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Fiji: The calm after the storm?

Let's try to catch up a bit today. “The Civil Service, Statutory Organisations and all arms of Government involved in delivery of public goods and services will continue to function normally despite the abrogation of the 1997 Constitution,” says a Government of Fiji press release.

These are the comments of Commodore J.V. Bainimarama, Prime Minister as he assured that there would be no disruption in the delivery of public goods and services and that to lives of people.

Commodore Bainimarama said that there will be many changes brought about in the coming days and weeks, which will be all for the good of the people and the country as a whole.

He said that the public need not worry about these changes as they are all meant to improve the delivery of public services through simpler processes, quick decision making and improved handling of enquiries and needs of ordinary members of the public.

In response to an April 9 court ruling declaring the military backed government of Frank Bainimarama came to power illegally when he dissolved Parliament and deposed the government of Laisenia Qarase, the country’s President nullified the Fiji's constitution, fired the entire judiciary and appointment himself head of state and the armed forces. He then re-appointed Bainimarama and swore in his entire government.

Bainimarama, Fiji's military leader, came to power in December 2006, he said, to clean up the corrupt Qarase government. He also wanted to replace what he saw as Fiji’s divisive, ethnic-based politics that pits political parties aligned with indigenous Fijians with parties aligned with the Indian ethnic minority, descendants of cane workers brought to Fiji by the British colonial rulers. It was Fiji's fourth coup since 1987, three of which took place to expand the political power of indigenous Fijians.

Before the events of Easter weekend, Fiji had been under intense pressure from neighboring countries and governmental bodies to hold elections, as Bainimarama once promised. However, government supporters maintain that scheduling elections with Fiji's communal-based electoral system will merely perpetrate the country's track record of ethnic-based favoritism in governance.

Bloggers of all stripes are now sifting through the debris of a completely changed political landscape – one that will see the Bainimarama government remain in power until at least 2014.

One blogger has closed up shop for the time being. To another, the situation remains pretty much the same.

From Oceanic: User Experiences from the South Pacific.

The doomsday headline “Fiji military given OK to shoot civilians.” called out to me from UPI.com. I'm not sure what was more jarring, actually. Was it that fear-mongering, sensationalist headline or the fact that UPI.com's tag line is “100 years of journalistic excellence”? Some international media outlets use old video footage of the 2000 coup with soldiers in the streets carrying weapons. I don't believe a tiny “file footage” in the corner of the screen is fair, either.

As an expat, I don't openly comment on any of the politics in the country and for obvious reason. I see positives and negatives in everything anyway and there is also enough noise out there from other sources. However, one of challenges Fiji will continue to face when not enabling open communications with the rest of the world are stories such as the sensationalist one above. I've received well more than a handful of emails and messages from friends in other parts of the world who appear to be getting warped views of what's happening in Suva.

“Are you safe?”, understandably, is the most common question I hear and I still respond with the stock answer I have always used.

“I feel safer here than on the streets of any big city in the world.”

Fiji is a very safe country, even in the face of some rising “petty crime” which include home invasions and robberies. For tourists, though, this is not a risk and the news they are seeing on TV and the warnings from their governments are, frankly, blown well out of proportion. I'm not saying the situation isn't serious, though. It is serious, but things DO NOT feel unstable at all in Suva right now. Could this change? I suppose it could but I'd like to believe it won't. If I felt that there was a real danger, I would not be keeping my kids in school right now.

Because it has no working framework of the constitution, Fiji's new government has ruled through a series of decrees, including the public emergency regulations, which gives extra search, seizure and detention powers to the police. What has made the most news, however, is the new rules for Fiji’s media, which direct government minders to work in editorial offices approving “pro-Fiji” stories and denying stories that negatively portray the President’s abrogation of the constitution. The government claims the rules are temporary measures to insure the media does not publish material that may “give rise to disorder.” The rules enjoy very few supporters within media circles. (Here's what bloggers think.)

I know I covered this issue previously, but this post offers a different take. Loyal Fijian argues a free media is no one's enemy.

Let the media report freely and without censorship. And with the freedom to report freely comes the responsibility to report fairly.

Media freedom is about Economics folks. Media freedom is what made Rupert Murdoch a billionaire. Media freedom is what made Larry Flynt, the publisher of pornography, a billionaire.

Media freedom means money.

The Interim Government accuses the media of being selective in its reporting of employing individuals who have allegiances to political parties or are using their positions to pursue personal agendas.

Loyal Fijian will let the people decide if certain Fiji media outlets at times have been less than balanced due to the influence of certain persons with agendas to push.

Like many media critics when looking at Fiji’s media, the issue of responsibility arises.

With freedom comes responsibility. Can Fiji's media outlets take a good look within themselves and say they are totally dispassionate in their reporting, their journalists don't have “favored” sources or driven by allegiances to political parties or traditional links?

Can they?

The best thing the Government can do is to remove the censorship and let the media go about its work.

As we here at Loyal Fijian have said all along, the people are smart enough to sense rumour and innuendo from facts .

Bloggers like WhyFijiisCrying and its clone Solivaksasama which sprung up after the 2006 are now totally discredited due to their rumour mongering and mindless slander.

But the best defence against such bias is to let them talk or write, present your own side of the story and move on .Censorship is not the solution.

The move to impose censorship is an admission that the information machinery of the Government is not doing its job as it should. Get better at the game , dont take the ball and go running home. That never made anyone any friends.

Getting reliable news from inside Fiji – even for those living in the country – has been difficult. By most accounts, all foreign journalists have left the country. With the local media mostly quiet regarding political issues, Fiji's political bloggers have been publishing nearly non-stop.

A few quick updates: Fiji’s government has arrested the president of Fiji's Law Society, a long-time critic of Bainimarama. He may have been arrested for comments he made to an Australian reporter, who was later deported.

The government sent troops to the Federal Reserve Bank in downtown Suva and reportedly fired the Central Bank Governor, who had previously sparred with Baininiarama over the state of the nation’s economy.

Worried that it could lose its diminishing foreign reserves, the bank then tightened exchange controls. Coup Four And A Half reports that Fiji's Dollar has been devalued 20 percent.

The Fiji Times reports that one of its photographers was detained by police for an hour, along with a Fiji TV reporter and cameraman, due to their coverage of a peaceful protest by members of Fiji Law Society. (Raw Fiji News has a few tidbits on the protests.)

Coup Four And A Half reports that Fiji TV reporter Edwin Nand spent his second night in jail. Raw Fiji News reports he has been released.

James Murray, who writes the Views on the News blog at News 3 in New Zealand, reports that people in Fiji can send information via email to foreign journalists who continue to report on the country from afar: freefiji@newspapers.co.nz

The blog at the Soli Vakasama site is also running a defacto forum for those wanting to get their letters to the editor published.

Pat Craddock, a former journalism professor, writes an open letter to Fiji's Prime Minister in Café Pacific blog, wondering what to make out of news by blogs?

So – only good news can be reported. Wow –perhaps the army can try and shut down Al Jazeera, BBC and CNN too? I notice their reporting doesn't praise the army for their actions.

Fiji journalists must be finding it hard to discover what good news there is to report on the army?

Commodore, your actions this week have surely given a new lease of life to Fiji blog sites. For us in NZ – and Oz and elsewhere – where else should we now look for news on Fiji, but through the blogs? I read tonight on a blog site that the army is taking petrol from gas stations without payment – true or untrue? How am I to assess the truth of this comment – not from the Fiji newspapers, surely? They won’t be allowed to print that type of bad news, even if it is true?

So… a wait until possibly 2014 before the citizens of Fiji can vote for the government they want? Most governments voted by the people, would not get that lease of life with long term promises to improve the lives of their citizens. From 2006 until 2014 is eight years… a long time for a visionary leader to prepare policies of political change. Too bloody long.

[Here is a link to the gas station piece.]

Crosbie Walsh, who writes Fiji: The Way It Was, Is, And Can Be is unimpressed by some of the statements coming from New Zealand journalist (and blogger) Michael Field, claiming Bainimarma is “stoking the coup culture,” (something the PM has promised to extinguish), along with former Fiji military Land Force Commander
Jone Baledrokadroka for an op-ed piece which calls Easter weekend’s events a “a naked power grab.”

Most of what I've read and heard, though understandable, seems poorly considered, and the extreme and provocative comments – by Baledrokadroka, Michael Field, one of the Australian judges, and some of the anonymous bloggers – must be condemned for adding fuel to what could develop into a highly dangerous situation.

I think it important to recall earlier emergency regulations that were heavily applied when first announced, but eased back as authorities became better placed to assess the situation.

Let us hope this will be the case again. That will be the time for reasoned comment — and some release of present frustrations. Meanwhile, the fewer inflammatory comments, the better.

7 comments

  • I don’t know what Crosbie Walsh is smoking but he must be (despite his long “experience” in the Pacific) seeing something that many of us don’t.

    Who’s really adding the fuel here? The fuel and the matches all originate from Bainimarama.

    Did we just devalue the dollar which is undoubtedly another spark being added to the ready-to-be-lit bonfire?

  • Good work! Take care.

  • Damn fine story, John. Thanks so much for following this so closely. It’s amazing to see bloggers take responsibility for creating spaces for political debate and for ensuring that political reporting continues – a good news story so far on that front. Will be interesting to see whether a crackdown on conventional media turns its focus on citizen media and what that will mean for bloggers. Glad you’re watching for us.

  • […] in news I wish I’d been following more closely – John Liebhart looks at the situation in Fiji, where a military coup leader basically ignored a supreme court decision which ordered him to step […]

  • This just seems to be the next in a continuing cycle (ironically, a stable thing) of political instability. http://is.gd/rOFV

  • Frank

    I’m afraid your title “The calm after the storm?” is backwards. It should read, “The calm before the storm?” for who knows what is on Bainimarma’s agenda for tomorrow.

    As each day passes, the events are proof that there is no easing of the “emergency” in sight. Fiji’s Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum says that despite the detention of journalists, the censoring of the media and the constitution upheaval, life in Fiji is normal. Yeap, that sounds like normal day to day activities. He forgot to add the seizing of the Reserve Bank and the devaluation of the Fiji Dollar.

    Just the devaluation issue alone makes one wonder if all that was in Bainimarma’s suitcases a couple of weeks ago when he left the country was just his clothes. What a windfall could be had by someone who knew the currency was going to be devalued. Especially if that someone had just been paid a large settlement for unused leave, but that is timely speculation.

    Back to Mr. Sayed-Khaiyum’s “normal” comment. The detention of citizens without charges does not speak well for the Attorney General’s idea of normal. Sad comment from the country’s head law enforcement officer. Yes, there are people on the street but far fewer of them. The stores I’ve seen have people buying great quantities of items trying to stave off as long as possible the horrible inflated prices that are just days away.

    Normally, it is easy to spot the tourists in downtown Suva, they tend to stand out. Normal would have those same numbers still present. Can’t spot a single one today, that’s abnormal.

    What foreign owned resort, as most of them are, is going to keep their prices static as they have to pay more for the goods they have to import to serve their tourist guests? This is an island nation where almost everything is imported. All of those items just went up in price. And to top it off, the government’s 12.5% VAT is based on the increased prices so that gets added to the price paid. Yes, the exchange rate may have improved but all the other economic consequences of the devaluation will keep tourists from flooding to these shores as the government so brightly suggests will happen.

    It’s the calm before the storm as the people of this country, who already exist at a subsistence level, struggle to make their meager dollars stretch to buy the essentials. Crime rates will rise faster than the prices. Only foolhardy brave (or foolish) tourists will venture out of the safety of the tourist resort confines. Those dollars they brought to these shores, mostly in the form of credit cards, will depart via the same electronic transaction that they paid with as they settle their resort bills. Little of it will stay on these shores for a resort’s labour expenses are minor compared to the debt service to foreign banks to pay the loans on these elaborate resorts.I’m afraid your title “The calm after the storm?” is backwards. It should read, “The calm before the storm?” for who knows what is on Bainimarma’s agenda for tomorrow.

    As each day passes, the events are proof that there is no easing of the “emergency” in sight. Fiji’s Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum says that despite the detention of journalists, the censoring of the media and the constitution upheaval, life in Fiji is normal. Yeap, that sounds like normal day to day activities. He forgot to add the seizing of the Reserve Bank and the devaluation of the Fiji Dollar.

    Just the devaluation issue alone makes one wonder if all that was in Bainimarma’s suitcases a couple of weeks ago when he left the country was just his clothes. What a windfall could be had by someone who knew the currency was going to be devalued. Especially if that someone had just been paid a large settlement for unused leave, but that is timely speculation.

    Back to Mr. Sayed-Khaiyum’s “normal” comment. The detention of citizens without charges does not speak well for the Attorney General’s idea of normal. Sad comment from the country’s head law enforcement officer. Yes, there are people on the street but far fewer of them. The stores I’ve seen have people buying great quantities of items trying to stave off as long as possible the horrible inflated prices that are just days away.

    Normally, it is easy to spot the tourists in downtown Suva, they tend to stand out. Normal would have those same numbers still present. Can’t spot a single one today, that’s abnormal.

    What foreign owned resort, as most of them are, is going to keep their prices static as they have to pay more for the goods they have to import to serve their tourist guests? This is an island nation where almost everything is imported. All of those items just went up in price. And to top it off, the government’s 12.5% VAT is based on the increased prices so that gets added to the price paid. Yes, the exchange rate may have improved but all the other economic consequences of the devaluation will keep tourists from flooding to these shores as the government so brightly suggests will happen.

    It’s the calm before the storm as the people of this country, who already exist at a subsistence level, struggle to make their meager dollars stretch to buy the essentials. Crime rates will rise faster than the prices. Only foolhardy brave (or foolish) tourists will venture out of the safety of the tourist resort confines. Those dollars they brought to these shores, mostly in the form of credit cards, will depart via the same electronic transaction that they paid with as they settle their resort bills. Little of it will stay on these shores for a resort’s labour expenses are minor compared to the debt service to foreign banks to pay the loans on these elaborate resorts.

  • Australia and New Zealand have showed up their true colours. They do no want to impose trade bans on Fiji because their trade so far is dumping their reject lamb, wheat and rice on Fiji. So of course they wont impose a trade ban. Aussie and NZ own people people dont want to do manual work so Aussie and NZ has to hire South Pacific Islanders to do their manual work like fruit picking. Yet Aussie and NZ governments call the South Pacific Islanders lazy people. We here in Fiji are fine. I am an Indo Fijian. And I tell you, the international media including Australian Network and NZTV are grossly misreporting the events here. They deserve to be muzzled becasue they abuse their freedom of speech. Freedom of speech does not mean being able to say anything you like. All is fine and quite in Fiji, and I will gladly accomodate visitors at my residence in Suva at no cost. Bula Vinaka!

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