FIJIAN RADIO: Fiji’s Prime Minister Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama, says preparations for the meeting are well underway and he’s looking forward to meeting the interested Pacific leaders.
MCDONALD: We’ve had a somewhat unexpected invitation to a private party at the Prime Minister’s official residence, high above the capital of Suva. The self-proclaimed PM, and his wife Mary, are gracious hosts.
It’s Sunday and a proud grandfather is relaxing with his extended family. Frank Bainimarama’s grandson David is five years old today and in Fijian tradition he’s wished a long and happy life.
BAINIMARAMA: People in Fiji are very passionate about our families, not only me and my family, the whole lot of us.
MCDONALD: Commodore Frank Bainimarama rarely grants access to his private world, but as we were to see during our assignment, the coup leader, self-styled moral and political compass, and chief censor, was on occasions remarkably, well, frank.
BAINIMARAMA: We are shown in the TV and the papers every day as dictators – dictators in the sense that we go around abusing the power that we have. That doesn’t happen here.
MCDONALD: You are a military dictator though.
BAINIMARAMA: I am a military man, but what does dictator mean to you?
MCDONALD: Well you do have a very firm grip on Fijian society.
BAINIMARAMA: Yes but is that what dictatorship is about? If that is the definition of dictator, then I guess most of the countries in the region have dictators.
MCDONALD: The rolling family showcase would take us to Saturday sports day and netball with his daughter, Dee.
[To Dee at netball] I’ve heard your dad love karaoke.
DEE BAINIMARAMA: Yes, yes he loves his music. He loves his music and he loves his jokes and he loves his practical jokes.
MCDONALD: Do you love coming along and watching?
BAINIMARAMA: Yes, yes very much. Especially when my grandchildren play.
MCDONALD: It’s the tough, rough and tumble of rugby that’s the Commodore’s preferred code. At Suva’s Albert Park, the home team is playing visitors Navosa. It’s a hard uncompromising game and this military man couldn’t enjoy it more. It is, after all, the way he plays the big game here in Fiji. And he’s playing a long game too – it’s his Fiji until at least 2014.
When you took over the government in 2006, you said elections within one year, then it was elections within two years, then it was elections in four years. Now it’s elections within eight years, come 2014, is Fiji definitely going to have a democratic election?
BAINIMARAMA: Well I said 2014 we’ll have democratic election.
MCDONALD: Fiji’s coup culture began back in 1987. Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka staged two of them with the aim of asserting ethnic Fijian dominance over Indian Fijians.
LT-COL SITIVENI RABUKA: I believe that it is in the national interest that I carry out the events of this morning, take over of the government.
MCDONALD: Then came the civilian-led George Speight coup of 2000.
GEORGE SPEIGHT: This whole scenario here is for the world to focus attention on what Fijians want, okay?
MCDONALD: It was Frank Bainimarama who after almost ten weeks finally crushed the revolt. He installed a prime minister and six years later he deposed Laisenia Qarase for backing an amnesty for the Speight gang.
BAINIMARAMA: [News conference] As of six o’clock this evening, the military has taken over the government, has executive authority and the running of this country.
MCDONALD: Last year Bainimarama scrapped the constitution and now rules by decree.
Why do you think you are the best man to make decisions on behalf of almost 900,000 Fijians?
BAINIMARAMA: Well it’s not me really, it’s the military. I also mention this that the military’s the only entity that can bring about the reforms. The politicians can’t bring about the reforms for obvious reasons – they are politicians, they would love to stay in power and because of that they don’t like much to bring about changes that would remove them from power. And those are the changes that we are putting in place now.
MCDONALD: But you’ve already been in power for almost four years. By the time the elections come about it will be 2014, you would have been in power for eight years without a mandate from the people.
BAINIMARAMA: Yes but we believe as long as we’re doing the reforms that will bring about a better Fiji, that’s good enough for us. As long as there’s no abuse of power. If there’s any sign of corrupt dealings we have people removed.
MCDONALD: In Bainimarama’s world you don’t call him dictator and don’t describe him as a one man band. He insists the military runs a benign regime. But spend a week in Fiji and that simply doesn’t stand up. Bainimarama is an intimidating authority figure and he’s feared.
The media decree and public emergency laws means very few Fijians will express their views publicly. For this story I approached several previously outspoken Fijians who either fail to turn up to confirmed interviews, asked for questions in advance, or expressed fear that their phones were being tapped.
BAINIMARAMA: We know exactly who is saying what, even though they’re not saying it publicly, we know what’s happening.
MCDONALD: Do you bug phones?
BAINIMARAMA: No, (laughing). No, we’re not the Australian Government thank you.
MCDONALD: The non-compliant are dealt with swiftly. Bainimarama has sacked judges and expelled critics and diplomats. There are though a brave few prepared to stand up and challenge the regime. Reverend Akuila Yabaki of the Citizens’ Constitutional Forum is one of them. He’s particularly concerned about the crack down on freedom of expression.
REVEREND YABAKI: Well the censorship is quite serious, quite severe, within the press and also the electronic media. I mean the fact that now they’ve decided to register all holders of public phones and mobile phones should be registered, I think that is just an extension of it. See when you try and muffle the media, there are other ways in which people get things out.
MCDONALD: One of the ways Bainimarama asserts his authority is by controlling what Fijians read and hear. He’s the nation’s news director, he’s the nation’s censor. It’s eight o’clock and the deadline is looming at the Fiji Sun – one of three English language dailies. Stories are being filed and edited – but what runs and what doesn’t run will be determined in this room.
We’ve been invited to see the Chief Censor at work. He’s in his twenties, related to the interim Prime Minister and ironically, he’s asked us to censor him.
And why have you asked us not to show your face?
CENSOR: It’s obviously not something that nobody would like to do. I wouldn’t go around asking people would you like to censor the newspapers you know? That’s an infringement on media freedom, but then again what really is media freedom you know?
MCDONALD: The Chief Censor was one of five who do the rounds of Fiji’s media to make sure the interim government is portrayed in a government light. Most have never worked as journalists.
CENSOR: I studied at uni in Fiji, I studied journalism and politics and so you have a fair idea of how the world operates and you know it’s not fair with what we’re doing with the media, but it’s appropriate given that we’ve gone through some rough times.
LEONE CABENATABUA: I think this is one of the testing times for the local media industry in the country. It’s a testing time for us. And there’s a stance we’ve taken as a newspaper – this newspaper – that we are pro-Fiji.
MCDONALD: And sometimes that can mean Fiji’s Ministry of Information is the only source of political news in the paper.
REVEREND YABAKI: It gets boring to read the papers anyway. It’s all about sports and fundamentalist stuff that comes out you know? Same people write because they get through the censorship, but I think we are not favoured by the censors. Therefore people are not hearing the critical stance, which needs to be heard so that we can work out a constructive way forward.
MCDONALD: Radio is the major source of news for Fijians. Commercial radio Director Vijay Narayan is in charge of the news that’s broadcast on five stations in three languages throughout the islands.
VIJAY NARAYAN: We are passionate about what we do. We are passionate about what we have to do for the people of Fiji. We know that that’s our prime responsibility and we are trying our very best to do that.
MCDONALD: Narayan says he’s able to broadcast some measured criticism of the government, but the rigour of the official censors has also seen some editors fall into line by self censoring. A new media decree was imposed just six weeks ago. It means journalists and media organisations face hefty fines and imprisonment if they act contrary to what the interim government claims is in the national interest.
The new decree bans foreign ownership of the media, it directly targets Fiji’s oldest independent newspaper, The Fiji Times. It’s 90% owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited.
It looks like the Fiji Times will close down, how do you feel about that?
BAINIMARAMA: I feel disappointed because there’ll be a lot of job losses, but as I continuously said Philippa, that’s not my doing. That was the doing of the management.
MCDONALD: The Times declined the ABC’s request for an interview and would not allow filming inside the newsroom. News Limited has less than 2 months to find a buyer for its shares.
BAINIMARAMA: They’ve never acknowledged me as Prime Minister of this nation even though I’ve been Prime Minister for the last four years.
MCDONALD: So they’ve got to go.
BAINIMARAMA: No, it’s really not that, but what I’m saying is they’re not doing the right thing by the people of this nation.
MCDONALD: The military’s iron grip on the country isn’t readily obvious to visitors. The roadblocks and night curfews, which followed the coup, are long gone so it’s not surprising that Australians and New Zealanders, find Fiji an affordable paradise.
MARK ROBERTSON: Financially it was fantastic. We got a really good deal.
CHANTAL ROBERTSON: We got a really good deal. We got seven nights for the price of four.
BAINIMARAMA: We have over 40,000 Australians that come in every month to tell us that Fiji’s great. They’re voting by their feet, so who’s the loser here? Certainly not Fiji.
MCDONALD: The truth is though this high volume business has only been achieved through a radical devaluation of the Fiji dollar. The hotels and their employees don’t make much money, even the tourists see that Fijians are struggling.
CHANTAL ROBERTSON: My husband and I were sitting on the grass enjoying the view and I said I feel really guilty and he asked why, and I said well you know we’re here and we’re relaxing and you can see all the people working around you and on the drive up here you could tell that there were quite a few shanty settlements.
MCDONALD: For all of Bainimarama’s so called reforms, and he’s very vague about what they are, Fiji is hurting. The economy is fragile and rural Fijians are moving to where there’s work and educational opportunities. By some estimates, 15% of Fijians now live in squatter camps, and in the capital it could be as high as 20%. There are nine of these squatter camps dotted around central Suva alone. They’re home to thousands of Fijians who live in extremely cramped conditions.
Kelerayani Likuuiwau has lived here for four years with her extended family. Even though Mrs Likuuiwau’s husband is in full time work, a home of their own beyond the settlement can only be a dream.
FATHER KEVIN BARR: There’s limited space between the houses but as you can see, the people are living it pretty roughly.
MCDONALD: Father Kevin Barr is a Catholic Priest who’s worked among the poorest in Fiji for more than thirty years.
FATHER KEVIN BARR: Poverty has been increasing steadily since independence. I think in 1977 it was about 7-9% of people in poverty, now the figure is about 40-45%.
BAINIMARAMA: Poverty is a big issue everywhere, especially so in the small Pacific island development states. We’re not kidding anyone but we’d like to get out of that.
MCDONALD: Cause the squatter settlements have grown in numbers, 43% of people are living below the poverty line.
BAINIMARAMA: Yes but it will grow because we’re trying to stop that because of families that are trying to move into the urban areas for education and mostly that. And we’re trying to keep that in the rural areas so they don’t have to come up.
MCDONALD: One of Father Barr’s priorities is to try and empower Fijians in the squatter settlements, to urge them to be more proactive in making decisions for themselves. A kind of community democracy, which since the coup has eluded Fiji.
FATHER KEVIN BARR: We say to people wake up, look around you, see what your problems are and see what you can do about them. Take responsibility and our motto is stand up and walk, stand up and talk. Stand on your own two feet. Speak out for yourselves. So we encourage people to take responsibility and overcome their culture of silence.
MCDONALD: Fiji’s sugar industry is in desperate trouble and they’ve been asking the military regime for help. This rail bridge at Sigatoka was wiped away by floods two years ago. It hasn’t been repaired and that alone has increased production costs. Infrastructure across the country is failing.
BALA DASS: The future looks really bleak, really bad because the cost of production is very high and the sugar price is very low. For example the farmers, we get this year about 50 dollars per tonne and the cost of production is over 40 per tonne or more. So basically you are left with very little profit.
MCDONALD: Two hundred thousand people, about a quarter of the national population, are reliant on the sugar industry but it’s getting harder to make money. The European Union has told Fiji that it’s prepared to help restructure the industry, three hundred million dollars is on the table, but the price is a return to democratic government. Bainimarama’s refused.
Since the coup three and a half years ago, Australia and New Zealand and others have tried to isolate Fiji diplomatically and economically. It’s been suspended from the Commonwealth and the Pacific Islands forum, but these penalties seem only to have strengthened Bainimarama’s determination to run his own race. And as part of that, he invited the Melanesian brotherhood to this meeting last week to show that Fiji still carries weight in the Pacific.
SIR MICHAEL SOMARE: [Prime Minister, Papua New Guinea] It’s quite normal here. If you’ve been to Africa and you see those countries that are under military are different. He is doing what is best for Fiji people. That’s what he believes and he has done that.
MCDONALD: And the pomp and ceremony continues as if to reassure Fijians that everything’s just fine. Today Fiji’s navy is celebrating a birthday – 35 years of patrolling the waters around the country’s 300 scattered islands. It was the only job Commodore Bainimarama had known before commandeering a country.
BAINIMARAMA: This was where I started in 75. It has a special place for me.
MCDONALD: For the navy and army, coup rule has had some benefits. While other government departments are struggling, there’s been a 40% increase in the defence budget.
Bainimarama is a Methodist, but has had no hesitation intimidating preachers. Twenty-seven church leaders are charged with organising meetings in breach of public emergency regulations.
You’ve effectively silenced the church and the chiefs haven’t you?
BAINIMARAMA: Well yes in a way, but you know Philippa for us to bring about these reforms as I’ve said, we need to stop all people speaking out against the government and its reforms. And these two entities were most vocal because they were politicised so I need to silence them, I need to have them silenced.
MCDONALD: Since the first coup 23 years ago, the indo-Fijian community has shrunk. But for those that stay Bainimarama claims to be an advocate of all Fijian’s living together in racial harmony. That’s what he says is motivating him to eventually change the constitution and electoral laws. For now, Fijians wait.
Will you run for Prime Minister come democratic elections?
BAINIMARANA: Philippa I can’t make that decision now.
MCDONALD: So you may?
BAINIMARAMA: I really don’t know. To tell you the truth I have, people have asked me about it but I’m not… even thought about making plans for that because if I do that, it’ll change the way I think about the reforms, every thing, because I’ll think like a politician and as a politician we’re not going to bring about the reforms that we want to put in.
MCDONALD: So at the moment you’re thinking like a military man and a military leader running a country, but you won’t rule out running for Prime Minister come 2014?
BAINIMARAMA: I’ll think about it when the time comes, but not right now.