13 Feb 2023

Fiji govt minister apologises to media for abuse and harassment

3:03 pm on 13 February 2023
Siromi Turaga

Siromi Turaga Photo: Fiji Govt

Fiji's Attorney-General Siromi Turaga has publicly apologised to journalists for the harassment and abuse they endured during the Bainimarama government's reign.

He was one of the panellists invited to speak following the launch of a report titled Fiji Media Industry Development Act 2010: An Analysis organised by Dialogue Fiji.

Turaga and other guests got to hear accounts of abuse suffered by senior journalists at the Fiji Times when its editor-in-chief Fred Wesley delivered his address at the panel, the Pacific News Agency reported.

Wesley, who was one of the four people implicated in sedition charges in 2018, spoke of his experience being charged and having the threat of going to prison hanging over him until he and his team were ultimately acquitted by the High Court in Suva.

He also shared an account of the newspaper's chief of staff Margaret Wise and deputy chief of staff Felix Chaudhary, who both were intimidated and harassed by the military.

Wise was threatened by soldiers at The Fiji Times Lautoka office in 2010, where she was the bureau chief at the time. The soldiers were after her mobile phone, which she refused to hand over.

Wesley said following discussions with their legal counsel, she was ultimately advised to hand over the phone. In fear of further repercussions, Wesley said Wise and her family had to be relocated for their safety.

Fiji Times editor, Fred Wesley

Fiji Times editor, Fred Wesley Photo: RNZI/Sally Round

In the case of Chaudhary, he was taken in for questioning by military personnel while he was covering an event in 2011.

Chaudhary was also locked up in a police cell after "orders were given from above", Wesley said.

Upon hearing the stories, Turaga said he and Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka also had stories to tell.

"In my capacity as Attorney-General, I publicly apologise for the actions taken by the previous administrators in terms of media freedom," he said.

"A lot of people were victimised.".

Turaga also said he truly sympathised with what the journalists had gone through. There were also suggestions from those at the report launch for journalists to document such experiences so they may never be erased from history.

The Media Industry Development Act (MIDA) 2010 and its implementation meant that Fiji was ranked 102 out of 180 countries by Reporters without Borders in 2022.

The Act, which was constructed after a mere two-hour meeting with industry representatives, contains exorbitant penalties and jail time for journalists, editors and media companies for any breach.

The coalition government has begun taking steps to keeping its campaign promise of a free press by either repealing, replacing or amending the existing Act.

Turaga, who is also Minister for Justice, said the government held media freedom in the highest regard.

"The government recognises the pivotal role the media plays in Fiji in ensuring the circulation and responsible reporting of information as was evidenced in the Covid-19 pandemic and during the 2022 General Election," he said.

"That being said, the government reaffirms its support of a free and independent and responsible media."

Fred Wesley and Communications Fiji Ltd news director Vijay Narayan represented the media at the report launch and voiced their concerns in relation to the Act.

They called for an even playing field for all media organisations in the country and to look into the prospect of increasing shares for foreign ownership to allow companies to grow.

The report also listed a number of recommendations, including clarification of the content regulation clause, revisiting media ownership reforms, and removal of hefty fines.

Government committed to media freedom

On Monday, the prime minister said he was "totally committed" to press freedom.

In his opening statement for the 2023 parlimentary sitting, Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka said the country could have proper democracy without a free media landscape.

He said without a free media, people "cannot fulfill their democratic obligations to give their views and participate in governance."

Rabuka said his government would "carefully study the substantial amount of public funds" collected by one national newspaper for more than a decade - and served as a "propaganda paper" of the previous administration.

"The coalition has given an assurance that we will end that era of media oppression. We're discussing new legislation that reflects more democratic values.

"There is also discussion about establishing a system of self regulation underpinned by a code of conduct with a media council to adjudicate complaints by the public about the media coverage as was the case before 2006."

A newspaper stand selling the Fiji Times in Fiji

A newspaper stand selling the Fiji Times in Fiji Photo: RNZ/Sally Round