Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Fiji’s political rights rating declined from 4 to 6 and its civil liberties rating from 3 to 4 because of the ouster of Prime Minister Qarase and the establishment of an interim military government by the head of the military in early December, as well as subsequent limits imposed on freedom of assembly and declines in the rule of law.
General elections in May 2006 elected Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase of the United Fiji Party to another term. Tensions between the military and Qarase intensified subsequently as a result of the government’s proposal of controversial bills that would grant amnesty to persons involved in the 2000 coup. Mediation failed, and Commodore Frank Bainimarama, head of the military, ousted Qarase and his government in early December and established an interim military government.
Fiji was colonized by Britain in 1874, and became an independent member of the Commonwealth in 1970. Intense ethnic rivalry between the indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians has become the main source of political and social tension. Indians were first brought to Fiji by the British in the nineteenth century to work on sugar plantations. Today they make up nearly 40 percent of the population and control a large share of the economy. The Indo-Fijian-led Alliance Party ruled until May 1987, when Sitiveni Rabuka, an army officer of Fijian descent, overthrew the government in a military coup. Rabuka led a second coup just four months later to remove the interim government. In 1990, a constitution that guaranteed indigenous Fijian control of government was promulgated, and two years later Rabuka was named prime minister. To regain admission to the Commonwealth, Fiji adopted a new constitution in 1997 that does not guarantee control of government by any ethnic group. The Indo-Fijian Labour Party under Mahendra Chaudhry ruled until it was overthrown by George Speight, an indigenous Fijian, in a May 2000 coup. Speight and his armed band took the cabinet hostage, and many civilian indigenous Fijians destroyed Indo-Fijian homes and businesses. Speight surrendered after a 56-day standoff. In 2002, he was sentenced to death for treason, though the penalty was later commuted to life in prison. After the hostage crisis, the military installed Laisenia Qarase, a banker and indigenous Fijian of the United Fiji Party (UFP), to lead an interim government. He was subsequently confirmed as prime minister in the 2001 elections. Tensions continued between Qarase’s UFP and Chaudhry’s Labour Party as Qarase refused to appoint Labour members to his cabinet, in violation of a constitutional requirement that any party receiving more than 10 percent of the seats in Parliament be offered cabinet posts.
General elections were held in May 2006, and the balloting was deemed fair and open. European Union observers reported a large voter turnout and improvements in media coverage, vote counting, and transparency, but said progress was still needed in voter registration and education. The UFP and Labour won the majority of seats, with the UFP taking 36, Labour taking 31, independents taking 2, and the United People’s Party (UPP) claiming the remaining 4. Qarase was reelected to another term, Labour agreed to join a multiparty cabinet, and President Ratu Josefa Iloilo appointed Mick Beddoes, president of UPP, as leader of the opposition. However, the prospect of easing political tensions between the UPP and Labour and of ethnic tensions between Fijians and Indo-Fijians quickly disappeared when Qarase demanded that all Labour ministers who oppose his budget resign from the cabinet. Tensions between Qarase and Commodore Frank Bainimarama, the military chief, also intensified in October when Bainimarama asked Qarase to resign or drop several controversial bills that would grant amnesty to persons involved in the May 2000 coup.
Relations have long been strained between Qarase and the outspoken Bainimarama over the government’s handling of those involved in the May 2000 coup. Bainimarama wants the government to act more decisively to bring those involved in the May 2000 coup to justice, while Qarase has done little to help the country to heal and recover.
Recovery from the far-reaching effects of the May 2000 coup has been slow and arduous. Poverty and crime are worsening. One-third of the population lives in poverty, child mortality accounts for more than 75 percent of all deaths, and in 2005, rape cases increased by 70 percent. Tens of thousands of Indo-Fijians have left the country in search of a brighter future elsewhere, and hundreds of Fijian soldiers and police officers have departed to find better-paying jobs with foreign armies and security companies. Several hundred suspects of the 2000 coup have been tried and sentenced, but prison sentences are frequently suspended or cut short for unspecified reasons. Several convicted senior officials continued to receive government pay while in prison or were given political appointments once released. Victims of the coup-related looting and attacks continue to wait for government compensation. The most contentious government action for the population and Bainimarama was the government’s Reconciliation, Tolerance, and Unity bill, which grants amnesty to persons convicted for the coup, immunity to those not yet charged, and erases the criminal records of those convicted. Widespread public opposition forced the government to introduce an amended version in December 2005 that would grant amnesty only for nonviolent crimes, illegal assembly, and illegal demonstration. Bainimarama wanted Qarase to remove amnesty from the bill all together. Under intense public pressure, Qarase agreed to withdraw the bill “pending a detailed legal examination” and rejected another one of Bainimarama’s demands to dismiss everyone in government who was involved in the 2002 coup.
Mediation and talks between Qarase and Bainimara failed, and on December 5, Bainimarama ousted Qarase in a bloodless military coup. Bainimarama became head of the interim military government and appointed Dr. Jona Senilagakali, a former military doctor, as the caretaker prime minister. In subsequent weeks, Bainimarama dismissed the election supervisor and removed many senior civil servants from their posts and replaced the heads of many state-owned corporations in a “clean-up campaign” to address alleged incompetence and corruption. Initially, public sentiment was mixed; while Fijians desire the return of democratic processes, political stability, and economic recovery, they also sympathize with Bainimarama’s frustration with government inaction regarding the 2000 coup and the country’s persistent ethnic and political tensions. Increasing worries about the political and economic ratifications of the coup appear to have turned public opinion against Bainarama and the coup subsequently.
Bainimarama suspended certain civil rights, including freedoms of assembly and expression, and some journalists reported harassment by the military. He also warned Qarase not to return to the capital and refused to meet with the Great Council of Chiefs, which has been critical of the military takeover along with the Methodist Church. The military arrested prodemocracy activists in a peaceful protest in the capital, and six others were rounded up by the police in a midnight raid.
Toward the end of December, Bainimarama predicted the formation of an interim government by February 2007 and stated that he would consider returning executive authority to deposed president Ratu Josefa Iloilo, while underscoring that the military would clean up the government before returning it to civilian rule. Meanwhile, tourism plummeted, the Commonwealth suspended Fiji’s membership, international donors cut off aid, and many countries cut military ties with Fiji.
On other fronts, the government in December 2005 rejected a visa application for Reverend Sun Myung Moon to visit Fiji due to strong opposition from local church leaders. In the same month, the Great Council of Chiefs issued a proposal to codify Fijian customs and traditions, which has received mixed reaction from the public. The government in September 2006 introduced another measure to expand state control of the media. The plan would create a Broadcast Licensing Authority to regulate programming, and the chair and members of the authority would be appointed by the minister of information.
Due primarily to the latest military coup, Fiji is not an electoral democracy. Under the constitutional system, the bicameral Parliament consists of the 32-seat Senate and the 71-seat House of Representatives. Senators are appointed by the president on the recommendation of the traditional Great Council of Chiefs. House members are elected for five-year terms, with 25 seats open to all races and ethnicities, 23 reserved for indigenous Fijians, 19 for Indo-Fijians, 3 for other ethnic groups (mainly citizens of European and East Asian extraction), and 1 for voters on outlying Rotuma Island. Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase of the UFP came to power on an interim basis after the May 2000 coup, and was confirmed in office in the 2001 elections. President Ratu Josefa Iloilo is the head of state and commander-in-chief of the military. The president is appointed to a five-year term by the Great Council of Chiefs in consultation with the prime minister. The 1997 constitution ended the previous charter’s guarantee of a parliamentary majority for indigenous Fijians, but various laws and polices give preferential treatment to indigenous Fijians and discriminate against other groups. The two leading political parties are largely ethnic-based: indigenous Fijians support the UFP; Indo-Fijians support the Labour Party. The Alternative Vote system was introduced in 1998 to foster moderation in the country’s ethnic-based politics. Each voter casts two ballots: one is for a “communal” constituency based on ethnicity, and the other is for an “open” constituency based on geography. The May 2006 elections were considered free and fair.
Official corruption and abuses are widespread, and government reform pledges have not produced significant results. Fiji was not included in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The government has considerable authority to censor the media and restrict freedom of speech. The Television Act grants the government powers to control programming content. The Press Correction Act authorizes officials to arrest anyone who publishes “malicious” material and to order a publication to print a correcting statement to an allegedly false or distorted article. A media bill proposed in September 2006 that would allow additional state control of media content and conduct remained shelved due to strong public opposition. In July 2006, the government approved a bill to provide public television broadcasting, in addition to existing public radio broadcasting. The government-owned Fiji Broadcasting Corporation operates four radio stations and broadcasts in English, Fijian, and Hindustani. In 2005, the government rejected Beijing’s petition for a Chinese-language television license. The government does not control access to the internet. Access is primarily limited by cost and connectivity constraints outside the capital. Following the December coup, journalists reported harassment by the military, and the editor in chief of The Daily Post was arrested; the government holds majority shares of the newspaper, which took a critical stance toward the military takeover.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion. Religious affiliation largely runs along ethnic lines; indigenous Fijians are Christians and Indo-Fijians are mostly Hindus. The number of attacks on Hindu and Muslim places of worship has increased in recent years. The Methodist Church holds considerable political influence. Its current leader has called for a more restrained role for his church in politics, and the World Council of Churches has also criticized Fiji’s Methodist Church for being too politically involved in national affairs.
Academic freedom is generally respected, and the government provides eight years of free education. However, the country’s education system suffers from lack of funding, facilities, and qualified personnel at all levels as well as increasing political intervention.
Freedoms of assembly and association are guaranteed in the constitution, but organizers must obtain government permission for gatherings, and the Emergency Powers Act of 1998 allows Parliament to censor the press, ban public meetings, authorize searches without warrants, and seize private property during a declared state of emergency. Workers can organize, and several trade unions exist in the country. Democracy advocates and the political opposition demonstrated concern about the suppression of peaceful public protests after the December 2006 coup.
The judiciary is independent, and trials are generally free and fair. Many politicians and soldiers have been found guilty of treason or other crimes committed during and after the May 2000 coup. However, a lack of resources has created a severe backlog for court hearings. Criminal suspects are frequently held for long periods before trial, and prisons are severely overcrowded, with poor sanitary and living conditions. The high court ordered the release of two robbery suspects in October 2004 because of poor prison conditions. The government announced plans in 2005 to build a new prison facility, but funds have yet to be allocated.
Political, economic, and social debates are frequently divided along ethnic lines, and race-based discrimination is pervasive. The main rivalry is between the indigenous Fijians, who dominate government and the armed forces, and the Indo-Fijians, who control much of the economy. Indigenous Fijians receive preferential treatment in education, housing, land acquisition, and other areas, and some jobs are not open to nonindigenous Fijians. In June 2006, the human rights commission found that the government’s affirmative action program under the Social Justice Act of 2001 violates the constitution. In August 2006, the government created a commission to investigate allegations of discrimination in the civil service. Discrimination and political and economic troubles have caused more than 120,000 Indo-Fijians to leave Fiji since the late 1980s. Part of the resulting void has been filled by legal and illegal migrants from mainland China, who now make up about 1 percent of the population and control 5 percent of the economy. Their growing economic strength has made them new targets of indigenous Fijian resentment and attacks. Muslims, too, are under increasing pressure to defend their religion and identity, and have had to publicly deny allegations that Muslim students in Fiji are tied to terrorists.
Discrimination and violence against women are widespread. The number of rape, child abuse, and incest cases continues to rise. Women’s groups claim that many offenders use traditional reconciliation mechanisms to avoid felony charges, and bribery to delay police action. Women are not well represented in government and leadership positions, and do not enjoy equal pay. There have been reports of human trafficking involving Chinese women. Violence against homosexuals is also reported to be on the rise. The government asserts that legal protections against discrimination do not include homosexuality.