A government plan to set up a press council, which it would control, drew many objections in 2003. The news media continued to be free despites the threats of some politicians and leading figures who cannot stand criticism.
A draft press law for the creation of a press council was seen by the news media as a government attempt to control them. According to the bill, the government would appoint the council’s president, run the complaints committee and have the power to investigate breaches of press ethics. The authorities said this was necessary because the press was so mediocre.
Daryl Tarte, the chairman of the Media Council (a body created by the news media), described the proposed law as a major attack on press freedom. Journalism professor David Robie said: "There is a lot of hypocrisy, successive governments have called for better-trained journalists... but too little has come from these governments to concretely improve the quality of journalism." The bill had still not been passed at the end of the year.
Questions were again raised about the monopoly that was assigned in 1994 to the Fiji Television group, which includes the public television station Fiji One. The group’s executives asked the government in February for a 10-year extension to the concession, with economic guarantees in return for developing local productions and better coverage of the entire archipelago. After several months of consultation, the trade commission in April refused to approve an exclusive licence for Fiji Television. The commission’s president argued that such a licence would result in a "substantial loss of competition." But Fiji Television’s application was supported by Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, who has the last word on the matter. The government had still not taken any decision at the end of the year.
Two radio stations joined the airwaves in Fiji in 2003. In March, Radio France Internationale (RFI) began being relayed around the clock on the FM band. "This shows that Fiji wants to open up to the outside world, not only the English-speaking world but also the French-speaking one," the French ambassador in Fiji, Jean-Pierre Vidon, said. At the opening ceremony, the French government handed over digital broadcast equipment and software to Radio Fiji. A month later, Radio Australia launched an FM relay in Fiji.
A journalist detained
Michael Field, a journalist with Agence France-Presse (AFP), was detained 3 March 2003 when he arrived at Nausori airport with the aim of covering the trial of two Fijians accused in the May 2000 coup attempt. His computer made security agents suspicious. The authorities recognised their mistake and released him later the same day.
Harassment and obstruction
During a parliamentary debate on 7 May 2003, health minister Solomoni Naivalu accused Riyaz Sayed Khaiyum of Fiji One TV, a journalist of Indian origin, of lying and of "racism" in a recent report about a shortage of staff at the Valelevu health centre. The minister contested figures in the report, which he called "not objective, incorrect, hostile to the health ministry and anti-government." Khaiyum rejected the charges, particularly that his reports were racist.
Information minister Simione Kaitani presented a proposed press law to sceptical news media editors and executives at a forum on "Press freedom: our responsibility" on 8 May. The bill, which envisages the creation of a partially government-controlled media council to settle press disputes and a code of journalistic ethics, was criticised by the two other speakers, Fiji Human Rights Commission director Shaista Shameem and Media Council chairman Daryl Tarte. They did not see the need for the government to intervene in this area, pointing out that laws already existed, including the public security act, that punish press offences. Tarte called the bill "a major attack on press freedom."
News media owners feared the proposed law would result in more attacks on the confidentiality of journalists’ sources. The minister said it was needed to combat the lack of professionalism in the Fijian press. The opposition Labour Party announced on 13 May that it opposed the proposed law because it would lead to more censorship and self-censorship. Permanent secretary for information and media relations Emi Rabukawaga responded that it aimed to protect press freedom, as enshrined in the constitution, while ensuring that journalists act responsibly. The Citizens’ Constitutional Forum came out against the bill on 22 May, calling it "unconstitutional, premature and open to abuse." Most media workers voiced the hope in June that the government would withdraw the bill. The leading daily, the Fiji Times, also called on the government to withdraw it, describing it as a threat to press freedom.
Parliamentarian Jonetani Kaukimoce accused Fiji Television news director Netani Rika of a "propaganda campaign" against the government and Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase in August. He said it was Fiji’s misfortune to have a national TV company that constantly abused its monopoly position by ignoring the criteria of fairness and balance. Another parliamentarian, Josateki Bua, meanwhile called publicly for heavier penalties for journalists and legislation to deal specifically with cases of "lying."
The information minister accused the staff of the Fiji Times of being in the grip of the "forces of evil" on 26 August after it ran an editorial questioning the sincerity of South African evangelist Reinhard Bonnke, then on tour in Fiji. He called the editorial totally irresponsible and uncalled-for and urged Fiji’s Christians to rise up against it. It was an insult to the 100,000 people who went to the national stadium to see Our Lord’s miracles, he added.