"Less well known is the fact that Sundip allowed the company to spend close to $130,000 on pursuing the illegal regime for its criminal act in deporting me" - Russell Hunter
History in all likelihood will not be too kind to Sundip Patel. And that’s unfortunate for while he lived up to every inch of his public persona as the ruthless businessman, he had a compassionate and caring private side.
And a wicked sense of humour.
I knew him as, at first, editor-in-chief of the Fiji Sun and later as chief executive officer. Sundip was the managing director and majority owner.
I have never denied the many claims from many sources that he interfered with editorial content and direction. But now I will.
Even when Victor Lal and I were pursuing the story of Mahendra Chaudhry’s secret overseas stash of cash – remember Chaudhry was finance minister in the Bainimarama regime at the time – he never commented, interfered or even asked for our sources. Of course he would have known we would not have given them but lesser businessmen would not have been able to stop themselves from using whatever means was at their disposal to discover them.
Sundip did not, nor did he flinch in the face of threats (never acted upon) by Chaudhry.
However, it was known to me that he was under fierce regime pressure to alter the editorial tone of the Sun which at the time leaned heavily towards an anti-Bainimarama, anti-coup line. In fact he had been told by senior regime figures that he’d get rid of me if he knew what was good for him.
Not wishing to hold the company back, (having been at least instrumental in its dramatic revival after a near-death experience) I three times offered to resign. Sundip brushed the suggestions aside.
In fact after I was illegally deported from Fiji by the regime in February 2008, I carried on as CEO of the Sun working from Australia until, a year later, he finally was swayed by the promise of government gold in return for a Fiji Sun in its present lap dog role.
It was all just money to Sundip.
He appointed a vastly more pliable person as my deputy general manager though it was clear to me what the real purpose was. I resigned and have never regretted it.
All this is well enough known. Less well known is the fact that Sundip allowed the company to spend close to $130,000 on pursuing the illegal regime for its criminal act in deporting me. But it soon became clear that even if we could win a case in the Bainimarama court, any judgement – just like the high court order prohibiting my removal - would simply be ignored.
He was also under pressure from the Gujerati community in Fiji, who saw opportunities under Bainimarama, to come round. Eventually he did and made a lot of money in the process.
As always, perhaps, the man is more complex than the image.
He spent at least half of his life in aircraft as he expanded into Australia, PNG, India, Sri Lanka, Singapore and Samoa.
Sundip would berate me for my cigar smoking habit – and bring me back a box of Havanas from several of his many travels.
He would complain about staff – and send at least one abroad for health treatment when it was needed.
It would be an error to rush to judgment on Sundip Patel – whether that judgment be for or against.
Fijileaks Editor: The Fiji Sun had come so close to folding up (death) - Sundip Patel had lost about $6m on it before Hunter arrived - he (Sundip) was, therefore, so glad to see it in profit and didn't want to interfere with the paper's editorial content. However, the Gujerati connection was relevant to him. He used this connection to persuade Victor Lal (through a wealthy Suva Gujerati businessman relative of Lal) to return to Fiji Sun as a columnist to boost the paper's circulation. Lal wrote hundreds of columns, many highly critical of SDL policies, anti-military coup articles, and on many other topics, free of payment. But Sundip just about exclusively socialised with the Gujerati business community who would have pressurised him to do as he did with the post-Hunter Fiji Sun, for they acted as a group and risked being treated by Bainimarama as one. Fijileaks thinks Sundip was keen to see Chaudhry brought down, for he saw him as anti-business. And we are sure he was the driver of the Fiji Sun's new lapdog policy. But he had stood by Victor Lal despite death threats from Lieutenant-Colonel Sitiveni Qiliho (now Land Force Commander) to Russell Hunter and Lal, and even the possibility of Fiji Sun being fire-bombed out of existence if the paper continued to reveal Chaudhry's tax details. He also stood firm against the legal writs slammed against Lal and Fiji Sun by FIRCA. In the end he breathed a sigh of relief and was elated when Lal's tax evidence against Chaudhry and the secret $2million revelation won Fiji Sun the Best Paper of the Year Award, with Lal and Hunter co-sharing the Robert Keith-Reid Award for Outstanding Journalism in 2008. In a cruel twist of irony, both Lal and Hunter were not able to attend Sundip's funeral in Fiji for after the Chaudhry tax story, both were declared prohibited persons from entering Bainimarama/Khaiyum's Fiji. Sundip had no restrictions placed against him, for Fiji Sun had become a pro-regime newspaper by 2009. RIP.
Russel Hunter's comments on and attempt to be fair to Sundip Patel are interesting and raise many more questions about the role of the Fiji Sun after he left as publisher. May I point out however that Russel is incorrect in generalizing that "He (Sundip) was also under pressure from the Gujerati community in Fiji, who saw opportunities under Bainimarama, to come round." Most of the Gujarati community are not business persons, as the stereotypes would have it. No doubt there may have been some prominent business persons putting pressure on him, including some prominent Gujerati ones we all know about. Your comment, editor, also makes this incorrect generalization which harmfully fuels the racism in Fiji against Gujerati by some Indo-Fijians who are descended from the girmitiya. Professor Wadan Narsey
I'll just this once break my rule of not responding but Wadan Narsey (one of the non-businessperson Gujeratis he refers to) does make a valid point. It doesn't, however, alter the fact that the Gujerati business community wanted the Sun to take a pro-regime line. Russell Hunter