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––
- (a) be independent of control by government, political interests or commercial interests; and
- (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 governmentin 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.