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Fiji Bills Create Divisions

Sanjay Ramesh, Sydney, Australia, September 27, 2006

Fijian Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase holds a press conference after being officially sworn in for another term earlier this year. (Photo: Bruce Southwick / AFP-Getty Images)

Fiji's problems just got bigger as the government started battle on three fronts: broadcasting, Qoliqoli, and the Indigenous Land Claims Tribunal bills. These issues had been in the background for some time but it came head on in the past month, with hoteliers, investors, and the opposition all accusing the government of losing the plot over indigenous rights and the regulation of the media. The Fiji Labor Party (F.L.P.) strongly criticized the bills, raising concern that the current multiparty cabinet arrangement between the ruling Soqosoqo ni Duavata ni Lewenivanua (S.D.L.) and the F.L.P. is all but dead.

A lack of consensus regarding crucial and often controversial bills in Fiji stems from the fact that there are no definitive structural mechanisms for building multiparty consensus. The current policy making and cabinet processes are extremely partisan and goes against the spirit of consensus democracy. At a recent workshop organized by academics, Prime Minister Laisania Qarase asked experts to come up with solutions for resolving conflict around partisan policies. It has become important for Fiji to set up deliberative structures of multiparty discourse at the parliamentary and cabinet levels for a multiparty cabinet to function properly. But as is the case in racially fragmented states, party ideologues and power brokers, most with extremist positions, control policy agendas. Worse, the events of the past two months indicate that S.D.L. is quickly moving away from consensus democracy to unilateralism — a hallmark of S.D.L. policy making and implementation from 2001 to 2006.

The Qoliqoli Bill

The Qoliqoli bill debate started in earnest on Aug. 2 when the minister for Fijian Affairs and Lands, Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu, highlighted that the bill among other things will transfer indigenous foreshore resources to the Native Land Trust Board (N.L.T.B.) with powers to allow commercial activities vested with the Qoliqoli commission (Fiji Village News, Aug. 2). The Minister went further and criticized some in the hotel industry who were against the bill. Under the Qoliqoli bill No. 12 (2006), the Qoliqoli area is any area of seabed or soil under water, sand, reef, mangrove swamp, river, stream, or wetland, or any other area, recognized and determined within customary fishing grounds under the Fisheries Act. Immediately afterward, the leader of the F.L.P. expressed concern that the party was not fully consulted and that the bill had an impact on the tourism industry and had the potential to undermine commercial fishing and curtail the right to freedom of movement of people who wanted to enjoy the rivers and the ocean for recreational purposes (Fijilive, Aug. 8).

The hotel industry lashed out at the Government on Aug. 10, warning that hoteliers would leave and set their operations in another country if they were unwelcome. The Fiji Islands Hotel and Tourism Association also labeled the Lands minister's comments in parliament — that hoteliers should think twice about investing in Fiji due to their opposition to Qoliqoli bill — as childish and irresponsible (Fiji Village News, Aug. 10). Both F.L.P. leader Mahendra Chaudhry and opposition leader Mick Beddoes criticized the minister's comments.

As a result of the initial opposition to the Qoliqoli bill, the government established a Joint Parliamentary Select Committee on Natural Resources to seek submission on the issue from interested parties. A delegation of around 25 members from the Fiji Islands Hoteliers Association, led by chairman Dick Smith and president Senator Dixon Seeto, made its submission to the committee on Sept. 4. According to hotel owners, they will hesitate to continue operations in Fiji if the bill is allowed to be passed in its current form. The Hoteliers also stressed that the bill will cause serious damage to Fiji's image as a tourist destination as it would enable individuals to try and stake their claim on the Qoliqoli and upset hotel operations and visitors (Fiji Village News, Sept. 4). Not only the hotel association, but indigenous lobby group Viti Landowners and Resource Association (V.L.R.A.) led by high chief Ratu Osea Gavidi expressed reservation on the ability of the Native Land Trust Board to act in the interest of Qoliqoli owners. Professor Ron Duncan of the University of the South Pacific supported the concerns of the resource owners and called on the government to look at returning the management of leasing customary land to the landowners with the right to negotiate lease terms, rentals, and renewals directly with their respective tenants (Fijilive, Sept. 4).

It is still not clear whether government will substantially revise the bill because hardliners within S.D.L. see the Qoliqoli bill as a great step toward resolving the injustices suffered by indigenous foreshore owners in the past. Undoubtedly, the outcome of the consultation process will have an impact on the hotel industry.

Indigenous Claims Tribunal

Closely related to the Qoliqoli bill is the Indigenous Claims Tribunal bill No. 11 (2006). This bill allows indigenous Fijians to establish historical claims for loss of right or legal interest of any nature relating to any Qoliqoli area or to the occupation, use, or enjoyment of the ancestral land of a mataqali (landowning unit), as a result of any land sale, acquisition, bequest, exchange, transfer, or assignment by any person or the state prior to the coming into force of the Native Land Trust Act in 1944. Like the Qoliqoli bill, the Indigenous Claims Tribunal will determine restitution or compensation.

If the Tribunal is satisfied that a claim is well-founded, the tribunal may recommend to the government any remedial action to be taken, including compensation for loss of right of any nature to the occupation, use, or enjoyment of ancestral lands or if the land is still under the control of the state, the reversion of such land to native lands. Former prime minister and former coup leader Sitiveni Rabuka said that government should nationalize all indigenous resources. His calls were supported by some in the indigenous community who argue that there will be very few claimants for ancestral land and in most cases, their claims will fail because of the complexity surrounding native land alienation prior to the Second World War.

The F.L.P. has criticized the government for instilling confusion in the minds of freehold investors. At the beginning of the year, the Fiji's military objected to both the bills stating that it will have a devastating impact on investment, which is already low. More than 25 percent of foreign investment is needed to cushion rising unemployment, which in turn is fueling crime.

Besides a chorus of protests from concerned investors and hoteliers, the government's Broadcast bill has got the media deeply worried about press freedom.

Broadcast Bill

The objectives of this bill are to establish the Broadcast Licensing Authority and charge it with the oversight of broadcasting with such powers as may be necessary to carryout its functions including responsibility to issue and renew broadcasting licenses, control and regulate the electromagnetic wave spectrum for broadcasting uses, regulate licensing of various types of broadcasting, and establish codes for the purposes of the bill and monitor compliance by broadcasters.

Sections 4 and 5 of the bill gives exclusive powers to the minister to appoint members.

The managing director of Communications Fiji Ltd., William Parkinson, and the chief executive of Fiji Broadcasting Commission Ltd., Francis Herman, have called for the bill to be scrapped (Pacific Media Watch, Aug. 17). The area of most concern is that there will be a politically appointed body with wide ranging powers to control news content. Moreover, members of the complaints committee will be appointed by the Broadcast Licensing Authority thereby removing any form of independent oversight.

Media groups in Fiji and the Pacific are concerned that the bill is aimed at placing media organizations and their operations under the close scrutiny of the government and this they see as a blatant violation of freedom of the press. However, the government believes that the bill establishes a fair, transparent system for the licensing of broadcasters, along with a system for ensuring that licensees operate in the public interest.

International media organizations, such as Article 19: The Global Campaign for Media Freedom, have made a number of recommendations including that the minister should not have the power to make appointments on his or her own; the process should provide for others to be involved and for the public to have an opportunity to comment on nominees (Article 19, Submission on the Broadcasting bill, 2006, p. 3). The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (I.C.F.T.U.) has also warned that it could set 200 million workers against the government if it continued with the Broadcast bill (Fiji Times, Sept. 9).

Despite the protest over the bill, the Parliamentary Select Committee on Natural Resources largely supported the government's position when it tabled its report in parliament on Sept. 11. The managing director of the Fiji Times, Tony Yianni, called for a judicial review and criticized the committee for failing to take on board any of the submissions from Fiji's media organizations (Fijilive, Sept. 13). The continuing disengagement of civil societyon crucial policy issues and an inability of the government to develop policy options on controversial bills suggest a lack of interest in progressing governance through consensus.

The opposition to all three bills from various interest groups and from members of civil society has been extensive but the government continues to push its policy agenda, which is reminiscent of the debacle over the Racial Unity and Tolerance bill (R.T.U.), which has now been revised following protests from the army, the opposition, peace groups, and Indo-Fijian organizations. There are fears that the revised R.T.U. bill will cause further ripples, because the government has not put the bill through a consensus test.

However, a more pressing problem is balancing the rights of indigenous resource owners with those of hoteliers and the hotel industry in general and also assuring foreign investors that there will not be any hiccups following purchase of a freehold land. Moreover, the government has to consider some form of independent oversight regarding media regulation.

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