The public sphere, as conceived by German scholar Jurgen Habermas, is the space in society where people can freely discuss social issues and influence political action. It has been described as “a discursive space in which individuals and groups congregate to discuss matters of mutual interest and, where possible, to reach a common judgment.” The public sphere, according to Habermas, should be open to all citizens, who should be unrestricted in contributing to societal debate. It thus requires the preconditions of freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
The media, according to Habermas, are of particular importance for constituting and maintaining a public sphere. Discussions about the media have therefore been of particular importance in public sphere theory. To Habermas, the height of the public sphere was seen in the early days of newspapers in 19th Century England, where gentlemen would congregate in coffee houses to consider and debate the latest news. With the 20th Century, however, the press began to become co-opted by commercial interests, which appropriated the public sphere for its own purposes of marketing and restricting participation in the political process. Habermas’ seminal book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere was published in German in 1962 but not translated into English until 1989, when his ideas caught like wildfire with Western scholars.
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The relevance for Fiji, of course, is that the public sphere there has been not so much co-opted by commercial interests as criminalised by the state. Nowhere else in the world have prison sentences and fines been written into law in order to restrict participation in the public sphere. The consequences of this draconian action by self-appointed prime minister Frank Bainimarama reached new heights (or depths) of absurdity this week when the crackpot dictator publicly deplored the silence of non-governmental organisations after alleged racist and intolerant comments by opposition politicians. “Where are the human rights organisations now?” asked Bainmarma.It seems like they are willing to sacrifice values that many of their members hold dear simply to stand in opposition to my Government and its reforms. This isn’t leadership. This is cowardice and political calculation at its worst.
The only problem is that NGOs are prohibited from speaking out on election issues by Section 115 of the Electoral Decree, which was imposed by the Bainimarama’s regime earlier this year and since amended to prevent several opposition candidates from running. This is tantamount to the government putting a muzzle on NGOs and then accusing them of cowardice for not being able to speak. His criticism brought a sharp rebuke from Shamima Ali, chair of the Coalition for Human Rights.
Everyone knows that we spoke out against section 115 of the electoral decree because it more or less muzzled NGO’s in the lead up to elections in September. It took away our rights as citizens to take part in political debates and discussions. . . . This sort of intimidation has forced us to refrain from any political issues. In other words, we adhered to the decree and then now we are being criticized for it.
The Electoral Decree basically disenfranchised NGOs politically, in sharp contrast to the Ghai draft constitution, which would have explicitly provided a role for NGOs in the political process. Instead, their participation in the political sphere during an election campaign may now be punished under the Electoral Decree by “a fine not exceeding $50,000 or . . . a term of imprisonment not exceeding 10 years,” or both.
It shall be unlawful for any person, entity or organisation . . . that receives any funding or assistance from a foreign government, inter-governmental or non-governmental organisation or multilateral agency to engage in, participate in or conduct any campaign (including organising debates, public forum, meetings, interviews, panel discussions, or publishing any material) that is related to the election or any election issue or matter.
The Political Parties Decree prohibits any trade union officer from standing for election, further constraining the public sphere, and academics have also been shut out of the political process because universities have required them to resign if they want to run in the election. The Media Decree, of course, allows for fines up to $100,000 and prison terms of up to two years for journalists and media organisations that report anything deemed to be contrary to the national interest. As a result, journalists have engaged in heavy self-censorship, at least those not engaged in attacking regime critics on behalf of the dictatorship. As for the rights of freedom of assembly and freedom of association, Amnesty International has done an excellent job in chronicling how they have been curtailed, by decree, in Fiji.
The result has been nothing less than the criminalisation of the public sphere in Fiji, where speaking out can find you lighter in the wallet or, worse, land you in prison. It is the antithesis of the ideal of open public discussion of social and political issues as envisioned by Habermas, and a harsh indictment of the Fiji dictatorship. Will it result in a free and fair election next month? I think you know the answer to that question.