Freedom of the Press
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There were some improvements in Fiji’s media environment in 2014, particularly in connection to the general election held in September—the first democratic poll since a military coup in 2006. The Fiji First party won a decisive electoral victory, and Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama, leader of the military-backed interim government, took office as Fiji’s democratically elected prime minister; international observers deemed the election to be credible. Local media were open to a wider range of discussion and opinion during the electoral period than in the years since the 2006 coup, and foreign journalists were able to travel to Fiji to cover the election with fewer restrictions than in the past.
Although the 2013 Constitution provides some nominal safeguards for a free press and freedom of information, it also allows for the curtailment of such rights at the government’s discretion. Section 17 provides for the “right to freedom of speech, expression, thought, opinion and publication,” including “freedom of imagination and creativity.” However, the section also states that the law “may limit, or authorise the limitation of” these freedoms in the interests of national security, public safety, public order, public morality, public health and other circumstances, including for mitigating “ill will between ethnic or religious groups” or defending “the right to be free from hate speech, whether directed against individuals or groups.” Media watchdogs have criticized the document for undermining freedom of expression with excessively broad restrictions.
Defamation is a civil offense in Fiji, as outlined in the country’s legal code, and fines may not exceed the cost of damages caused to the plaintiff, except in extraordinary circumstances.
In 2012, the government ended official censorship and opened wider public debate by lifting the 2009 Public Emergency Regulations (PER), which had allowed authorities to directly censor news content. However, a climate of self-censorship has prevailed due to the chilling effect of the 2010 Media Industry Development Decree (MIDD). Tough penalties under the decree deter media outlets from directly criticizing the government. However, critical reporting became more robust during the election campaign in 2014, and opposition politicians received considerable coverage. Ahead of the Universal Periodic Review conducted under the auspices of the UN Human Rights Council in October 2014, several media watchdogs condemned the MIDD and called for a revocation of the decree and the adoption of a self-regulatory media framework. The groups also called for the enactment of freedom of information (FOI) legislation. Fiji does not have an FOI law, and access to government information can be difficult.
The Media Industry Development Authority (MIDA) was established through the MIDD and has the power to enforce the decree and to investigate possible violations. The MIDD also established a separate media tribunal to hear cases referred by the authority, and to impose penalties on journalists whose work is deemed to be against the “public interest or public order.” Violations are punishable by a fine of up to FJ$1,000 (US$530) or imprisonment of up to two years for journalists; the penalty for any media company that breaches the decree may be as high as FJ$100,000 (US$53,000). In April 2014, the MIDA ordered the private broadcaster Fiji TV to apologize and retract a story containing quotations that the agency deemed to be hate speech; no fines or charges were brought against the outlet or the source. MIDA chairman Ashwin Raj publicly rebuked local and international media for their coverage of the September election but appeared more conciliatory after the vote.
Coverage of the 2014 election period was robust, with 450 journalists and media workers—including 37 working for foreign news groups—reporting on the vote. Observers noted a slight opening of the media environment for discussion of political issues in the lead-up to the polls, a departure from the atmosphere of pervasive self-censorship in the post-coup years. Nevertheless, there were reports of abuses. In May, broadcast journalist Anish Chand of Fiji TV was dismissed under pressure from the government after advocating for balanced coverage of the election. A two-day media blackout was imposed on election coverage immediately before the vote in September, with penalties for violations including heavy fines and several years’ imprisonment. However, there were no reports of media workers being charged under these provisions. Local media accused Bainimarama of violating the blackout with a road safety billboard in Suva that featured his image and his party’s logo.
Journalists working for foreign or international media were able to travel to Fiji to cover the 2014 elections with fewer restrictions than they had faced in previous years. Bainimarama’s interim government had continuously barred foreign journalists from entering the country, in addition to expelling a wide number of correspondents. Media workers and outlets may face harassment in connection with their work, although cases have become rarer, in part because of the substantial roles already played by legal restrictions and self-censorship in limiting controversial coverage. Jyoti Pratibha, an editor for the Fiji Sun newspaper, and Vosita Kotoiwasawasa, a journalist for the Fiji Broadcasting Corporation, received death threats after reporting on the cancellation of a political debate in September.
Fiji’s media landscape contains both public and private outlets. There are two privately owned English-language dailies, the Fiji Times and the Fiji Sun, and a small number of weekly and monthly publications that are either private or community-owned. Two major media companies, the Motibhai Group and the CJ Patel Group, control the majority of commercial print outlets. The private radio network Communications Fiji Limited operates several multilingual stations and competes with the public broadcaster, Fiji Broadcasting Corporation, which operates one public television channel and six radio stations. An independent station, Mai Television, also competes with the long-standing outlet Fiji TV. Although Fiji TV is technically in private hands, its majority owner is a government-controlled company, and the broadcaster is known to be subject to state pressure in both editorial and administrative capacities. Approximately 41 percent of the population accessed the internet in 2014. Social-networking websites and underground blogs—particularly the Fijileaks blog, published by a prominent local journalist—continued to provide important platforms for dissenting voices throughout the year.
Under the MIDD, foreigners can hold no more than a 10 percent stake in Fijian media outlets. This provision led to the sale of the Fiji Times, the country’s oldest and most influential newspaper, in 2010. The newspaper—wholly owned by the Australian branch of Rupert Murdoch’s U.S.-based News Corporation—had been the most critical media opponent of the interim regime and the strongest voice for a return to democracy since the 2006 coup. Following the enactment of the MIDD, the Fiji Times was sold to the Motibhai Group, and has since shown some signs of self-censorship. Meanwhile, the progovernment Fiji Sun has benefitted from a virtual monopoly on state advertising in recent years, although the government did run limited advertising in the Fiji Times in 2014. Despite overall economic improvements in Fiji, media outlets continue to rely in large part on state advertising revenue.