True democracy must reflect true media freedom

True democracy should reflect- Dr Biman PrasadDr Biman Prasad

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

We firmly believe this is not pessimism but a reality.

The media industry in Fiji has been under siege since the military coup of December 2006. The past five years (especially after the abrogation of the 1997 Constitution on April 10, 2009), have been turbulent and devastating for media organisations.

The work of the media, especially after the coup culture began in 1987, has been remarkable, balanced, informative and impartial, except for a brief period after the coups.

Undermining freedom

However, the enforcement of media censorship under Public Emergency Regulations from April 2009 to January 2012 and the promulgation of the Media Industry Development Decree 2010 have seriously undermined media freedom.

Media is regarded as the Fourth Estate, the last line of defenders of democracy, human rights, dignity and justice.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 19) states, “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.

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

Repealing law

Government must, through Parliament, repeal the Media Industry Development Decree because we believe that the media should not be regulated by the State or Government.

‘Freedom of Information Legislation’ should be enacted so that the media and members of the public have access to official Government documents to effectively promote accountability and transparency.

Restoration of Parliamentary democracy has seen little change in the behaviour of large sections of our media and individual journalists.

Meaningless Decree

The Media Industry Development Authority (MIDA) is essentially an enforcer of Government’s agenda as far as the media is concerned.

Last fortnight, MIDA Chairman spoke about the need for focus to shift on freedom of expression and ethics. Words are mere rhetoric. The MIDA Decree renders freedom and ethics meaningless.

Part Two of the Decree outlines the structure and functions of MIDA. The Minister appoints the chairperson and five other members, and can remove them. This is an obvious and major conflict of interest.

Section 17 provides the Authority immunity from legal proceedings, civil or criminal.

While the media is bound by restrictive rules and regulations, MIDA can act with virtual impunity. Where is the balance and fairness that the government has been preaching? Where is the accountability?

Existing Provisions

Section 22 states content must not include material, which is (a) against the public interest or order (b) against national interest or (c) creates communal discord.

This is a very broad provision open to interpretation by the government.

It is like a noose around the media’s neck. This provision is unnecessary since offences are adequately covered by the Crimes Decree under the Public Order Act on racial and religious vilification, hate speech, and economic sabotage.

Part 5, covering enforcement, allows the Authority to force the disclosure of specified documents or information as well as the right to enter, search and confiscate documents.

When its comes to breach of confidentiality, the standard practice in democracies is that cases are referred to the Courts, which rely on precedence, and can be expected to come up with fair, impartial judgments.

In Fiji, this function has been usurped by MIDA, which is controlled by government through ministerial appointments. This is yet another noose around the media’s neck.

Media Tribunal

Part 8 deals with the Media Tribunal, which consists of a Chairperson – a qualified judge appointed by the President on the advice of the all-powerful Attorney General (AG).

The Tribunal adjudicates complaints received from MIDA. It has to comply with the directions of the responsible Minister pertaining to policy issues.

The Tribunal also has to consider the Attorney General’s submissions during certain proceedings. This paves the way for the AG to potentially influence hearing. It makes hearings vulnerable to political interference and increases the level of government control and pressure on the tribunal.

The Penalties

This is by no means an independent tribunal as it is tied to the government in many ways.

Part 10 details the powers of the Tribunal, including ordering fines of up to F$100,000 against media companies; F$25,000 against publishers and editors and F$1000 against other media employees as monetary compensation to complainants.

Upon conviction for any breaches of the media code, a media organisation could be fined F$100,000; a publisher and editor F$25,000 and/or two years’ imprisonment; and a journalist or media F$1000 and/or two years imprisonment.

This is over the top and unnecessary, especially when we have defamation laws in place.

This is an example of a duplicitous and tricky legislation; a waste of time and resources.

Such payouts can ruin media companies and journalists.

Journalists and media companies will practice self-censorship to protect themselves.

Challenging Appeal

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 designed to favour the government and give it control of the media.

Dr Biman Prasad is Leader of the National Federation Party and a Member of Fijian Parliament. The above is a part of a statement that he issued on Media Freedom on January 15, 2015. His concluding remarks appear as ‘Guest Editorial’ under Viewlink in this issue.

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