Freedom in the World
You are here
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
A military-led interim government was created in January. Its anticorruption efforts won some public support, but its low tolerance for criticism and lack of a road map for return to democratic rule stirred deeper public concern. Under considerable domestic and international pressure, the interim government pledged to hold general elections in March 2009.
Fiji, colonized by Britain in 1874, became an independent member of the Commonwealth in 1970. Intense ethnic rivalry between indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians is the main source of political and social tension. Indians were first brought to Fiji by the British in the 19th century to work on sugar plantations. Today they make up nearly two-thirds of the population and control a large share of the economy. Armed coups by indigenous factions in 1987 and 2000 overthrew governments led by Indo-Fijian parties. These events marred Fiji’s democratic heritage, intensified ethnic-based partisanship in politics, and greatly damaged the economy. In the aftermath of the 2000 coup, the military installed Laisenia Qarase, a banker and indigenous Fijian from the United Fiji Party (UFP), to lead an interim government. Qarase was elected prime minister in the 2001 general elections, and won a second term in 2006. Although tensions between Qarase’s UFP and the largely Indo-Fijian Labour Party never eased, the more destabilizing rift was that between Qarase and military chief Commodore Frank Bainimarama over the government’s handling of individuals involved in the 2000 coup. Bainimarama wanted suspects prosecuted and convicts sent to prison, but Qarase’s government repeatedly suspended or reduced prison sentences for unspecified reasons, paid salaries to convicted senior officials, and granted political appointments to convicted officials. Bainimarama publicly demanded that Qarase resign after he proposed to grant amnesty to and clear the criminal records of those convicted for the coup and immunity to those not yet charged. Qarase refused, and Bainimarama ousted him in a bloodless coup in December 2006 with a promise to clean up rampant government corruption.
Bainimarama became head of the interim military government and appointed Jona Senilagakali, a former military doctor, as the caretaker prime minister. Public reaction to the coup was initially mixed because of frustration with Qarase’s policies, but opinions soon turned against Bainimarama as freedoms of assembly and expression were curtailed and no timetable was set for a return to democratic rule.
In January 2007, Bainimarama handed executive authority to President Ratu Josefa Iloilo, who in turn appointed Bainimarama as the interim prime minister. Bainimarama also retained his position as the head of the army. Iloilo granted immunity to Senilagakali, Bainimarama, and his soldiers, and validated all declarations and decisions made by the military and the interim government since the December 2006 coup.
The interim government tried to live up to its pledge to combat corruption, requiring all civil service appointments be made by the Public Service Commission, creating a new anticorruption investigation team to collect evidence of fraud and graft in all government organizations, and establishing an independent commission to adjudicate evidence gathered by the investigators. As a result, numerous high-profile actions were taken in a matter of months, including the suspension of the chief executive of the $2 billion National Provident Fund for alleged corruption and abuses and of the assistant police commissioner for accepting bribes.
Bainimarama also pledged to rid the system of race-based politics so as to restore social peace, curb the exodus of skilled Indo-Fijians, and revive the economy. He proposed replacing the race-based election rolls with communal rolls based on location of residence, and reviewing school-funding policies that favored indigenous Fijian schools. As a result, Hindi and Fijian will be taught in all primary and secondary schools to promote interethnic understanding, and former Fijian citizens can invest, work, and conduct business in Fiji under a new residency status.
Nevertheless, public anxiety about when democratic rule will return grew as allegedly corrupt civilian officials were largely replaced by military officers. Senior civil servants, journalists, human rights activists, and lawyers alleged the government tries to crush any criticism. For example, in May 2007, the military pressed the country’s sole internet service provider to block access to a blog site said to feature criticism of the interim government. The government also imposed travel bans on many individuals, citing the needs of its investigations, and suspended the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC) in April after the body rejected Bainimarama’s nomination of Senilagakali for vice president. The death of an alleged drug dealer in the custody of soldiers and police and the interim’s government’s perceived high-handedness in dealing with 17 persons alleged to be part of a plot to assassinate Bainimarama also increased public concern about continuing rule by a military regime. The interim government also alienated the civil service and judges by imposing a 5 percent pay cut, which did not apply to lawmakers. Considerable domestic and international pressure pushed the interim government to pledge to hold general elections in March 2009.
In the meantime, Qarase asked the High Court to declare illegal the interim government and coup; in defense, the interim government asked the High Court to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that President Iloilo had granted immunity to Bainimarama and his allies. Bainimarama also sought legal nullification of the 2006 general elections after a Fiji Human Rights Commission inquiry found evidence of vote buying, vote rigging, corruption, and other irregularities that gave Qarase and the UFP an unfair advantage. No results came out of these actions as of the end of 2007.
Fiji is not an electoral democracy, due primarily to the latest military coup. Under the constitutional system, the bicameral Parliament consists of the 32-seat Senate and the 71-seat House of Representatives. The president appoints 14 senators on the advice of the GCC, 9 on the advice of the prime minister, 8 on the advice of the opposition leader, and 1 on the advice of the council representing outlying Rotuma Island. 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 Rotuma voters. The president is appointed to a five-year term by the GCC in consultation with the prime minister, who is in turn appointed by the president. The prime minister is generally the leader of the majority party or coalition in Parliament. The two main political parties are largely based on ethnicity: indigenous Fijians support the UFP, and Indo-Fijians support the Labour Party.
Official corruption and abuses are widespread, and repeated government reform pledges have not produced significant results. Fiji was not rated in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The government has considerable legal authority to censor the media and restrict freedom of speech. For example, the Television Act allows the government to control programming content and the Press Correction Act authorizes the arrest of anyone who publishes “malicious” material. Nevertheless, Fiji has a vibrant media despite lawsuits, arrests, and intimidation by elected official and senior civil servants. The interim government imposed travel bans for some journalists and blocked a blog site that criticized the December 2006 coup. Until now, the government-owned Fiji Broadcasting Corporation operates four radio stations and broadcasts in English, Fijian, and Hindustani. Internet access is expanding but remains limited by cost and connectivity constraints outside the capital.
The Suva High Court ruled in October that Fiji media organizations can publish any government or statutory body of information regardless of how it was obtained. Owners can bar a publication only if they can prove that it is not in the public interest in accordance with constitutional provisions. This ruling stemmed from the attempt by the Fiji National Provident Fund to stop Fiji Television from reporting on an Ernst and Young audit report on the fund. Also, citing economic reasons, the interim government sold its majority stake in the Daily Post, the leading paper. It also fully opened up competition in the free-to-air television broadcast and mobile telephone markets.
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 current leader of the traditionally influential Methodist Church has called for a more restrained role for the church in politics.
Academic freedom is generally respected. The government provides eight years of free education, but the system suffers from lack of funding, facilities, and qualified personnel at all levels and is plagued by increasing political intervention.
Freedoms of assembly and association are guaranteed in the constitution, but organizers must obtain government permission for gatherings. Workers can organize, and several trade unions are currently active.
The judiciary is independent, and trials are generally free and fair, but a lack of resources and trained professionals has created a severe backlog for court hearings. Prisons are severely overcrowded, with poor sanitary and living conditions.
Political, economic, and social debates are frequently divided along ethnic lines, and race-based discrimination is pervasive. Indigenous Fijians receive preferential treatment in education, housing, land acquisition, and other areas; some jobs are open only to them. 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.
Discrimination and violence against women are widespread. The number of rape, child abuse, and incest cases continues to rise. Women’s groups claim 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. The government says legal protections against discrimination do not include homosexuality.