By Pacific Media Watch, in Brisbane.
A former head of Fiji’s public broadcaster has warned that his country’s draft media decree could be exported to other Pacific governments that would like to curb news organisations.
Speaking on World Press Freedom Day at the UNESCO global conference hosted at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Francis Herman said Fiji’s influence in the region continued “irrespective” of whether it was a member of the Pacific Islands Forum.
He said Fiji was in the grip of a military backed regime that had no respect for the rule of law.
Fiji was suspended by the Forum in May last year because it failed to meet a deadline to hold a general election during 2009. The military backed regime subsequently announced a plan for elections in 2014.
He said the Fiji decree, which proposes harsh fines and jail terms over breaches of its ill-defined national security and stability content code, could be copied in other Pacific countries if it were shown that the measure was “effective”.
“The commander [interim prime minister Voreqe Bainimarama] has effective control of the media in Fiji,” Herman said in a panel debating “The right to know in a digital age”.
A policy with the Orwellian description of “journalism of hope” meant the people of Fiji were not able to speak freely.
But Herman, formerly general manager of the Fiji Broadcasting Corporation and now an adviser to the Vanuatu Broadcasting Corporation, believed the “bravery” of Fiji journalists would mean they would find ways to circumvent the decree.
One key factor in the struggle for civil rights had been the “explosion of the cell phone” in the Pacific, he said.
While a country like Fiji had 85 to 90 percent cellphone coverage, it had been a different issue about availability because of high costs.
Greater competition in the region driven by Digicel Pacific had led to lower prices.
Premesh Chandran, co-founder of Malaysiakini.com spoke about how his website had “pushed boundaries with independent views” and had a big influence on Malaysia’s 2008 elections.
John Austin, journalist-in-residence at the University of Queensland’s school of journalism and communication, expressed his concerns about how media cutbacks in editorial staff and expertise in the digital age had meant reduced traditional “face-to-face” journalism.
“What we seem to have is the growing influence of the ‘outsourcing’ of journalism to PR outlets,” he said.