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Patriotic injustice and Fiji's media

By Anushika de Alwis Gunawardana
Created 04/05/2009 - 17:24

Anushika de Alwis Gunawardana is a Masters student at the University of Sydney. Webdiary welcomes her, and thanks her for a thoughtful piece on a recent and most troubling developments in the Pacific region - even though to some extent events in Fiji may feel like Groundhog Day.

Patriotic injustice and Fiji's media
by Anushika de Alwis Gunawardana

In Fiji, the military regime has been exercising the time-honoured routine of silencing critique by media censorship. If the expectation was to ensure social stability and continued power, then, thus far, they have been successful.

The irony is that censorship is hardly a patriotic strategy. Yet it is Prime Minister Commodore Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama's key message, justifying political decisions and discouraging rebellion. In the first address to the nation, he says, “We must all be loyal to Fiji; we must be patriotic; we must put Fiji first [1].”

What is patriotism?

It means loving, supporting and defending one's country, but it also means strength to critique power structures. Media have historically had a central role in supporting healthy political debate within democracies. Yet, Fiji's regime has denied the value of critical thought, which generates debate, constructive discussion and lets you explore paths to negotiation. Censoring the media has silenced this space.

Fiji's regime relies on the Public Emergency Regulations 2009. [2] to control the media. The section 'Control of Broadcast and Publications' gives the Permanent Secretary for Information authority to monitor content and shut down dissenting media institutions. The regulations have led to the mandatory presence of a Ministery of Information official and a policeman in newsrooms, deportation of foreign journalists, shutdown of ABC Radio Australia's FM transmitters, and charges of internet restrictions and email monitoring.

ABC's Pacific correspondent Sean Dorney [3] faced the regime's intimidation first hand when he was deported from Fiji [4]. Asked about Bainimarama's call to patriotism, Dorney says, “He's constantly urging people to be patriotic to Fiji. But it's not supporting Fiji, it's supporting him.” He adds, “There are a lot of very, very despondent media people in Fiji at the moment.”

Creative forms of rebellion have so far failed. When newspapers were printed with blank spaces, the regime threatened the organisations with closure. It was seen as dissent with potential to mobilise people, who would be curious about what was censored. It is not a surprise that the media are frustrated – they have been reduced to state accomplices. Their role in providing forums to discuss recent political developments [5] have been co-opted.

SBS journalist Ginny Stein [6] describes such situations as “closing off the voice of democracy.” She says maintaining this level of crackdown is not sustainable as a long-term proposition. Indeed when the rhetoric fades and people demand accountability, the regime will fail to convince them of its intentions.

What of the future?

Dorney says that the Fijian media are hopeful of the easing of restrictions, but “under the current legal order there is no possibility of challenging anything the government has done, through the courts. It does not look very healthy for the media.” If it is not healthy for the media, that symbol of freedom of expression, it cannot be healthy for its people. Media censorship is not about patriotism – it is a coward's excuse for lacking the courage to face critique, and, worse, a reaction to the fear of not having answers at all.

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