“Blogs are doing the work the Fijian media has been unable to do”
An Interview with Coup Four And A Half’s Editor
In 2009 Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, head of the military regime that took power five years ago, declared a state of emergency, abolished the Fijian constitution, placed censors in the newsrooms, and suspended democratic elections until 2014. In 2010 he also released The Media Industry Development Decree, which sets up an authoritative body charged with the task of monitoring Fiji’s media. This past January the state of emergency, known as the Public Emergency Regulations (PER), was lifted, but even though censors were taken out of the news rooms, media censorship continues based on the Media Industry Decree and new laws regulating the media.
Sampsonia Way interviewed the anonymous editor of Coup Four And A Half via email to understand the degree to which independent media is censored in this country that, according to Reporters Without Borders, is “gradually sinking into dictatorship.” In this interview the editor talks about the changes that the lifting of the PER will bring to Fiji, the censored stories of three killed tourists, and the steps the country needs to take in order to establish freedom of speech.
How would you describe the current condition of press freedom in Fiji?
There is no media freedom in Fiji. On January 1, 2012 self-appointed Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama announced that the Public Emergency Regulations (PER) would be lifted, but he quickly introduced the Public Order Act which encompasses most of what the PER contained, so the Fijian media continues to operate under the boot of the illegal regime. The Media Industry Decree meanwhile remains in place and active.
The PER allowed the regime to view and censor all stories before publication. Under the new Public Order Act, the chief censor no longer has these powers, but the regime’s Minister of Information has similar powers under section 80 of the Media Industry Development Decree. The regime is still in control and is showing no sign of letting go. Media teams still have to abide by the official rules. You will notice that there is no criticism of the military government or ministers in any of the media in Fiji.
During the 1987 coup, Sitiveni Rabuka stopped media publishing altogether. He sent soldiers into newsrooms with guns. In 2000, George Speight went the other way. He loved the media and had press conferences at least twice a day, with journalists writing what they wanted about him. When there was democracy, Fiji used to have a robust and vibrant media that was unafraid to ask the government hard questions.
The current regime? It has manufactured decrees to scare people and quell any revolt. When the media started analyzing and writing stories, the government claimed journalists were irresponsible in their reporting, had been for a long time, and had to be brought to heel. So they planted and justified the idea of a Media Industry Decree.
How will the planned removal of censors affect the media? Will self-censorship increase?
The regime has had the Fiji media in a chokehold for some time but journalists and their employers have also been practicing self-censorship. They fear reprisals and the fear is well-ingrained. Disappointingly, they haven’t even tried to test the boundaries, even with the removal of the PER, and have accepted the restrictions imposed by the regime. The country’s oldest newspaper, the Fiji Times, in particular seems to have lost its way. In contrast the Fiji Sun (the regime’s preferred paper, which gets the advertising dollars) is the only news outlet that has the luxury of producing stories with a bit more guts to them, but it is still very pro-regime.
The Media Industry Development Decree also created a Media Authority. The powers of the Authority include demanding documents and information from media outlets. Those who don’t comply will be fined or even jailed for up to five years. Have these powers been used yet? With the repeal of the censors do you expect the Authority to become more active?
These powers have not been used yet because of the self-censorship that journalists in Fiji are practicing. Even after the removal of the PER they know that the Public Order Act and the Media Industry Decree(pdf) can still be used against them. The Authority is very active, especially now that no censors are physically present in the newsrooms. But it continues to be an interesting time in Fiji.
This week the regime introduced a new media decree—the State Proceedings (Amendment) Decree 2012—that will essentially allow the illegal Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama and other government ministers to say what they want in Parliament under so-called parliamentary privilege. This decree comes as the country prepares for supposed elections in 2014. It is yet another piece of legislation manufactured by the regime to allow it to do things the way it wants to, without challenge, and to remain in power. Everyone can see that the regime is using the new decree to have the upper hand. The decree encourages the media to report what the regime says and to ignore its opponents.
The decree is yet another example of how corrupt and manipulative the regime is. It will never allow freedom and democracy in Fiji because it has gone to enormous lengths to ‘recreate’ a so-called fair and equal society that is a complete fairy tale. To undo anything would cause the house of cards to collapse.
What is the purpose of the Coup Four And A Half website? What audience are you targeting?
The idea for the blog came in 2009, about the time the Constitution was abrogated. Things were clearly getting worse for Fiji and we wanted to show solidarity for other blogs as well as get people the information that the media was unable to publish. From there, people started leaking information and documents, all aimed at showing the cracks, hypocrisy, and irregularities in the unelected government. In the last few years these leaks and information have allowed Coup Four And A Half to regularly break stories exposing the weaknesses and corruption in the Bainimarama regime. Regime supporters and critics like to claim our followers are from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the US. The truth is most of the hits for Coup Four And A Half have come from inside Fiji.
Many international news sources have quoted Coup Four And A Half in their coverage of Fiji. What makes Coup Four And A Half unique in Fiji? Has the site or its staff been the target of any harassment for something that was posted?
Thanks to information from our sources, Coup Four And A Half has been able to expose the regime’s corruption and lies and not only put it on the back foot, but hurt its credibility. Our information has come from within the regime and has been proven to be reliable time and time again. The international exposure of Coup Four And A Half has brought more attention to the freedom blogs—blogs fighting for the return of democracy to Fiji—many of which have been working hard to reveal information for the past five years. In the absence of media freedom, it has been important for blogs to get recognition because they’ve been doing the work the media has been unable to do. Mainstream media in the region have loathed the idea of giving freedom blogs their due and have tended to use our information, either directly or indirectly, without crediting us. Some of that is rooted in the belief that blog information is unreliable; on the other side of the coin, it’s an issue of so-called recognized media looking down on blogs.
Attacks on Coup Four And A Half have increased as we’ve become more widely read. They’ve mostly come from regime supporters and coup apologists, one of which is a mainstream journalist who has attacked us, using their profile in mainstream media to try to discredit us, and another a pro-regime blog. Soldiers, or the “green goons” as we call them, spend a lot of time on the blog posting comments to discredit us. The regime, of course, has tried to dismiss us as being ‘unreliable’ and administered by people with an axe to grind.
Coup Four And A Half represents support for democracy, so an attack on us is an attack on democracy. Yes, we get threats. There is a huge interest in where Fiji is going. People in and out of Fiji have a very strong sense of ownership on the debate. The stakes are high, they are very polarized, and the blog has become a battleground for pro- and anti-regime supporters.
In several interviews Prime Minister Bainimarama claims that media censorship is due to irresponsible journalism in Fiji. Can you explain what he is talking about?
Bainimarama and the rest of the unelected government are using that statement to justify why they have oppressed people. They introduced the censorship when they realized the media was questioning and analyzing their ‘reforms’ to achieve what they want, and therefore justify the coup. They have had to prevent questions and criticism to make everyone, especially the international community, think everything is fine and that they have the unanimous support of the people. But the support for blogs, the continuous leaking of information from within the regime, and the hits on our blog (2.62 million as I write this) proves people want a return to a democratic country.
In the summer of 2011, two foreigners died while in Fiji. One was murdered; the other was an apparent drowning. Were these two stories censored? How could the stories surrounding the two deaths be seen to “cause incitement” or be “irresponsible”?
As with all governments that have been installed illegally, the Fijian regime is on the defensive and seeking positive publicity all the time. It does not want to be shown as having flaws. There were several deaths between July and September last year. One of them was a New Zealander, Tony Groom, who died in Nadi. According to some reports he was beaten, but the postmortem report from Fiji authorities ruled there was no foul play.
The American, Don Nicholas, was the other businessman whose death caused controversy. He went missing while surfing in Nadi. His sister came to Fiji seeking answers and told us she was less than impressed with how local authorities dealt with the tragedy, including how little information was made available to her. Two months later, the body of a Japanese student was found at Wailoaloa beach in Nadi. Censors were still operating in newsrooms at that time and the stories were basically buried. On Sunday February 12 Coup Four And A Half was told of an attack on another tourist that has again gone unpublicized in Fiji.
Despite limiting the basic human right of freedom of expression, has Fiji improved socially or economically under the Bainimarama administration? Has Fiji regressed?
How can a country improve without freedom? Of course Fiji has regressed. It started regressing 20 years ago when Sitiveni Rabuka conducted the first coup. But no coup has lasted as long as Frank Bainimarama’s, so the effects of a dictatorship and a military regime being in power are greater than ever. Fiji has neither improved socially nor economically.
There is more poverty since Frank Bainimarama and his cohorts took power. At the moment, life is so expensive in Fiji even butter costs about $8 Fijian. How can someone earning a wage of $60 – $100 a week afford to pay for groceries, rent, and bus fares? The regime and its supporters claim its reforms have already created a better, fairer, more inclusive nation and that tourism in particular has improved, but the reality doesn’t support this. The regime has also lined its own pockets, helped itself to the workers’ Fiji National Provident Fund, and run up millions in loans from China, all supposedly for a better Fiji.
What government reforms or changes need to take place to ensure freedom of speech for the citizens of Fiji?
1) In short, Fiji needs democracy and all the trappings that come with it. The media must be allowed to operate as they do in democratic countries, without fear. Journalists must be allowed to ask questions and write stories that fairly and accurately reflect what is happening in Fiji. At the moment the coverage is pro-regime, sycophantic, and lacking in substance and analysis.
2) The army needs to stand down and return to where they belong–the barracks—instead of being used as mercenaries to impose the will of the regime on people. The army also needs to be much smaller (Fiji would be better off without guns) and it should not be allowed to eat up so much money.
3) Elections need to be held immediately. Why must the country wait another two years? If the regime is so sure it has the people behind it, why can’t we go to the polls now?
4) The regime also needs to stop manufacturing decrees to suit its whims and remove those already in existence, including the Essential National Industries Decree which marginalizes workers and trade unions.
5) People, including the Methodist Church, should be allowed to meet without needing permits. At present, by restricting the number of people who can gather, the regime is stopping what it says are people inciting and causing trouble. If the government is so confident in its support, why is it afraid to allow people to enjoy this basic right?