The Media plays a significant role in a democratic society in safeguarding the freedoms of the people. It follows then that restrictions on media freedom lead to a denial of the fundamental rights of our people, in particular freedom of expression, and seriously undermines the media’s role to act as a watchdog and a check on the State.
Someone once said that:
Restriction of free thought and free speech
are the most dangerous of all restrictions
American President Thomas Jefferson echoed similar thoughts when he stated :
“Our liberty depends on freedom of the press,
and that cannot be limited without being lost”
It not surprising, therefore, that one of the first acts of the Bainimarama regime in April 2009 when it abrogated the Constitution and imposed the Public Emergency Decree (PER) was to place the media under rigid censorship.
It subsequently, promulgated, under the guise of developing the industry, the Media Industry Development Decree which imposed heavy penalties for any breach of the decree which could be interpreted broadly as “acting against the interests of the State”.
These penalties acted as self-imposed restrictions on the media when, to all intents and purposes, the PER was removed. It ensured that a thoroughly cowed Fiji media faced with the threat of lengthy jail terms and/or heavy fines, toed the regime’s line and remained subservient.
Consequently, the media’s watchdog function has been severely compromised. The local media today does not question government policies, conduct investigative reporting that would expose scams or questionable practices, or even print/broadcast criticism of government policies/statements by political parties or other critics.
By and large, the Fiji media has been reduced to acting
as government propaganda machinery. Government policies,
statements and actions are disseminated as “gospel truths”
– since opposing views are hardly published or broadcast,
the nation gets only one-sided news. If by chance, criticism
does get printed/broadcast it is so heavily edited that the
message fails to come through or comes through as
completely unbalanced, swamped by the government response .
If educating the public and keeping it informed, is an integral function of the media, then it is clearly failing in its duty to the people of Fiji.
This allows the Bainimarama/Khaiyum regime to govern in an autocratic manner, with scant regard for democratic institutions and absolutely no respect for accountability or transparency in the handling of public funds, awarding of contracts, appointments to executive positions in the civil service, constitutional offices or statutory authorities.
Certain media organisations are more culpable than others. The Fiji Sun, for instance, has compromised all media ethics for commercial gain. It is the chosen government outlet for State advertising – earning millions of advertising dollars annually. Consequently, it is now unabashedly a government promotional paper.
Likewise, FBC. To ensure the regime controlled the FBC’s radio and television network, Khaiyum installed his own brother as CEO of the Corporation even though he lacked the required qualifications for the job. The State has since poured millions of dollars into the FBC network with little accountability, even though the Corporation is not commercially viable.
The other radio network, Communications Fiji Ltd, may not be receiving government funding but public perception is that its top management is too pro-regime to provide balanced broadcasting.
Fiji TV, on the other hand, was pressured to remain subservient by line minister Khaiyum’s decision to restrict its licence to 6months at a time. This effectively ensured that Fiji TV toed the regime line. Although freed of this blackmail now, the station has over the years, been acquired by instruments of the State which require it to toe the government line.
The Fiji Times’ independence was somewhat checked when under the Media Decree it was forced to divest its foreign ownership. Local ownership means that the paper which has shown a greater degree of independence and gumption than most other local media outlets, goes only that far, and no more.
Thus we have a situation in Fiji where the media is either highly compromised by commercial interests, or is pressured by hefty fines and jail sentences into such a degree of subservience that it merely reports ( not always in a balanced fashion) , and does not question or investigate.
At the same time, the Bainimarama government has clipped the wings of the Opposition in Parliament by changing Standing Orders, ignoring parliamentary protocols and conventions and putting in place a Speaker wholly biased towards the government.
As a result all conventional checks and balances have been either removed or suppressed.
Not surprising therefore, that the regime considers itself accountable to no-one – not the people, not parliament, not the media.