Government tries to stop judicial review of "Fiji Times" decision
(PINA/IFEX) - On 27 January 2000 (local date), "The Fiji Times" newspaper reported that the Fiji Islands government is trying to stop a judicial review of a government decision against the newspaper. The government plans to appeal a High Court decision allowing a review to be held of the refusal of a work permit for the newspaper's editor-in-chief. "The Fiji Times" said its lawyers were notified of this fact by a lawyer representing the Minister for Home Affairs.
On 12 January, a High Court judge allowed "The Fiji Times" to apply for a judicial review of the refusal to renew the work permit for editor-in-chief Russell Hunter. The decision also allowed Hunter to stay in Fiji until the full hearing of the review, "The Fiji Times" reported. The government had given Hunter, who is originally from Scotland, until 31 January to leave the country, the newspaper said.
"The Fiji Times" lawyer Graham Leung challenged Home Affairs Minister Joji Uluinakauvadra's rejection of an appeal against the Immigration Department's decision. Leung said Uluinakauvadra's decision:
- contravened the Immigration Act;
- was biased and made in bad faith;
- was actuated by unreasonable, extraneous, or improper considerations.
Justice Daniel Fatiaki allowed the application for the review despite government objections, "The Fiji Times" said.
PINA President William Parkinson has 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.
On 30 December 1999, the government gave Hunter twenty-eight days to leave the country. The newspaper reported Uluinakauvadra had rejected an appeal against the refusal to renew Hunter's work permit. The three-year work permit held by Hunter 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.