Tag Archives: Lenora Qereqeretabua

NFP pays tribute to our Girmitiya

TUESDAY 14TH MAY 2019

The National Federation Party today pays tribute to the Girmitiya or pioneering forefathers whose blood, sweat, toil and tears as well as co-operation and racial harmony with the indigenous Fijians and other minority races, have made Fiji the hub of the South Pacific.

Today is a historic day. On this day 140 years ago, the first Girmitiya or Indentured labourers numbering 463 arrived from India onboard the ship Leonidas.

They were the first of a total of 60,553 Girmitiya brought between 14th May 1879 and 11th November 1916 by the British colonial government to work on the sugarcane plantations.

The rest is history. For the last 140 years, especially after 1916, the most of the Girmitya who opted to stay back in Fiji after completion of their Indenture, and their future generations, made Fiji their only home.

Their contribution to the social, economic and political advancement of Fiji, notably the development of the sugar industry into the economic backbone of  the country for more than 100 years and the transition of Fiji from 96 years of colonial rule to Independence in 1970, is historical and immeasurable.

Descendants of the Girmitiya have done their forefathers and the nation immensely proud nationally and internationally in the fields of economy, education, politics and law. They have and are serving their land of their birth with distinction.

The founding of schools, building of temples, preservation of languages, culture and traditions is a hallmark of the principles of self-dignity and respect inculcated by the Girmitiya in their descendants and passed on from one generation to another.

This is the legacy that the current generation must cherish and uphold and bequeath it to future generations. This task can be made easier through education of our children of the sacrifices and struggle for dignity and justice of our Girmitiya.

Lest we forget our Girmitiya.

Authorised by:

Professor Biman Prasad

Leader

WORLD MEDIA FREEDOM DAY SPEECH – HON. LENORA QEREQERETABUA

Address at World Press Freedom Day USP Lautoka Campus
FRIDAY 3RD MAY 2019

Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation is the theme for World Press Freedom Day 2019. 

Therefore, we surely are not and cannot be “Pressed for Time” in discussing such an important theme that is extremely relevant to media freedom or lack of it that we have endured – under  a military dictatorship for more than seven-and-a-half years from December 2006 to September 2014 – and as a parliamentary democracy guided by the principles of an imposed 2013 Constitution since 6thOctober 2014. 

Before I speak on the theme, please allow me to define what the state and extent of media freedom has been – both in policy and  practice.

The media industry in this country has been under siege since the military coup of December 2006. The period from 10thApril 2009, especially after the abrogation of the 1997 Constitution on that very same day, and until the  general elections on 17thSeptember 2014, have been turbulent and devastating for the journalists and the media industry. 

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, 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, which became an Act along with other Decrees without being ratified on the floor of Parliament,  has seriously undermined media freedom. 

Media, and by this I mean traditional and mainstream media, throughout the world is generally regarded as the Fourth Estate – the last line of defence for democracy, human rights, dignity and justice.  The Fourth Estate refers to the watchdog role of the media, one that is important to a functioning democracy.

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”.

This freedom and right is reposed in the people, which the State and politicians must respect at all times. I repeat – This freedom and right is reposed in the people, which the State and politicians must respect at all times.

Unfortunately, this has not been the case in our beloved nation. Many of us may have forgotten or may not know that the Fiji First Government, which after the coup of 5thDecember 2006 was disguised as a military regime, was responsible for the arrest and immediate deportation of three reputable media personalities who were publishers- one from the Fiji Sun, which at that time was a shining beacon of media freedom – and two from the Fiji Times. 

The military regime and the Fiji First governments have either banned or continued to ban from entering into Fiji, certain journalists  and a reputable academic couple who made the mistake of expressing freedom of speech and expression. 

While bans on a few New Zealand journalists was uplifted following the visit of the then New Zealand Prime Minister almost three years ago – one of the most respected  and acclaimed historians of the Pacific Professor Brij Lal and his good wife Padma – have been banned from entering the land of their birth since November 2009 and January 2010 respectively.

Their crime according to this government is they are a threat to national security!!! And that order to place them on the list of those prohibited from entering Fiji  has come from the Prime Minister’s Office – as confirmed by the Immigration Department to the couple. 

Freedom of expression and freedom of the media has been enshrined in every constitution of Fiji since Independence – the 1970, 1990, 1997 and 2013 Constitutions. But this freedom has been curtailed by limitations in the 2013 Constitution. 

Section 17 of the 2013 Constitution outlines Freedom of speech, expression and publication in four sub-section points. But at the same-time it outlines 13 limitations. 

Freedom of speech, expression, thought, opinion and publication does not protect the media from regulations that make provisions for the enforcement of media standards and providing for the regulation, registration and conduct of media organisations.  This is where the Media Industry Development Authority Decree of 2010, now an Act, comes in like a Sword of Damocles. 

Against this backdrop of the MIDA, we must not forget what the Ghai Commission draft constitution recommended on media freedom. This Commission was sanctioned by the regime in 2012 but tragically, the regime trashed the draft Constitution of the Commission  headed by its own nominated Chair Professor Yash Ghai in early January 2013.

There are no prizes for guessing correctly why the regime did an about turn ; the draft constitution’s provisions on media freedom had everything to do with it.  

On this day when freedom of the press is hailed throughout most of the free world, it is worth re-visiting those provisions. 

Section 27 of the Ghai draft constitution stated the fundamental freedoms and nominal limitations stipulated in the previous three constitutions of 1970,1990 and 1997, with no effect on limiting media freedom. 

Section 57 of that draft constitution specially related to  Regulation of public media. And it is vastly different from MIDA. It stated

  • Free and open discussion and dissemination of ideas is essential in a democratic society. 
  • Broadcast and other electronic media may be subject to licensing procedures only for the purpose of regulating the airwaves and other forms of signal distribution. 
  • Other media must not be subject to licensing. 
  •   Licensing procedures under clause (2) must be independent of control by government, political interests or commercial interests. 

  Further, All State-owned media— 

(a) are free to determine the editorial content of their broadcasts or other communications independent of political or government control; 

(b) must be impartial; and 

(c) must afford fair opportunity for the presentation of divergent views and dissenting opinions. 

An Act of Parliament must establish a body to set media standards and regulate and monitor compliance with those standards, which must–– 

  1. (a)  be independent of control by government, political interests or commercial interests; and 
    1. (b)  reflect the interests of all sections of the society. 

Furthermore, Sections 60 and 61 of the Ghai draft constitution required state owned media to provide equal access to candidates and political parties upon payment, including services not be denied upon payment of fee, and for parliament to enact laws to ensure equal access. 

Unfortunately, this wasn’t put into practice because as I said, the Ghai draft constitution in its formative stages was trashed by the regime. 

Those salient provisions would have prevented disinformation during elections as well as during other times, and made election campaign and coverage more ethically balanced and transparent. 

But the change of heart, followed by the trashing and literal and symbolic burning of copies of the Ghai draft constitution allowed for MIDA to untangle its deadly fangs of my way or the highway when it came to media freedom and spread of disinformation on social media- as well as mainstream media – before the 2014 and 2018 general elections. 

I will give just a few classic examples. During the 2014 election campaign, a radio talkback host of the national broadcaster FBC radio said the NFP Leader should clean pigeon droppings on our public hospital windows, walls and roof when the Leader outlined the state of public hospitals. That talkback show host, two weeks after this rhetoric became a Fiji First candidate scraped in as a MP under the highly controversial electoral system and became an Assistant Minister. 

The 2018 elections campaign was the worst in our recent memory. It was full of racial bigotry, falsehoods, lies and gutter-level politics – not to forget vote-buying tactics that were mentioned in diplomatic language in the Multinational Observer Group (MOG) Report. 

The Multinational Observer Group 2018 (the MOG) was a group of countries and international organisations invited by the Fiji Government to observe our General Election of last year. Australia, India and Indonesia were co-leading the MOG.

One daily newspaper was, is and will be forever beholden to the current government because it benefits in millions of dollars in taxpayers’ dollars in the form of exclusive government advertising. We have heaps and heaps of evidence of this newspaper deliberately failing to publish our news. Even when it does, it publishes a few paragraphs completely overshadowed by government propaganda. These are the times we live in. 

Therefore, its election coverage, especially that of the campaign, was not surprising to us, but it impacted the voters who were forever referring to the anti-stories being dished out. 

Then there was another state owned radio talkback show host who turned into  a mouthpiece instead of remaining an independent host. 

The conduct of the media, both in 2014 and 2018 elections, wasn’t lost on MOG. 

In 2014 MOG rightly noted that harsh penalties in the Media Industry Development Decree prevented most media outlets from effectively reporting on election issues. The contents of the report on Media Environment, Media Industry Development Decree and Media Industry Development Authority (MIDA) show the ineffectiveness of MIDA.

The MOG rightly recommended the need for regulation as well as an independent institution to prevent and adjudicate om media bias thus ensuring a level-playing field amongst election participants, as well as a review of penalties in the Media Decree.

I say that the fact that MOG recommended for an independent institution proves MIDA’s lack of neutrality because it is a body appointed by Government. A free, fair, credible and unfettered media industry in Fiji is rendered meaningless if MIDA continues to exist.

The MOG Report into the conduct of the 2014 election was tabled referred to the parliamentary standing committee on Justice Law and Human Rights in 2016. From July 2016 until the dissolution of parliament on 1stOctober 2018, the committee did not report back to parliament. And it hasn’t done so after the 2018 elections. In little over two months 3 years would have lapsed since the committee started looking into the 2014 MOG report. Why hasn’t it reported back to parliament? 

Again, no prizes for guessing the answer !

The MOG observing the 2018 elections also pointed out disinformation. MOG noted creation of fake profiles using logos of genuine mainstream media. These were the logos of Fiji One TV news and Fiji Village. One was to claim NFP was in a coalition with SODELA. The other was that the SODELPA Leader was going to scrap Diwali as a public holiday. And they sprouted a few days before the elections – almost on the eve of the media blackout when political parties were prohibited from campaigning. 

These were ugly examples of racial bigotry – true to the campaign of the ruling party that had bombarded radio and television with advertisements along similar lines. And so were its so-called Fun Days. 

Therefore, it eventually resulted in a racially polarized parliament. And this portrait is a result of disinformation, racial campaign, and lack of any attention being paid by the bodies created under the draconian MIDA decree to what was happening. 

And both Fiji Village and Fiji TV News did not vociferously refute that the two sites in question weren’t theirs. 

This is the great tragedy facing media freedom and the people of Fiji. Half-baked truths, lies, and misinformation will continue to prevail unless  the laws are put right.

The Media Industry Development Authority Decree has to be repealed or amended in accordance with the 2012 trashed Ghai Constitution. And self-restraint or self-censorship – a hangover from the days of total censorship after the imposition of the PER has to be overcome.

It is a tall order given who is in power. We always say in NFP that the most important thing this government in the form of a military regime didwas to control the media. 

And that control may have been relaxed in our so called parliamentary democracy, but that control’s effect is ongoing and reverberates each day.

Until this is  eradicated, our dream of a truly credible, free and fair media will remain just that – a dream.

And disinformation  or misinformation will continue. 

END OF WEEK STATEMENT – GRAVE ENVIRONMENTAL DEGRADATION hON. LENORA QEREQERETABUA

15/02/2018

The need to strengthen the Department of Environments’ EIA Unit

PLEASE CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY

Mr Speaker Sir, I rise to give my end of week statement where I wish to highlight the dire need to strengthen the powers of the Environmental Impact Assessment Unit of the Dept of Environment, in light of recent incidents of grave environmental degradation in Fiji, some of which have only recently come to light.

Fiji has now ratified all of the major global human rights treaties, including last year’s ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Environmental protection is essential to fulfilling many of the rights recognized in these agreements.

Mr Speaker, Sir, my following comments therefore should not be taken by the Minister responsible as an attack on his or government’s competency. Rather, because I offer feedback, observations and suggestions after having consulted with stakeholders from Environmental Law, from Civil Society and environmentally-minded members of the public, I hope the Hon Minister will take on board the points I highlight as I lobby for more resources for the EIA Unit, as we are all stakeholders in this plight.

The report by the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and Environment, Dr David Boyd at the end of his visit to Fiji last December made a number of significant observations regarding the Environment Management Act and in particular the EIA process.

For the information of Honourable Members and the public, Sir, Dr Boyd is an Environmental Lawyer and an internationally renowned expert on human rights and the environment, who was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council last year.  I accompanied Dr Boyd and his colleague, Ms Soo-young Hwang on several site visits in Suva during their stay here.

In his report Sir, Dr Boyd said it was clear that the Ministry of Environment is seriously under-resourced. For example, according to the Department of Environment website, under the heading Challenges, the website says “One of the major challenges is the lack of financial and technical resources; currently there are only “5-6 staff who handle waste and pollution related matters Fiji-wide” as part of the Waste Management and Pollution Control Unit.

The report goes on to recognise Fiji as a regional leader in recognizing the right to a healthy environment, having ratified multilateral environmental agreements, as well as the human rights treaties I mentioned earlier.   BUT the report stressed that We must have a strong Ministry of Environment to fulfil those commitments.

An issue Dr Boyd said had been raised repeatedly with him were problems with Environmental Impact Assessments, with members of the public expressing to him frustration with their inability to gain easy, timely and affordable access to important information, the lack of adequate consultation, constraints on the public’s ability to participate in assessment processes, the poor quality of some EIA reports, and the lack of access to remedies. Examples cited include proposed mining projects and the raising of the Wainisavulevu weir in Naitasiri by EFL.

Sir, Dr Boyd had heard from landowners about extensive mineral exploration activities affecting their lands without consultation and before the completion of any environmental assessment.

Dr Boyd agreed with me and many, many others and called the fee of $4.85 per page for an EIA report excessive, suggesting that it be waived for individuals and groups seeking to protect the environment and human rights.  I think EIA reports should be public documents, available to the public free. This is basic transparency and good governance.

Sir, The Environment Management Act 2005 provides for the appointment of an Environmental Tribunal, but there is no publicly available information regarding its members, procedures, or decisions. Rules governing the tribunal were published in 2013, but the absence of other public information makes the process as clear as mud.

Dr Boyd made an excellent suggestion in encouraging Fiji to consider creating an online environmental registry that would make extensive information publicly available, including permit applications and decisions, pollution data, and enforcement actions taken. Such a registry would enhance the public’s ability to participate meaningfully in environmental decision-making in Fiji.

Mr Speaker, Sir.  The following are comments gathered from my consultations with environmental law experts and conservationists working in and around Fiji and based on a number of cases reported to them by the community;

They all agree that the DoE does not have enough expertise, capacity or resources to adequately implement EMA and the EIA.  

Also highlighted, Sir, was an apparent lack of proper and meaningful consultation.  Two cases from Lautoka are prime examples; Field 40, Lautoka where a cement factory is placed right on the edge of the large community, with only a road separating the community from the cement factory.   Here families have been complaining about health, noise and many other issues associated with having such a factory placed in your backyard.   In Vakabuli paipai River between Lautoka and Ba representatives of a community complained about gravel extraction affecting all aspects of their livelihood.  Sir the extent of extraction has left the river and its banks with nothing but mud.  The human cost is also high, generations of families have lived in the area and have lost livelihoods.  In these communities, residents complain about the lack of consultation, lack of information and lack of knowledge about developments that occur in their backyards.

If I may dwell briefly on Terms of Reference, Sir.  In some instances the TORs , which guide the content required of the EIA have tended to be generic, rather than specific to the proposed development. Case in point – building a jetty at Maui Bay had same TOR as Magma Mines for mining in the Sigatoka river.

The TOR must be developed to reflect not only the specific requirements of the law, but also to ensure that it is relevant to the type of development, so that risks that are specific to certain developments are properly assessed. 

This requires persons with relevant expertise and or knowledge about the type of development and able to provide relevant input to the TOR. 

The observation is that DOE staff don’t seem to be able to critically review EIA reports – often times the TORs are not fulfilled though the EIA was approved, and the reports are largely desktop surveys rather than new data. If we don’t have suitably qualified people in Fiji; can we not ask our friends Australia and in particular NZ to second us personnel with experience in their much more robust environmental regulation space?

My consultations found issues with the way in which EIA Consultants are hired, Sir. 

The roster of Department of Environment (DoE) approved EIA Consultants continues to include some that have undertaken, and been allowed to undertake, their EIA consultancies with disregard to their TORs, contrary to the EIA procedures.

[Example if required – We have experienced where an unethical “consultant” failed to reveal to folks in an informal settlement that a development would result in their homes in the settlement being removed and then asked them to sign a document that they have no objection to the development].

Sir, the DoE must, in accordance with the Environment Management Act, be equipped, and be allowed, to fully manage the whole EIA process which appears not to be the case at present. The extent and manner in which the critical “public consultations” are to be conducted is ill-defined. The DoE fails to accompany and monitor the manner in which a consultant conducts an EIA in particular the extent and integrity of the public consultations. Currently the DoE frequently appears limited in its ability to monitor environmental issues; to take proactive measures to mitigate against environmental degradation; and also to respond when members of the environmentally concerned public draw its attention to cases of environment degradation and seek its intervention

Public Consultations are frequently not properly advertised, held during working hours, not minuted, and not attended by the relevant town council nor by senior DoE personnel suggesting that they do not take the development and the EIA process seriously. At times it appears as though the public is only included in a “box ticking” exercise in a pretence of a “public consultation” process when in reality the decision has already been made that the development will proceed irrespective of the concerns of the potentially effected community*. There still remains the ludicrous notion that only those living within a 1 kilometre radius of the proposed development may be subject to its environmental impact.

*[In the case of the Tengy Cement factory an EIA consultant held a charade of a public consultation after the construction of the factory was near completion].

Currently, Mr Speaker Sir, it is the developer that pays the EIA consultant which obviously risks a potential, or actual, conflict of interest. It is not in the commercial interest of an unethical EIA consultant to reveal to the public what they may know to be the full extent of the potential negative impact of a development. It is proposed therefore that the developer should instead pay the DoE who then pays the consultant who is then directly answerable to the DoE in terms of the manner in which he/she complies with the TORs and conducts the EIA.

In addition, the EIA study must be reviewed after it is completed.  This is mandatory under section 30 of EMA.  The review must be conducted by an independent consultant or by a review committee appointed by the EIA Administrator or the approving authority.   After the review the report should be available for public inspection. There is little to no information about the review of any of these reports however the review process is a very important part of the EIA process. 

Sir, the first case we are aware of that was prosecuted under EMA is indicative of the lack of awareness and knowledge of EMA by both the Prosecutor and the Courts. In the DPP vs China Railway First Group (Fiji) Limited CR 788/2017 the China Railway Company was charged with one count of Undertaking an Unauthorized Development contrary to section 43(1) of EMA. A penalty of $10,000 (from a possible or maximum fine of $750,000) fine was given to the Company for the development of an asphalt plant that was 90% completed without a proper EIA.  The sentencing remarks by the Magistrate Court indicated a lack of understanding of the EIA process and EMA as a whole given that there were no remedial actions ordered and the magistrate accepted the lack of evidence of environmental impact as a mitigating factor.

I beg the Hon Minister to find out if the DOE has been requiring environmental bonds from projects, including those that may be at high risk of damaging the environment (i.e. dredging, mining). If the answer is no, it means the law is not being used to its full capacity.

To quote Dr Boyd again, Sir, Fiji faces major challenges related to the implementation and enforcement of the commitments made in its environmental laws, regulations and decrees.

EIA unit of the dept of the environment needs teeth, sharp ones.

As I wind up, Sir, and in case I have not yet convinced the House; here is a short story of my own;

  1.  Last year, some friends of mine in Nadroga needed my help to file a complaint to the Dept of Environment about some dredging equipment which had come lose during a storm and had been thrown onto the reef just outside the mouth of the Sigatoka River.  These friends had called the Dept, which had informed them that they had to fill out the complaints form.  Which is NOT available on their website!  So in order for these environmentally-minded friends in Nadroga to file a complaint to the Dept, I had to go to the Dept office on MacGregor Road for a hard copy of the form, scan it and email to Sigatoka, for them to download, print, fill out, scan and email back to the Dept!  This was a small inconvenience for me, but would be virtually impossible for many in rural and maritime areas, where much of the environmental degradation occurs out of sight and out of mind as it were.
  2. I asked a question in the comment section of the Dept’s website on April 17, 2018.  Yesterday, February 14th, 2019, some 10 months later, my comment was, and I quote from the website,  “still awaiting moderation”! 
  3. My comment on the website was to request that the complaint form be made available on the website.

I hope Sir that the EIA Unit of the Dept of the Environment gets the urgent support and resources that it so desperately needs to carry out the work it is supposed to do under the Environmental Management Act of 2005.  And I hope Sir that the Unit is allowed to do this work independently, within the bounds of the law and without any meddling.

Mr Speaker, Sir, I end by registering my appreciation to the Parliament of Fiji, which I dare say, took note of my sentiments in my December Maiden Speech and earlier social media comments in regards the number of single-use plastic bottles used in this chamber.  It was pleasing to find this note on my desk on Monday; it is a step in the right direction. 

Change is indeed coming.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, Sir