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FIJI: US report questions free press in Fiji

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QUESTIONS ON FREE PRESS

SUVA (Pacific Media Watch): Independence of the press in Fiji has been questioned in a United States State Department report on human rights presented to Congress this week, reports the Daily Post.

"Government ownership of shares in the Daily Post newspaper and its links to the Sun newspaper through Fijian Holdings, an investment company on whose board a number of ministers have served, call into question the complete independence of the press," the report says.

The report recognised that Fiji newspapers occasionally printed editorials critical of the government and occasionally conducted investigative reporting.

Reference was made to the government's powers to influence television programme contents under the Television Act.

"For example, on February 22, police surrounded a conference centre in Suva and prevented taping a 'leaders forum' public affairs programme on Fiji TV," the report said.

"Police claimed that a permit was necessary for the programme and if the programme proceeded, participants would be arrested."

The report recognised that freedom of speech was generally respected in Fiji, but pointed out that there were both formal and informal government constraints, particularly after the 19 May 2000 coup.

"The government attempted to pressure editors and otherwise interfere with the press," the report said.

"It retained controls instituted in July 2000 limiting citizens' rights to meet and speak out on human rights and democracy.

"Such groups must file for a petition to meet; petitions were treated on a case-by-case basis, and several prominent events were denied permits.

A reported comment in the Sun newspaper by the Minister for National Reconciliation, Information and Media Relations, Josefa Vosanibola, in September was emphasised in the report.

Vosanibola was reported to have said: "The government of the day must have control of the media in the country," and that while the government "respected" freedom of information by the media, "they should somehow have respect (and) in many occasions media reports had been slanted and biased ... the least reporters could do was just have comments from government".

The report goes on to deliberate on Fiji's legislation regulating the press contained in the Newspaper Registration Act and the Press Correction Act.

It brings to the attention of Americans that these Acts "give the Minister for Information sole discretionary power to order a newspaper to publish a 'correcting statement' if, in the minister's view, a false or distorted article is published.

Should the newspaper refuse to publish the minister's correction, it may be sued in court and, if found guilty, fined approximately $1125 and individuals may be fined, imprisoned for six months, or both.

"These Acts allow the government to arrest anyone who publishes 'malicious' material. This description includes anything that the government considers false news that could create or foster public alarm or result in [the] 'detriment' of the public."

While noting this constitutional authority, the report did state that this power had not been used in recent years and that "the Minister for Information did not exercise the power to compel a paper to issue a 'correcting statement'."

It noted that there were no complaints filed with the Fiji Media Council complaints committee during the 2001 year.

+++niuswire

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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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