THE editorial independence of the Fiji Times is likely to be put under even greater pressure.
The threat arose after News Limited agreed to sell the Pacific nation’s oldest newspaper to local businessman Mahendra Patel.
News was forced to put the 142-year-old masthead up for sale after Fiji’s military government announced a crackdown on press freedom in late June, which included jail terms for journalists whose work is against the “public interest” and orders that media outlets must be 90 per cent owned by resident Fijian citizens.
It is understood Mr Patel, the chairman of Fiji conglomerate Motibhai & Company Limited and a former Fiji Times director, was regarded as the best candidate by News, with a number of bidders regarded as stalking horses for Commodore Frank Bainimarama’s regime.
The changes to media regulations were described as anti-democratic by former foreign minister Stephen Smith, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, the Pacific Area Newspaper Publishers Association and News Limited chairman and chief executive John Hartigan.
They form part of a wider diplomatic rift between the Fijian and Australian governments, which will be handled by new Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd.
In a statement, Mr Hartigan said the sale to Motibhai was the “best possible outcome for the staff, advertisers and readers”. He added: “We are reluctant sellers of the Fiji Times, but I am delighted that we have been able to find a buyer who will take over the business as a going concern, respect its heritage and invest in its future.”
Nevertheless, News executives believe the new owner will have to accept an even greater level of government interference in the day-to-day running of the daily, which has been critical of the Bainimarama regime. The Fiji Times is Fiji’s largest newspaper, with an average Monday-to-Friday circulation of about 19,000.
It is believed News will receive $10-$20 million for the Fiji Times, although the sale is subject to regulatory approval.