Friday, August 8, 2014
Amnesty International has issued a damning report which calls for the restoration of basic human rights in Fiji, including those of free expression and a free press. “A combination of draconian laws, a pattern of intimidation and harassment of those who are critical of the government, as well as reports of torture and other ill-treatment by the security forces,” it points out, “have created a climate of fear.”
The report comes six weeks before the country is to hold elections intended to restore democracy after almost eight years of military rule. The Amnesty report casts doubt on whether the elections will be free and fair, however, given regime-imposed restrictions on basic human rights, including freedoms of expression, association, assembly, and the press. “Those rights still remain restricted in law, policy and practice, therefore deterring people from speaking freely,” the report states. “Fiji’s current government must commit to protecting and respecting human rights in the lead up to elections, including by lifting restrictions on freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association and refraining from acts of intimidation or harassment against political candidates, civil society organizations, journalists and others.” Amnesty points to the multitudinous decrees imposed by the regime that restrict basic human rights.
Amnesty International is concerned that the government continues to use decrees to criminalize peaceful political activities and to arrest, detain, fine and imprison people for the peaceful exercise of their human rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. Further, human rights defenders, journalists and trade union leaders inFiji continue to face harassment and intimidation solely for carrying out their legitimate work peacefully.
The decrees include the Public Order Amendment Decree, the Crimes Decree, and the Media Decree, which include “hefty” fines and even imprisonment for people exercising their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. “A journalist may face two years in prison for publishing something which is not in the ‘public interest,’” the report notes. “A person may be imprisoned for five years for saying something which ‘undermines the economy of Fiji.’ In addition to this, a person attending a public meeting without a permit or who breaches permit conditions can be imprisoned for up to five years and fined $10,000.”
Heavy fines and jail terms can be imposed on the media for publications that “threaten the public interest or order, is against national interest, offends good taste or creates communal discord.” Collectively, these restrictions in law, policy and practice have compromised frank and fearless media reporting.
Contempt of court proceedings have also been used to stifle expression, the report points out, and concerns have been raised about the independence of media outlets, “including a failure to provide equal space to different political candidates and refusal to publish letters or articles which are critical of the government.” The restrictions, combined with heavy fines for breaching the regulations imposing them, have “stifled open debate on key matters of national interest.”
The media must be empowered to publish a diverse range of views, including criticism of government or of political candidates, without fear of retribution. To achieve this, the government should lift existing restrictions on the media and ensure that journalists will not be subject to prosecution, intimidation or harassment for the peaceful exercise of their right to express and publish diverse views.
The report also points to a number of people who have been “subjected to politically-motivated charges for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, resulting in lengthy and costly court battles, including criminal charges against two former Prime Ministers.” A student recently had his government scholarship revoked for “associating in political agendas,” notes the report, “after he had spent a day volunteering with an independent opposition candidate for elections.” It also highlights the arrest of protesters calling for changes in the Constitution and calling for the government’s budget to be made public in 2013 and the refusal of permission for a number of planned peaceful protests. “In addition, the police have disbanded a number of private meetings, including an internal staff meeting of the Fiji Women’s Rights Movement (July 2012) and private gatherings of politicians,” the report notes. “These cases show a disturbing pattern of interference with the right to peaceful assembly and association.”
|The Fiji Times . . . deluxe forever|
The report calls on the regime to repeal provisions of the Constitution, Public Order Amendment Decree, Media Industry Development Decree, and the Crimes Decree which criminalize freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. It also notes that the rights to form or join a trade union and to collectively bargain, while supposedly protected in the Constitution, have been rendered “almost meaningless” by regime decrees. The Essential National Industries Decree severely curtails the right to strike, bans overtime payments and voids existing collective agreements for workers in key sectors of the economy, including sugar, aviation and tourism. The Political Parties Decree, the Electoral Decree, and the Constitution prevent trade union officials from engaging in political activity or even campaigning on issues such as workers’ rights. “Amnesty International is deeply concerned at the failure to respect workers’ rights in Fiji, including through restrictions on freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association for workers,” states the report, noting that a a high-level mission from the International Labour Organisation was expelled from Fiji in 2012. “The ILO has identified Fiji as one of five countries where workers’ rights violations are the most serious and urgent.”
It also condemns recent instances of torture, which were condoned by Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, and interference by the government with judges and lawyers contrary to international law and standards. It points to the arbitrary removal of judges, lack of security of tenure, and reports of executive interference in the judiciary. “Collectively, this undermines the independence of the judiciary. An independent judiciary is critical to ensuring that victims of human rights violations can seek redress through national courts.” The report does commit one embarrasing gaffe, attributing a statement made by NFP leader Professor Biman Prasad to Bainimarama. “On 12 June 2014, Prime Minister Bainimarama stated on Fiji One TV, ‘People who are opinion makers, academics, NGOs, trade union officials, they’ve all been banned from taking part in political activities and actually talking about the issues.’” Oops, that was Biman. It didn’t sound like something Frank would say. . . .
Amnesty also published on its website a blog entry by a student activist in Fiji who pointed to the suppression of the draft constitution drawn up by an independent commission almost two years ago and the withholding of several years worth of Auditor General’s reports as evidence of political repression. “Once again the lacking consent and genuinity [sic.] behind such actions, leaves us in a state of repressed dissatisfaction, frustration and worst of all, disempowerment,” lamented Jope Tarai.
The fact that the Ghai draft constitution was thrown out, after it inadvertently provided opposing views to the regime, indicates the continuing possibility of genuinely laid plans for participation and engagement of the people, to be subjected to the regime’s whims and self-serving interests, at a drop of a hat. . . . The old Bainimarama one-liner and overused cliché of shaming all old politicians as being corrupt and deceitful, now leaves him no different from them, as he has become the same politician that he loves to malign.
Coup apologists are predictably furious, especially Crosbie Walsh, who claims that Amnesty has been “hoodwinked” by Fiji informants. “I have donated to Amnesty International for many years but have now stopped,” spat Croz on his blog. “This article provides an example of why I have changed my opinion about the quality of their work.”
Their assessment of theFiji situation is based on reports from those opposed to the Bainimarama Government. Their allegations are dated, exaggerated, and they appear to make no efforts to verify what they are told. AA was not formed to take sides during an election campaign.
No, Amnesty International was formed to shine a light on human rights violations worldwide, and it has rightly highlighted ongoing and relentless outrages in Fiji. Croz, who quit the blogging game late last year but has recently made a comeback for the election campaign, seems to be saying that those opposed to Bainimarama should not be listened to, making him a veritable cheerleader for the suppression of freedom of expression. He also suggests that any political repression by the regime is either trifling or in the past. Not so, as has been chronicled on this blog and elsewhere. Bainimarama is doing his very best to shut up any political opposition, which will ensure his election, and he is doing it with virtual impunity domestically because the media in Fiji are by and large too intimidated to make much noise about it. The regime is also moving the goalposts on a regular basis across what is already an uphill political playing field for any who dare to oppose Bainimarama. His latest move to amend the Electoral Decree to include a two-year residency requirement for candidates, which renders ineligible three NFP candidates, has opposition parties livid.
Bainimarama is currently in New Zealand campaigning, but ironically the Fijian citizens whose votes he will be asking for have effectively been rendered second-class citizens because under this amendment none of them are now able to run for office. It will be interesting to see how a free press covers his visit. What fun and games! You simply couldn’t make this stuff up, and I’m sure it’s only going to get better as election day approaches. If only Grubby were around to join in the fun. Actually, he’s still here. He’s just lurking, for the sake of his employability in Australia, under his new identity: “Anonymous.” Just try leaving a critical comment on the Crozblog and he’ll jump all over you. That’s right, the international award-winning journalist has been reduced to subsisting as an Internet troll. He and Esther make quite the pair.
UPDATE: Victor Lal over at Fijileaks has dug up a dilly. This letter shows what can happen to your village should someone there speak ill of the regime.