Fiji NGOs will have to ‘manoeuvre’ controversial electoral provision
Section 115 of the decree restricts any person or group receiving foreign funding from campaigning on election issues, and that includes organising debates or meetings, or publishing information.
The Electoral Commission has been pressed to remove the provision but officials have told NGOs that any grievances must be submitted to the Minister for Elections directly.
Reverend Akuila Yabaki, the head of the Citizens’ Constitutional Forum, says NGOs will have to be very careful in the lead up to the September elections.
Presenter: Richard Ewart
Speaker: Reverend Akuila Yabaki, head of the Citizens Constitutional Forum
YABAKI: I have recently received a letter from the chair of the Electoral Commission, which has governed under the Electoral Commission of Fiji, Fiji Elections Office must comply with that electoral decree as their governing legislation. And there is a widespread concern amongst NGOs and civil society organisations about Section 115, which defines campaigning in the way that you have indicated, and any submission would change to that legislation it could be made directly to the minister of elections, which raises the issue again of the independence of the Electoral Commission. I raised that question a couple of days ago when we had a meeting, yesterday’s meeting with the Electoral Commission. And it was explained to us that the Electoral Commission is not beholden to the Minister for Elections, so that’s where we are. But if we want to make submissions or changes it can’t be done. I mean for the last couple of months NGOs have written to the AG’s office who is which is also the Minister for Elections desiring that they should be removed, Section 115, but nothing has happened. But as we speak it looks as if we need to contend, we have to contend with the Section 115 and then we’ll just have to manoeuvre our way through that legislation and see that we do not obviously openly side with any political party, because they could be deemed as campaigning.
EWART: Can I ask on this question of foreign funding, how is that being defined? Are we talking about funding from a commercial entity, because I know for example that the United Nations was standing by to assist with election campaigning?
YABAKI: Yeah well the way it was brought up and brought to my attention was actually from the European Union, a head of a delegation is here. And I went to his office, he explained to me that instead of an NGO I’d been seen to be as it were siding with a political party. And I assured him that was not the case, I was distributing a summary of the, a booklet which also has been here in this campaigning, a booklet on a summary on the government constitution, which we will be governed under. And I had to go public and make a public statement to assure the public and the NGOs, the partner organisations that we’re not siding with any political party. So actually it’s funny that’s how it was brought to my attention, this came from the European Union, which is a major funder of some of our work. So that’s how it came to be and I had to go into action and make it clear that we’re not aligning with any political party, so we’re strictly engaged with everyone. EVery Fijian citizen.
EWART: You mentioned the European Union, under this decree if a political party campaigning during the Fijian election were to receive report from the European Union or from the United Nations, I mean is that legal or illegal under this Section 115?
YABAKI: Well it’s actually quite specific for NGOs, maybe organisations like the one that I head, Citizens Constitutional Forum, because we’re critically engaged with government on matters of the constitution with cases and things. And my quest is provide the best example of what they’re trying to point out.
EWART: So again just to clarify so as long as non-government organisation is deemed to be shall we say politically neutral and campaigning on issues rather than for a political party then this funding issue is not necessarily a problem?
YABAKI: I think yes, I think we need to take that fine line and we’re doing that, we’re not campaigning for a political party, we won’t be doing that. Our task is educating the people on ongoing constitutional matters and we will be joining the voter education, campaign. Helping people to know the rules, we’ll be offering ourselves and we will be sending out a list of criteria, of what rules you to adhere to if you wish to participate.
EWART: You’ve indicated that the Electoral Commission has said that it cannot remove this provision, that will be a matter for the Minister for Elections. Do you intend to pursue the matter with the minister now or will you just leave it and try to work around it?
YABAKI: Well we have already pursued that, the NGO coalition has written and we’ve had our own, the organisation’s had its own meetings with the Attorney General’s office, with him, with himself, with Sayed-Khaiyum, and we made this clear, but the battle goes on. But we need to see to it that this section of the legislation be removed, because it does become an obstacle to people’s work.