24 Aug 2020

Fiji govt and church clash over pulled broadcasts

12:00 pm on 24 August 2020

Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama's intervention to stop debates being broadcast between a self-described movement and church groups has been heavily criticised.

Bainimarama made the comments during a talanoa session with villagers at Nayavu in Wainibuka after opening the refurbished community police post on 14 August.

Fiji PM, Frank Bainimarama

Fiji PM, Frank Bainimarama Photo: Fiji Govt

He told the villagers he had ordered various broadcasters to stop airing the debates between the leader of a "spiritual" movement and representatives of Christian organisations in the country.

The prime minister said he had made the decision after watching the show.

Bainimarama said he was worried the content of the discussions would confuse religious groups.

He said he was also worried because many Fijians were easily carried away by the content and nature of the debate.

But the Pacific Council of Churches said the prime minister's interference was authoritarian.

Debate is a 'human right'

General Secretary Reverend James Bhagwan said government intervention in people's right to freedom of choice and belief was undemocratic.

Bhagwan said the debates were challenging the theological views of one group by another group which sought to push its views forward.

He said debates were part of the freedom of expression.

"It's a fundamental human right.

"A lively national debate leads to progress and stimulates thinking, promotes tolerance and creates understanding.

Reverend James Bhagwan of the Pacific Conference of Churches

Reverend James Bhagwan of the Pacific Conference of Churches Photo: Suppled

"It is part of a democratic process and causes no harm as long as there is no intention to hurt another person or groups of persons."

Bhagwan said if there was any concern about disruptive debates, it must be addressed within the law using the Public Order Act or other legislation available to the State.

The debates, which were broadcast on TV, had also been aired on social media with talkback shows addressing some of these issues, he said.

"In terms of the talkbacks, this debate has caused people to reflect on the roles of their churches - whether the churches are living and administering in the Gospel tradition, it also offers people to discuss on how they feel about what their pastors and churches are doing.

"It's important for us at PCC to pay attention because in this day and age, people have the freedom of choice, freedom of belief and if we are not doing what is right then our members will also hold us accountable to this."

The programme had since been pulled off the air by the broadcast media.

"A simple command from the Prime Minister to stop the debates and the subsequent compliance without question shows in Fiji, we still have in that sense an authoritarian state and that the media has actually become quite a weakened institution by acquiescing to those instructions without any legal basis."

Bhagwan said the focus should be on the bigger issues surrounding the reasons for having such a debate.

He said he had watched one of the debates with a Pacific regional church leader and they both discussed the issues raised in the programme.

The Reverend said the issues involved the emergence of another religious movement and some non-mainstream churches were responding to it.

He said the council was concerned at the manner in which the debates were done and the PM's comments.

Bhagwan said if the churches were genuinely concerned about the movement's belief system, they could have met the leader in person and discussed the matter privately.

That, he said, would have been the Christian and dignified way.

"The universal church must promote unity wherever possible," he said. "We recognize that there are some challenges with that in terms of visible unity.

"But they should have at least some engagement before going into a public debate.

"After discussions if they saw fit, the Lotu Vanua could have been challenged in a compassionate way, they could've been admonished in mercy."

Debate moderators poor - Bhagwan

Bhagwan said the manner at which the debates were conducted was another issue.

He said the quality of the moderators was poor.

He said the moderator was either biased against the leader of the self-described movement or unable to create his own questions to draw on the issues of Prosperity Gospel, people searching for signs and Christians not understanding scripture.

"There was also the lack of theological and biblical knowledge of preachers, the reality of poverty, the Gospel of love, social justice duties of the church," he said.

"The moderator did not have any knowledge of the historic pattern of socio-economic and political crises and the challenges being expressed in religious and spiritual forms.

"Such is the nature of a region that has a spiritual worldview as its primary lens and form of expression."

Movement leader stands by his beliefs

Meanwhile, the leader of Lotu Vanua or First Nation Spiritual Revival Movement said he had a right to choose his religion.

Timoci Nacola said the Constitution gave him the right to freedom of religion.

The former banker and civil servant said Fiji was a secular state and everyone had their right to choose who they wanted to worship.

He questioned if secularism, under the law, only applied to some people and not everyone in Fiji.

Nacola, who hails from Ra province, said it was unfortunate some people did not agree with him but only wanted to help those he claimed were spiritually imprisoned.

On 16 August, about 100 followers of the Lotu Vanua gathered in Nadi and the meeting was streamed live on Nacola's personal Facebook page.

Within two hours of posting, the post attracted more than 9000 views and 141 shares.

Earlier, the New Methodist Fellowship's senior pastor Atunaisa Vulaono said he supported the prime minister's decision.

Methodist Church of Fiji president Reverend Epineri Vakadewavosa said religion should bring people together no matter what denomination a person was from.

He said religion should not bring hate.

The fellowship and the Methodist churches are members of the Fiji Council of Churches.

The Prime Minister's Office and the Fijian Media Association did not respond to a request for comment.

Timoci Nacola and Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama in this photo dated 24 November 2019 on Mr Nacola's Facebook account.

Timoci Nacola and Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama in this photo dated 24 November 2019 on Mr Nacola's Facebook account. Photo: Facebook/Timoci Nacola