Under Frank Bainimarama, the unmovable prime minister in power since the 2006 military coup, journalists are often subjected to intimidation or even imprisonment when overly critical of the government. The election of Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka as head of the Republic of Fiji at the end of 2022 has not brought about any significant change for the news industry, but after 16 years of semi-autocratic rule, it represents a sign of hope.
Two dailies dominate the print media landscape – the pro-government Fiji Sun and the more independent Fiji Times, the archipelago’s oldest paper, which was founded in 1869. Two TV broadcasters, the state-owned Fiji Broadcasting Corporation (FBC) and the privately owned Fiji Television, compete for traditional viewers while Mai TV, founded in 2008, is providing TV news online. Radio is the key medium for a population scattered over a hundred islands, with FBC’s leading position challenged by members of the FijiVillage media group such as Radio Sargam, Navtarang and Viti FM.
Since the 2000s, press freedom has been directly affected by sporadic authoritarian outbursts from Bainimarama, the former army chief, who continues to act like a soldier although now prime minister. “Our leaders have good reasons to stifle criticism of their policies by curtailing freedom of speech and freedom of the press”, one of his army allies wrote at the height of the pandemic. In general, the pressure on the media from the civil and military authorities is structural. But some politicians, such as National Federation Party leader Biman Prasad, have shown their support for a free press.
The news media operated in the shadow of the draconian 2010 Media Industry Development Decree (which became law in 2018), and the regulator created by this law, the Media Industry Development Authority (MIDA), which is directly linked to the government. Journalists could be jailed for up to two years for violating this law’s vaguely worded provisions. The decree was finally repealed on 6 April 2023. The sedition laws, which have repeatedly been misused against the Fiji Times, also fuel a climate of fear and self-censorship thanks to penalties of up to seven years in prison.
The authorities use discriminatory advertising practices to blackmail the media, withholding ads and legal notices from those regarded as critical of the government. At the height of the pandemic, for example, the pro-government Fiji Sun benefited from a preferential advertising allocation at the expense of its rival, the Fiji Times, which was also banned from distribution in several parts of the archipelago because, the government argued, “the press is a non-essential service”.
Fiji’s 940,000 inhabitants form a multicultural society with three official languages – Fijian, English and Fiji Hindi. The descendants of the original inhabitants make up just over half of the current population, while the descendants of the labourers that the British colonial rulers brought from the Indian subcontinent constitute a little less than 40%. The result is a fairly fragmented media landscape, with different outlets catering to individual linguistic communities.
Journalists’ interests are represented by the Fiji Media Association (FMA), which often criticises the government’s harassment of the media. Journalists face the threat of heavy fines or imprisonment for publishing material “contrary to the public or national interest”, a term that is poorly defined in the law, while the regulator, the MIDA, is often accused of bias. Against this backdrop, many journalists must think twice before publishing content critical of the authorities.