Fiji | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Fiji

Fiji

Partly Free
61/100
Overview: 

The repressive climate that followed a 2006 coup has eased since democratic elections were held in 2014 and 2018. However, the ruling party frequently interferes with opposition activities, the judiciary is subject to political influence, and military and police brutality is a significant problem.

Key Developments: 

Key Developments in 2018:

  • In the November parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama’s FijiFirst Party won 50 percent of the total vote and 27 seats in the 51-member Parliament; international observers deemed the poll largely credible.
  • In May, three Fiji Times executives and a staff writer were acquitted on charges of sedition, which stemmed from the publication of a controversial letter in 2016 that the prosecution had claimed promoted feelings of “ill will” about Muslims.
  • Also in May, Parliament passed the Online Safety Act, which criminalizes people who are found to cause harm to others through electronic communications. Rights groups assailed the legislation, arguing that it could be misused to punish online dissent.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

POLITICAL RIGHTS: 24 / 40

A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 8 / 12

A1.      Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 3 / 4

The prime minister is the head of government and serves four-year terms. The party that wins the most seats in parliamentary elections selects the prime minister, who is then appointed by the president. In the November 2018 parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama’s FijiFirst Party won 50 percent of the total vote and 27 seats in the 51-member Parliament. The Multinational Observer Group reported that the polling “was transparent and credible overall and the outcome broadly represented the will of Fijian voters.” However, in a preelection debate with opposition leader and former prime minister Sitiveni Rabuka, Bainimarama refused to decisively rule out a coup if his party lost.

The president is elected by Parliament, which chooses between two candidates: one named by the prime minister and one by the leader of the opposition. As head of state, the president—who is elected to a three-year term and is eligible for reelection—holds a largely ceremonial role. President George Konrote was elected to a second term by Parliament in August.

A2.      Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 2 / 4

Parliament is Fiji’s unicameral legislative body, with 51 members elected to serve four-year terms. International observers regarded the 2018 parliamentary elections, held in November, to be largely credible, although civil society participation was limited.

Municipal councils continue to be run by government-appointed administrators, having been dissolved in 2009 in the wake of the abrogation of the 1997 constitution. As a result, municipal elections have not been held since 2005.

A3.      Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 3 / 4

The legal framework for Fijian elections is considered fair. However, the structure of the electoral system has raised concerns about potential political interference. FijiFirst’s general secretary, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, serves as minister of elections, as well as attorney general. Opposition parties claim that this creates a bias in the Electoral Commission, which administers elections, and affects the independence of the body. In December 2018, opposition parties withdrew petitions filed with the Court of Disputed Returns, which alleged unlawful actions by some FijiFirst candidates and irregularities in the conduct of the polling, counting, and tallying processes.

B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 9 / 16

B1.      Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 3 / 4

The right to form political parties is constitutionally guaranteed, but the government has eligibility requirements that discourage the formation of smaller parties: prospective parties must submit 5,000 signatures to become registered. The 5 percent nationwide threshold for representation in Parliament further disincentivizes the formation of smaller parties.

B2.      Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 1 / 4

The dominance of FijiFirst in Parliament and its popularity with the public has left little space for opposition forces to assert themselves politically. However, the major opposition party, the Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA), won 21 seats in 2018, up from 15 in 2014. FijiFirst has used state resources to advance its political campaigns. The Multinational Observer Group noted that during the 2018 parliamentary campaign, government ministers and high-level officials engaged in a number of high-profile activities, such as opening buildings, signing commercial contracts, and disbursing government grants and funds, which could have provided an electoral advantage to FijiFirst.

Prime Minister Bainimarama has, in the past, stated that he would not allow the opposition parties to assume office. Ahead of the 2018 elections, he issued warnings of instability in the event FijiFirst was defeated.

Opposition figures have been targeted by corruption charges they claim are politically motivated. In May, the Fiji Independent Commission against Corruption (FICAC) charged Sitiveni Rabuka with making a false declaration of assets. He was acquitted in October, but FICAC appealed the decision, and the case was ultimately dismissed two days before the elections in November. Had he been convicted, Rabuka would have been barred from the contest. In the days before the elections, Rabuka was questioned by the police, reportedly over statements he made on a radio show.

B3.      Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 2 / 4

Despite constitutional guarantees that it remain apolitical, the military has a history of interference in Fijian politics. The leaders of the two major political parties are former military officials, which contributes to the perception that the military has an undue political influence. In 2017, some military officials made statements directed against opposition politicians. However, in July 2018, Viliame Naupoto, the commander of the military forces, said that “the coup days are over” and assured the public that the military would accept whatever government was selected by the people.

B4.      Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 3 / 4

The law does not restrict the participation of minorities and women in politics. However, due to cultural traditions, the participation of indigenous women is limited. Only 10 out of the 51 members of Parliament are women.

Smaller minority groups, including Banabans, Chinese, and people from other Polynesian islands, lack significant political representation.

Historically, political affiliations have been associated with ethnicity. The Bainimarama-led interim government pushed for national unity and a national identity transcending ethnicity, race, and religion. For the 2018 general elections, all political parties were required to have English names to appeal to all ethnic groups, and to demonstrate support from all four official regions. Reserved seats and special considerations for ethnic and religious groups have been eliminated.

C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 7 / 12

C1.      Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 3 / 4

The executive branch under Prime Minister Bainimarama determines the policies of government. With FijiFirst holding a strong parliamentary majority prior to the 2018 elections, the government has frequently pushed through bills and budgets with minimal scrutiny from the opposition in Parliament.

C2.      Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 2 / 4

Safeguards against corruption are limited in their effectiveness. The FICAC had limited success combatting institutional corruption in 2018, pursuing several high-profile cases. In October, two officials with the Fiji Revenue and Customs Service were charged with corruption for allegedly falsifying documents, which led to a substantial loss in revenue. The case was ongoing at year’s end. However, corruption remains a serious problem and many officials still act with impunity. FICAC has also allegedly pursued politically motivated corruption cases.

C3.      Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 2 / 4

Since the restoration of elective democracy in 2014, government transparency and openness has improved. The government now organizes an annual briefing for civil society organizations on the budget. Parliamentary sessions are broadcast live, and Hansard (an official report of parliamentary proceedings) is updated regularly. Although candidates for election are required to declare their assets, there is no law requiring public asset disclosures by members of Parliament. Fiji lacks an access to information law, and requests for information from the media and the public are sometimes denied. In recent years, FijiFirst has used its majority in Parliament to rewrite parliamentary standing orders in a manner that limits debate on legislation and parliamentary scrutiny of official statements.

CIVIL LIBERTIES: 37 / 60 (+2)

D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 12 / 16

D1.      Are there free and independent media? 2 / 4

Fiji has an active media sector, with several private television stations, radio stations, and newspapers. The opposition and other critics of the government have accused the government of using state power to silence critics. For example, the vaguely worded Media Industry Development Decree bans reporting that is critical of the government or harmful to “national interest public order.” The restrictive press laws are sometimes enforced by the government, which leads to self-censorship. In May 2018, publisher Hank Arts, two other Fiji Times executives, and a staff writer were acquitted on charges of sedition, which stemmed from the publication of a controversial letter in 2016 that the prosecution had claimed promoted feelings of “ill will” about Muslims.

D2.      Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4 / 4

Freedom of religion is generally respected. However, several Hindu temples have been vandalized in recent years, including three temples near Suva in January 2018. In 2017, 15 people were convicted of sedition in Ra province for attempting to form a Christian state.

D3.      Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 3 / 4

Academic freedom is not overtly constrained, but government control over funding has been used to exert influence over tertiary institutions. The University of the South Pacific prohibits the majority of its employees from taking on an official position with a political party or running for office.

D4.      Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 3 / 4

There were no confirmed reports of government restrictions on private discussion on political matters or other sensitive topics during the year. However, the government places constraints on free speech, such as a law banning the burning of the national flag.

In May 2018, Parliament passed the Online Safety Act. Under the law, people who are found to cause harm to others through electronic communications could be sentenced to up to five years in prison. Rights groups assailed the legislation, arguing that it could be misused to punish online dissent.

E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 8 / 12 (+2)

E1.      Is there freedom of assembly? 3 / 4 (+1)

Respect for assembly rights improved in 2018. The Public Order Act was amended in 2017, which ended a requirement that organizers of public demonstrations obtain a police permit seven days before the event, although some events are still subjected to the permitting requirement. During the 2018 campaign period, parties were largely able to hold rallies and campaign events without restrictions. However, the constitution gives the government wide latitude to prohibit protests, including on the basis of public safety and public morality.

Score Change: The score improved from 2 to 3 because past restrictions on public gatherings were eased ahead of the 2018 elections.

E2.      Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 3 / 4 (+1)

Fiji has an extensive nongovernmental organization (NGO) network, which largely operates without government interference. The amendments to the Public Order Act further lifted restrictions on civil society activities such as meetings and other public gatherings, and the environment for NGOs continued to improve in 2018. Despite these improvements, government officials placed some pressure on civil society during the year. In August, the attorney general accused NGOs of being “politically aligned” and lacking independence.

Strict sedition laws, which criminalize criticism of the government, place constraints on the range of initiatives that NGOs can undertake. NGOs have been critical of the proposed Parliamentary Powers and Privileges Bill, which they claim criminalizes criticism of Parliament and could further erode civic space.

Score Change: The score improved from 2 to 3 because NGOs have been freer to organize meetings and events than in previous years, and they continued to speak out on controversial topics despite some pressure from authorities.

E3.      Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 2 / 4

The general environment for trade unions has improved. Since the passage of the 2016 Employment Relations (Amendment) Act, all workers have the right to form unions and strike. However, public-sector unions claim that the government has denied them the right to collective bargaining. The law restricts political activities by union members, prohibiting union members from becoming members of Parliament and impeding their ability to join political parties.

F. RULE OF LAW: 7 / 16

F1.       Is there an independent judiciary? 2 / 4

While the constitution guarantees an independent judiciary, there have been credible allegations of political interference. The prime minister has substantial appointment powers, with the authority to both appoint and dismiss judges on the Supreme Court and other high courts. These powers leave the judiciary vulnerable to interference and abuse by the executive.

F2.       Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 1 / 4

Due process rights are often not respected in practice. Corruption is a major problem in the police force. Due to resource shortages, lengthy pretrial detentions are common. The law allows suspects to be arrested without a warrant for violating the Crimes Decree. Politically motivated criminal charges are not uncommon.

In December 2018, members of the FijiFirst government sought to evade opposition efforts to serve an election petition on cabinet ministers ordered by the Court of Disputed Returns, which alleged “unlawful conduct” by 27 members of Parliament when they were candidates. The ministers slept for two nights in the attorney general’s office, but the court ultimately allowed the petitions to be considered served through their publication in the media.

F3.       Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 2 / 4

Torture and beatings by police remain a serious issue. In October 2018, 26-year-old Joseua Lalauvaki died after reportedly being beaten by the police following his arrest in Suva in September. Two police officers were charged with his murder in November, and the case was ongoing at year’s end. Despite these charges, police officers and military officials who commit abuses are rarely brought to justice, and those who are convicted of crimes are frequently pardoned or have their convictions overturned on appeal. Prisons are often overcrowded, lack sanitation, and provide inadequate health services.

F4.       Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 2 / 4

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people face discrimination in employment and access to healthcare. Women experience discrimination in employment as well, and a gender pay gap persists.

Relations between indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians remain strained. Indigenous Fijians previously enjoyed legal advantages in education and political representation. However, the interim government, after the 2006 coup, removed many of these privileges in a bid to foster a sense of national unity.

G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 10 / 16

G1.      Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 3 / 4

Citizens enjoy the freedom to travel, live, work, and seek education inside and outside the country. However, the law gives the government broad powers to restrict both internal and foreign travel. The government did not utilize the law to impose any new restrictions on travel in 2018.

G2.      Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 3 / 4

Property rights are generally respected. However, it is difficult to obtain land titles. The government amended the Land Sales Act in 2014 to require foreign nationals who fail to build a dwelling on their land within two years of acquisition to pay a fine equivalent to 10 percent of the land value every six months. Under the law, urban residential freehold land cannot be sold to foreigners.

G3.      Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 2 / 4

Domestic violence remains a problem in Fiji, and perpetrators who are convicted of the crime often receive light sentences. The Fiji Women's Crisis Center estimates that 64 percent of women who have been in a relationship have been victims of violence committed by their partner. To address the problem, the government established a toll-free helpline in 2017 to support victims of domestic violence. Rape is also a serious issue in Fiji.

G4.      Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 2 / 4

Sex trafficking of children remained a problem in 2018, and the government was ineffective in addressing it; there were no convictions for the crime during the year. Safety standards at workplaces are not always adequately enforced. Long work hours are common in some jobs, including transportation and shipping.