Asia Rights

Journal of Human Rights, Media and Society in Asia and the Pacific

Crisis in Fiji

AsiaRights talks to Professor Brij Lal about tightening media controls in Fiji, and about his recent expulsion from his homeland by the Fijian government


AsiaRights: Fiji is currently introducing new media controls. Can you tell AsiaRights something about the background to and scope of these controls?


Lal: Fiji has been governed by decrees since the abrogation of the
constitution in April 2009. Public Emergency Regulations in force
since then curtail the freedom of speech and movement. The military
regime has placed censors in the newsrooms of the papers and in the
country’s major television station. Nothing that the regime
disapproves of is printed or broadcast. It authorizes the publication
of only pro-regime news. The regime has now gone a step further by
drafting a decree which will muzzle media freedom even further. Only
‘responsible’ news will be allowed to be published, and the regime
will decide what is ‘responsible.’

AsiaRights: How do you think the controls will affect the media in Fiji?

 Lal: The freedom of the media is under severe threat in Fiji. The
control of the media is part of a larger intimidatory strategy to
coerce the population into acquiescence, to quell any hint of
resistance. One result of the suppression of the media in Fiji is the
emergence of a number of blogsites which disseminate both reliable as
well as unreliable news. People with access to the internet are able
to read overseas newspapers, but the bulk of the population is in the
dark about what is happening in the country. They are thus susceptible
to manipulation by the regime.

AsiaRights: Is it currently possible for debate about the media controls themselves to take place in Fiji, or is this debate too made impossible by the current regime?

Lal: Before the present state of affairs, Fiji had a fairly robust and
independent Media Council which played an important watch-dog role.
But now it has been emasculated because it refused to succumb to the
pressures put upon it by the interim regime. There is no opportunity
to engage in a meaningful debate about the media, or anything else for that matter. The regime is not interested in a genuine dialogue with anyone. It is either their way or the highway, so to speak. And there is very little anyone can do about it. All the power is on the other
side. The ever-present fear of harassment and intimidation is
conducive to the creation of a culture of silence. So there is
censorship as well as self-censorship.

AsiaRights: You were recently expelled from Fiji at short notice. Can you tell AsiaRights about your experience?

Lal: I was expelled from Fiji on 4 November 2009. I was never told why it was that I was being asked to leave the country (where I was born and where my wife still works). I have been a vocal critic of the
latest coup, as indeed I have been of all the coups in Fiji since
1987. It is my firm view that coups don’t solve problems; they only
serve to compound them. My views are on the public record so I was
puzzled why they hauled me up to the barracks so late in the piece. I
suspect it was the result of frustration on the part of the interim
regime. Their narrative about events and developments in Fiji lacks
traction and is successfully countered by other version of things
there. I suppose they thought that by intimidating me, they will senda powerful signal to other dissenters in Fiji. But my expulsion is a
pyrrihic  victory for the regime. The world is far too connected now
for Fiji to remain isolated. Fiji cannot go it alone however much it
may want to. Blaming the messenger will not solve Fiji’s problems. For
me, silence in the face of oppression is not an option, nor is the
defense of democratic values and the rule of law a crime. The right to
dissent is sacred in all civilized societies.

AsiaRights: Do you hope to be able to return to Fiji at any time in the near future?

Lal: I certainly hope that my enforced absence from Fiji is temporary
and that I will be able to return to Fiji to continue my research once
the dust has settled. I have been researching and writing about Fiji
for the last thirty years or so and I have a number of research
projects under way that will require field work there. My commitment
to the welfare of Fiji is absolute and unwavering. My disagreement
with the current regime in Fiji should not be construed as a sign of
disloyalty to the place of my birth.

AsiaRights: How do you see the future for the Fijian political system, and for human rights in Fiji?

Lal: The military regime says that the constitution it abrogated in
April 2009 was flawed and therefore unsuitable for Fiji. I happen to
disagree. But be that as it may, we don’t know what kind of
constitution for Fiji the military has in mind. It says that it will
start a political dialogue process in February 2010 but will exclude
political parties from participating in it. If that happens, the
outcome sadly will be a stillborn child. The whole process would lack
credibility. I hope the promised dialogue would be inclusive andparticipatory. I have the lingering suspicion that in whatever
constitutional structure emerges in the future, the military will have
a visible and permanent role. Turkey has been talked about as a
possible model for Fiji.

AsiaRights: Is there anything that outsiders can usefully do to assist the cause of human rights and media freedoms in Fiji?

Lal: There has been a tendency among some to blame the international community for Fiji’s problems. I do not share that view. Fiji’s problems have been created by Fiji’s political leaders and it is their responsibility to resolve them. My sense is that the international
community stands ready to help, but there has to be a willingness on
the part of Fiji’s leaders to engage in a genuine dialogue. Fiji wants
international aid but not advice about how to get out of the
cul-de-sac it currently finds itself in. That won’t do. The
international community has a moral obligation to stand up for the
fundamental rights of freedom that humanity has embraced as its own.
Fiji needs to be constantly reminded that it is an island, yes, but an
island in the physical sense alone.