**Updates IFEX alerts of 30 December, 25 and 24 November 1999**
(PINA/IFEX) - On 6 January 2000, Fiji Islands news media reported that "The Fiji Times" has sought judicial review of the government's refusal to renew the work permit of its editor-in-chief. A judge is expected to hear the application for the judicial review hearing. If the judge agrees there should be one, "The Fiji Times" will seek a court order suspending the government's directive that editor-in-chief Russell Hunter has twenty-eight days to leave the country.
In a statement issued by the PINA Secretariat, PINA President William Parkinson said the government's refusal to renew Hunter's work permit is a clear attempt to interfere in the newspaper's editorial independence. Parkinson said that "The Fiji Times" is being victimised by the government because the newspaper is doing what any decent news organisation should be doing - informing the public without fear or favour. But it seems this government does not like scrutiny, Parkinson said.
Parkinson said the decision to refuse a renewal of Hunter's work permit clearly contradicts previous statements about investment and the employment of expatriates. He said some companies seem to be able to employ expatriates easily while "The Fiji Times" - a major employer, taxpayer, and investor in Fiji - is being singled out for different treatment.
Parkinson also said that, on the one hand, the Fiji government is criticising the professionalism of local news organisations, but on the other, it is kicking out of the country someone who is contributing significantly to the development of professionalism through training.
He said that "The Fiji Times", through publisher Alan Robinson and Hunter, have unstintingly helped PINA's efforts to provide training both in Fiji and the rest of the region. This has even included willingly providing training for their direct competitors. Parkinson repeated PINA's view that the business of hiring executives should rest with the boards of companies and not governments.
On 30 December 1999, the government gave Hunter twenty-eight days to leave the country. The newspaper reported that a faxed letter sent to its lawyers said that Minister for Home Affairs Joji Uluinakauvadra had rejected an appeal against the refusal to renew Hunter's work permit. The three-year work permit held by Hunter, who is originally from Scotland, expired 31 December. Uluinakauvadra said he was refusing the appeal against the Immigration Department's decision because he believed that there were locals who could take up the position.
The government decision follows continuing tension between the government and the country's independent news media, especially "The Fiji Times". The newspaper, which is part of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, is a previous winner of the PINA Pacific Freedom of Information award for its defence of freedom of expression and the Fiji public's right to know.
The company has local editors for its daily newspaper, Sunday newspaper, Fijian and Hindi language weekly newspapers and a regional news magazine, and an editor-in-chief for the group posted from News Corporation. Hunter has extensive newspaper management and training experience in Britain, Australia and the Pacific Islands, and this year was elected by the region's newspapers and magazines as their representative on the PINA executive.
The Fiji Islands has amongst the most diverse and free news media in the Pacific Islands. They include: three seven-day-a-week English-language daily newspapers; weekly newspapers in Hindi, Fijian, and English; news, business, trade and entertainment magazines; independent commercial, community and religious radio stations; government-owned public and commercial radio stations; and commercial and community television. However, the news media have come under continuing criticism from Prime Minister and Information Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and his assistant information minister, Lekh Ram Vayeshnoi. This follows the election of their new Fiji Labour Party-led coalition government in May (see IFEX alerts).
On 27 October, there was widespread criticism in the Fiji Islands of threats by Prime Minister Chaudhry to bring in a government-regulated media tribunal with powers to impose penalties on the media. One of the country's three daily newspapers also reported on the government's plans to introduce legislation requiring compulsory licencing of foreign-owned Fiji Islands media. This included setting strict conditions under which they had to report and operate or risk losing their licence.