By James Chessell of the Australian
The Fiji Times editor Netani Rika goes to work each day knowing about one in five stories placed on the pages each night will be removed.
The censors became part of the daily news cycle when they appeared on the editorial floor the day after the military-backed government abrogated the constitution in April last year.
Each night they are given page proofs and strike out any story, headline, cartoon or letter they think may offend Commodore Frank Bainimarama's regime. Even seemingly innocuous stories about the poor upkeep of rural roads are dumped.
Rika (pictured above) and his night editors have become adept at predicting which stories will be dumped and prepare a B-list of reserve copy to fill the holes. Stories that fail to get approval are not adjusted to suit the censor, making their job more difficult.
Rika acknowledges there was "a lot animosity" at first, even among Fijian journalists already accustomed to intimidation. An entire page was left blank on the first day -- save for a box stating "the stories on this page could not be published due to government restrictions" -- while Fiji Television canned a news bulletin that night. But rather than slip into self-censorship, a decision was made at The Fiji Times not to change the way journalists reported or edited the news.
"I don't think anybody else here thought there was a way to approach the situation," says Rika. "If we decided to take the easy way out and not to go out and cover stories that we thought may not make it into the paper, we would be developing a newsroom in which people were no longer objective or free-thinking."
For most journalists, these would be soul-destroying working conditions. Yet the challenges facing Fijian media got tougher last week when the government released The Media Industry Development Decree, a sprawling 36-page document that tightens state control over local newspapers, radio, television and internet.
The decree makes it a crime to produce "content" which "is against the public interest or order" or "creates communal discord" or even produce an article of more than 50 words without a byline. Any breach of these rules is punishable by up to two years' jail.
"There is a clear risk that the law's vaguely worded provisions will be used to punish peaceful critics of the government," says Claire Mallinson, national director of Amnesty International Australia.
The decree makes life difficult for journalists in a number of ways. It introduces a new code of ethics that requires reporters to tell interviewees if they intend to interview anybody else in connection with the story to be published or broadcast. This is problematic given that stories often evolve after each conversation and it is difficult to nominate every interviewee beforehand.
The biggest controversy, however, is a new rule requiring Fiji's media outlets to be 90 per cent locally owned. This is particularly problematic for The Fiji Times, which is wholly owned by News Limited (publisher of The Australian), and the much smaller The Fiji Daily Post, which is majority-owned by Australian Alan Hickling. The impact of this particular part of the decree is not expected to be as great on Fiji TV or Communications Fiji, the main radio broadcaster.
However, new cross-media ownership conditions have created uncertainty for Communications Fiji managing director William Parkinson, whose company also operates stations in Papua New Guinea.
"We are seeking legal advice, plus guidance from the South Pacific Stock Exchange on this matter and will brief the market fully once this advice is received," Mr Parkinson told Fiji media last week.
And businessman Hari Punja caught be a forced seller of one his investments since he owns shares in both Communications Fiji and Fiji TV.
The decree was lambasted as anti-democratic by many observers, including Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, the Pacific Area Newspaper Publishers Association and News Limited boss John Hartigan.
"This is deeply sad and a blow to a free press," says PANPA chief executive Mark Hollands. "It was never in doubt the Fijian regime would follow through on its threat to remove foreign newspaper publishers."
Fiji's permanent secretary for information, the Australian Sharon Smith-Johns, says the crackdown on foreign ownership has nothing to do with getting rid of News or further curbing The Fiji Times' criticism of Bainimarama's administration.
In an interview with ABC radio last week, she said the government was simply putting in "similar rules to Singapore, to Australia to New Zealand". No such restrictions exist in Australia or NZ. (Smith-Johns told The Australian to email her questions for this article last week but had declined to respond in time for publication.)
It seems clear to most observers that the crackdown on foreign ownership was directed at The Fiji Times. Founded in 1869, the paper is the country's largest media company, with an average Monday to Friday circulation of about 19,000. The paper frustrated Bainimarama and his attorney-general, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, more than any other outlet once the ABC's Sean Dorney was deported last year. The Fiji Times tends to be less compliant than the locally owned outlets. Its refusal to run government press releases "as is" is a particular point of frustration for Sayed-Khaiyum and the paper receives no government advertising.
The government had already ignored the wishes of the High Court ruling and deported The Fiji Times publisher Evan Hannah in 2008. But those close to the newspaper say Sayed-Khaiyum made it clear during the "consultation process" for the decree that News's days in Fiji were numbered.
The government's argument is summed up by Satendra Nandan, a former Canberra-based academic and the chairman of Fiji's Media Industry Development Authority. Nandan told The Australian last week that Fiji had a vibrant media before the 2006 coup but it then it became "abusive and scurrilous".
News now has three months to exit the newspaper it picked up through the acquisition of The Herald & Weekly Times in 1987.
The company has not entirely given up hope and may send a delegation to Suva in a last-ditch attempt to change the government's mind. Nevertheless, it is trying to find a buyer. "We are doing everything we can to keep The Fiji Times open," says a spokeswoman.
The newspaper is profitable and employs 180 staff. But executives in Australia and Fiji are unsure how long this will continue.
Without the benefits of News's backing -- which include cheaper rates for paper and greater training opportunities -- the paper will not be able to live up to its proud history.
For the time being, at least, it is business as usual. Rika expected "thing to fall apart" once the decree was made official but says he has "never seen the news team so united in their efforts".
"There is a certain amount of stoicism . . . but we turn up to work every day and continue to produce high-quality work," he says.