When Prime Minister John Key described the aftermath of the 2006 military coup in Fiji as “ancient history,” it became obvious that his diplomatic visit to Fiji (from June 9 to June 10, 2016) might not go according to plan.
It just did not sound honest when only two years ago Fiji finally had democratic elections following the 2006 military coup.
No one should write off eight years of military rule endured by the people of Fiji so glibly, and as though they never happened.
The result has been an embarrassment for our Prime Minister and New Zealand as a whole. Instead of playing the gracious host, and playing to Key’s naive offer of putting the past behind us, Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama used the opportunity to harangue New Zealand in front of the assembled media.
Bainimarama refused, as is usual at the joint PM media briefing to answer questions from the New Zealand media – and our media meekly obliged by not asking any.
Either he was scared of having to face journalists that have not been bullied into submission as the Fiji media has been; or he felt answering questions was beneath him. Either way, accountability to the public is clearly not part of the lexicon of Fiji’s democracy under Bainimarama.
Media freedom is a serious concern. New Zealand journalists Michael Field and Barbara Dreaver were banned from visiting Fiji as part of the media delegation from New Zealand – both are experienced specialist Pacific affairs correspondents who should have been there.
There have also been issues with the functioning of Fiji’s Parliament.
Only two weeks ago, a prominent opposition MP was banned from Parliament for two years by the Privileges Committee dominated by the governing Party for simply calling a minister a ’fool’, a disproportionate penalty.
It was a reminder to us all that despite its general election, Fiji still lacks some of the basic tenets of a democracy. They are the very issues that should be discussed during a top-level diplomatic visit – but our Prime Minister seemed determined to ignore them on last week’s trip – or laugh them off.
In fact, allowing himself to be manipulated as he did, Mr Key’s visit did a huge disservice to all the people working to bring a free media, democracy and human rights to Fiji.
New Zealand has always stood side by side with Fiji and we have a warm, close friendship with its people – and we always will.
We sent flights, an aid ship and our service people to Fiji in response to the devastation caused by Cyclone Winston.
In times of emergency it is important to stand by our friends.
But it is just as important to speak up when things are not right rather than looking the other way.
At a government-to-government level, this trip has taken our relationship backwards rather than forwards.
Last week’s visit was a chance for John Key to put democracy and human rights on the agenda, but he did not take the opportunity.
Predictably, it backfired. Instead of newspaper headlines and photos covering Prime Ministerial meetings with Fiji’s human rights organisations, media representatives and opposition parties, the defining images of Key’s Fiji visit were of Frank Bainimarama defending the 2006 coup, criticising New Zealand journalists and standing by his media restrictions – while our Prime Minister looked on.
David Shearer is an elected Member of Parliament from Mt Albert in Auckland and Labour Party’s spokesman for Foreign Affairs. Please read our response to the above article, ‘Journalists aware of Questions ban’ and other related stuff in this Special Report.
Frank Bainimarama and John Key at the Press Meet held at the Office of Fijian Prime Minister in Suva on Friday, June 10, 2016. Picture by Sanjesh Narayan of Radio Tarana.