PM's Fiji trip puts media freedom in the spotlight

From Mediawatch, 9:12 am on 12 June 2016

Prime Minister John Key's visit to Fiji drew attention to the fact some journalists are not welcome there. Mediawatch takes a closer look - including at the rules for the country's own reporters.

TVNZ's Barbara Dreaver in Fiji

TVNZ's Barbara Dreaver touches down in Fiji for the first time in years - but she couldn't stay long. Photo: screenshot / TVNZ

TVNZ Pacific correspondent Barbara Dreaver visited Fiji for the first time in eight years last weekend - but not for long.

She was given special permission to land for just one hour to change planes for a trip to Kiribati alongside Climate Change Minister Paula Bennett.

Ms Dreaver was detained and deported from Fiji in 2008, and then banned from returning. She says it was because of a One News report earlier that year that exposed poverty in a rural village. 

There was no chance of her joining Mr Key for the first prime ministerial visit to Fiji since Frank Bainimarama seized power in a coup there 10 years ago.  

"The fact that the New Zealand delegation headed by the Prime Minister cannot include the national broadcaster's Pacific correspondent is a disgrace," she wrote on TVNZ's website this week.

The issue comes to a head

Before he departed for Fiji, Mr Key said he would raise Ms Dreaver's ban with Mr Bainimarama.

"She should be free to go. The point I'd make is she's been a very strong advocate for the Pacific," Mr Key said.

But Mr Bainimarama got in first. At a banquet to welcome Mr Key last Thursday, which was also attended by New Zealand reporters, Mr Bainimarama said he wanted to "confront the issue head on".

Mr Bainimarama defended blacklisting and described New Zealand media as ”generally hostile”.

"Certain journalists in New Zealand and Australia and certain journalists in Fiji think nothing of dispensing with the facts if they get in the way of the politically-motivated narrative they want to tell, and we are saying to the news organisations that employ them send someone else," he said.

Mr Bainimarama cited TVNZ footage of military tanks in the streets of Suva - even though Fiji had no tanks. 

He also cited a false claim that Fijian children were starving and eating grass - a reference to the story Ms Dreaver said she believed led to her blacklisting in 2008.

“To make up facts for a speech in front of an international audience is beyond me,” Ms Dreaver told Mediawatch.

“My story showed children picking grass. Their teachers had told them to because there was no fuel for the motor mower. We didn’t say they were eating grass.”

The story featured a teacher saying children were turning up at school hungry.

“They objected to that story because it showed poverty, and that schools had not be receiving funding from government,” Ms Dreaver said.

An image from Barbara's Dreaver's school story for TVNZ in 2008 which annoyed the interim government.

An image from Ms Dreaver's school story for TVNZ in 2008, which annoyed the interim government. Photo: screenshot / TVNZ

“At that time, they were trying to win the hearts of people. Experienced Pacific correspondents like myself, (New Zealand journalist) Michael Field and (Australian reporter) Sean Dorney were going into villages and doing real stories.

"No one who reports on events in Fiji fairly and in a balanced manner is excluded. Any journalist is free to criticise my government or me in an opinion piece, or report criticism by others in their news stories,” Mr Bainimarama said.

But Ms Dreaver said Mr Bainimarama and other officials effectively have the right of veto over such stories.

“If you’re doing a critical piece (about him), you have to get his comment. If you don’t get his comment, it doesn’t happen.

“There have been critical stories about Fiji by foreign reporters who have not been banned,” Ms Dreaver said. “But they’re not the people who have been going back there again and again.”   

She is not the only journalist expelled and banned from Fiji in recent years.

On the blacklist

Earlier in 2008, Fiji's interim government deported Evan Hannah, an executive at the Fiji Times newspaper, on World Press Freedom Day. The editor of the Fiji Sun, Russell Hunter, had been deported earlier in the year.  

Elections promised for 2009 didn’t happen, and more foreign journalists were expelled and the regime declared a state of emergency. Among them was TV3 reporter Sia Aston, who is now Mr Key's own press secretary.  

Back then, a Fiji government spokesman told Mediawatch foreign journalists were still welcome, but only if the interim government endorsed their applications after scrutinising their previous reports on Fiji. 

There was no point in Ms Dreaver applying. Fairfax Media journalist Michael Field was also banned and so was  Australian correspondent Sean Dorney, who had reported on Pacific affairs for more than 25 years.

“Freedom of the press is vital for democracy, but such freedom must be preceded by responsibility. Those who cannot substantiate what they write, publish, telecast or broadcast must face the consequences,” Mr Bainimarama told the Auckland-based Indian Newslink paper in September 2009. 

The Fiji press was "not muzzled," he insisted, though officials routinely visited media offices to check on what was published or broadcast.

Report at your own risk

A copy of Fiji's Media Industry Development Decree

Photo: screenshot

One year later, the regime brought in the Media Industry Development Decree, which remains in force even after democratic elections two years ago.

Based on Singapore’s authoritarian media laws, the decree sets out potentially crippling financial penalties for media outlets - and fines for journalists - deemed to have broken the rules.

The decree also stipulates that any story more than 50 words long must have a journalist's name on it.

Details from the MIDD document

Photo: screenshot

Last year, the leader of the opposition National Federation Party, Professor Biman Prasad, tabled a motion in Fiji's Parliament to remove or modify the decree.

”We can talk about media freedom for as long as we want, but the law that we have restricts this," Profesoor Prasad said - when the motion was defeated.