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FIJI: Aussie Journo Expelled on Press Freedom Day Eve

Shailendra Singh

SUVA, May 4 2008 (IPS) - Fiji’s interim government has come under withering criticism both nationally and internationally for the deportation on Friday of the Australian publisher of the leading ‘Fiji Times’ daily, Evan Hannah.

Hannah’s arrest came only hours after interim Prime Minister Commodore Frank Bainimarama delivered a World Media Freedom Day message saying that media freedom was alive in Fiji, but within limitations. “The Constitution provides for these limitations and media freedom must be exercised carefully in ensuring that our citizens are informed in a balanced, accurate and truthful manner,” he said.

Bainimarama also accused the media of “low standards”, adding that self-regulation by the Fiji Media Council was perhaps a failure. “Over the past year some media reporting have left much to be desired and some reports have been careless, irresponsible and some in fact have been inciteful and destabilising, posing a threat to national security and stability.’’

The Fiji Media Council said it was shocked and dismayed that on the eve of World Media Freedom Day the interim government should make a mockery of its claim that the media in Fiji is free. “Apparently Hannah is alleged to have breached his work permit by publishing matters that could be a threat to national security. However, rather than be transparent and publicly explain its actions the government is hiding behind a cloak of secrecy.”

In a statement on Friday, the minister for defence, national security and immigration, Ratu Epeli Ganilau, said Hannah was removed under Section 13(2) (g) of the Immigration Act, 2003, relating to prohibited immigrants. “Based on credible evidence and advice furnished to me, Hannah’s actions were breaching national security of the country,’’ the statement said.

Ganilau added that Hannah was “previously cautioned of the implications of his actions” which he chose to ignore. On the stop order issued by the High Court, Ganilau said it had not been officially received by immigration authorities before Hannah’s expulsion.

The Fiji Times, the largest newspapers in Fiji, rejected government claims that Hannah was threatening national security. “No proof of these allegations has been offered in either case,’’ the paper said in a weekend editorial.

Editor-in-chief Netani Rika told the media that the newspaper would not be intimidated and would carry on with its reporting.

The Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) president Joseph Ealedona described the deportation as a ‘’blatant attack on the freedom of the media in Fiji’’ and ‘’calculated to intimidate and silence voices critical of the interim government’’.

The Citizens’ Constitutional Forum (CCF) has also condemned the deportation. “The government is making a mockery of our legal justice system. We call on the interim government to stop violating rights of people in such a manner,” CCF chief executive officer Rev. Akuila Yabaki said.

A statement released by the state department of the United States said the expulsion of a second newspaper publisher in less than 10 weeks raises serious questions about the government’s respect for the freedom of the press. “The United States continues to condemn the military coup and the interim government’s actions to suppress the freedom of speech of those in the media,’’ said the statement.

Australian foreign affairs minister Stephen Smith issued a statement saying that the deportation was a “reprehensible attack by the illegal Fiji interim government on human rights and freedom of speech’’.

“It is unconscionable that the Fiji authorities did not provide any notification to the Australian High Commission and have still not provided any explanation for Hannah’s summary detention and expulsion. Equally outrageous is the fact that the Fiji regime, despite repeated requests, did not allow appropriate consular access to Hannah. It says a lot that the Fiji regime has acted in this way on the eve of World Press Freedom Day.’’

“This is yet another reprehensible act in a disturbing pattern of behaviour since the coup of December 2006 which has resulted in the severe erosion of fundamental human rights, freedom of the press, and the rule of law in Fiji,” said the statement.

The Fiji Media Council chairman, Daryl Tarte, vowed that the media in Fiji would not be intimidated by this development. “If the interim government believes the expulsion of people like Russell Hunter and Evan Hannah is going to force the media to be more accommodating to them, they are wrong. The media has a responsibility to reflect the views and opinions of the people of this nation and there are a great many people who do not agree with the government,’’ Tarte said.

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