5 Apr 2023

Fiji's longest running newsroom looks forward to 'draconian' media law 'kicked out'

5:09 pm on 5 April 2023
The Fiji Times headquarters on Victoria Parade, Suva

The Fiji Times headquarters on Victoria Parade, Suva Photo: RNZI / Sally Round

The man in charge of Fiji's oldest newspaper has high hopes for press freedom in the country following the tabling of a bill in Parliament this week to get rid of a controversial media law.

Fiji's three-party coalition government introduced a bill on Monday to repeal the 2010 Media Industry Development Authority (MIDA) Act.

The MIDA Act - a legacy of the former Bainimarama administration - has long been criticised for being "draconian" and decimating journalism standards in the country.

The law regulates the ownership, registration and content of the media in Fiji.

Under the act, the media content regulation framework includes the creation of MIDA, the media tribunal and other elements.

"It is these provisions that have been considered controversial," nation's chief legal advisor Siromi Turaga said when tabling the bill.

"These elements are widely considered as undemocratic and in breach of the constitutional right of freedom of expression as outlined in section 17 of the constitution."

Turaga said repealing the act does not provide a free pass to media organisations and journalists to" report anything and everything without authentic sources and facts."

"But it does provides a start to ensuring that what reaches the ordinary people of Fiji is not limited by overbearing regulation of government."

Fred Wesley

Fred Wesley Photo: RNZ Pacific / Lydia Lewis

The Fiji Times editor in chief Fred Wesley said he had a sense of "great optimism" the media act will be repealed.

Wesley and the newspaper were caught in a long legal battle under the media act for publishing an article in their vernacular language newspaper which the former FijiFirst government claimed was seditious.

But in 2018, the High Court found them not guilty and cleared them of all the charges.

"After the change in government, there has been a change in the way the press has been disseminating information," Wesley said.

"We have had a massive turnover [of] journalists in our country. A lot of young people have come in. At the The Fiji Times, for instance, we have an average age of around 22, which is very, very young," he said.

"We have just a handful of senior journalists who have stayed on who are very passionate about the role the media must pay in our country."

"We were looking forward to Thursday and looking forward to the act being repealed and the draconian legislation kicked out.

He said two thirds of the journalists in the national newspaper's newsroom have less than 16 years experience and have never experienced press freedom.

He said The Fiji Times will then need to implement "mass desensitisation" of its reporters as they have been working under a draconian law for more than a decade.

He added retraining journalists will be the main focus of the organisation after the law is repealed.

'Things will get better'

Long-serving journalist at the newspaper Rakesh Kumar told RNZ Pacific that reporting on national interest issues has been a "big challenge" under the act.

Kumar recalled the early of when the media law was enacted and army officers would come into newsrooms to "create fear" which he said would "kill the motivation" of reporters.

"We know things will get better now [after the repeal of the act]," Kumar said.

But he said it was "important that we have to report accurately."

"We have to be balanced," he added.

Rakesh Kumar

Rakesh Kumar Photo: RNZ Pacific / Lydia Lewis

The bill to repeal the MIDA Act will be debated on Thursday, April 6.

While the opposition has already opposed the move, it is expected that the government will use its majority in Parliament to pass it.

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