By Professor Wadan Narsey
There is an air of optimism in Fiji as potential voters aged 18 and over begin to register, but the media censorship continues unabated, undermining basic human rights, hurting the economy and the Regime itself.
Even though there are no Regime censors in newsrooms, media censorship has now taken the far more invidious form of "self-censorship", driven by continuing public intimidation of journalists and media owners.
The media is not only dropping stories which the Regime may object to, but for more than a year it has also been refusing to take articles from anyone who they assess may be out of favour with the Regime, such as Yours Truly.
Television and radio media have been effectively banned from running interviews with such persons, depriving the public of independent professional opinions and commentaries, which can enlighten them on critical economic issues of public interest.
This continuing media censorship will undermine the Yash Ghai Commission whose work has the potential to return Fiji to normalcy and solid economic growth.
It does not help investor confidence or our environment, both areas where there is an urgent need for senior civil servants (whether military personnel or normal civil servants) to offer professionally independent advice to the Regime decision makers.
It is not helping the Regime's own track record as "custodians" of the economy and the land, while undermining a future Regime attempt to become a viable alternative political force to existing political parties.
The Regime urgently needs honest and independent media advice.
In recent weeks, some Regime spokespersons (who vary from month to month, and continually undermine the civil servants at the Ministry of Information) have castigated the media for reporting speeches by political leaders.
The country's oldest TV station, Fiji TV, was held in limbo for months about the renewal of its license right up to the end of its 12 year license, despite the fact that there is no evidence that this station was in any way biased in its reporting, nor any inquiry or complaint from the Fiji Media Authority.
Fiji TV's license has been renewed for only six months, yet another totally unnecessary intimidating measure, as there is no reason why any subsequent changes in laws cannot be applied to any normal longer term license, which would give the media owners the confidence they need to plan for the future.
In contrast, the totally pro-Regime television station owned and heavily subsidized by tax-payers, and controlled by the brother of the Regime's Attorney General, has no such constraints at all.
The Regime has also passed an extraordinary Decree which allows the Minister of Information to refuse a television license, while strangely imposing the burden on the media outlets to prove why their license should be issued (instead of the other way round- "you are innocent unless proven guilty"), AND stipulating that the Minister's decision may not be taken to court, or challenged in any forum whatsoever.
The Regime may technically claim that they don't instruct the media on anything. But the reality on the ground is otherwise.
The senior employees of one newspaper will not respond to my emails seeking clarification on why even my purely educational articles are not being published, even if they have no bearing on this Regime's performance.
That hurts if you are a Fiji citizen, who has been writing developmental articles for the media for the last twenty eight years, and has no political alliances or ambitions whatsoever.
But I can understand there are hundreds of livelihoods of their workers at stake, and the owner of newspaper is facing a bench warrant for not appearing in court on a due date.
This newspapers' senior journalists heroically face a daily struggle to report accurately and fairly on what goes on in Fiji.
Another newspaper which has allowed full page attacks on Fiji citizens (including me) by pro-Regime foreigners, will not allow any "right of reply" articles, a principle practised by fair media globally.
The editor of this paper had initially agreed to run a short piece, but upon reading it, changed his mind, without any explanation. This article may be read here.
[This paper did print a "Letter to the Editor" which responded to only the marginal issues raised by the foreigner's article in this paper].
The tragedy in Fiji is that the self-censorship has extended even to academia. At a USP conference last year, a former Head of the USP School of Journalism (a friend of mine) gave a presentation on the challenges facing journalism in Fiji and the Pacific. While acceptably and comprehensively discussing the role of journalism as an instrument to foster development, he made no mention whatsoever of the draconian media censorship in Fiji at that time (continuing till today), abjectly ignoring the elephant in the room.
Abdication by the Fiji Media Authority
It is regrettable that the Fiji Media Authority (chaired by a dormant Professor Subramani) has yet to make any statement at all on the alleged infringements by any media outlet of the media laws of Fiji, or on the need for a healthy robust media, or on the need to strengthen Fiji citizens' basic human right of freedom of expression.
Has the Fiji Media Authority (Professor Subramani?) run any workshops for the media owners, for senior and junior journalists, outlining clearly what are legitimate approaches and content of their reporting, and what are not?
Or are journalists simply left to make their own fearful judgements, with senior media editors then facing the invidious task of deciding what will and will not go into print or on air- effectively doing the Regime's dirty work.
This is a totally unacceptable situation which is destroying the social responsibility functions of the media, from within.
Negative impact on investor confidence
One can see two policy areas where the Regime's inability to get independent media advice or popular feed-back through the media, is harming the Regime itself: laws affecting investor confidence, and government policies that affect the environment.
A few large building complexes going up in Suva are welcome signs of economic recovery, but they are not going to raise the incomes throughout Fiji, and will certainly not raise private investment up to around 25% of GDP which is desperately required for healthy economic growth.
It is therefore puzzling to me why the money-making legal advisers to the Regime are not telling them bluntly that every Decree that stops corporations and residents from taking their perceived grievances to court is undermining investor confidence and reducing potential investment and economic growth.
The latest decree stopping media companies from taking any ministerial decision to court is yet another legal mill-stone around the Fiji economy, adding to similar millstones in the form of decrees on the Momi Bay and Natadola investments, the FNPF pension changes, and the arbitrary ending of Airports concessions.
Such decrees damningly tell investors that they cannot expect to have the protection of the Fiji judiciary, who the Regime clearly does not trust to fairly apply the laws of Fiji, by preventing by hearing any perceived grievances by any media outlet (whose very existence and investment is at stake), or by its employees (whose very livelihoods may be jeopardized by the Minister's decision). It is odd indeed that the intellectually sharp head of the judiciary has made no public statements about this.
Every such decree builds up the mountain of distrust that the ordinary business community currently feels towards this Regime, stopping generalized investment.
Damaging the environment
A second area where the Regime's reputation is being harmed is that of the environment. Coming back to Fiji after a year, it is dismaying to see the large areas of mangroves which are being filled up around Suva (and no doubt elsewhere as well).
There is a large area between Fletcher Road and Grantham Road where the tiri has been cleared and large scale land-fill is going on.
There is another large area between the Parliamentary Complex, Sukuna Road, Queen Elizabeth Drive and Nasese. This land fill may worsen even more the flooding that has already been increasingly occurring in Nasese for the last five years, because of illegal land-fills by residents adjoining the mangroves (I declare my interest: I am a Nasese resident).
Both land-fills are destroying the precious mangrove environment on which the surrounding marine resources and subsistence fisher folk depend through the biological chains. There are no doubt others.
Did the Department of Environment give its approval for these mangrove landfills to take place or were they over-ruled?
Have the media been able to raise any concerns on this and other major environmental issues by environmentalists and NGOs who are no doubt fully aware of the degradation that is taking place?
At my first seminar presentation at the James Cook University, I had made the mistake of acknowledging (as I thought was the practice) the "owners of the land". I was corrected by a friend: owners can do "what they like with their property"; but the Australian Aboriginals and Torres Straits Islanders see themselves as "custodians" of the land- merely looking after it for the future generations.
The Military Regime's eight year rule of Fiji will eventually be assessed by many criteria, but one will certainly be how good they were as "custodians of the land" and environment: whether they left it better or worse off, for the future generations.
The "million trees" initiative (oops, where has that gone?) will be a plus on their Report Card, but the mangroves will not, especially to all the young voters of Fiji, who are going to be far more environmentally conscious than the oldies.
Neither will be the total lack of growth in formal sector jobs for school leavers, the current bane of the economy.
A fearful Civil Service?
In the absence of a totally free media, there is a broader question: do senior civil servants feel free to question, on professional grounds, instructions coming from the top, as for instance, on the environmental issues?
The recent trend of placing military personnel in top civil service positions, while no doubt leading to a more obedient civil service, has an inherent disadvantage.
The duty of all professional military officers is to obey, without question or hesitation, any instruction coming from the top. Professional civil servants on the other hand are required to express alternative views if the situation warrants.
Some military officers may have made the transition to being good civil servants, while most probably have not. Numerous press releases and statements are no substitute for professional productivity and real output.
I suspect that with some civil servants being dismissed without recourse to any appeals mechanism, many civil servants are afraid of voicing any disagreement with any order that comes from the top.
It would be interesting to know whether the Chairman of the Public Services Commission or the Permanent Secretary in the Public Service has ever raised the importance of professional independence with his senior civil servants, especially the former military officers.
If the civil service itself cannot raise issues of public concern, it is even more important that the media is freely allowed to do so - even if it appears that they are continuously critical about the government of the day- but that is one of their jobs in all transparent societies, and should never be narrowly interpreted as being "anti-development" in some way.
As the Rabuka Regime did after the 1987 military coup, the Bainimarama Regime also needs to think seriously about how to make the transition from being a dictatorship to a government accountable to the public and comfortable with public scrutiny, especially by journalists.
Regime hurting itself
One of the inevitable consequences of this widespread media censorship is that the Regime leaders cannot know the true state of popular feelings towards it and its policies.
Positive and flattering responses will abound, especially from the myriads of sycophants and money-making carpet baggers who are attracted by all dictatorships, while all negative responses will be filtered out by the "minders", effectively telling the leaders what they want to hear.
When the winds of change eventually come (as they inevitably do), it can be like a bolt out of the blue, as Egypt's Mubarak and Fiji's Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara and Sitiveni Rabuka will ruefully testify, even though the latter two operated under fairly free media.
In Australia, political leaders like Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott may dislike unfavourable opinion polls, or Letters to the Editor or radio and TV talk-back shows, but you can be sure that they analyse them thoroughly, for their own political survival.
Whether the fundamental objective of the Military Regime is social popularity or success of their yet-to-be-formed political party, they need to know what the honest opinions of the voters are.
Media censorship totally blocks the easiest and most accurate channel to obtain this understanding. It is in the Regime's own interest to let the media be free.
The Regime (helped by Professor Subramani) might want to revisit the words of Voltaire (probably paraphrased by Evelyn Beatrice Hall): "I may not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it".
See Professor Narsey's blogsite for other stories on where Fiji is at today.