Earlier this month, six Fijians were questioned and later detained by the Fiji police at Suva’s Central Police Station.
Three were leaders of prominent political parties and the group included two former prime ministers, a party member, an NGO leader, and a trade unionist.
They were detained after taking part in a panel discussion hosted by a Suva-based NGO to discuss views critical of Fiji’s 2013 Constitution. Three days before the arrests, Fiji had observed a public holiday to celebrate the constitution, of which the President Major-General Jioji Konrote said: ‘The 2013 constitution was the first in our history to establish the principle that every Fijian is equal, whoever they are, wherever they come from or whatever their religious or political beliefs’.
The arrests are part of a government crackdown on political opponents. The relationship between the government and its critics is continuing down a path of tension and insecurity that is characteristic of Fiji’s political landscape. The reasons cited for the recent arrests include events held without permits, ‘oppositional public utterance’, and threats to national security. These responses demonstrate what the watching public already knows: the nation’s laws are prone to political subjectivity; they are as stretchable as they are substantive. This is the form of democracy that Fijians, and especially young Fijians, have grown up with. Those opposed to ‘post-coup Fiji’ do not fare well under laws that quell dissenting views. The clear message for critics is tread carefully or walk to the police station.
In an interesting historical twist, one of those arrested was Sitiveni Rabuka, instigator of Fiji’s first coup, now on the receiving end of what he was notorious for in 1987. Here was the person that introduced Fijians to the politics of impunity, being detained on a calm Suva Saturday.
These arrests (and the precise consequences are are still unclear, as we wait for decisions from the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions) increase the strain on Fiji’s fragile political environment. They are the latest in a long line of events that illustrates Fiji’s brand of democracy is frequently opposed to liberal principles in seeking to restrict freedom of thought and behaviour.
Basic human rights
Previously, Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama had stated that dedication to basic human rights is the foundation of democracy. No democracy can survive if the rights of each person are not sacred, if the state fails to protect – or even works to undermine – the individual’s ability to think and believe and worship as he or she chooses’.
Today, such rhetoric, that speaks of rights protected under a constitution proclaiming a true and genuine democracy, rings hollow. This is evident when citizen assembly and critical speech requires a police permit, lest it be suspected of threatening national security. Even if those arrested are not charged in this instance, the fact that freedom of assembly and speech is viewed as a threat indicates a lack of protection for human rights in Fiji.
It feeds into previous actions that have undermined the rights and protections of citizens, creating insecurity and a real threat to the genuine democracy that Fiji aspires to. When citizens are portrayed as wrong-doers, they question themselves, rather than the leaders and authorities.
But the questioning of leaders should be viewed positively, as a way to improve Fiji’s leadership, not undermine it. A confident government would recognise and be capable of accommodating political commentary without the need for police interference.
As the detained, held for two days, went through the motions of police interrogation their concerned families watched on. Members of the general public also gathered around the police station in Suva.
A group of young, tech-savvy and injustice-weary Fijians, grew in numbers before the arrested were released on Sunday evening, sparking political curiosity. Crackdowns on political dissent in Fiji are not new but more young Fijians are now armed with smartphones. In this information age of scrolling newsfeeds and viral hashtags, politically active young Fijians tweeted #FijiCrackdown and live-streamed their political views across leadership barriers and international boundaries.
The deteriorating relationship between Fiji’s leading political actors is increasing youth interest in political options for Fiji (for more on the growing usage of digital technologies as an alternative form of expression see here).
The apathy that old actors claim of young Fijians towards politics is misplaced. Often it is founded on older players’ inability to post a tweet, or to summon the powers of a hashtag.
As young people shared updates, videos and tags from outside the police station, they engaged a larger audience of concerned Fijians both in Fiji and abroad. This motivated a number of them to gather and maintain focus on the concerns of the unfolding detainment.
In Fiji social media is creating an alternative space for freedom of expression and assembly, similar to that seen in some other restrictive democracies.
Young Fijians are at the forefront of political development. They know the best hope for real democracy is literally in their hands. Virtual mobilisation gathers people, as well as opinions and attention.
Fijians need to harness this growing mode of expression before legislative creativity restricts another citizen space in the name of national ‘insecurity’.
Mereoni Chung is a contributor to the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter blog. This is her latest piece and has been republished with permission of the author.