By DAVID ROBIE
Editors, broadcasters and publishers are struggling to defend the last vestige of a free press in Fiji in the face of a draconian media decree aimed at gagging two of the country's three daily newspapers.
Other critics of the military-backed regime also face a tough future.
The draft Media Industry Development Decree 2010 features harsh penalties for journalists and news organisations which breach vaguely worded content regulations.
The decree warns media not to publish or broadcast material that is "against the public interest or order, is against national interest, offends good taste or decency, or creates communal discord".
It also caps foreign ownership in media organisations at 10 per cent.
Breaches under the decree can lead to a F$500,000 fine against news groups, or a fine of up to F$100,000 for individual journalists and/or being jailed for up to five years.
The government "consulted" news media and non-government organisations last week and Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum said some "useful suggestions" were being considered.
A further consultation is planned before the decree becomes law.
"We are coping by focusing on our principles (since getting balance is out at the moment) of getting important information to the public - such as health, education, the economy and industries," said Fiji Broadcasting Corporation news director Stanley Simpson.
"It is important also, despite not getting the other side/point of view, of letting people know what this government is doing, or aims to do, because - like it or not - they are in charge of the country's future right now."
Many critics see "vindictive sections" in the decree aimed at crippling the Fiji Times, the country's oldest, largest and most influential newspaper and 100 per cent owned by a Rupert Murdoch subsidiary, News Limited.
The regime wants to force the newspaper, founded at Levuka in 1869, to "change its mindset" - seen by the government as "anti-Fiji".
About 170 people are employed by the newspaper and their livelihoods are at stake.
Two Australian publishers of the Fiji Times have been deported on trumped up grounds since military commander Voreqe Bainimarama staged the country's fourth coup in December 2006. The High Court also imposed a hefty F$100,000 fine against the Fiji Times in early 2009 for publishing an online letter criticising the judges for upholding the legality of the 2006 coup.
David Robie is AUT associate professor in communication and director of the Pacific Media Centre.
Picture: NZ Herald, Greg Bowker.