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Publisher Deported in Fiji Amid Allegations of State Corruption

Sanjay Ramesh, Sydney, Australia, March 2, 2008

Interim Finance Minister Mahendra Chaudhry is involved in a tax evasion scandal. (Photo: Arin Chandra / AFP-Getty Images)

The deportation of Fiji Sun publisher Russell Hunter on Feb. 26 raised serious concerns about media freedom in Fiji. Regional and local media organizations, including various nongovernmental organizations, argued that the action by Fiji's interim government against Hunter was contrary to free speech. Moreover, the deportation once again drew strong criticism from Australia and New Zealand, which are closely following political developments in the country in the hope that the military leader and interim prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, honors his promise to hold free and fair elections in March 2009.

The interim government had earlier urged media organizations not to publish reports that could threaten national stability, but events that started with a colorful analysis by Oxford academic Victor Lal set into motion a series of articles and editorials that enraged the Fiji authorities.

Reports Allege State Corruption

According to the Fiji Sun, "more than $70,000 was secretly channeled into an interim cabinet minister's private bank account in Australia" by the Indian Consulate General in Sydney. "According to documents leaked to Fiji Sun correspondent Victor Lal in London, the money was collected by political sympathizers in India who also transacted $1million into the minister's bank account.

It is the latest revelation on the case of the interim cabinet minister involved in the tax evasion scandal."

The report continues: "The transaction linking the Indian Consulate to the movement of funds from India to Australia was confirmed by the minister's own delegated tax agent, a Suva-based chartered accountancy firm. Statements provided by the Commonwealth Bank of Australia confirmed that $503,000 [Australian dollars] was deposited into the minister's private bank account in November 2000, $486,890 in February 2001, and $514,148.50 by the Indian Consulate General in April 2002" (Feb. 16).

The Fiji Times reported on Feb. 23 that the official in question was interim Finance Minister Mahendra Chaudhry. According to the newspaper, "documents supplied suggest that the Fiji Islands Revenue and Customs Authority wants to establish the source of about [1.6 million Australian dollars] paid into Australian bank accounts in Mr. Chaudhry's name between September 2000 and December 2003." The same report alleged that "most of the deposits were shifted to investment accounts and earned substantial interest. After a year, the money was transferred back to Mr. Chaudhry's account and withdrawn."

According to Fijilive, Lepani Rabo, former chief auditor for the Risk and Compliance Division of the Fiji Islands Revenue and Customs Authority told the media that soldiers visited him at his home, requesting that he reveal documents on Chaudhry: "Rabo showed [them] a copy of a letter he had written to the police commissioner, Esala Teleni," against Chaudhry on Aug. 16, 2007 (Feb. 23).

Chaudhry defended his reputation, arguing that there was no merit on the corruption allegations and contemplated legal action for defamation against Fiji Times and Fiji Sun (Fijivillage.com, Feb. 23).

On Feb. 24, Fiji Times editor Netani Rika stood by the story implicating the Chaudhry of tax evasion. Meanwhile, Fiji Islands Revenue and Customs Authority chief executive Jitoko Tikolevu warned that former employees who exposed Chaudhry's tax details to the Fiji Times violated secrecy laws and committed a serious criminal offence. Jitoko alleged that Rabo and former general manager of risk compliance Joseva Leano breached the oath of secrecy when they wrote a letter to the police commissioner and met with Bainimarama regarding Chaudhry's taxes.

The Fiji Human Rights Commission defended Chaudhry and argued that he had a case for defamation against the media. Former Fiji Labor Party member Tupeni Baba, and Fiji's ambassador to China, Jim Ah Koy, opined that the allegations against Chaudhry were serious and that he needed to step aside. Bainimarama refused to take any action against Chaudhry, reiterating that he was cleared of tax evasion.

State Reacts With Deportation

On Feb. 25, Fiji Sun publisher Russell Hunter was taken from his Suva home by two men who claimed to be immigration officers. According to the Fiji Sun, "Police Commissioner Esala Teleni, the military, and the interim minister for immigration, Ratu Epeli Ganilau, were unaware of the incident. A formal complaint was lodged with the Police Department" (Feb. 26).

The Fiji Times reported on Feb. 26 that Russell Hunter was deported on board Air Pacific flight FJ-911. The Pacific Center for Public Integrity, the Fiji Women's Rights Movement, and the SDL party (Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua) condemned the deportation, suggesting links with the deportation with publication of stories about tax invasion by Chaudhry. The Immigration Department confirmed that Hunter was deported from Fiji after they received credible information that he had breached the conditions of his work permit.

Fijivillage.com reported that following investigations Hunter's conduct, the Department of Immigration "referred the matter to the permanent secretary for the defense and immigration, Malakai Tadulala, and Interim Minister Ratu Epeli Ganilau, who declared Russell Hunter a prohibited immigrant and ordered his removal from Fiji" (Feb. 26).

After arriving in Sydney, Hunter told journalists that "he believed his newspaper's reports about alleged tax evasion involving Mahendra Chaudhry, a minister in Fiji's interim government, may have been the catalyst for his deportation" (Fiji TV's One National News, Feb. 26).

According to SBS World News, "New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark described Hunter's deportation as a very serious move that would cause international concern" (Feb. 26).

Clark told Radio New Zealand that "the level of intimidation had been rising in Fiji" despite assurances from the military commander and the interim Prime Minister that media freedom was "secure and guaranteed" (Feb. 26).

The Australian minister for foreign affairs, Stephen Smith, joined New Zealand in his criticism of the actions of Fiji's interim regime. According to The Australian, Smith observed that the "deportation of Hunter was another act in a pattern of disturbing behavior since the coup" (Feb. 26).

Fiji Sun's acting publisher, Samisoni Kakaivalu, told the Fiji Times that the deportation of Hunter was "an act of intimidation" after the Fiji Sun successfully obtained a court injunction against the deportation, which was ignored by the interim government (Feb. 28).

Moreover, Fijivillage.com reported that Hawaii-based academic James Anthony had compiled a report requesting the Fiji Human Rights Commission to advise the interim government on non-renewal of work visas for expatriates working in the media industry because they influenced coups in the country. According to Anthony "the power of the media was found to be in the hands of about eight whites (mostly expatriates) operating in the shadows, acting in concert as members of a private club, deciding not only what to print but also deciding what not to print" (Feb. 28).

While the attack on the media continued, the Immigration Act was quietly amended so that the decisions of the minister could not be appealed.

The Fiji Times reported that the government made an addition on Feb. 25 "to section 13(2)(g) of the Immigration Act 2003 in a new Immigration Act (Amendment) promulgation 2008, which stated that decisions taken by the minister for immigration shall be final and cannot be appealed in court" (March 1).

The events of February in Fiji highlight the challenges faced by the media there, particularly after the interim government warned that it was extremely sensitive to criticisms. As Fiji heads toward general elections in 2009, the interim government will face intense scrutiny from the media, opposition groups, and regional governments.

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