Freedom in the World
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Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Fiji received a downward trend arrow due to the government’s harassment of the media through intimidation tactics, including the deportation of two senior staff members at major newspapers.
After repeated pledges to hold new elections in March 2009, Fiji’s interim government in 2008 imposed new preconditions for elections and would not commit to a new election date. Also during the year, the interim government displayed greater intolerance of media criticism, such as forcibly deporting the publishers of two major newspapers, and suing the editor and publisher of a newspaper for publishing comments critical of the government.
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 in the 19th century to work on sugar plantations, and Indo-Fijians currently make up a majority 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.
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 elections, and won a second term in 2006. Although tensions between the 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 fate of the 2000 coup participants. Bainimarama wanted suspects prosecuted and jailed, but the government repeatedly reduced their sentences, paid salaries to convicted officials, and granted political appointments to other convicts. Bainimarama publicly demanded that Qarase resign after he proposed granting an amnesty that would clear the criminal records of those convicted and provide immunity to those not yet charged. Qarase refused to step down, and Bainimarama ousted him in a bloodless coup in December 2006, with a promise to clean up rampant government corruption.
Public attitudes toward the coup soured as civil liberties were curtailed and no timetable was set for a return to democratic rule. In January 2007, Bainimarama gave executive authority to President Josefa Iloilo, who in turn named Bainimarama as interim prime minister; Bainimarama also retained his position as the head of the military. The president granted immunity to Bainimarama and validated all decisions made since the coup.
The interim government undertook a number of reforms, requiring that all civil service appointments be made by the Public Service Commission and creating new investigation and adjudication bodies to tackle official corruption. Numerous senior officials were removed and arrested for official abuses and graft. Bainimarama also proposed replacing the race-based election rolls with a locality-based system and reviewing school-funding policies that favored indigenous Fijians. Former Fijian citizens would be permitted to conduct business in Fiji under a new residency status.
Over the course of 2007, however, the government was denounced for intimidating its critics through arrests and travel bans. The authorities were also accused of abusing 17 people suspected of plotting to assassinate Bainimarama, and the interim government alienated public servants by imposing a 5 percent pay cut that did not apply to cabinet ministers.
Despite pressure to hold elections in March 2009, the interim government continued to refuse to commit to a date and made electoral reforms and the approval of a new People’s Charter preconditions for new elections. The charter would be drafted by a 45-member National Council for Building a Better Fiji, with representatives from government, provincial councils, and civil society. Meanwhile, Bainimarama’s attempts to reform and take control of the Grand Council of Chiefs, Fiji’s body of traditional leaders, drew sharp opposition from the chiefs themselves, who filed a lawsuit over the matter in April 2008 and later rejected the idea of a People’s Charter. In November, the interim government threw out several Grand Council members due to their refusal to engage in discussions.
Also during 2008, the interim government displayed greater intolerance of media criticism. In February 2008, the publisher of the Fiji Sun, an Australian citizen, was forcibly deported after his newspaper broke a story on alleged tax evasion by the finance minister. The Australian publisher of the Fiji Times was similarly deported in May. In both cases, High Court orders were issued to block the expulsions, but the authorities said they failed to receive the orders in time. Separately, five employees of the Fiji Broadcasting Corporation were forced to appear before senior military officers after the tax evasion claims were aired in March.
Bainimarama and Qarase continued to pursue rival lawsuits during 2008, with the former seeking to nullify the 2006 elections based on alleged vote rigging by the UFP, and the latter calling for the interim government to be declared illegal. In October, the Suva High Court dismissed Qarase’s suit against the interim regime and the state, ruling that President Iloilo’s appointment of the interim government was valid. A month later, Qarase filed a new suit to stop work on the People’s Charter, but the court’s decision was still pending at year’s end.
Investment and tourism were seriously affected by the 2006 coup. The interim government announced in 2008 that public sector workers would face another 10 percent pay cut, on top of the 5 percent cut imposed in 2007, to help reduce the country’s $43 million budget deficit.
Fiji is not an electoral democracy, due primarily to the latest military coup. Under the constitution, Parliament consists of the 32-seat Senate and the 71-seat House of Representatives. The president appoints 14 senators on the advice of the Great Council of Chiefs, 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 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 Great Council of Chiefs 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. Repeated government reform pledges have not produced significant results, and some corruption charges may have been politically motivated. Fiji was not rated in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The government has considerable legal authority to restrict the media. The Television Act allows the government to control content, and the Press Correction Act authorizes the arrest of anyone who publishes “malicious” material. Nevertheless, Fiji’s vibrant media persist in the face of lawsuits, arrests, and intimidation by the authorities. A 2007 court ruling found that media organizations can publish information from any government or statutory body regardless of how it was obtained. Thus, government bodies can bar publication only if they can prove that it is not in the public interest. There are a number of privately owned newspapers, and the state-owned Fiji Broadcasting Corporation operates radio outlets that compete with private stations. The government fully deregulated the telecommunications industry in January 2008, and a new free-to-air television station began broadcasting in May, adding to the existing private stations Fiji TV and Pacific Broadcasting Services.
There were several serious setbacks to media freedom during 2008, including the sudden deportations of two newspaper publishers in February and May. Additionally, in July, the interim government endorsed the establishment of a tribunal with the authority to impose fines on media companies, as well as a proposal to consolidate oversight of the media under a single new law, a draft of which was completed in November. By year’s end, the draft law had still not been formally submitted to parliament for review. Also in November, the interim government sued the editor and publisher of Fiji Times for contempt for publishing a letter to the editor critical of the High Court’s ruling on Qarase’s suit against the interim government. Internet access is expanding but remains limited by cost and connectivity constraints outside the capital.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion. Indigenous Fijians are Christians, and most Indo-Fijians are Hindus. The number of attacks on Hindu and Muslim places of worship has increased in recent years. In 2008, three Hindu temples were vandalized and one was destroyed in a fire. 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, but the education system suffers from a lack of resources and increasing political intervention.
Freedoms of assembly and association are guaranteed by the constitution, but organizers must obtain government permission for gatherings. Workers can organize, and several trade unions are 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 highly overcrowded, with poor sanitary and living conditions. In 2008, the interim government exacerbated public distrust by proposing to revive the National Security Council and the Fiji Intelligence Service to fight terrorism. Critics expressed fears that such moves would give the interim government greater powers to suppress the opposition. Separately, international sponsors and members of the Pacific Crime Center, a regional law enforcement training entity, decided in June 2008 to relocate the center to Samoa given Fiji’s current political tensions and lack of democratic rule.
Race-based discrimination is pervasive, and 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 migrants from 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 that many offenders use traditional reconciliation mechanisms and bribery to avoid punishment. Women are not well represented in government and leadership positions and do not receive equal pay. The government says legal protections against discrimination do not include homosexuality. In its 2008 Trafficking in Persons Report, the U.S. State Department downgraded Fiji to Tier 3, the poorest rating.