A momentous political maneuvre was made in Fiji last night. Er, tonight. (I still can't get used to being 21 hours behind Fiji time.) As a non-Fijian, I try to avoid commenting on matters of Fiji politics and confine myself to matters of Fiji media. Of course, the two sometimes overlap, as they did a day ago. (There, that works.) Whether two layers of 215 political representatives or one layer of a few dozen parliamentarians would be an appropriate government for Fiji is a matter for political scientists to debate. Whether former civil servants should be allowed to become cabinet ministers if allegations of corruption have been made against them is a legal matter under the principle of presumption of innocence. Whether the military should be downsized and/or return to the barracks in order to end the "coup culture" and restore political stability to the country, on the other hand, is more likely a matter of common sense.
The most important thing, I would argue, is to allow free and open discussion on these important political issues affecting the country's future. The country's new constitution will only have legitimacy if all Fijians are allowed to express their opinions on what it should contain and a thorough discussion and deliberation on the issues ensues. The problem is that free and open discussion is about the last thing the military dictatorship in Fiji seems to want. Instead it seems intent on stifling dissent and imposing its will on the country. As a result, "genuine" democracy is unlikely to visit Fiji any time soon.
After inviting world renowned law professor Yash Ghai to help craft a new constitution, the regime has now announced that portions of the draft document are unacceptable because they would allow elites to dominate and foreigners to influence Fiji's government. In an effort to discredit the respected constitutional scholar, the government has mustered its spin doctors to whisper that he was seen socialising with the wrong people and thus was not neutral and to quote an anonymous "friend" to the effect that Ghai was intent on being a "savior" of Fiji. The movement to Trash Ghai was obviously an attempt to soften up Fijians for the official backing away from the draft constitution he came up with, which is what has now happened.
The government will now revise the draft constitution to its liking before putting it before its hand-picked Constituent Assembly for ratification. Ordinary Fijians will not get to provide the feedback that Ghai had promised before being overruled by decree. And if you expect a vigorous discussion of the issues in the media . . . well, don't hold your breath. That half of the Fiji media which is in the pocket of government will push its amendments as only reasonable under the circumstances, while that half of the Fiji media which is intimidated into silence will be . . . well, intimidated into silence. That's because decrees such as the Media Decree and the TV Decree remain in force and will continue in force despite the draft constitution's warning that they must be repealed or revised if the media freedom it sees as essential to democracy in Fiji is to result. That is simply not going to happen, because these decrees are central to the "reforms" the regime has been busy implementing for the past few years in order to allow it to steer the country in the direction it wants and remain in power for decades to come. The dictator himself admitted as much not too long ago. "This is not an ordinary government," Bainimarama told ABC in a remarkable 2010 interview. "We’re trying to bring about reforms and changes, and for that . . . we’ll need to shut some people up."
We are working towards democracy in 2014 when we have parliamentary democracy, when we have election. And in the meantime there are many reforms that we need to put in place, and those reforms will never happen if we open everything out to every Tom, Dick and Harry to have their say. . . . We need to stop all people speaking out against the government and its reform.The Media Decree had been recently put in place at the time of the interview, but the TV Decree and the State Proceedings Amendment Decree, which gives government ministers licence to slander poltical opponents at will, had not. The explanation the dictator gave to interviewer Philippa McDonald for the creeping media repression is just as applicable at this critical juncture in the process as it was then.
McDONALD: I think people are grappling with why you have to keep shutting people up four years after the coup.Which brings me to the comment I tried to post on Grubsheet just now but could not because Grubby is trying to shut me up. "A genuine democracy will only be achieved in Fiji if free expression returns," I tried to say. "It will thus be interesting to see if the Ghai Commission's recommendations about lifting the draconian provisions of the Media Decree are followed."
BAINIMARAMA: Well it’s.... I keep harping about bringing the changes, and we can’t bring about changes if there are people that are still talking about bringing instability. Because if we do that, I can tell you, Philippa, we open this to the public, we’ll never have election in 2014. I tell you that. That I can guarantee you.
McDONALD: What’s going to happen? It sounds like you don’t trust the people.
BAINIMARAMA: I don’t. I don’t trust the people. That why I.... we’re trying to make this bring about all these changes without letting Fiji Times for instance open their mouths about something that is not happening in Fiji.