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Fiji PM Battles With Media

FIJI'S CHAUDHRY DUELS WITH NEWS MEDIA

Fed up with what he terms a "crisis of ethics", Fiji Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry has stepped up his pressure on the local news media industry.

By DAVID ROBIE/Asia-Pacific Network.

SUVA, Fiji Islands (Nov 19): The honeymoon is over for Fiji's first Indo-Fijian prime minister who has been locked in a bitter verbal duel with some local news media proprietors and editors who accuse him of wanting to become a dictator.

Threats by Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry to establish a "swift justice" media tribunal and legislation to curb what he brands a "distorting" and "lying" news media have drawn an angry response by media organisations.

Post-Courier editor Oseah Philemon, who is also vice-president of the regional Pacific Islands News Association (PINA), warned from Papua New Guinea that if Chaudhry followed through on his threats he would become the "first civilian dictator" in the Pacific.

But independent groups such as the self-regulatory Fiji Media Council and the local chapter of the worldwide anti-corruption body Transparency International have cautioned the media not to over-react and to achieve higher professional standards.

"Press freedoms are guaranteed in the Constitution and I am not concerned that Fiji will have any draconian laws forced upon its people," said Media Council chairman Daryl Tarte.

Chaudhry was elected in May with a landslide victory for his multiracial Fiji Labour Party and he formed a "people's coalition" government with two indigenous Fijian parties, although he could have ruled outright.

Since coming to power, his administration has reversed privatisation policies of the previous Fiji government of coup leader Sitiveni Rabuka and set upon a path of social, health and education reforms.

His first budget this month has been greeted as a moderate one to the suprise of the business community, but his government's attempts to deal with a volatile land issue in balancing the needs of indigenous Fijians and mainly Indo-Fijian cane farmers have been widely criticised.

Now he is under fire over his policies towards news media, regarded as among the most free in the Pacific.

During the election campaign he pledged to defend press freedom, but both he as Information Minister and his Assistant Minister Lekh Ram Vayeshnoi, a former farmer, have made a series of speeches with an increasingly hostile tone in recent months.

Last month, as guest of the Fiji Media Council to launch a new self-regulatory code of ethics, Chaudhry stunned diplomats, media personalities and academics by lambasting the news media and saying they faced a "crisis of ethics".

"The media got a taste of its own medicine as the Prime Minister slammed the lack of professionalism among some local journalists and then warned them of new regulatory measures," said the Fiji Sun.

"There was nervous laughter from the floor and tension mounted as those used to criticising were themselves criticised."

Chaudhry's concerns over alleged lack of professional standards and ethics are shared by many people in Fiji - even some of those in the media industry. According to recent research, only 14 per cent of Fiji's journalists have qualifications and they have on average less than three years' experience.

But the prime minister's style of bitter personal attack alienated news executives, publishers and journalists who published and broadcast counter-attacks over the next few days.

Chaudhry singled out four media organisations for a particularly savage attack - the Rupert Murdoch-owned Fiji Times, and locally owned Fiji Sun, Fiji Television Ltd and the regional news magazine Islands Business. And he also directed his fire against some individual journalists.

Irked that newspapers did not run his speech in full, the government paid almost F$12,000 in advertisements to get the prime minister's message published.

Chaudhry said his Government was considering establishing a media tribunal to provide fast remedies in defamation cases.

Reports suggested that a motion would be tabled in Parliament calling for the licensing of foreign-owned media with an annual fee of F$20,000.

The tribunal proposal, in particular, stung Suva-based PINA president William Parkinson into saying: "[Chaudhry's] attacks against the media were draconian to say the least. We have not had those threats made since the military government in 1987."

In the May 1987 coup, Chaudhry was arrested by the military at gunpoint along with other members of the democratically-elected government.
Rabuka staged the coup following protests by some indigenous Fijians against what was perceived as an Indian-dominated government.

Indigenous Fijians make up about 48 per cent of Fiji's 800,000 population. Indo-Fijians, mainly the descendants of indentured labourers brought in by the British colonial government last century, comprise 46 per cent.

Media Council chairman Daryl Tarte has downplayed the issue, saying: "As far I am concerned, there has been no attack on media freedom."

Transparency International offered to mediate between the media and government.

Chairman Ikbal Jannif criticised the hype and called on the media to raise its standards: "We all know, some of us from painful experience, that if you continue to poke a stick at a hornet's nest, the hornets will attack."

* David Robie is journalism coordinator of the University of the South Pacific and co-convenor of Pacific Media Watch.

Article © Copyright 1999 David Robie/Asia-Pacific Network. Cafe Pacific.

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