|Pacific Media Watch|
Hold firm against government pressure, journalists told
Title -- 5342 FIJI: Hold firm against government pressure, journalists told
Date -- 1 March 2008
Byline -- None
Origin -- Pacific Media Watch
Source -- Interpress Service (IPS) 29/02/08
Copyright - IPS
Status -- Unabridged
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HOLD FIRM AGAINST GOV'T PRESSURE - JOURNALISTS URGED
By Shailendra Singh
SUVA (IPS Online/Pacific Media Watch): Amid fears of a new clampdown on media following the expulsion of Australian expatriate newspaper publisher Russell Hunter, journalists in this Pacific Island country are being urged by activists not to succumb to intimidation by the interim government.
Pacific Centre for Public Integrity director Angie Heffernan said the deportation of Hunter was a blatant act to muzzle the media by the military-backed itnerim government and a deliberate strategy to instill fear so as to prevent independent reportage on the actions of the regime.
Hunter, the publisher of the Fiji Sun, was whisked away from his Suva home on Monday night by two men claiming to be immigration officers. He was put on a flight to Sydney from Nadi International Airport the following morning.
Heffernan urged the media to remain strong in the face of such tactics.
"Their courage in the face of such aggression will be a light of hope to the citizens of Fiji who have to endure against the actions of an unlawful despotic regime," she said.
Explaining the expulsion, Fijis interim Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama, who seized power in a military coup in December 2006, said that some media reporting had been inciteful and destabilising, and therefore a threat to national security and stability.
Fiji Immigration Minister Ratu Epeli Ganilau, in declaring Hunter a "prohibited immigrant", cited sections of Fijis new Immigration Act that came into force on Jan. 3, 2008.
It states that a non-citizen becomes a prohibited immigrant if it is deemed by the Minister that the person has been conducting himself in a manner prejudicial to the peace, defence, public safety, public health, security or good government of the Fiji Islands."
Hunter, however, has denied that he was a threat. He said his expulsion was linked to his newspaper's coverage of tax evasion allegations against interim Finance Minister Mahendra Chaudhry.
Chaudhry has denied the charges. He has threatened to the sue media making the allegations. The Fiji Sun, along with other media was also critical of some of the interim governments policies, including a controversial proposal on the dereservation of some native land.
Associate Professor David Robie, the director of the Pacific Media Centre at the Auckland University of Technology, says Fiji media is now facing other pressures.
"The regime thinks the media should perform a parrot-like role yet there is a long tradition of vigorous and free journalism in Fiji. The current media are upholding that tradition very well."
Dr Robie, who taught journalism at the University of the South Pacific in Suva for a number of years, describes the interim administration as a virtual dictatorship that does not understand the role of the media. "The Fiji media should take a bow in exposing hypocrisy by ministers is the regime claiming to be working for the public good. But the media shouldn't rest on its achievements. Part of media freedom is to about ensuring the public is far better informed about complex social issues," he told IPS.
Dr Robie added that the media needs to improve reporting of issues in depth, such as the deregistration of inalienable indigenous land. This issue has generally been treated with emotional scaremongering and not enough critical yet fair evaluation by the media, he said.
Hunters expulsion has been condemned by both the Australia and New Zealand governments.
Speaking at a press conference in Christchurch, New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said: "This is not the sort of behaviour we expect of friends in the Pacific -- to be deporting people because they spoke out against a government.
"The normal course if one thinks one has been defamed is to sue, not deport, the person who you allege might have said something against you."
Clark also expressed concern about the interims governments commitment on its pledge to hold elections in March 2009.
"Democracy, of course, involves elections but it also involves freedom of media and freedom of speech and youre not going to be able to have a proper democratic process and elections in a years time unless those basic freedoms are upheld," she said.
Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith was quoted saying that the deportation was totally unacceptable.
Speaking to the Australian media, he said this was another move by the interim government to muzzle freedom of speech.
"This is another act in a disturbing pattern of behaviour since the coup of December 2006 which has resulted in the severe erosion of fundamental human rights and the rule of law in Fiji," he was quoted saying.
The Fiji Times, in an editorial on Thursday, said that in removing the publisher of a newspaper, and given the tone of the interim Prime Minister in his attack on the media on Sunday, it is safe to assume this is an act of intimidation.
This is the second time Hunter has been deported from the country in the 13 years he has been working there. He was expelled by Chaudhry before he was ousted as prime minister in the 2000 coup.
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