men led by Fijian businessman George Speight – who had seized control of Parliament in a coup and held then-prime minister Mahendra Choudhry, an ethnic Indian, hostage for 56 days.

Bainimarama, who is credited with putting down the coup and arresting Speight, has said he is interested in protecting constitutional guarantees provided to all Fijians regardless of their race. He is particularly opposed to bills brought to Parliament by Qarase that seek to pardon Speight and hand over rights to valuable coastal land to indigenous Fijians.

Soldiers were seen stationed at the government-owned Fiji Broadcasting Corporation headquarters on Monday night. Again, according to the news director of the corporation, Matai Akoula, the soldiers told the staff that they were there for their protection.

While no directions have been issued on what may be broadcast, a soldier has been assigned to be present in the newsroom and watch over the activities of reporters. Soldiers have also requested that they be present at morning meetings when stories are discussed and assigned.

The Fiji Times is the second of Fiji’s three newspapers that has suspended operations. On Monday, the Daily Post, in which government holds shares, closed shop after complaining of receiving threatening calls from the military.

The third newspaper, the Fiji Sun, has also criticised the military, but received no military visits so far. The paper’s deputy chief of staff, Samantha Rina, said they would be publishing Wednesday’s issue.

Fiji Times managing director Tony Yianni and Editor Samisoni Kakaivalu said they were told that they could not publish anything from the “deposed” Qarase government.

Yianni and Kakaivalu argued that a free press meant any and all opinions should be published in a balanced way but they were warned any newspaper that published views opposing the army would not be tolerated. Yianni then ordered the newspaper closed himself.

Yianni said the military’s demands breached Fiji’s constitution, which specifically protects freedom of speech. He also said the demands violated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“We were ordered to breach the constitution and not publish any dissenting views that may be sent to us by free citizens, as well as the views of legally elected members of the Qarase government. “If we do not have the freedom to publish with responsibility, then we do not publish,” Yianni said.

Daryl Tarte, chairman of the Fiji Media Council, said the clampdown was ”unconstitutional” and had to be seen as contravening the declaration by Bainimarama, when he announced the takeover of the press, that the constitution stood and would be preserved..

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