Fiji’s longest active newsroom keen for ‘kicking out’ of tough media law

The Fiji Times headquarters on Victoria Parade, Suva
The Fiji Times headquarters on Victoria Parade, Suva . . . long running media freedom legal battle. Image: Sally Round/RNZ Pacific

By Lydia Lewis, RNZ Pacific journalist

The man in charge of Fiji’s oldest newspaper has high hopes for press freedom in the country following the tabling of a bill in Parliament this week to get rid of a controversial media law.

Fiji’s three-party coalition government introduced a bill on Monday to repeal the 2010 Media Industry Development Authority (MIDA) Act.

The MIDA Act — a legacy of the former Bainimarama administration — has long been criticised for being “draconian” and decimating journalism standards in the country.

The law regulates the ownership, registration and content of the media in Fiji.

Under the act, the media content regulation framework includes the creation of MIDA, the media tribunal and other elements.

“It is these provisions that have been considered controversial,” Fiji’s Attorney-General Siromi Turaga said when tabling the bill.

“These elements are widely considered as undemocratic and in breach of the constitutional right of freedom of expression as outlined in section 17 of the constitution.”

Not a ‘free pass’
Turaga said repealing the act does not provide a free pass to media organisations and journalists to “report anything and everything without authentic sources and facts”.

“But it does provides a start to ensuring that what reaches the ordinary people of Fiji is not limited by overbearing regulation of government.”

Fred Wesley
Fiji Times editor-in-chief and legal case veteran Fred Wesley . . . looking forward to the Media Act “being repealed and the draconian legislation kicked out”. Image: Lydia Lewis/RNZ Pacific

The Fiji Times editor-in-chief Fred Wesley said he had a sense of “great optimism” that the Media Act would be repealed.

Wesley and the newspaper — founded in 1869 — were caught in a long legal battle for publishing an article in their vernacular language newspaper Nai Lalakai which the former FijiFirst government claimed was seditious.

But in 2018, the High Court found them not guilty and cleared them of all charges.

“After the change in government, there has been a change in the way the press has been disseminating information,” Wesley said.

“We have had a massive turnover [of] journalists in our country. A lot of young people have come in. At the The Fiji Times, for instance, we have an average age of around 22, which is very, very young,” he said.

Handful of seniors
“We have just a handful of senior journalists who have stayed on who are very passionate about the role the media must pay in our country.

“We are looking forward to Thursday and looking forward to the act being repealed and the draconian legislation kicked out.”

He said two thirds of the journalists in the national newspaper’s newsroom have less than 16 years experience and have never experienced press freedom.

He said The Fiji Times would then need to implement “mass desensitisation” of its reporters as they had been working under a draconian law for more than a decade.

He added retraining journalists would be the main focus of the organisation after the law is repealed.

‘Things will get better’
Long-serving journalist at the newspaper Rakesh Kumar told RNZ Pacific that reporting on national interest issues had been a “big challenge” under the act.

Kumar recalled early when the media law was enacted and army officers would come into newsrooms to “create fear” which he said would “kill the motivation” of reporters.

“We know things will get better now [after the repeal of the act],” Kumar said.

But he said it was “important that we have to report accurately”.

“We have to be balanced,” he added.

Rakesh Kumar
Fiji Times reporter Rakesh Kumar . . . Image: Lydia Lewis/RNZ Pacific

The bill to repeal the MIDA Act will be debated tomorrow.

While the opposition has already opposed the move, it is expected that the government will use its majority in Parliament to pass it.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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