Sunday, August 1, 2010

Fiji: Island Paradise or Dictator's Paradise?

I saw an ad for cheap flights to Fiji last week – around the same time The Australian newspaper had an interview with the island nation’s nutso dictator (sorry, self-appointed military ruler), Frank Bainimarama, decreeing all sorts of things and giving plenty of poor excuses for his ever-increasing censorship of the pacific nation’s media.

I’d seen the media coverage over the past few weeks; most recently the expelling of our Acting High Commissioner, but what really got me was this picture.

(Image: Jachin Sheehy)

This page was run in the Fiji Times as a protest against increasing media censorship. Pretty shocking isn’t it? I wonder if Australians would put up with having half the front page of The Australian missing. I think not, but I guess when you have a military leader running the country, choice doesn’t really come into it.

Back in April, a new set of media ‘rules’ were released by Fiji’s self-appointed leader. They were;

- Journalists can be forced to reveal their sources
- Journalists must write favourable stories about the Fijian Government.
- Anyone found to be breaching the new rules can be fined up to $280,000

If you’re not sure who Frank Bainimarama is, you can read a bit more here; but basically he’s the Commander of the Fijian Navy and appointed himself Fiji’s Prime Minister after the 2006 military coup.

Here are a couple of things you may or may not know about the current situation in Fiji:

- Earlier this month our acting High Commissioner was expelled from the country.
- Last November, our High Commissioner was expelled.
- By September, the country’s main newspaper The Fiji Times may have to close down due to new ‘media laws’ about foreign ownership.
- Military ruler Frank Bainimarama has an Aussie woman working for him, advising him on media censorship among other things.

It got me thinking. Should we, as travellers, think about the countries we are visiting, even if we do stay holed up in some four-star resort? Isn’t it our duty as travellers to be aware of the social and political climate of the countries we are going to? I think it is. I’m not suggesting we don’t travel to Fiji (you can see the current Australian Government travel advice here); if you’ve ever been there and experienced the capital, Suva, or the people living in the villages along the Coral Coast, you’ll know they are mostly very poor and rely on tourism to survive.

According to Fiji’s Bureau of Stats, in March this year, more than 24,000 Australian tourists visited the islands. Assuming these figures are accurate, I wonder how many of those people realised the leader was a self imposed military ruler? Did any of them notice gaps in the Fiji Times? I can’t know for sure, but I think they should at least know about it. It’s a shame only a few Australian media outlets have given this issue a decent run (and I mean more than one story).

I know the Australian Government is making some diplomatic efforts to put international pressure on Fiji, but is it enough? I think it’s pretty alarming a military leader is in charge of a country so close to us, a country so frequently visited by Aussies. Not only is Frank Bainimarama censoring the media, he’s also delaying an election until 2014. That’s FOUR years away. It’s crazy. Shouldn’t our government be making it harder for Fiji’s military ruler? If not for Australian tourists, what about for ordinary Fijians? Who stands up for them while they’re under military rule?

I travelled to Fiji at the end of 2004, before the 2006 coup. I was a recently graduated journalism student, who had already started working in radio. I had the ‘fire in the belly’ and a fantastically inspirational university lecturer who took me to a journalism conference in the capital, Suva, and opened my eyes to another world.

I felt a bit stupid as I spoke to the conference delegates and other recent graduates about my issue (the large gap between journalism education and real newsrooms), when the girl after me who (I think) was from Samoa, talked about being a student journalist in a country where death threats against members of the media were par for the course. I met and became friends with a Fijian journalism student, Sam, who told me he wanted to be a journalist so he could report on stories which would tell the truth about the situation in Fiji. He even admitted to being involved in looting during the 2000 coup. His family lived back in his village and were very poor so he helped support them.

So things have always been rocky in Fiji and the entire South Pacific, but at least back then when I picked up the local paper – there weren’t huge gaping holes in many of the stories.

What also alarms me about this whole situation is the Fiji Times might be non-existent after September. Frank Bainimarama introduced a media decree last year which said media organisations in Fiji could not be foreign-owned. The Fiji Times is owned by News Limited, who also owns The Australian, The Courier Mail and, to name a few. News Limited has now started a sale process, but it’s not certain they will get a buyer in time. That could mean the closure of one of the last few publications still trying to speak out against Fiji’s self appointed leader and his regime. Add to that the loss of more than 100 jobs and an estimated 2000 more by people who rely on other related industries, and we’ve got a bad situation on our hands.

What do you think – should we allow this sort of censorship to continue so close to home? Is it our job as a free democratic country to stand up for our Fijian neighbours? Or should we just stay out of their business?

1 comment:

  1. Great blog Kirst. Hard to believe sometimes this type of censorship still goes on. But I understand sometimes the Aussie/Kiwi intervention in some Pacific nations can have the opposite of the desired effect too.