Fiji’s leader promises overhaul of draconian media law

Stephen Wright
Fiji’s leader promises overhaul of draconian media law Fiji's newly elected Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka (center) talks to reporters after his oath-taking ceremony in the capital city Suva on Dec. 24, 2022.
Leon Lord/AFP

Fiji’s recently elected prime minister said his government will replace the Pacific island country’s oppressive media law – which allows fines and prison sentences for news reports that authorities deem against the national interest – with legislation that reflects democratic values.

Fiji was the lowest ranked Pacific island country in Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index last year. It said intimidation of reporters critical of the government and the country’s draconian media law had stifled freedom of speech and the press.

“The coalition government has given an assurance that we will end the era of media oppression,” Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka said in a speech to Fiji’s parliament Tuesday that outlined the new government’s priorities. “We’re discussing new legislation that reflects more democratic values.” 

Rabuka formed a coalition government after elections in December ended the 16-year rule of former military chief Frank Bainimarama, who came to power in a 2006 coup. The media law, imposed by decree in 2010, mandates prison sentences of up to two years for content judged to be against the public or national interest.

The fate of the media law could be an indicator of Rabuka’s commitment to repairing Fiji’s democratic credentials. A former soldier, Rabuka led two coups in 1987 that aimed to protect the political power of indigenous Fijians, but now presents himself as a reformer who intends to right the wrongs of Bainimarama’s rule.

Fiji, a linchpin nation in a region vulnerable to natural disasters and economic shocks, has a burgeoning relationship with China while maintaining close security ties with the United States and countries such as Australia and New Zealand. Fiji’s ties with China blossomed after New Zealand, Australia and other countries sought to punish Bainimarama and his government for the 2006 coup.

Since being elected, Rabuka’s government has moved quickly to remove Bainimarama-era appointees from important public positions and state companies, and investigations are underway into alleged abuses of office. 

Rabuka told parliament that a system of self regulation is being discussed for the news industry with a code of conduct and a media council that would adjudicate complaints about media coverage.

“I have made it clear that the government is totally committed to allowing people the freedom of the press, allowing the nation the freedom of the press. That will include the review of the Media Industry Development Act,” Rabuka said.

“I believe we cannot have proper democracy without a free press, which has been described as the oxygen of democracy,” he said.

Rabuka’s government in mid-January complained to the state-owned Fiji Broadcasting Corporation about its reporting of criticism from the country’s military chief, according to Stanley Simpson, director of commercial broadcaster MaiTV Fiji, in comments posted on Twitter.  

The broadcaster’s original online headline. which said the military had fired a warning shot at the government, was changed to the military “expresses concern.”

Rabuka, in his speech to parliament, indicated his displeasure with the Fiji Sun, a daily newspaper that was widely regarded as pro-government during Bainimarama’s rule.

“The coalition government will carefully study the arrangements by which one of our daily newspapers had received a substantial amount of public funds for advertising over more than one and a half decades,” Rabuka said. 

“We are also interested in the connection between that money and that newspaper’s servile admiration of and bias toward the government of that era. It was no more than a propaganda paper,” he said.

Representatives of Fijian media organizations met with Minister of Communications Manoa Kamikamica last week to discuss removal of the 2010 media law.


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