Historic day for Fiji journalism as ‘draconian’ media law scrapped

Reporter Rakesh Kumar (from left) and chief editor Fred Wesley from The Fiji Times, and editor Samantha Magick of Islands Business
Reporter Rakesh Kumar (from left) and chief editor Fred Wesley from The Fiji Times, and editor Samantha Magick of Islands Business . . . "It wasn't an easy journey, but truly thankful for today." Image: Lydia Lewis/RNZ Pacific

By Lydia Lewis and Kelvin Anthony, RNZ Pacific journalists

The Fiji Parliament has voted to “kill” a draconian media law in Suva today, sending newsrooms across the country into celebrations.

Twenty nine parliamentarians voted to repeal the Media Industry Development Act, while 21 voted against it and 3 did not vote.

The law — which started as a post-coup decree in 2010 — has been labelled as a “noose around the neck of the media industry and journalists” since it was enacted into law.

While opposition FijiFirst parliamentarians voted against the bill, Fiji’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Professor Biman Prasad said binning the act would be good for the people and for democracy.

Removing the controversial law was a major election promise by Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka’s coalition government.

Emotional day for newsrooms
The news was “one for the ages for us”, Fiji Times editor-in-chief Fred Wesley, who was dragged into court on multiple occasions by the former government under the act, told RNZ Pacific in Vanuatu.

He said today was about all the Fijian media workers who stayed true to their profession.

“People who slugged it out, people who remained passionate about their work and continued disseminating information and getting people to make well-informed decision on a daily basis.”

“It wasn’t an easy journey, but truly thankful for today,” an emotional Wesley said.

“We’re in an era where we don’t have draconian legislation hanging over our heads.”

He said the entire industry was happy and newsrooms are now looking forward to the next chapter.

“The next phases is the challenge of putting together a Fiji media council to do the work of listening to complaints and all of that, and I’m overwhelmed and very grateful.”

Holding government to account
He said people in Fiji should continue to expect the media to do what it was supposed to do: “Holding government to account, holding our leaders to account and making sure that they’re responsible in the decisions they make.”

Fiji Media Act repealed on Thursday. 6 April 2023
Fiji Times editor-in-chief Fred Wesley and Islands Business editor Samantha Magick embrace each other after finding out the the Fijian Parliament has repealed the MIDA Act. Image: Lydia Lewis/RNZ Pacific

Journalists ‘can be brave’
Islands Business magazine editor Samantha Magick said getting rid of the law meant it would now create an environment for Fiji journalists to do more critical journalism.

“I think [we will] see less, ‘he said, she said’, reporting in very controlled environments,” Magick said.

“Fiji’s media will see more investigations, more depth, more voices, different perspectives, [and] hopefully they can engage a bit more as well without fear.

“It’ll just be so much healthier for us as a people and democracy to have that level of debate and investigation and questioning, regardless of who you are,” she added.

RNZ Pacific senior sports journalist and PINA board member Iliesa Tora said the Parliament’s decision sent a strong message to the rest of the region.

“The message [this sends] to the region and the different regional government’s is that you need to work with the media to ensure that there is media freedom,” said Tora, who chose to leave Fiji because he could not operate as a journalist due of the act.

“The freedom of the media ensures that people are also able to freely express themselves and are not fearful in coming forward to talk about things that they see that governments are not doing that they [should] do to really govern in the countries.”

‘Step into the light’ – corruption reporting project
Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project co-founder and publisher Drew Sullivan told RNZ Pacific that anytime a country that was not able to do the kind of accountability journalism that they should be doing, this damaged media throughout the region.

“It creates a model for illiberal actors in the region to imitate what’s going on in that country,” Sullivan said.

“So this has really moved forward in allowing journalists again to do their job and that’s really important.”

Fiji journalists, Sullivan said, had done an amazing job resisting limitations for as long as they could.

“Fiji was really a black hole of journalism [in] that the journalists could not participate in on a global community because they couldn’t find the information; they weren’t allowed to write what they needed to write.

“So this is really a step forward into the light to really bring Fiji and media back into the global journalism community.”

Korean cult investigation
Last year, OCCRP published a major investigation on Fiji, working with local journalists to expose the expansion of the controversial Korean Chirstain-cult Grace Road Church under the Bainimarama regime.

Rabuka’s government is currently investigating Grace Road.

Sullivan said OCCRP will continue to support Fijian journalists.

“But [the repealing of the act] will allow a lot more stories to be done and a lot more people will understand how the world really works, especially in Fiji.”

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

Fiji Media Act repealed on Thursday. 6 April 2023
Fred Wesley and Rakesh Kumar from The Fiji Times, Samantha Magick from Islands Business, and OCCRPs co-founder and publisher Drew Sullivan in Port Vila. Image: Lydia Lewis/RNZ Pacific
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