Freedom in the World
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The lifting of the Public Emergency Regulations in January 2012, which had been in place since 2009, eased restrictions on freedom of assembly. In December, an independent commission submitted a draft constitution to the interim government after having collected comments from the general public from July through September. Meanwhile, severe storms in April and December displaced thousands of Fijians and caused severe property damage and outbreaks of typhoid and other illnesses.
Fiji, colonized by Great Britain in 1874, became an independent member of the Commonwealth in 1970. Rivalry between indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians is the main source of political and social tensions in the country. Indians, who were first brought to Fiji in the 19th century to work on sugar plantations, came to control a large share of the economy. Armed coups by indigenous factions in 1987 and 2000 overthrew governments led by Indo-Fijian parties.
Following the 2000 coup, the military installed Laisenia Qarase, an indigenous Fijian of the United Fiji Party (UFP), to lead an interim government. Qarase was elected prime minister in 2001 and won a second term in 2006. In December 2006, differences between Qarase and military chief Frank Bainimarama—another indigenous Fijian—over the fate of the 2000 coup participants resulted in another military coup in which Bainimarama ousted Qarase and dissolved Parliament. As head of the interim government, he began silencing his critics, filing legal suits against opposition and labor union leaders, and harassing and detaining journalists.
In 2008, a 45-member council—handpicked by Bainimarama—drafted the People’s Charter for Change, Peace, and Progress. The charter recommended replacing communal electoral rolls with a one-person-one-vote system, and designating all citizens as Fijians, a term previously reserved only for the indigenous. The charter also officially confirmed the military’s role in governing Fiji, and the interim government subsequently replaced civilians with military personnel in many high-level positions.
In 2009, the court of appeals ruled that the 2006 dismissal of Qarase and his cabinet, the dissolution of Parliament, and the 2007 appointment of Bainimarama as interim prime minister were illegal. The interim president, Josefa Iloilo, was ordered to appoint a caretaker prime minister to dissolve Parliament and call elections. The next day, Iloilo suspended the 1997 constitution, nullified all judicial appointments, reconfirmed himself as president, reappointed Bainimarama as interim prime minister, and imposed Public Emergency Regulations (PER) to ban public protests and tighten government control of the media. In July 2009, Iloilo stepped down and was replaced by Vice President Epeli Nailatikau. In 2010, the interim government granted immunity from prosecution to all those not already convicted for involvement in the 2000 and 2006 coups; beneficiaries included Iloilo, Bainimarama, and members of the military, police, and prison service.
Despite international diplomatic pressure and the loss of millions of dollars in development assistance, Bainimarama announced that new parliamentary elections would not be held until September 2014, and only after the adoption of a new constitution. The interim government ended the PER on January 7, 2012, and a nationwide consultation to gather comments from the public on a new constitution was conducted from July through September. On December 22, a five-member independent constitutional commission presented a draft to the interim government. Representatives from civil society groups will be selected to recommend revisions to the draft constitution in early 2013 before it is submitted to the interim president for final approval.
To prepare for the 2014 parliamentary elections, the interim government hired a Canadian firm in 2012 to undertake electronic voter registration. In July, more than a thousand voter registration centers began operating, and in September, voter registration was expanded to Fijian citizens overseas through Fiji’s embassies.
Convinced that Fiji has taken steps toward holding free and fair elections, Australia and New Zealand restored full diplomatic ties with the country in July.
Flooding and landslides caused by severe storms in April and December devastated parts of Fiji, causing significant property damage, displacing thousands of people, and resulting in a number of casualties, while a lack of clean water after the storms led to outbreaks of typhoid and leptospirosis.
Fiji is not an electoral democracy. Under the 1997 constitution, which was suspended in 2009, Parliament consisted of a 32-seat Senate and a 71-seat House of Representatives. The prime minister was appointed by the president and was generally the leader of the majority party or coalition in Parliament. Since the suspension of the constitution, the interim government has essentially ruled by decree.
The two main political parties are the UFP, largely supported by indigenous Fijians, and the Fiji Labour Party, which has a largely Indo-Fijian constituency.
Official corruption remains widespread, and reform agendas by multiple governments have not produced significant results. Eradicating pervasive corruption and improving bureaucratic efficiency have been central themes of the interim government.
While the 1997 constitution provided for freedoms of speech and of the press, extensive government censorship was in place under the PER. Following the end of the PER, efforts by the interim government to limit freedom of the press continued. In June 2012, the interim government threatened not to renew Fiji TV’s license after it aired interviews with former prime ministers Qarase and Mahendra Chaudhry. In October, the publisher and editor of the Fiji Times were convicted of contempt for publishing an editorial about an ongoing court case involving the Oceania Football Federation. Access to the internet is spreading with increased competition, but remains limited outside the capital due to cost and infrastructure constraints. In November, the interim government opened the first of eight free internet centers to expand access to poor and rural populations.
Freedom of religion is generally respected, but the interim government appears to target those, including religious leaders, who speak out against the regime. Most indigenous Fijians are Christians, and Indo-Fijians are generally Hindus. Places of worship, especially Hindu temples, have been attacked, though there were no reports of major attacks in 2012. The interim government refused permits for the Methodist Church’s annual conferences between 2009 and 2011 on the grounds that speakers included senior church officials critical of the government. Methodist officials were also banned from traveling overseas to attend church meetings and conferences. In August 2012, the interim government approved a permit for the Methodist Church’s annual conference, which was held later that month. Throughout the year, police granted permits to several Methodist churches across the country to hold public meetings and processions.
While academic freedom is generally respected, the education system suffers from a lack of resources, and indigenous Fijians are granted special privileges in education.
Freedoms of assembly and association, which were severely restricted under the PER, improved slightly after it was lifted. The attorney general declared that, as of July 2012, public permits were no longer required for meetings as long as they were not on a public road, in public parks, playgrounds, or arenas.
The interim government has a tense relationship with labor unions. The Essential National Industries Decree of 2011 limited trade union and collective bargaining rights for those employed in industries that are considered essential to Fiji’s economy, including the sugar industry, the airline industry, utility companies, banks, and telecommunication firms. The decree also banned strikes in these industries under a penalty of $50,000 or five years in jail, and required that all union officials be employees of the company whose workers they represented. In May 2012, a court dismissed charges against Daniel Urai, president of the Fiji Trades Union Congress, who had been arrested in November 2011. He had been accused of defacing public buildings in the capital with antigovernment graffiti and charged with sedition for “urging political violence”.
The suspension of the constitution in 2009 and the related dismissal of judges and their replacement by appointees of the interim government have raised serious questions about judicial independence. The 2009 dismissals exacerbated an already serious backlog of cases, which remains a problem. In April 2012, the police chief reported that there had been a 49 percent increase in complaints against police in the first quarter of the year, which he attributed to police misconduct. Prisons are seriously overcrowded, with poor sanitary and living conditions.
Race-based discrimination is pervasive. Indigenous Fijians receive preferential treatment in education, housing, land acquisition, and other areas. In March 2012, the government abolished the Great Council of Chiefs, a 135-year old body of indigenous Fijian leaders, claiming that it was in the interest of promoting Fijian citizenry for all ethnic groups. Discrimination, economic hardship, and political turmoil have prompted many Indo-Fijians to leave Fiji. A 2011 study reported that an estimated 250,000 Fijians—many of them educated and skilled Indo-Fijians—had left the country in the last 25 years.
Discrimination and violence against women are widespread. Women are also underrepresented in government and leadership positions and do not receive equal wages. Homosexuality was decriminalized in 2010. Fiji is a source country for the trafficking of children for sexual exploitation and a destination country for the trafficking of men and women for forced labor and prostitution.