THE closure of the Fiji Times will be the inevitable result of the Media Industry Development Decree, says John Hartigan.
AS many newspapers struggle to avoid closure because of the movement of readers to new digital platforms, it is ironic that one of the oldest and most respected newspapers in the world may be forced to shut its doors – by government decree.
This now seems to be the inevitable result of the Media Industry Development Decree the Fiji military government made law this week.
In simple terms, the decree forces foreign media owners to sell down their stakes to 10 per cent or less and imposes more government control, further eroding the basic tenets of democracy in Fiji.
For News Limited, the owner of The Fiji Times, it means a forced divestment of 90 per cent of the company’s interests within three months, but there are greater issues at stake for Fijians. If we can be tossed out of the country, what will stop the regime targeting foreign investors in other industries? While the forced sale of The Fiji Times is of concern, it is the punitive sections of the decree that provide the greatest threat.
The decree states that content of any media must not include material “which is against the public interest or order, is against national interest, offends against good taste or decency or creates communal discord” – in other words any story the government does not like.
Of course, these standards will be determined by an authority to be set up by the government.
Any breach of the provisions will constitute an offence, and the media organisation will be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding $100,000, or in the case of a publisher or editor, a fine not exceeding $25,000, or for a journalist a fine not exceeding $1000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years.
There will not be too many potential publishers wanting to purchase a newspaper with these draconian restrictions hanging over their head – even at a fire-sale price.
One of two things is likely to result from this: closure of The Fiji Times or a takeover by a compliant new owner by the end of September. Either scenario means a voice of democracy that has campaigned tirelessly on behalf of the people may be silenced.
It is not just the Fiji Times that has been singled out: other media largely owned by Fijian interests will have to conform to the government’s wishes or face the penalties outlined.
The Fiji Times, however, is the largest publication involved and is truly independent.
The Fiji Times – a member of the News Limited stable since the Herald and Weekly Times takeover in 1987 – has been a fearless critic of the coup staged by Commodore Frank Bainimarama in 2007 and challenged the legitimacy of his government. It argued for a restoration of democracy through proper elections and provided a voice for the people through its Letters to the Editor.
For its trouble, staff of The Fiji Times suffered verbal and physical intimidation, threats of violence, saw the deportation of two managing directors and faced threats of closure.
Pressure has been brought to bear by the government to force the paper’s major clients to advertise elsewhere.
The situation in Fiji deteriorated markedly after April 9 last year, when the country’s Appeal Court handed down its verdict that the 2007 military coup was illegal and ordered the reinstatement of democracy.
The following day, the constitution was thrown out by the Bainimarama regime and a “new legal order” established. Censors were set up in The Fiji Times office.
Four days later, The Fiji Sunday Times of April 13 appeared with empty spaces where stories banned by censors should have appeared. Those white spaces carried the message: “The stories on this page could not be published due to government restriction.”
The next day, the interim government ordered that any repetition would lead to the closure of the paper.
For its part, the Australian government has brought little pressure to bear on the military government to hold elections, restore democracy or re-establish the depleted power of Fiji’s judiciary, apart from imposing travel bans on regime leaders.
The Fiji Times has proudly served its community since it was founded in 1869. If it is forced to close, the impact on the people of Fiji and the country’s economy will be profound.
This is a sorry day for press freedom, for democracy and for the people of Fiji.
John Hartigan is chairman and chief executive of News Limited, publisher of The Australian and the Fiji Times