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New Fiji Islands government plans legislation to impose its media council

(PINA/IFEX) - On 21 June 1999, the new Fiji Islands Government announced
that it plans to introduce legislation to set up a government-imposed media
council to replace Fiji's present independent, self-regulatory council. Lekh
Ram Vayeshnoi, Assistant Minister for Information to Prime Minister Mahendra
Chaudhry, told the House of Representatives this during an attack in which
he accused the news media of making "little effort to rise above their own
political agendas. They have consistently gone out of their way to promote
and project the views of the people or groups that they support - at the
expense of others."

**Updates IFEX alerts of 18 June, 15 June, 11 June, 4 June, 21 May and 7 May

The country's biggest daily newspaper, "The Fiji Times", responded by saying
in an editorial comment on 22 June (local time): "It was a sad day in
Parliament yesterday. Sad because so many of the freedoms guaranteed in the
Constitution came under attack by the highest political office holder in the
land. For although this shameful speech was read out by the Assistant
Minister for Information, Lekh Ram Vayeshnoi, it was the work, in spirit if
not in words, of the prime minister. But it should come as no surprise that
Mr Chaudhry should attack media freedom - for despite the pious platitudes
that is what he did. Long before the election his paranoid obsession with
the media was on display. He sees conspiracy where none exists - a
reflection, perhaps, of his own political upbringing. For while accusing the
media of following some imagined agenda, the Government reveals its own. It
seeks nothing less than control over what is written and said about it."

Assistant minister Vayeshnoi spoke on the media policies of the new Fiji
Labour Party-led coalition government,which was elected in May. He said it
has been shown that media organisations cannot adequately discharge their
"added responsibility" on their own. "They, too, obviously need a watchdog,"
he said. He revealed that the government is drafting a new Media bill which
includes setting up a media council. He called the current council a
"toothless tiger" which had become "so close to media organisations that its
independence on adjudicating on disputes is now questionable. A
professionally operated media council bound by a code of practice and
commanding the faith of the public is necessary." He said this council's
code of practice would cover a news code of ethics, programme standards and
advertising standards.

"The Fiji Times" said: "The bulk of the Vayeshnoi-Chaudhry diatribe can be
dismissed as low-level propaganda, a distortion and selection of information
to serve a preconceived aim - all those heinous acts of which they accuse
the media. Again, for politicians, that's nothing new. But the threat of
legislation to restrict or in some way control what is published or
broadcast, presents a very real danger. All the warning signs are there. The
Government wants a responsible media - responsible to whom, we are not told.
It wants a balanced media - who will decide what is balanced and what is not
we are not told. It wants equal coverage of opinions - whose opinions we are
not told. It wants the media to explain its decision and choice of news -
explain to whom we are not told. However, it should not be too difficult to

Background Information

The Fiji Islands has amongst the most diverse and free news media in the
Pacific Islands. Its present independent, self-regulatory Media Council has
an independent chairperson and secretary, seven media members, and seven
prominent citizens as public members representative of Fiji's various
communities. Its independent complaints committee has no media members.

Following his election in May, new Prime Minister Chaudhry pledged to not
legislate against the media or impose media licensing, "The Fiji Times"
reported. But Chaudhry said media organisations, starting from management,
need "a lot of tuition," the newspaper reported.

Chaudhry complained during the general election campaign that some media
organisations were biased against his Fiji Labour Party. He alleged a "media
plot" to prevent Labour from winning. This charge was vigorously rejected by
the media, especially "The Fiji Times", which pointed out that politicians
from all political sides were alleging media bias against them and in favour
of their opponents (see IFEX alert of 7 May 1999).

On 12 June (local time), "The Fiji Times" reported that news organisations
had complained that police guarding Chaudhry manhandled journalists.

On 18 June, PINA urged the government to withdraw a notice it issued for
government advertising to be placed in only one of Fiji's two daily
newspapers, the "Daily Post". The government is the biggest shareholder in
the "Daily Post". PINA said: "PINA notes that in the past this advertising
tactic has been used both in Fiji and in other Pacific Islands states as a
means of intimidating media organisations." News of the circular followed a
week in which ministers criticised "The Fiji Times" over reports it carried.
"The Fiji Times" is a previous winner of the PINA Pacific Freedom of
Information award.

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