The following speech was made by Professor Biman Prasad at the lanch of the Journal of Fijian Studies (Special Issue Media and Democracy), today in Suva.
Fiji Sun Editor and chief guest, Ladies and Gentlemen. This special edition of the Fijian Studies covers the media and the ongoing struggle for democracy in the last twenty years. Media freedom and democracy cannot be taken for granted. The struggle for such freedoms is ongoing. We have not seen the end to this struggle and it may be some time before we see any light at the end of the tunnel.
I am not going to talk about the contents of the journal today as my colleague Shalendra Singh will do that. I want to use this special occasion to make an appeal to the Prime Minister, Commodore Frank Bainimarama.
I think the PM in his public articulation has talked about a new Fiji and many people appreciate and understand his desire to take the country forward. In addition, there have been some good policy changes such as the doing away of the telecom monopoly and an emphasis on agriculture as a major source of economic growth.
My appeal to him, however, is that his government should now lift media restrictions. This would be an important step in creating a conducive environment for dialogue and confidence. The current censorship inhibits the government’s own attempts to articulate its own views and some of its positive achievments.
The government’s attempt to stamp out corruption is laudable. However, without free media, any real and sustainable attempts to do this will be thwarted. Many people who may have information and would like to expose some of the corrupt practices are reluctant to do so. A free media would help the government to have a better handle on the level of corruption.
After the 1987 coup, we saw the collapse of the National Bank of Fiji where the tax payers of this country lost more than $250m. This loss could become insignificant if Fiji’s largest Financial Institution, the Fiji National Provident Fund, collapses due to bad management. I know many people, especially those managing FNPF, have refuted earlier warnings, but this could still become a reality in years to come if it is not managed properly.
There are many unresolved questions relating to the handling of the Natadola project and many other investments by FNPF. The government should take a serious view of this and have a thorough and proper investigation into all the dealings on behalf of FNPF in the last several years. Any one found mismanaging the funds should be taken to task. For this we don’t need outsiders to do this. There are enough people around in Fiji to do this. A free media would help in this.
Because of censorship, people are turning to blogs to get their news. These blogs are not governed by any rules or standards. People are being misled and are being incited. Government will have more legitimacy if it allows the media to operate freely and independently.
This would help restore confidence in the country and we could see a faster level of economic growth. It will also allow government to start the process of political dialogue in an open and transparent manner to achieve the political reforms it wants to bring in the next few years.