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Fiji's historic election: What hope for human rights?

An election poster for Voreqe
An election poster for Voreqe "Frank" Bainimarama can be seen in the rear window of a taxi as a man gestures from the doorway of a local gymnasium in the Fiji capital of Suva, 26 August 2014

REUTERS/Lincoln Feast

Voting in Fiji's first democratic election since a 2006 military coup has come to a close. On 17 September 2014, Fijians, some dressed in their Sunday best, braved large queues to exercise the right to choose their government after nearly eight years of military rule. It is the first time polling has been conducted across the country in a single day but the day went smoothly and no violence was reported.

There is a lot at stake in this election that promises to restore democracy to the South Pacific nation of 900,000. Former Commander "Frank" Voreqe Bainimarama seized power in a military coup in December 2006. The military leadership eventually lifted emergency rule in 2009, but media censorship and restrictions on the right to assemble were swiftly imposed. Bainimarama is now the interim prime minister and running as a candidate - and widely predicted to win the elections. So will there be an end to the "climate of fear" created through draconian laws and the intimidation of government critics?

"This election provides a critical chance for Fiji's voters to demand an end to rights-abusing policies that prevent people from speaking their minds, joining groups, or holding peaceful protests," said Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Other IFEX members have expressed concerns about the political environment in the country, after two female reporters received death threats for their coverage and a media blackout was imposed just prior to the election.

"No place for death threats"

"The cornerstone of any democracy is a free and vibrant media," said Pacific Freedom Forum (PFF) Chair Titi Gabi one week before the elections. "This is as important in the Pacific as anywhere, but especially in Fiji now."

PFF was responding to death threats against two female journalists who reported on 8 September that the leader of the opposition SODELPA party had pulled out of a live television debate with interim Prime Minister Bainimarama.

Fiji Broadcasting Corporation reporter Vosita Kotoiwasawasa received several threatening telephone calls; while Fiji Sun West Editor Jyoti Pratibha was the target of assault and threats on the Facebook wall of a SODELPA youth representative. Her photo was also widely circulated on social media, according to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).

"Supporters of the various political parties may disagree with journalists and their coverage of events but threatening comments must be punished. The self-censorship generated by these threats seriously endangers the democratic process," said Reporters Without Borders.

Following the threats, the Fiji Sun provided Pratibha with extra security. IFJ welcomed this action and warned that death threats should not be taken lightly as they were "indicative of a hostile environment toward media workers."

"The military regime must bear some responsibility for electoral tension, because they have created an environment where freedom of speech including by the news media is seen by some as deserving death," said PFF Co-Chair Monica Miller.

Media blackout imposed 48 hours ahead of historic poll

IFJ and RWB strongly condemned a government decree imposing a media blackout in Fiji two days ahead of the elections. News media and journalists faced jail time or fines if they provided any election coverage, from 15 September to the close of the polls on 17 September.

The media blackout banned all political advertising on radio and television and required all campaign posters to be taken down. Media were permitted to publish information provided by the national electoral office only if they submitted their reports to the country's media authority prior to publication. The ban also applied to foreign media if their media were accessible to Fijian citizens.

The government's grounds for imposing the ban were to prevent excessive influence on voters. However, "the scale of the censorship imposed by this decree is out of all proportion," said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of the RWB Asia-Pacific desk. "While [some] restrictions . . . are completely understandable, banning all political commenting for several days and introducing prior censorship is both draconian and unenforceable."

IFJ acting director Jane Worthington said, "The media blackout makes the dangerous assumption that freedom of expression and freedom of access to information can be switched on and off . . . People have the right to know exactly how their political leaders are elected and should be entrusted with more information, not less."

Several online information sources reported that posts on online social networks were directly violating the decree. Nonetheless, as of 16 September no one had been punished.

Will hopes for change materialise?

Fiji's first parliamentary election provides an important opportunity to change the way Fiji addresses human rights, said Human Rights Watch on 7 September. Some of the key rights challenges are freedom of expression, allowing human rights defenders to carry out their peaceful work, judicial independence, labor rights, and constitutional reform. In letters addressed to the five major parties fielding candidates, the organisation urged them to seriously address these issues as a priority after the election.

Early results suggest that Bainimarama and his Fiji First Party are leading, but it is not clear yet if he will obtain a majority of the parliament or be forced to share power after years of ruling by decree. Questions remain about how far the former commander has tilted the outcome of the elections in his favour. And some have criticised the international community for being too willing to overlook Bainimarama's troubling past.

No matter what the outcome of the elections is, Fiji is due to undergo a Universal Periodic Review by the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) next month. In a joint submission to the HRC, RWB and the Pacific Media Centre have recommended a constitutional amendment and the adoption of a freedom of information law. Bainimarama's government was criticized in 2013 for amending the constitution to ensure that he and other coup leaders would remain immune from prosecution for past abuses.

"It is not enough to say the right things when abroad while allowing the repression to continue at home," Amnesty International noted. IFEX members and rights organisations will continue to keep a close eye on the rights situation in Fiji.

What other IFEX members are saying
  • Ending a culture of impunity in Fiji

    That the elections proceeded without significant disruptions was a positive development . . . If Bainimarama is committed to democratic change, he should create a 100-day plan to restore human rights and media freedom, and to reform laws that restrict rights. He needs to make explicit policies to improve the country’s human rights record after eight long years of military rule.

  • Fiji: Honor commitments to Human Rights Council

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