Fiji must respect media freedom, rule of law

Fiji is at a critical juncture in its history, with an opportunity to build an inclusive and a non-racist society, a leading economist has said.

Dr Biman Prasad, Professor, Faculty of Business & Economics atthe University of South Pacific, said that the opportunity can be realised by building solid foundations for democracy.

He said that media organisations must be respected and supported, and the rule of law has to be respected if Fiji is to get out of its stalemate.

This is one of several calls that Dr Prasad has made over the years for greater media freedom and civil rights in Fiji.

The country has been under military rule since December 5, 2006, when Commodore Frank Bainimarama took power after the country’s fourth coup.

In this recent address to the Fiji Teachers’ Union in Suva, Dr Prasad highlighted the importance of the right to expression.

He said that such a right should start at the school level.

“Students should be taught to enjoy their own rights and to respect others’ rights.”

Gone off-track

During his presentation titled, ‘The Status of Teachers in Fiji’s Emerging Democracy,’ Dr Prasad said that Fiji had lost its way since independence in 1970.

“Back then, the emphasis was strength of diversity, harmony and a shared vision. This was upended by the 1987 coups. A healthy annual average growth rate of about 5.5% was interrupted,” he said.

Since then, three more coups, and the trashing of two multiracial constitutions had seen the country ‘struggle’ and ‘muddle’ through a poor economy, with around 2% growth per annum.

Dr Prasad said that democracies are not built overnight, but even then constitutions are changed peacefully and progressively, rather than by force.

“Forced changes do not last,” he stated.

With elections scheduled for 2014, Prasad said that the country is at a critical juncture.

“These junctures always provide us an opportunity to make good or bad decisions,” he said.

Uncertain future

Fiji has faced several critical junctures in the past. At every critical juncture, Fiji had gone back into a “vicious circle of instability and decline”.

Dr Prasad said that countries like Mauritius have spectacularly outperformed Fiji because they are stable.

“Around 87% of Mauritians own their own homes. Medical, including heart surgery, is free. So is education, from pre-school to tertiary level. Fiji, meanwhile, has languished in poverty and unemployment, with a declining quality of public service and an increasing loss of talent through migration,” he said.

Dr Prasad’s speech highlighted the critical issue of democracy.

He said that the environment in which our children study can determine whether they become conformist or creative and productive.

“As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Democracy is not a state in which people act like sheep. Under democracy, individual liberty of opinion and action are jealously guarded.”

Paying tribute to teachers, Dr Prasad said that they should be fairly compensated for their work. He urged them to encourage more democratic values amongst students.

Shailendra Singh is a senior lecturer and former Head of Journalism Programme at the University of the South Pacific in Suva. He is currently on study leave, pursuing his PhD in Journalism and Communications at the University of Queensland. Email: shailendra.singh@uqconnect.edu.au

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