The spectre of the May 2000 coup and the tensions among Melanesian and Indo-Fijian communities still hang over the country’s press. The reinstatement of the country’s 1997 Constitution, following an historic decision by the Court of Appeals in March 2001, was excellent news for the respect of freedom of speech. But some media note that it is still dangerous to discuss the problems of cohabitation between the country’s two main ethnic communities.
Private media are dynamic, and they attempt to satisfy the desires of the different communities. New publications have been launched recently, and, in January 2001, the Daily Post published a supplement in Chinese, after creating a weekly in Hindustani (the language of the Indo-Fijians) several months before.
Pressure and obstruction
On 7 February 2001, Michael Field, a journalist with Agence France-Presse, was implicated by Jioji Kotobalavu, a member of the Prime Minister’s cabinet, in an article published in the Fiji Times. Field was criticised for publishing an article on 1 February, discussing the state of health of former president Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. Michael Field also wrote that the current Prime Minister, Laisenia Qarase, seemed "isolated" during the recent conference of heads of states of Pacific Islands in Honolulu. Kotobalavu strongly denounced this information as being "fabricated".
On the morning of 22 February, about 50 policemen took position in front of the Raffles Tradewinds hotel shortly before the recording of the "Close Up" programme for the Fiji One television channel. Twenty-three leaders and representative personalities of the archipelago were to discuss the political future of the country. The police threatened to arrest all the participants if a "meeting" took place. A few hours later, the programming manager announced that the programme was cancelled for "technical reasons". Since early February, the authorities had implemented a "shield operation" in order to ban all demonstrations in the country related to the hearings of the Court of Appeals which was to decide on the validity of the 1997 Constitution.
On 6 April, the Fijian prosecutor dropped charges for "illegal assembly" against Ruci Mafi and Theresa Ralogaivau, respectively journalists for the daily Fiji Times and the Fijian national radio. The two journalists had covered a mutiny, in July 2000, in the Sukunaivalu barracks (Vanua Levu Island, in the north of the archipelago). They were arrested and charged with "illegal assembly and illegal use of a vehicle", then released after paying a small amount of bail. In late April, high-level government officials accused Indo-Fijian journalists of "setting Fijians against each other and orchestrating a campaign to destabilise and divide." These accusations, that some journalists considered "racist", followed the exclusive broadcast of an interview with former President Ratu Mara discussing the circumstances of the May 2000 coup.
In September, tension again increased between the government and the press. The Minister of Information allegedly declared that the government should "control the media" because their information was "biased". A governmental directive ordered ministers to no longer speak to the press but only respond to written questions.
On 11 October, the Fijian daily Sun openly denounced the government’s press bill. According to this newspaper, two bills concerning the press and audiovisual media would allow authorities to control the content of information. Fijian Islands already have a system of mediation through the Media Council, whose independence is not fully guaranteed.