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Fiji regime cracks down on media

world Updated: Jun 28, 2010 15:47 IST
Fiji's military regime

Fiji's military regime on Monday introduced tough new restrictions on the Pacific nation's media which Rupert Murdoch's News Limited attacked as "an appalling assault on free speech".

Fiji's military leader Voreqe Bainimarama has been tightening controls on the media since he overthrew the elected government in a 2006 coup.

Last year he sent censors into newsrooms to prevent "negative" stories being reported after sacking the judiciary and voiding the constitution.

The latest media decree introduces stiff penalties for journalists and media organisations that breach provisions and orders that all media outlets must be 90 per cent owned by Fijians.

The Fiji Times, a particular thorn in the government's side which is owned by News Limited, the Australian branch of Murdoch's global media empire, has been given three months to comply with the decree.

"I wish to make it clear that any media organisation which fails to comply with this requirement shall cease to operate as a media organisation, and shall also be liable for an offence under the decree," Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum told a news conference.

"At this stage, Fiji Times is the media organisation that needs to comply with the ownership requirements," said Sayed-Khaiyum, who has previously described the paper as a "purveyor of negativity".

News Limited chairman and chief executive John Hartigan said the decree was "an appalling assault on free speech and a terrible blow for the fragile economy of Fiji".

"This is an outrageous precedent that will make foreign investors in other industries very nervous about their involvement and support there," he said in a statement.

Hartigan said the company would explore other options about how to remain involved in the media in Fiji, where it has run The Fiji Times for 23 years.

"We will fight while we still can, but there is no doubt that this move is designed to force our hand in selling the business and pulling out of Fiji altogether," he said.

News said the move was devastating for the 180 staff of The Fiji Times, who they said have already endured censorship, physical intimidation and the deportation of two successive managing directors in 2008 and 2009.

Under the decree, news reports would be required to exclude material that is "against the public interest or order", or could cause "communal discord".

A government-appointed Media Tribunal would rule on complaints against the media.

Since a draft decree was issued in April, some proposed penalties have been reduced. But editors could still be fined 25,000 Fiji dollars ($12,600), or jailed for two years, for some breaches. Companies could be fined up to 100,000 dollars for violations.

Amnesty International has said the decree will extend the widespread censorship of newspapers and broadcasters in Fiji, whose international isolation has deepened as Bainimarama turns the screw on dissenting voices.