By John Mitchell
For many years, Fiji’s media operated under imperious rule and struggled under restrictive laws and climate overwhelmed by fear.
Under that political environment, humiliation and threats against journalists and the media surfaced, inducing alarm, silence and suspicion.
This seemed to mirror reality in the world — that over the past decade the state of media freedom had depreciated rather abysmally.
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Despite having democratic and legal safeguards in Fiji, the fundamental right to seek and disseminate information through an independent press was often under attack and those who chose to deliberately speak the truth often found themselves on the wrong side of the law.
Who can ever forget the Media Industry Development Act 2010, a piece of law that was brought unilaterally into existence without genuine consultation with key stakeholders, and regard for simple good governance etiquette.
MIDA 2010’s provisions imposed excessive fines that hung over the heads of media executives, editors and journalists.
Designed to be vindictive, punish and control, they were not conducive to media freedom and achieving better media standards which politicians said would emerge.
‘Worst’ nation in Pacific
The truth is, after many years of a slump in media freedom, the World Press Freedom Index 2022 labelled Fiji the worst nation in the Pacific for journalists, with intimidation and other restrictions that threaten open civic spaces.
“Journalists [in Fiji] face the threat of heavy fines or imprisonment for publishing material ‘contrary to the public or national interest,’ a term that is poorly defined in the law,” the index explained.
“Against this backdrop, many journalists must think twice before publishing content critical of the authorities.”
The use of discriminatory advertising practices by Fijian authorities was also highlighted.
This badly affected this newspaper, The Fiji Times, but we survived to see the light of day.
There was not much thought put into MIDA 2010’s design and although government justified its existence with explanation that it would enhance professionalism in the industry and enforce quality, media ethics and training opportunities, to this day many believe its true motive was to instill fear, control the media, influence public thinking and remain in power.
This newspaper fought hard to stay in contention, as the ruling regime withdrew all its advertising in an attempt to sabotage business, stifle criticism and silence dissenting voices that dared to speak out.
Politicians influenced public
Politicians worked to influence public appreciation and support through its media channels.
They offered proactive support to “friendly” private outlets through measures such as lucrative advertising contracts, favourable regulatory decisions, and preferential access to state information.
The goal was to make the Fourth Estate serve those in power rather than the public.
In the end, democratic principles were compromised and room for corruptive practices and injustices were created.
Despite this descent of sorts, there were media outlets and journalists who continued to possess the courage to inform Fijians about prevailing injustices, speak with honesty and stand for democratic ideals and human rights.
Despite being denigrated and spoken harshly against, they kept the faith.
We were one of them!
Threats more nuanced
It was a pity that the source of the assault against independent journalism was not necessarily the consumers of information that the media worked hard to inform on a daily basis, but politicians that citizens elected to the legislature to serve their interests and defend their very rights and freedoms.
The media did not go through physical threats that were direct and visible, like how it was inflicted prior to 2014.
What it faced was more nuanced.
It was impaired subtly through laws and policies passed legally but strategically crafted to hamper work to the extent that the media was unable to effectively hold leaders accountable without first being ridiculed and penalised.
However, there were signs of change on the horizon.
The media experienced relief and content that had eluded it for over a decade when Prime Minister Sitiveni announced Cabinet’s decision to table a Bill in Parliament to repeal the draconian MIDA 2010.
Media houses, executives and journalists were unanimous in rallying behind the decision saying it had been a long time coming for everyone who were forced to unnecessarily struggle and shoulder a burden of threat and fear daily for the past 12 years.
Big for Fiji, democracy
Fiji Media Association general secretary Stanley Simpson said the MIDA Act 2010 and its subsequent amendments had restricted media development and suppressed media freedom and the FMA in its recent submission to government had been adamant that the Act should be repealed.
Rabuka’s revelation is big for Fiji and good for the health of our democracy.
It is rather bittersweet too.
Although the media can now celebrate the unshackling of restraint and anxiety associated with the past, it will have to live with the permanent scarring these had created.
But for now, Fiji can expect the brand of media freedom that was in existence prior to 2006, when governments had their share of flaws but were never dictatorial and had no ambition to control public life.
It is heartening to know political leaders now want to forge a new beginning for Fiji, appreciate diverse opinions and ideas, and genuinely listen to the voice of the people.
If all goes well, we hope to return to media self-regulation through the Fiji Media Council, for Fiji badly needs a strong, vibrant and responsible media that reports, analyses and stimulate debate, unafraid to carry out its work, ready to always speak the truth and free from political control.
The ball is now in the government’s court!
We pray that common sense and goodwill will prevail for it is in everyone’s interest.
John Mitchell is a senior Fiji Times feature writer who writes a weekly column, “Behind The News”. This article was first published on 2 April 2023 and is republished here with permission to mark World Press Freedom Day (WPFD2023) on May 3.
- In the World Press Freedom Index 2023, Fiji has risen 13 places to be ranked 89th out of 180 countries.