26 May 2015: Media Release – Government must top up 4th cane payment

Government must top up the fourth cane payment to $15 per tonne of cane, which is due to be paid to cane farmers at the end of this week.

Government should direct the Fiji Sugar Corporation to top up the payment because the FSC’s line of credit with ANZ has been extended by another 5 years through parliamentary approval of a government guarantee of $120 million. FSC therefore is in a position to obtain short-term funding.

The total price paid so far for the 2014 harvesting and crushing season is $65.29 per tonne of cane. Both the Prime Minister and Fiji Sugar Corporation Chairman have stated the total price for last season would be around $73 per tonne of cane. This means a sum of almost $8 would be split between the 4th cane payment and the final payment in October, with bulk of this meagre amount to be paid in the 4th payment.

A $73 per tonne total payout for last season would mean a reduction of a little over $15 per tonne of cane paid to farmers for the 2013 season. The price paid to farmers was $88.49 including a special payment of $5 per tonne.

A reduction to $73 would mean a loss of $27 million to farmers in direct income. This will be massive and have an adverse impact on the livelihood of farmers as well as their capability to increase cane production because such a reduction would be extremely demoralizing.

A $15 top up to the fourth cane payment will boost the final expected price of $73 for last season to over $80 per tonne. That would leave the final payment and another top up will be necessary to ensure a minimum guaranteed price of $85 per tonne.

The National Federation Party has been repeatedly calling on government to implement a minimum guaranteed price of $85 per tonne for the next four years and this top up will instil confidence in farmers to increase cane production.

Increasing cane production is the prerequisite to the survival of the sugar industry and the livelihood of 200,000 people in the future. This is vital if we are to overcome the abolition of the European Union sugar production quota at the end of September 2017.

And simultaneously with a minimum guaranteed price, government should bite the bullet and accept the fact that unilaterally imposing solutions aimed at reviving the industry will fail. It needs a bi-partisan approach and collective will of every stakeholder. That is why a parliamentary committee on sugar is vital and we repeat our call to the Prime Minister to initiate moves for the committee’s formulation in the next scheduled sitting of parliament from 6th July.

We therefore request Government to direct the FSC to top up the 4th cane payment so that farmers are able to better and confidently prepare for the 2015 harvesting season.
Biman Prasad
Leader

15 May 2015: Motion To Repeal or Amend the Media Decree 2010: Friday, 15 May 2015 by NFP Leader Professor Biman Prasad

Debate on Motion To Repeal or Amend the Media Decree 2010
Friday, May 15, 2015
By NFP Leader Professor Biman Prasad
(Please Check Against Delivery)

Madam Speaker I rise to move the following motion: –

“That this Parliament supports a review or a repeal of the Media Industry Development Decree 2010 to ensure Fiji has a free, fair and unfettered media industry in conformity to a modern democratic nation”

Madam Speaker, this is not a political motion but simply a necessity in a true and modern democracy.

Fiji’s future as a social, economic and politically stable nation cannot be guaranteed unless freedom of expression is enshrined through a free, fair and credible media.

We firmly believe, Madam Speaker, this is not pessimism but a reality.

The media industry in this country has been under siege since the military coup of December 2006. For more than 5 years, especially after the abrogation of the 1997 Constitution on 10th April 2009, have been turbulent and devastating for the media industry and media organisations.

The work of the media industry, especially after the start of the coup culture in 1987, has been remarkable, balanced, informative and impartial, except for a brief period after the 1987 coups.

However, Madam Speaker, the enforcement of media censorship under Public Emergency Regulations after April 2009 until January 2012 and the promulgation of the Media Industry Development Decree 2010 has seriously undermined media freedom.

Media throughout the world is generally regarded as the Fourth Estate – the last line of defenders of democracy, human rights, dignity and justice.

Article 19 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through the media regardless of frontiers”.

Madam Speaker, this freedom and right is reposed in the people, which the State and politicians must respect at all times.

The Media Industry Development Decree is regressive and suppresses Media Freedom because it imposes restrictions and prescribes heavy penalties.

This Decree must either be repealed or amended substantially because we believe the media should not be regulated by the State or any Government.

Madam Speaker, the restoration of Parliamentary democracy has seen little change in the behaviour of large sections of our media and individual journalists – and there is a reason for this – it is not the choice of our media industry and journalists but a result of the severe penalties in the Decree that I will outline.

The Media Industry Development Authority is essentially an enforcer of Government’s agenda as far as the media is concerned. In January this year, the MIDA Chairman spoke about the need for focus to shift on freedom of expression and ethics. Words are mere rhetoric. The Decree renders freedom and ethics meaningless.

Madam Speaker, PART 2 of the Decree outlines the structure and functions of the Media Industry Development Authority. The minister appoints the chairperson and five other members, and can also remove them. This is an obvious and major conflict of interest.

Section 17 provides the Authority immunity from legal proceedings, civil or criminal.

While the media is bound by restrictive rules and regulations, the media authority can act with virtual impunity. Where is the balance and fairness government is preaching about? Where is the accountability, Madam Speaker?

Section 22 states content must not include material, which is (a) against the public interest or order; (b) against national interest; or (c) creates communal discord. This is a very broad provision open to interpretation by the government. It is like a noose around the media’s neck.

Madam Speaker, This provision is unnecessary because offences are already adequately covered under Crimes Decree, under the Public Order Act on racial and religious vilification, hate speech, and economic sabotage.

Part 5, covering enforcement of media standards, allows the Authority to force the disclosure of specified documents or information as well as the right to enter, search and confiscate documents. When it comes to breach of confidentiality, the standard practice in democracies is that it referred to the Courts, which rely on precedence, and can be expected, to come up with fair, impartial judgments.

But in Fiji Madam Speaker, this function has been usurped by MIDA, which is controlled by government through appointments made by the minister. This is yet another noose around the media’s neck.

Media Tribunal

PART 8 deals with the Media Tribunal, which consists of a Chairperson – a qualified judge appointed by the President on the advice of the Attorney General.

The Tribunal adjudicates complaints received from MIDA. It has to comply with the directions of the responsible Minister pertaining policy. The Tribunal also has to consider the Attorney General’s submissions during certain proceedings. It makes hearings vulnerable to political interference.

Madam Speaker, It increases the level of government control and pressure on the tribunal. This is by no means an independent tribunal. It is tied to government in too many ways. It may not be happening but this provision is unethical and not transparent.

Part 10 details the powers of the Tribunal, including ordering fines of up to $100,000 against media companies; $25,000 against publishers/editors and $1,000 against other media employees as monetary compensation to complainants. Upon conviction for any breaches of the media code, a media organisation could be fined $100,000; a publisher/editor $25,000 and/or two years imprisonment; and a journalist or media $1000 and/or two years imprisonment.

Madam Speaker, this is unnecessary, especially when we have defamation laws in place. It’s an example of a duplicitous and tricky legislation – a waste of time and resources. Such payouts can ruin media companies and journalists. To protect themselves, journalists and media companies resort to self-censorship. This is a fact.

Madam Speaker, Media organisations can challenge decisions in the Court of Appeal, but only for awards in excess of $50,000. Media workers have no such options, even though the awards can lead to financial ruin in a sector where salaries are low compared to other professions. While the defendants have little recourse, complainants or the Authority can challenge Tribunal decisions in the Court of Appeal. This is another example of the lopsided and one-sided legislation.

Madam Speaker, we have heard in the past of Government justifying the media decree on social, economic and political stability. However, all that these restrictive provisions have done is push opposition views into anonymous online media platforms, where they have re-emerged in more extreme forms.

People have lost faith in the mainstream news media. Instead, they are relying on blogs, where people are posting comments, some of which are full of rumours, misinformation, incitement to racial violence, and so on.

We believe this misguided media policy espoused through the Decreeis to be partly blamed for this sorry state of affairs. Therefore, the media decree has done nothing for social stability.

Balance

Madam Speaker, there is a requirement that all news stories have to be balanced otherwise they can’t be published. This is a further sign of legislation simply gone mad. This provision has simply become a loophole to evade media scrutiny by not responding to media questions.

But Madam Speaker, if a story is positive towards the government, this requirement is ignored without consequence. What we are saying is that the media decree is open to abuse by the State. There are countless examples of this and it is pointless to give them. But it is the reality.

Madam Speaker, every international organisation of repute has expressed concern about the regressive and draconian provisions of this Decree. Allow me to give a few examples, Madam Speaker.

Human Rights Watch (a nongovernmental human rights organisation) said: “Media Decree forbids publications that are against public interest or order, restricts foreign media ownership, and imposes heavy penalties”

Reporters Without Borders (a France based non-profit organization which has consultant status at the United Nations and UNESCO) said: “Revoke the Media Industry Development Decree and its draconian punitive measures against journalists, editors and media organisations and adopt self-regulatory media framework encouraging a free press”.

Madam Speaker, The International Federation of Journalists’ (IFJ) (world’s largest organization of journalists. First established in 1926, currently, it represents around 600, 000 members in more than 100 countries): It says:- “The IFJ is extremely worried that the decree allows the authority and tribunal that it would set up to have the power to call for any documentation, to enter media offices, to seize materials and equipment. It’s extremely worrying that the decree allows for fines of up to about $A300, 000 and or prison of up to five years for a range of offences.”

Freedom House, Madam Speaker, (an independent watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom around the world): “Violations of the vaguely worded “public interest” or “public order” provisions of the decree are punishable by a fine of up to FJ$1,000 (US$572) or imprisonment of up to two years for journalists; the penalty for any media company that breaches the decree may be as high as FJ$100,000 (US$57,200). In addition, it overrides traditional checks and balances by forbidding the judiciary to challenge the decree or the institutions established by it”.

Madam Speaker, Genuine democracy, equal citizenry, freedom of expression, accountability and transparency, which are ethics being paraded by Government, can only be achieved through a free, fair, credible and non-regulated media.

I commend this Motion to Parliament.

13 May 2015: Parliament Update

Tomorrow in Parliament, 4 Bills will be tabled for the First Reading. Members of the Opposition have been given notice that 2 of the Bills will be fast-tracked as per the provision granted in Standing Order 51.

The 4 Bills are:
(i) A Bill for an Act to make provision for the National Flag of the Republic of Fiji and to provide for its use and protection. (4/2015)

(ii) A Bill for an Act to declare the Coat of Arms of the Republic of Fiji and to make provision for its use. (5/2015)

(iii) A Bill for an Act to provide for the regulation of Rotuman affairs and for related matters. (6/2015)

(iv) A Bill for an Act to provide for a lands commission in Rotuma, to provide for the registration of Rotumans, to regulate the registration, dealing with and transmission of land and related matters. (7/2015)

11 May 2015: Remarks by Hon Prof Biman Prasad, Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) for the Tabling of PAC Report for the years 2007-2009 of The Auditor General’s Reports in Parliament

Remarks by Hon Professor Biman Prasad
Chairman – Public Accounts Committee/NFP Leader
Tabling of PAC Report for the years 2007-2009 of
The Auditor General’s Reports
In Parliament on Monday 11th May 2015
(Please Check Against Delivery)

Madam Speaker,
I rise to table the first Public Accounts Committee report of the new Fiji Parliament.

But before I do that Madam Speaker please allow me to Congratulate and say a Big Thank You, Vinaka Vaka Levu and Dhanyavaad to our National Sevens team that has done our nation immensely proud and has qualified for the Rio Summer Olympics. Our first Summer Olympic Medal and by the Grace of God a Gold – beckons and we must unite as a nation to provide every support possible towards the mission of our sevens team.

Not only that Madam Speaker, the team described as innovators of Sevens by rugby commentators convincingly won the Glasgow 7’s early this morning – hosted in Scotland known as the Inventors of 7’s. And I am hopeful that when we gather here next Monday, we will celebrate the crowning of Fiji as the World 7’s Series Champions after the completion of the London 7’s.

Madam Speaker – the tabling of the Report is the start of clearing a backlog of over twenty outstanding reports from the independent Audit Office since 2007.

All these reports, including this one, will test our new systems of accountability. As hard as going over past corruption and past financial mismanagement is, we should not forget that this is the actual point of parliamentary democracy. There is no easy way around this fact other than making sure we comprehensively deal with all the issues raised by the Auditor-General over the past decade, in the most transparent way possible. And that is exactly what the Public Accounts Committee has attempted to do with this first report, released for public viewing today.

I would like to thank Deputy Chair Singh and all committee members, for the positive input and support that came from both Government and non-Government MP’s. This bi-partisanship has been important, and the House should take confidence that the thirty-two (32) recommendations in this first report were unanimous.

Madam Speaker, I also thank the Auditor-Generals office, the Ministry of Finance officials, and the many other representatives of agency’s that were called before the committee to answer public questions during the PAC hearings in January 2015. In most cases, this was done in a diligent manner and answers were given as best they could. This was appreciated by the Committee.

And I also give the thanks of the Committee to the PAC Secretariat, for their ongoing efficiency. It is both acknowledged and appreciated.

Madam Speaker, I invite all parliamentary colleagues, and interested Fijians, to take a little time to read this 36-page report, and to reflect upon it.

Its’ two primary recommendations are to Fiji’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (FICAC) to get on with the job of investigating and resolving all past corruption allegations made by the Auditor-General from 2007 until 2009, and to the Ministry of Finance to work much harder in addressing 29 systemic failures within the wider public service.

As the country makes a welcome return to parliamentary democracy, this report shines a light on poor past practice, past corruption, and past system failures. In 2015, this should provide further evidence to the community of Fiji of just how much work remains for us all as we seek the desired goal of ‘best practice’ government.

The committee looks forward to the current Governments response within the standing order requirements of sixty days. We do hope their response is delivered with the same good faith with which this first PAC report was written.