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Junta to strangle Fiji press freedom

The Australian - April 9, 2010

Chris Merritt and Mark Dodd Fiji's military-backed rulers have unveiled plans for a crackdown on the media in which journalists could be jailed for five years and newspapers fined $F500,000 ($280,000) for accurately reporting news a government agency says offends "good taste and decency".

Draft rules unveiled this week would establish a powerful new agency that could seize any documents from the media, force editors and journalists to disclose confidential sources, and force the media to publish statements dictated by the agency.

Disputes involving the agency's powers would be diverted from Fiji's courts to a special tribunal where normal rules of evidence would not apply.

The scheme is contained in a draft media industry development decree that would also prevent foreign media companies such as News Limited (publisher of The Australian) from owning more than 10 per cent of individual media organisations.

Fiji's plans to restrict foreign ownership of media were condemned yesterday by the federal government and opposition, and the Australian Press Council.

News Limited's Fiji Times newspaper is facing closure under the new rules.

According to Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the erosion of media freedom by Fiji's military-led junta, which took power in a 2006 coup, is a matter of concern.

"We are concerned with reports that... the interim government is attempting to censor media organisations... that prohibit reporting that is against the public or national interest," a DFAT spokesman said.

Australian Press Council executive secretary Jack Herman said the decree marked another step by the junta to inhibit the freedom of Fiji's journalists.

Through this decree, and by putting soldiers in newsrooms, it was attempting to control the news by intimidation, he said.

Opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop said the decree was designed to crush free speech and entrench the regime. "I would expect the Rudd government to step up its calls for Fiji to hold elections without delay."

Press freedom organisation Reporters Without Borders said the decree was "an authoritarian imposition by a regime with no democratic legitimacy".

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