Fiji drops three places in RSF press freedom index over gagging critics

Bainimarama & Kalouniwai
Brigadier-General Jone Kalouniwai (right) with coup leader turned elected Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama ... "stifling" freedom of speech. Image: RSF/Fijileaks

Pacific Media Watch newsdesk

Fiji has dropped three places in the latest Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index and been condemned for its treatment of “overly critical” journalists who are often subjected to intimidation or even imprisonment.

The Paris-based global media freedom watchdog has criticised many governments in the Asia-Pacific region for censorship and disinformation that has worsened since the start of the covid-19 coronavirus pandemic last year.

“On the one hand, governments use innovative practices often derived from marketing to impose their own narrative within the mainstream media, whose publishers are from the same elite as the politicians,” says RSF.

“On the other, politicians and activists wage a merciless war on several fronts against reporters and media outlets that don’t toe the official line.”

Malaysia, Myanmar, Pakistan and Philippines are among the regional countries condemned for draconian measures against freedom of information. China was given a special panel for condemnation in a summary report.

“Thanks to its massive use of new technology and an army of censors and trolls, Beijing manages to monitor and control the flow of information, spy on and censor citizens online, and spread its propaganda on social media,” says RSF.

Independent journalism was also being fiercely suppressed in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and and Nepal.

‘Less violent repression’
“A somewhat less violent increase in repression has also been seen in Papua New Guinea (down 1 at 47th), Fiji (down 3 at 55th) and Tonga (up 4 at 46th).” The Tongan “improvement” was due to the fall in other countries.

In the country report for Fiji, reference is made to the “draconian 2010 Media Industry Development Decree, which was turned into a law in 2018, and under the regulator it created, the Media Industry Development Authority”, which is under direct government oversight.

“Those who violate this law’s vaguely-worded provisions face up to two years in prison. The sedition laws, with penalties of up to seven years in prison, are also used to foster a climate of fear and self-censorship.

“Sedition charges poisoned the lives of three journalists with The Fiji Times, the leading daily, until they were finally acquitted in 2018. It was the price the newspaper paid for its independence, many observers thought.”

RSF also referred to the banning of Fiji Times distribution in several parts of the archipelago at the start of the covid-19 pandemic in March 2020.

A year ago, RSF condemned an op-ed by a pro-government Fiji military commander in Fiji defending curbs on freedom of expression and freedom of the press in order to enforce the lockdown imposed by the government to combat covid-19.

“In times of such national emergency such as this […] war against covid-19, our leaders have good reasons to stifle criticism of their policies by curtailing freedom of speech and freedom of the press,” Brigadier-General Jone Kalouniwai wrote in an op-ed in the pro-government Fiji Sun newspaper on 22 April 2020.

‘Enemy within’
General Kalouniwai, the Republic of Fiji Military Forces chief-of-staff and who is regarded as close to Prime Minister Bainimarama, went on to voice “deep concerns about this enemy within, which have been fuelled by irresponsible citizens selfishly […] questioning the rationale of our leader’s decision to impose such restrictions.”

“No authority, and certainly not a military officer, should be arguing in favour of placing any kind of curb on press freedom,” declared Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk at the time.

“These comments recall the worst time of the Fijian military dictatorship from 2006 to 2014. We urge the Fijian government to do what is necessary to guarantee the right of its citizens to inform and be informed, which is an essential ally in combating the spread of the virus.”

In late March, after the first coronavirus case was confirmed in the western city of Lautoka, police manning a roadblock outside the city prevented delivery of the Fiji Times, the country’s only independent daily.

Its pro-government rival, the Fiji Sun, was meanwhile distributed without any problem.

RSF noted “two other significant media actors that sustain press freedom” in the country – the Fiji Village news website and associated radio stations, and the Mai TV media group.

PNG journalists ‘disillusioned’
In Papua New Guinea, the ousting of Peter O’Neill by James Marape as prime minister in May 2019 was seen as an encouraging development for the prospects of greater media independence.

However, “journalists were disillusioned” in April 2020 when the police minister called for two reporters to be fired for their ‘misleading’ coverage of the covid-19 crisis.

“In addition to political pressure, journalists continue to be dependent on the concerns of those who own their media. This is particularly so at the two main dailies, the PNG Post -Courier, owned by US-Australian media tycoon Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, which is above all focused on commercial and financial concerns, and The National, owned by the Malaysian logging multinational Rimbunan Hijau.”

In contrast to the Pacific drops in the index, Timor-Leste rose seven places to 78th.

“In 2020, journalists came under attack from the Catholic clergy, which is very powerful in Timor-Leste. A bishop [attacked] two media outlets that published an investigative article about a US priest accused of a sexual attack on a minor.

“The Press Council that was created in 2015 plays an active role in defusing any conflicts involving journalists, and works closely with university centres to provide aspiring journalists with sound ethical training.

“But the media law adopted in 2014, in defiance of the international community’s warnings, poses a permanent threat to journalists and encourages self-censorship.”

‘Press freedom models’
In other regional developments, RSF said that the “regional press freedom models – New Zealand (up 1 at 8th), Australia (up 1 at 25th), South Korea (42nd) and Taiwan (43rd) – have on the whole allowed journalists to do their job and to inform the public without any attempt by the authorities to impose their own narrative”.

In Australia, “it was Facebook that introduced the censorship virus.

“In response to proposed Australian legislation requiring tech companies to reimburse the media for content posted on their social media platforms, Facebook decided to ban Australian media from publishing or sharing journalistic content on their Facebook pages.”

While Samoa retained its 21st position, RSF’s index authors noted that the Pacific country was in danger of “losing its status as a regional press freedom model”.

Noting responses to repeated threats by the government, RSF cited the Samoa Alliance of Media Practitioners for Development (SAMPOD) for “urged the media to reaffirm the right of Samoans to pluralist, free and independent journalism as an essential condition for democracy”.

“In a sign of further decline in the situation in 2020, the prime minister threatened to ban Facebook and personally brought a defamation suit against a blogger whose comments he did not like.”

Pacific Media Watch collaborates with Reporters Without Borders.

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