Aussie exec now top censor for Fiji’s Bainimarama
Michael McKenna From: The Australian July 01, 2010
A FORMER Fairfax newspaper executive is the chief censor for Fiji’s dictator and in charge of his latest crackdown on press freedom.
Australian mother-of-four Sharon Smith-Johns has also been serving as the international spokeswoman for the military regime, which seized power in 2006 and has since been accused of human rights abuses.
Ms Smith-Johns last night refused “to be drawn”on allegations about the beating and jailing of Commodore Bainimarama’s opponents, but conceded she was the country’s “chief censor” and oversaw the removal of any negative reporting about the regime.
After two months as acting secretary for Fiji’s Ministry of Information, Ms Smith-Johns said she had recently applied to be appointed permanently in the job because she believed in the military leader.
A 10-year Fairfax sales veteran, Ms Smith-Johns moved to the Pacific nation just over a decade ago and later became chief executive of Connect Fiji, one of the country’s internet service providers. “I am not doing it for money; I am doing it because I believe in this man,” she said.
“I follow this government and unless you live in this country you don’t understand.”
Ms Smith-Johns hit the international airwaves this week in defence of the new laws that threaten to jail journalists and editors whose work is deemed against the “public interest or order”.
The Media Industry Development Decree 2010 also orders that media outlets must be 90 per cent owned by Fijian citizens who live permanently in the island nation.
The Fiji Times — the oldest, (founded in 1869) and largest of the country’s newspapers and one of the oldest newspapers in the Asia-Pacific region — is wholly owned by News Limited, publisher of The Australian. It has three months to comply with the decree or be closed down.
In radio interviews, Ms Smith-Johns accused Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith and News Limited chairman and chief executive John Hartigan of “sensationalising” the effect of the new laws.
She confirmed that while she had been chief executive of Connect, Commodore Bainimarama had requested her company and other Fiji-based ISPs block pro-democracy blog sites.
Ms Smith-Johns said she was national sales manager for Fairfax Online until the late 1990s, and had been retail sales manager for The Sydney Morning Herald.