Fiji economist and media critic Professor Wadan Narsey at his former institution, University of the South Pacific. Image: USP
Pacific Scoop: Comment – Professor Wadan Narsey
In recent weeks, the Fiji print media have begun to play a more “responsible” role in holding those in authority to account as the country prepares for the promised elections in September.
They are printing critical letters to the editor, some of them several months after they were originally sent (and resent recently).
Some idea of the extent of self-censorship in the past, and recent easing may be gauged by examining just this page on my personal blog site which published the letters as they were sent over the last year.
Some recently published letters question Ministry of Education policies, while some question the extent to which the Permanent Secretary of Finance is exercising proper responsibility over ministerial salaries.
However, some important letters are still not being published, for instance the following calling on the Electoral Commission to act immediately in the interests of free and fair elections.
Given that the promised September elections are going to be crucial to the restoration of accountable parliamentary democracy in Fiji, the media clearly have some way to go in returning to its pre-2006 robust role holding those in authority to account.
Rules of the game
Letter to the Editor (Fiji Times, Fiji Sun, Island Business, Republika) 22 January 2014
Ensuring a fair elections game
It might reassure some that the Electoral Commission has announced that it will not be a “rubber stamp” for the Bainimarama government but will do its utmost to ensure “free and fair” elections. The current reality indicates otherwise.
In any free and fair “game”, the opposing teams play on a “level playing field” with no side having any unfair advantage, and both sides know exactly what the rules of the game are going to be decided independently, before they start the game.
By these criteria, the Electoral Commission is surely aware that the elections games are currently not fair at all: one side is appointing their own referee, while giving itself all the penalties and free kicks it wants.
First, the unelected Bainimarama ministers can clearly be accused of using tax-payers’ money and donor resources, on a weekly basis to buy voter support, just as previous governments were accused of doing, such as through the Agricultural Scam.
Second, the media is clearly giving far more coverage to pro-Bainimarama statements (by ministers, supporters and editorials) than to Opposition voices.
Third, the Bainimarama government still has not announced what exactly will be the rules of the elections game-i.e. the electoral system and regulations which they themselves are going to impose on the country (having dumped the independent Ghai Commission rules), leaving the political parties totally ignorant of the rules they will be playing under.
Fourth, by not announcing the exact elections date, the Bainimarama regime is denying other political parties and civil society organisations the opportunity to properly plan their voter education campaigns and prepare their teams for the election games.
Fifth, they have unilaterally appointed their own electoral referees.
In contrast, Commodore Bainimarama and his advisory cabal, are no doubt well aware of the rules of the game they will be imposing on Fiji, and when.
There is clearly no level playing field for all parties facing the upcoming elections games.
To show the public that they are genuine about ensuring free and fair elections and not merely being “rubber stamps”, the Electoral Commission must publicly require the Bainimarama Government
(a) to immediately release details of the electoral system and regulations under which elections will be held.
(b) to announce when exactly they intend to hold the elections.
(c) to require ministers who are going to be candidates in the elections, to resign from government six months before the elections, to ensure that they do not use tax payers’ and donors funds for their campaigning.
(d) to require that the MIDA act immediately to ensure that there is political balance in the media reporting.
Professor Wadan Narsey
Professor Wadan Narsey is a Fiji economist and analyst and adjunct professor at James Cook University. He publishes his own columns and blogs.