Thursday, March 21, 2013

Draft constitution giveth, then taketh away

Media freedom guarantees in the Draft Constitution of Fiji are identical to those in the version proposed by the Ghai commission. Then you get to the next section, which wasn't in the Ghai draft. It says the government of the day can pass laws limiting media freedom. In effect, with one hand the constitution gives Fijians a right, and with the other hand allows the government to take it away. The list of allowable reasons (read excuses) to limit media freedom is HALF AGAIN LONGER than the sections "guaranteeing" media freedom.
17.––(3) A law may limit, or may authorise the limitation of, the right to freedom of expression in the interests of––
(a) national security, public safety, public order, public morality, public health or the orderly conduct of elections;
(b) the protection or maintenance of the reputation, privacy, dignity, rights or freedoms of other persons, including––
(i) the right to be free from hate speech, whether directed against individuals or groups; and
(ii) the rights of persons injured by inaccurate or offensive media reports to have a correction published on reasonable conditions established by law;
(c) preventing the disclosure, as appropriate, of information received in confidence;
(d) preventing attacks on the dignity of individuals, groups of individuals or respected offices or institutions in a manner likely to promote ill will between ethnic or religious groups or the oppression of, or discrimination against, any person or group of persons;
(e) maintaining the authority and independence of the courts;
(f) imposing reasonable restrictions on the holders of public offices in order to secure their impartial and confidential service;
(g) regulating the technical administration of telecommunications; or
(h) making provisions for the enforcement of media standards and providing for the regulation, registration and conduct of media organisations.
This is exactly what the Ghai commission warned against in tabling its draft constitution in December. In order for its guarantees of media and other freedoms to have any meaning, the commission led by reknowned legal scholar Yash Ghai pointed out, several of the 241 decrees passed by the interim government would have to be repealed or modified. That would, of course, include the contentious 2010 Media Industry Development Decree. It has cast a deep chill over Fiji journalists by subjecting them to fines and even prison sentences for publishing or broadcasting anything deemed "against public interest or order, or national interest, or which offends against good taste or decency and creates communal discord." In a separate Explanatory Report, the Ghai commission insisted that  decrees inconsistent with its proposed constitutional rights would have to be repealed or amended, including the Media Decree, the Television Decree, and the State Proceedings Amendment Decree. In its version, the interim government instead explicitly sets out its right to impose such laws. In effect, it renders the stated "rights" meaningless.

The same sleight of hand is used in subsequent sections "guaranteeing" the rights of Freedom of Assembly, Association, Movement, and even Religion. The regime's Decree Spree has been limiting these rights for years, and the Bainimarama government isn't about to have all its hard work undone by any pesky Constitution. Its Public Emergency Regulation, which imposed martial law in 2009 and was only lifted last year, took away most of those rights. Even though the PER has been lifted, government decrees have since taken away such basic rights as Freedom of Assembly, as seen in the recent cancellation of the planned "Take Back the Night" march because it inconveniently coincided with release of the torture video. In effect, Fiji has been declared to be in a permanent state of emergency and rendered nothing less than a Police State.

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