Fiji Times Accuses Government of "Vendetta"
SUVA, Fiji Islands (PMW): The Fiji Times, the country's oldest and major daily newspaper, has accused the Government of "conducting a vendetta" against it following a bitter personal attack in Parliament against its acting editor and two journalists.
On 24 November 1999, a parliamentary backbencher from the ruling Fiji Labour Party, Muthu Swamy, made allegations in the House of Representatives over the personal and professional integrity of the three journalists.
"The Fiji Times often talks about the conduct of politicians and civil servants but not about its own staff," Swamy said, according to the newspaper's fullpage coverage of the affair on Nov 25.
Taking advantage of parliamentary privilege, Swamy took a long-running Government attack on the Fiji news media to a new level by citing the three local journalists:
* Political reporter Margaret Wise - who has been previously accused by Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry of anti-government bias in her reporting - for being "charged with [being] drunk and disorderly and locked up in a police cell for 11 and a half hours".
* Reporter Matelita Ragogo for being "arrested and charged by police for drunk and disorderly behaviour".
* Acting editor Netani Rika - known for a trenchant weekly satirical column about politics and politicians - for alleged "involvement in the embezzlement of funds" at a local branch of an international bank.
Swamy also showed pictures in Parliament of Wise sleeping in a shared hotel room with a male colleague at a media convention in Vanuatu in 1996.
A separate news story in the Fiji Times reported allegations that the photographs had been stolen from the flat of Hemant Vimal Sharma, editor of Shanti Dut, a Hindi-language sister newspaper to the Times.
Sharma's flatmate, Assistant Information Minister Lekh Ram Vayeshnoi, reportedly also denied possession of the photographs.
Another daily, the Fiji Sun, in an editorial on Nov 25 condemned the use of Parliament as a "battle ground" instead of a debating chamber in the attack on individual journalists.
"The Government and the media have been at loggerheads for some time now," the paper said.
"Both sides are invoking privileges - the Government its parliamentary right and the media its freedom of speech licence.
"It is a question of rights. Is it not also a question of responsibilities and duties?"
Alan Robinson, publisher of the Fiji Times, owned by the Rupert Murdoch News Ltd group, was quoted by his newspaper as describing the remarks in Parliament as a disgrace to the House and to Fiji.
Robinson challenged Swamy to repeat his claims outside Parliament where he did not have legal protection from prosecution.
"We can stand his attack on the Fiji Times, baseless though it is. But when he uses his position to attack individuals, it is time to draw the line," he said.
"We challenge Mr Swamy to repeat his disgusting attack without hiding behind the skirts of parliamentary privilege.
"It should now be clear to all that the Government, its ministers and backbenchers are conducting a vendetta against the Fiji Times.
"We'd like to know why."
In an editorial headlined "Only a coward will hide", the Fiji Times claimed Swamy had "savagely abused the ancient (and very necessary) privilege of Parliament to attack three individual journalists".
The paper confirmed that reporter Ragogo had been charged with being drunk and disorderly, but said the charge had been withdrawn; political reporter Wise "after being harassed by a taxi driver" had been charged with damage of his vehicle not with being drunk and disorderly; and added that Swamy "cannot support [the embezzlement] allegation" against Rika.
"This newspaper will continue to cover the news as best it can - without hiding behind the protection of any legal privileges," the Fiji Times said.
"As for Mr Swamy and his faceless manipulators, we now publicly challenge them to repeat those allegations outside Parliament and face the consequences - or withdraw and apologise.
"To do otherwise will be the act of a coward."
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