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Fiji government imposes new public order controls

Associated Press - January 6, 2012

Suva, Fiji Fiji's government stepped back from a promise of a more open society Friday, imposing new controls on public order just a day before it was supposed to lift more than two years of emergency rule.

While the new controls are a somewhat looser version of the emergency rule imposed by Commodore Frank Bainimarama in 2009, critics of the military ruler are expected to decry the latest move as further evidence of bad faith by his regime.

Bainimarama's government had announced on New Year's Day that it would lift the emergency rule Saturday, but the new rules indicate that the military government will still maintain tight control.

"This modernization (of public order controls) is necessary to effectively address terrorism, offenses against public order and safety, racial and religious vilification, hate speech and economic sabotage," Bainimarama told reporters in the capital, Suva.

Bainimarama, who seized power in a coup in late 2006, imposed the emergency regulations in mid-2009 after the South Pacific nation's Court of Appeal ruled his military government was illegal.

The self-appointed prime minister said the latest public order laws are not extreme when compared to other countries.

"For example, for any breach of the offenses under the Public Order Act, a person can only be detained for a maximum of 48 hours and if need be for a further 14 days but only if the commissioner of police deems it necessary and with the consent of the (interior) minister," he said. The police commissioner is a member of the country's ruling military clique.

While the previous detention rules were somewhat loosened, a ban against public meetings was also expected to be relaxed, but that was not the case.

Bainimarama said Friday that his government seeks to empower Fijians, modernize the country and strengthen the economy.

In a statement Sunday, he stressed that public order would be maintained and that he would soon announce nationwide consultation for a new constitution, beginning next month, to establish a democratically elected government.

His regime has already created a media council with powers that ensure the state's continuing control over what is published. Under the new rules, military censors are expected to disappear permanently from media newsrooms, but stiff 100,000 Fiji dollar ($50,000) fines for breaching content regulations come into force for media organizations. Journalists face fines of up to F$1,000, and publishers and editors can be fined as much as F$25,000 or jailed for two years for some breaches.

Bainimarama has broken earlier pledges to return Fiji to democracy, but for the past two years has consistently claimed elections will be held in 2014.

When he seized power, Bainimarama said Fiji's ruling political classes were corrupt and that the existing voting system was racially based to give indigenous Fijians greater voting power than the ethnic Indians who make up around 35 percent of the nation's 900,000 people.

He said Fiji had been mismanaged and hindered by greed and selfishness. "You and I must not allow a few to dictate the destiny of our country for their own selfish needs," he said in Sunday's New Year's message.

Relations between Fiji and many countries have soured since Bainimarama seized power, and he has remained under heavy pressure to return the country to democracy.

Fiji has had sanctions and financial penalties imposed on it by the United States, European Union, Australia and New Zealand. It remains suspended from the British-led Commonwealth grouping of 53 nations mainly former British colonies.

While many countries and the Commonwealth welcomed Sunday's moves, the latest controls are expected to find few supporters among democratic states.

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