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Media Freedom Restricted in Fiji Following Another Deportation

Sanjay Ramesh, Sydney, Australia, May 11, 2008

(Photo: C.I.A. World Factbook)

On May 1, another Australian publisher, the Fiji Times' Evan Hannah, was deported from Fiji for allegedly attempting to destabilize the military-backed interim government. This was the second deportation in less than three months.

In February, the Fiji Sun's publisher, Russell Hunter, also an Australian citizen, was accused by Fiji immigration of violating his work visa and posing a threat to national security. In the cover of night, immigration officers detained Hunter and removed him from Fiji on board an Air Pacific flight from Nadi to Sydney.

A retrospective decree was introduced by the interim government, which disallowed any challenge to the decision of the minister. Moreover, the commander of the Fiji Military Forces, Frank Bainimarama, requested that the media practice "responsible journalism." Australia and New Zealand joined regional and local media organizations in urging the regime in Fiji to uphold media freedom. (See "Publisher Deported in Fiji Amid Allegations of State Corruption.")

The latest deportation and the blatant indifference of the military-backed regime to the court orders against deportations has raised serious concerns about the rule of law and the status of Fiji's 1997 constitution.

The story of the deportation of Evan Hannah began in the evening of May 1. At 7:30 p.m. Fiji time, Principal Immigration Officer Jo Ravatudei, Immigration Officer Yogendra Kumar, Passport Control Officer Paul Yavita, and Special Constable Asesela Niu took Evan Hannah from his home in Tamavua Suva and held him in immigration detention overnight. The incident took place two days before media freedom day and less than 12 hours after the military commander, in a public speech, called for better relations between the interim government and the media.

Immediately following the detention of Hannah, the Fiji Times, which is owned by the Australian News Ltd., lodged an appeal against the deportation in the Suva High Court as Fiji Times staff successfully contacted the publisher, who verified that he was unharmed by the incident. According to Reuters, Foreign Affairs Minister Ratu Epeli Nailatikau signed the deportation order, alleging that Hannah was "a threat to the national security" (May 1).

On May 2, Hannah was quickly sneaked on board Korean flight KEO138, but not before Nadi International Airport became a scene of high political drama. A Fiji Times lawyer, Jon Apted, waited at the Airport to serve immigration officials with a stay order. Also present was an official from the Australian High Commission, which was deeply concerned about the well being its citizen. However, as Fiji immigration brought Hannah from the back entrance an Australian consular officer attempted to contact him. He was pushed away. According to The Australian, "the consular officer was physically manhandled" (May 3).

The interim government of Fiji defended the deportation. Fiji's Immigration Minister Ratu Epeli Ganilau argued that Hannah was a "prohibited immigrant" under Section 13(2)(g) of the Immigration Act 2003. According to the act,

a person who prior to or after entry into the Fiji Islands, as a result of information received from any country, through official or diplomatic channels, or from any other source that the minister considers as reliable, is deemed by the minister to be a person who is or has been conducting himself in a manner prejudicial to the peace, defence, public safety, public order, public morality, public health, security, or good governance of the Fiji Islands. (Fijilive, May 2)

The Australian government immediately condemned the actions of the interim government of Fiji stating that the deportation was "yet another reprehensible act in a disturbing pattern of behaviour since the coup of December 2006 which has resulted in the severe erosion of fundamental human rights and the rule of law in Fiji" (Melbourne Herald Sun, May 3).

The Fiji Law Society, the United States Department of State, the European Union, the Citizens Constitutional Forum, the Australian Business Council of Fiji, the deposed Soqosoqo ni Duavata ni Lewenivanua party, the Fiji Media Council, Fiji TV, the Fiji Sun, the National Federation Party, and the New Zealand government joined Australia in their criticisms (.

Following a chorus of condemnation from the international community, Fiji's military commander and interim Prime Minister Bainimarama held a meeting with media executives in Fiji. Fijilive reported on May 6 that commander Bainimarama had "warned media executives that he would shut down the media" if they continued to engage in "irresponsible reporting."

Furthermore, Fiji Village news quoted a PACNEWS source as reporting that Bainimarama informed those present at the meeting that "Hannah was not the last expatriate to be deported" and similar actions would be "taken against other expatriates, who violated their work permit" (May 6).

In response, the director of News Ltd.'s editorial operations, Campbell Reid, expressed serious concerns over the safety of Australians already in Fiji and those intending to travel to the country in the near future.

Relations between Fiji and Australia continued to deteriorate further when on May 7 the Australian High Commission in Suva received threatening letters, allegedly as a local response to Australia's comments over the deportation of both Russell Hunter and Evan Hannah.

Michael Field, a New Zealand journalist who was detained and deported from Fiji in 2007, argued that the deportation of Hannah was politically motivated. According to Field,

The Fiji Times in recent weeks has adopted a strongly critical editorial stance against the military. This came after the military-appointed Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum summoned Hannah to his office to attack him over a leader page article he said the paper was about to print. Hannah and Times editor Netani Rika said they had never seen the piece and it was not in the newspaper's database.

Prominent Suva lawyer Graham Leung—who is acting for New Zealand businessman Ballu Khan [charged for allegedly plotting to assassinate the commander]—said he had been writing a feature on the government that he planned to submit to the Fiji Times. He had not sent it to the paper, he said, but believed it had been hacked out of his computer by the military. (Stuff.co.nz, May 1)

Following the deportation of Russell Hunter in February, there were similar claims that the military had been hacking into electronic mail exchanges between Hunter and Oxford-based academic Victor Lal.

Critics of the interim government of Fiji argue that the deportations of Australian publishers are aimed at controlling the media and a possible form of protest against the tough stand by Australia on a speedy return to democratic elections by March 2009. The interim government wants to finalize the Peoples' Charter for Change, which according to the military commander will form the basis for forming future governments.

The problem is that some important stakeholders—the deposed Soqosoqo ni Duavata ni Lewenivanua party, the National Federation Party, the United Generals Party, and some community organizations—have refused to participate in charter deliberations, arguing that the process is initiated by an undemocratic entity and as a result is unconstitutional.

Furthermore, the interim government has alienated segments of the indigenous community with its comments on indigenous land and the proposed changes to the Great Council of Chiefs.

The interim government needs to embrace national unity and encourage wider debate as part of its proposal to engage all sections of Fiji's community for a better future.

Instead of seeing media organizations and expatriates as threats, the interim government may choose to conduct its affairs in a more accountable and transparent manner. After all, openness was part of the military's cleanup campaign and it seems that the regime has gone back on its initial promise by isolating regional governments, which can play a vital role in assisting the nation with important issues like electoral reform and multiethnic collaborations.

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