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Military face condemnation over Radio Intimidation

* Pacific Media Watch Online: http://www.pmw.c2o.org * Post a comment on PMW's Right of Reply: http://www.TheGuestBook.com/egbook/257949.gbook


MILITARY FACE CONDEMNATION OVER RADIO FIJI 'INTIMIDATION'

* See PMW items 3067, 3066, 3062

SUVA (PMW): Newspapers, media executives and media freedom groups have condemned the detention by Fiji's military forces of three Radio Fiji staff over a news story as intimidation of the country's news media.

The acting chief executive of the state-owned radio station, the news director and a reporter were seized by armed soldiers on the morning of 20 October 2000 and detained for questioning for more than seven hours.

They were released without the military succeeding in forcing them to divulge their sources, but may yet face charges, legal sources told Pacific Media Watch.

The intimidation against the radio station came as Information Minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola attempted to gag Fiji Television over a planned interview with deposed Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry on a popular current affairs programme.

The Fiji Times said in an editorial on October 21 that the military had "overstepped the mark" and cautioned against a "confrontation between the army and the media".

"While the military may well see freedom of expression as a threat, the population is likely to see threats to the media as an even greater one."

However, the rival Fiji Sun was more cautious in its editorial. It said:

"The Fiji Broadcasting Corporation [Radio Fiji] can cite its right to press freedom or freedom of expression. On the other hand, the military, as one of the chief custodians of security and peace in this country, can cite that FBC had not exercised that right responsibly.

"And it could say that for the sake of security and peace in this country the action of airing that item was tantamount to sabotage of the security of the land and could incite trouble."

Daily Post publisher Ranjiit Singh condemned the action by the military, expressing his concern at "this worrying trend of harassment of the Fourth Estate by the military".

"If any law has been broken then the offenders should be charged by police. The military should not detain these people for doing their job, or subjecting them to such detention," Singh said.

He added that it was a basic principle of journalism that the source of information was kept confidential.

Pacific Media Watch co-convenor David Robie said the action by the military was "outrageous intimidation of news media staff and utter contempt for the role of news media enjoyed in any open and democratic society".

"Sadly, this will demonstrate to the world that there is no normality in Fiji," said Robie, who is also journalism coordinator of the University of the South Pacific.

"This intimidation of FBC and the gagging attempt on Fiji Television shows that freedom of speech is very fragile".

The regional industry body Pacific Islands Media Association (PINA) described the intimidation of FBC as "total overreaction".

The association said the military forces should have no role in questioning journalists and trying to get them to reveal their sources for news reports.

The three detained people - general manager public broadcasting Francis Herman, who is also acting chief executive; news director Vasiti Waqa; and reporter Maca Lutunauga - were released after further questioning from Central Police Station.

Although they were not charged, PMW understands they could still face charges under an Internal Security Decree.

The Fiji Times said that the military found a report aired by Radio Fiji on the 7am news bulletin on October 20 "dangerous".

The report quoted an unnamed senior army officer as saying the military did not want Vice-President Ratu Jope Seniloli to act as President and commander-in-chief of the military.

Seniloli was rebel leader George Speight's nominee for president while holding the elected government hostage for 56 days. Speight is now charged with treason.

President Ratu Josefa Iloilo is due to leave the country for a medical check-up in a fortnight, said the newspaper.

"The military said the news item was entirely false and could divide the army and cause concern in the community," the Fiji Times reported.

On a Fijian-language broadcast on Radio Fiji on October 20, former coup leader Sitiveni Rabuka said the military should clarify whether it would accept taking orders from Seniloli.

Rabuka, who staged the 1987 coups and is a former prime minister, is now chairman of the Great Council of Chiefs.

He was quoted on the radio as saying that the President "remains the President" when he would be in Australia. This meant he could still exercise his powers as military commander-in-chief while out of the country.

+++niuswire

PACIFIC MEDIA WATCH ONLINE: http://www.pmw.c2o.org

PACIFIC MEDIA WATCH is an independent, non-profit, non-government organisation comprising journalists, lawyers, editors and other media workers, dedicated to examining issues of ethics, accountability, censorship, media freedom and media ownership in the Pacific region. Launched in October 1996, it has links with the Journalism Program at the University of the South Pacific, Bushfire Media, the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism, and Pactok Communications, in Sydney and Port Moresby.

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