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"The Fiji Times" challenges government parliamentarian over attack on journalists

(PINA/IFEX) - On 25 November 1999 (local date), the biggest daily newspaper
in the Fiji Islands, "The Fiji Times", accused the Fiji government of
conducting a "vendetta" against it. It followed a renewed attack in
parliament on 24 November in which a government backbencher made allegations
against the newspaper, its associate editor, and individual journalists.
"Fiji Times" publisher Alan Robinson challenged government parliamentarian
Muthu Swamy to repeat his claims outside parliament, where he does not have
protection from legal action. Robinson said: "Mr Swamy's allegations are
utterly without foundation. He and whoever put him up to this should hang
their heads in shame for using their high positions to defame individuals."

PINA president William Parkinson told Radio Fiji the attacks were another
attempt to intimidate members of the media and the journalists concerned. He
said there is growing concern across the region over the continuing Fiji
government attacks on the news media. He told Radio Fiji that PINA members
will discuss what action to take. Parkinson also said a photo Swamy showed
in parliament was alleged to have been stolen from the home of a journalist
and he hopes "The Fiji Times" will ask the police to investigate this.

Fiji news media reported that Swamy showed the House of Representatives a
picture of two "Fiji Times" journalists, Margaret Wise and Josefa Makaba,
allegedly sleeping together in a hotel room at a 1997 PINA convention. He
claimed "Fiji Times" associate editor Netani Rika had been forced to leave a
bank job "because of his involvement in the embezzlement of funds." He also
claimed news reporters Matelita Ragogo and Wise had been charged with being
drunk and disorderly. Opposition members called on Speaker of the House
Apenisa Kurisaqila to stop Swamy's attacks. But the speaker said he could
not make a decision on what was said because of the noise.

"The Fiji Times" is part of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. It 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.

In an editorial comment headlined "Only a coward will hide", "The Fiji
Times" said: "Are these really the people to whom we have entrusted the
governance and guidance of this country?

"Yesterday's remarks in Parliament by Muthu Swamy - who would not have acted
without instruction from higher up - bring not only the high institution of
the House but the very notion of democracy itself into disgrace and

"Mr Swamy launched a bitter and baseless attack on this newspaper. Fair
enough. The Fiji Times is well capable of defending itself.

"But he savagely abused the ancient (and very necessary) privilege of
parliament to attack three individual journalists.

"The notion of parliamentary privilege, developed over the centuries, is
intended to allow MPs to speak out on matters of national importance without
fear of defamation action.

"It was never intended as a device that would allow parliamentarians to
attack the characters of individuals with impunity.

"That may not matter to Mr Swamy and his puppet masters but it does matter
to the people of Fiji - the overwhelming majority - who lack his privileged

"He stated that reporter Matelita Ragogo was charged with being drunk and
disorderly and The Fiji Times did not report the fact. The truth is that
Ragogo was originally so charged but the charge was withdrawn.

"He stated that reporter Margaret Wise was similarly charged and locked up
for more than 11 hours. The truth is that Wise, after being harassed by a
taxi driver, was charged with damaging his vehicle. She made her own way to
Suva Central Police Station where she was locked up. On asking why she was
not released, she was told: 'Instructions'.

"She was not charged with being drunk and disorderly. She is charged with
damaging property and the court will decide on the validity or otherwise of
that charge.

(In its news pages "The Fiji Times" also reported police are now
investigating Wise's detention and why she was not allowed to make a phone

"The Fiji Times will report on the outcome of the case if it is thought
newsworthy on the day.

"He accused the acting editor of this newspaper, Netani Rika, of being
discharged from a previous position because of embezzlement. He cannot
support that allegation.

"It is curious that a member of parliament is able to gain access to police
files of people who have not appeared in court charged with any offence.

"Is such material now freely available for the press to use against Labour
Party MPs and supporters?

"Does this mean that The Fiji Times should start to scutinise the criminal
records of members of the government, perhaps?

"There were other allegations against this newspaper that amount to no more
than half truths and gross distortions. We will not dignify them with
comment here but will certainly do so if Mr Swamy does us the courtesy of
repeating them outside parliament where he is subject to the same laws as
the rest of us.

"One thing is now clear. The Government of the Republic of Fiji Islands is
engaged in a vendetta against this newspaper and the question has to be
asked: Why?

"For all its promises of transparency and accountability, this government
does not enjoy scrutiny.

"But the real reasons for its repeated and vindictive attacks on this
newspaper remain something of a mystery - especially since, in Opposition,
this government was a major supporter of media scrutiny of its predecessor.

"The Fiji Times, for its part, has treated this government no differently
than it did the last. That will not change.

"This newspaper will continue to cover the news as best it can - without
hiding behind the protection of any legal privilege.

"As for Mr Swamy and his faceless manipulators, we now publicly challenge
them to repeat those allegations outside parliament and face the
consequences - or withdraw and apologise.

"To do otherwise will be the act of a coward."

Background Information

On 27 October, there was widespread criticism in the Fiji Islands of threats
by Prime Minister Mahendra 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 there are also plans within the
government to introduce legislation requiring compulsory licensing of
foreign-owned Fiji Islands media. This included setting strict conditions
under which they must report and operate or they lose their licence, and
imposing a F$20,000 (approx. US$10,000) annual licence fee.

PINA president William Parkinson called the threats to the news media a
"disgrace" and "unbecoming of a prime minister of a supposedly democratic
country. We have not had this kind of threat made since the military
government in 1987. Fiji is very much a beacon for the rest of the region
with regards to media freedom. We have a very dynamic media industry which
apart from a period around the military coups in 1987 has been able to
operate freely."

On 26 October, Chaudhry again attacked the Fiji Islands news media and
individual journalists, including Rika and Wise, following a series of
earlier criticisms of news media. In a lengthy address, the prime minister
singled out three of Fiji's main news organisations for detailed criticism.

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 Chaudhry,
who is also information minister, 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).

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