We firmly believe this is not pessimism but a reality.
The media industry in this country has been under siege since the military coup of December 2006. For more than 5 years, especially after the abrogation of the 1997 Constitution on 10th April 2009, have been turbulent and devastating for the media industry and media organisations.
The work of the media industry, especially after the start of the coup culture in 1987, has been remarkable, balanced, informative and impartial, except for a brief period after the 1987 coups.
However, the enforcement of media censorship under Public Emergency Regulations after April 2009 until January 2012 and the promulgation of the Media Industry Development Decree 2010 has seriously undermined media freedom.
Media throughout the world is generally regarded as the Fourth Estate – the last line of defenders of democracy, human rights, dignity and justice.
Article 19 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through the media regardless of frontiers”.
This freedom and right is reposed in the people, which the State and politicians must respect at all times.
The Media Industry Development Decree is regressive and suppresses Media Freedom because it imposes restrictions and prescribes heavy penalties.
Government must through Parliament repeal the Media Industry Development Decree because we believe the media should not be regulated by the State or any Government.
The enactment of Freedom of Information legislation so that the media and members of the public have access to official Government documents in order to effectively promote accountability and transparency.
The restoration of Parliamentary democracy has seen little change in the behavior of large sections of our media and individual journalists.
The Media Industry Development Authority is essentially an enforcer of Government’s agenda as far as the media is concerned. Just two days ago the MIDA Chairman spoke about the need for focus to shift on freedom of expression and ethics. Words are mere rhetoric. The MIDA Decree renders freedom and ethics meaningless.
And we will tell you why: -
Media Industry Development Authority
PART 2 of the Decree outlines the structure and functions of the Media Industry Development Authority. The minister appoints the chairperson and five other members, and can also remove them. This is an obvious and major conflict of interest.
Section 17 provides the Authority immunity from legal proceedings, civil or criminal.
While the media is bound by restrictive rules and regulations, the media authority can act with virtual impunity. Where is the balance and fairness government is preaching about? Where is the accountability?
Section 22 states content must not include material, which is (a) against the public interest or order; (b) against national interest; or (c) creates communal discord. This is a very broad provision open to interpretation by the government. It is like a noose around the media’s neck. This provision is unnecessary because offences are already adequately covered under Crimes Decree, under the Public Order Act on racial and religious vilification, hate speech, and economic sabotage.
Part 5, covering enforcement, allows the Authority to force the disclosure of specified documents or information as well as the right to enter, search and confiscate documents.
When its comes to breach of confidentiality, the standard practice in democracies is that it referred to the Courts, which rely on precedence, and can be expected, to come up with fair, impartial judgments. In Fiji, this function has been usurped by MIDA, which is controlled by government through appointments made by the minister. This is yet another noose around the media’s neck.
PART 8 deals with the Media Tribunal, which consists of a Chairperson – a qualified judge appointed by the President on the advice of the all-powerful Attorney General.
The Tribunal adjudicates complaints received from MIDA. It has to comply with the directions of the responsible Minister pertaining policy. The Tribunal also has to consider the Attorney General’s submissions during certain proceedings. This paves the way for the AG to potentially influence hearing. It makes hearings vulnerable to political interference. It increases the level of government control and pressure on the tribunal. This is by no means an independent tribunal. It is tied to government in too many ways.
Part 10 details the powers of the Tribunal, including ordering fines of up to FJD100,000 against media companies; FJD25,000 against publishers/editors and FJD1,000 against other media employees as monetary compensation to complainants. Upon conviction for any breaches of the media code, a media organisation could be fined $100,000; a publisher/editor $25,000 and/or two years imprisonment; and a journalist or media $1000 and/or two years imprisonment. This is over the top and unnecessary, especially when we have defamation laws in place. It’s an example of a duplicitous and tricky legislation – a waste of time and resources. Such payouts can ruin media companies and journalists. To protect themselves, journalists and media companies they will self-censor.
Media organisations can challenge decisions in the Court of Appeal, but only for awards in excess of $50,000. Media workers have no such options, even though the awards can lead to financial ruin in a sector where salaries are low compared to other professions. While the defendants have little recourse, complainants or the Authority can challenge Tribunal decisions in the Court of Appeal. This is another example of the lopsided and one-sided legislation designed to favour the government and give it control of the media.
Government justified the media decree on social, economic and political stability. However, all that these restrictive provisions have done is push opposition views into anonymous online media platforms, where they have re-emerged in more extreme forms.
People have lost faith in the mainstream news media. Instead, they are relying on blogs, where people are posting comments, some of which are full of rumours, misinformation, incitement to racial violence, calls for revolution, hate crime and even terrorism. Government’s misguided media policy is to be partly blamed for this sorry state of affairs. In other words, the media decree has done nothing for social stability. In fact, it has increased tensions.
There is a requirement that all news stories have to be balanced or they can’t be published. This is a further sign of legislation gone mad. This provision has simply become a loophole to evade media scrutiny by not responding to media questions. But if a story is positive towards the government, this legal requirement is ignored without consequence. This is selective use of the media law by government for its own disadvantage. What we are saying is that the media decree is open to abuse by the State. The publication of the Fiji Sun today (Thursday 15th January)) running in entirety the whole Government response to the Opposition’s concerns regarding political party office resourcing without any balance and accuracy perfectly illustrates what we are saying.
Every international organisation of repute has expressed concern about the regressive and draconian provisions of the MIDA Decree. The latest was the United Nations Human Rights Commission late last year.
Genuine democracy, equal citizenry, freedom of expression, accountability and transparency, which are ethics being paraded by Government, can only be achieved through a free, fair, credible and non-regulated media.