Muzzled Media muddles democracy

Dr Biman Prasad

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Fiji’s future as a social, economic and politically stable nation cannot be guaranteed unless freedom of expression is enshrined through a free, fair and credible media.

We firmly believe this is not pessimism but a reality.

Media in Fiji has been under siege since the military coup of December 2006. This has been so for more than five years, especially after the abrogation of the 1997 Constitution on April 10, 2009.

Human Rights

According to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through the media regardless of frontiers.”

This freedom and right is reposed in the people, which the State and politicians must respect at all times.

Regressive Decree

The Media Industry Development Decree is regressive and suppresses Media Freedom because it imposes restrictions and prescribes heavy penalties.

This Decree must either be repealed or amended substantially because we believe that media should not be regulated by the State or Government.

Restoration of Parliamentary democracy has seen little change in the behaviour of large sections of our media and individual journalists; there is a reason for this: it is not the choice of our media industry and journalists but a result of the severe penalties in the Decree.

The Media Industry Development Authority is essentially an enforcer of Government’s agenda as far as the media is concerned. In January this year, its Chairman spoke on the need to focus to shift on freedom of expression and ethics. Those words are mere rhetoric.  The Decree renders freedom and ethics meaningless.

Lost faith

We have heard in the past the government justifying the Media Decree on social, economic and political stability. However, all that these restrictive provisions have done is to push opposition views into anonymous online media platforms, where they have re-emerged in more extreme forms.

People have lost faith in the mainstream news media and are relying on blogs, where people are posting comments, some of which are rumours, misinformation and incitement to racial violence.

We believe this misguided media policy espoused through the Decree is partly to be blamed for this sorry state of affairs.

There is a requirement that all news stories have to be balanced; otherwise, they cannot be published. This is a further sign of legislation simply gone mad. The provision has become a loophole to evade media scrutiny by not responding to media questions.

The anomalies

But if a story is positive towards the government, this requirement is ignored without consequence. What we are saying is that the media decree is open to abuse by the State. Every international organisation of repute has expressed concern over the regressive and draconian provisions of this Decree.

Media organisations can challenge decisions in the Court of Appeal, but only for awards in excess of $50,000. Media workers have no such options, even though the awards can lead to financial ruin in a sector where salaries are low, compared to other professions.

While the defendants have little recourse, complainants or the Authority can challenge Tribunal decisions in the Court of Appeal. This is another example of the lopsided and one-sided legislation.

Dr Biman Prasad is Member of Fijian Parliament elected as a National Federation Party candidate in the general election held on September 17, 2014. The above contains extracts of his address to the Fijian Parliament on May 15, 2015.

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