Friday, August 15, 2014

Criminalising the public sphere

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.

Shamima Ali: “baseless accusations . . . uttered for political gain.”
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.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Amnesty International: Fiji must end “climate of fear”

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 in Fiji 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 the Fiji 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.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

ASK’s complaints about media coverage absurd

The constipated Attorney-General went on the offensive last week against his favorite target – the news media  accusing them of lacking expertise and being biased. (Yes, the word media is a plural, which no one in the Southern Hemisphere seems to realize.) There is no doubt that working journalists in Fiji lack expertise, most of the best having been driven out of the profession by low pay and the junta’s media repression over the past eight years. But for the most part, Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum’s complaints about a “he said, she said” style of journalism are fairly absurd when one considers that his regime has been pushing “balance” as the highest ideal of journalism, aside from simply asking the government what to report, of course. And don’t get me started on media bias. Then again. . . . .

He’s no doubt having another journalist sacked
Sayed Khaiyum expressed his frustration at reporting of the ongoing election campaign in a press conference at FijiFist offices on Thursday. “I think the level of analysis is very, very shallow,” he said. “Still many of the journalists are very much ‘he said that, she said that.’ They don’t carry out any analysis themselves whereas there should be two to three journalists to carry that out and read facts for themselves. . . . It seems that the media organisations don’t want to go and gather information themselves. They still have this culture of ‘this leader said, the other politician said that’ and that’s all they do, so that’s not very good coverage and what we find again is the lack of media organisation’s [sic.] ability to bring information to members of the public; independent information; correct information but you know also I think some media organisations are still really biased.”

“He said, she said” reporting has its roots in the ethic of objectivity, behind which many news media hide, preferring to let both sides have their say and eschewing any duty to sort out who might be playing fast and loose with the facts. Its danger was pointed up by the rise of McCarthyism in the U.S. during the 1950s, as the junior senator from Wisconsin began loudly proclaiming that he had a list of so many Communists in the government. (The number kept changing.) Most reporters simply reported McCarthy's claims without looking into their accuracy. They turned out to be wildly overblown, but not before the careers of many were ruined by being blacklisted. A turn away from objectivity resulted in the 1960s and today the prevailing ethic is fairness rather than balance and objectivity.

Of course, a more analytical form of reporting would be preferable in Fiji, but it is way beyond anything that journalism as practiced there is capable of providing. Even in advanced democracies with highly skilled journalists, “he said, she said” reporting is the norm. It’s something Jay Rosen of NYU has been railing against for years, even from such august publications as the New York Times. His nagging has had some effect, at least on National Public Radio, which officially repudiated the practice a couple of years ago. In Fiji, where the best and most experienced journalists fled either overseas or into higher-paying positions in public relations years ago, most reporters seem to have difficulty even stringing together a coherent sentence, must less providing insightful analysis. It’s a testament to the poor level of public education, but also to the almost laughable level of journalism education. I’m glad that I was at least able to leave behind one cohort, maybe two, of journalism students who have been well drilled in the basics of reporting, not to mention in what the basic duties of a journalist are. (Hint: Being a mouthpiece for the government isn’t one of them.) That will no doubt be changing with the recent return of the “Journalism of Hope” to a certain regional university.

At issue with Sayed Khaiyum, apparently, are reports both on the economy and on the size of a crowd. When it comes to the economy, the junta obviously prefers the news media to get their facts from government agencies so it can control what is reported. But that wasn’t what seemed to have ASK upset the most. He obviously thought the crowd at last weekend’s “Family Fun Day” put on by his party was much larger than was reported in the Fiji Times.
Anybody who knows how to count will tell you that there weren’t 500 people at Sukuna Park on Saturday at midday; there were more like 5000 people but some media organisations were saying that there were 500 people. I mean these are the kind of things that the media organisations and some of these journalists are doing it deliberately; whether they cannot count or whether they are somewhat not very proactive in terms of getting information, I think this is something that needs to be improved upon.
The issue of crowd estimates is a thorny one for news media, which usually have to rely on the police to provide them. As the police are responsible for crowd control, they usually have a handle on how many are in attendance. I’m guessing that such an estimate was not provided to reporters, who were forced to come up with an estimate of their own and possibly erred on the low side. Or it’s quite possible that from his perspective as a partisan, ASK saw what he wanted to see at his party’s bash and estimated the crowd at closer to 5,000. Media bias, after all, is largely a matter of perspective. It has been well established that partisans see news media coverage as biased against them. It’s known as the Hostile Media Effect and has been the subject of considerable research. It was discovered at Stanford in 1982 when Arab and Israeli partisans were shown the same news coverage from the Middle East and both sides saw it as biased against their side. It is a phenomenon that has been confirmed repeatedly in replications. It is no doubt also extant in Fiji. 

But, perceptions aside, media bias also undoubtedly exists, as has also been confirmed repeatedly by research. I have never quite seen media bias as in Fiji, where some media outlets slavishly promote the junta and others cower against its bullying. The question becomes, will certain media outlets stand up against the bullying and report what is really going on. ASK and his dictator puppet have good reason to be concerned if the Fiji Times and Fiji TV do just that and begin to report what seems to be a bit of an uprising against the regime on the eve of elections next month. The A-G may have just put his foot in it at his press conference when he actually complained about a lack of news media coverage on the defacing of a taxi emblazoned with FijiFist colours (well, more accurately Fiji colours) and apparent death threats against party officials. The story had actually been reported two weeks ago by the A-G’s brother’s TV network. But ASK’s complaining about it opened the door for the Times to report the story.  FBC also ran another story on the vandalism, which has also apparently included the defacing of FijiFist posters. ASK may soon regret opening this Pandora’s Box, because if the trend gathers momentum as a result of copycat attacks, things could get ugly fast for the dictatorship.