As Fiji struggles with an unprecedented health and economic crisis, the country’s already limited democratic space is being choked off.
Opposition MPs routinely face arrest for criticising legislation before Parliament, and the international response has been found lacking.
In the past two weeks numerous opposition politicians — MPs, former prime ministers, party leaders and even party volunteers — have been taken in for police questioning in relation to their criticism of a government land bill.
Land ownership is a highly sensitive issue in Fiji. As new legislation relating to land and introduced in the middle of the country’s alarming covid-19 crisis, the iTaukei Land Trust Bill No. 17 was destined to trigger debate.
But criticism of the contentious legislation has prompted the repeated detention of opposition figures, with police saying they were being questioned under the Public Order Act.
The National Federation Party leader, professor Biman Prasad, was taken in four times.
“All this talk about Fiji being a genuine democracy as espoused sometimes by [Prime Minister Voreqe] Bainimarama and others in the government is all hogwash,” the MP said.
“We are not in a country where we have the freedom to talk about legislation which has been tabled in Parliament. I mean, that’s the role of the opposition.”
While Dr Prasad said he was treated courteously by police, it is unclear who has been laying the complaints which spark the arrests, or who is ordering them.
Dr Prasad said the head of the police, or the government, should come clean about it.
However, Fiji police are contending with what the Acting Commissioner of Police, Rusiate Tudravu, describes as attempts to incite instability and rally support against the government.
He issued warnings to the public, particularly after a series of recent fires, including at a shopping arcade in Ba, and a mosque compound in Tavenui.
“We want to assure all Fijians that any attempts to destabilise and cause instability will be investigated and dealt with,” Tudravu said on a police Facebook post.
The head of the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre, Shamima Ali, said while there was tension in the community over the worsening pandemic, job losses and economic hardship, it was unclear whether the fires could be linked to anti-government sentiment.
But according to her, community fear and uncertainty have deepened regarding what people are or aren’t allowed to say.
“The police, whenever people start talking, start questioning the government, in recent years, they come in and start talking about the Public Order Act.
“But the laws are such that people are scared to talk,” Ali said, adding that the media in Fiji remained largely muzzled.