Sunvoice

It Entails Much More Than Freedom Of Journalists, Editors, Proprietors

The Bill of Rights of the Fijian Constitution is a strong testament to the fact that freedom of the press entails much more than freedom of journalists, editors and proprietors.
05 May 2016 15:34
It Entails Much More Than Freedom Of Journalists, Editors, Proprietors
Media Industry Development Authority chairman, Ashwin Raj

The Bill of Rights of the Fijian Constitution is a strong testament to the fact that freedom of the press entails much more than freedom of journalists, editors and proprietors.

Press freedom guaranteed by Constitution

Under our constitutional provisions, freedom of the press is inseparable from the rights and freedoms of individuals from prohibited grounds of discrimination including hate speech and this is why the state is constitutionally obliged to regulate the conduct of the media.

While unequivocally recognising freedom of the press (one of the very few constitutions that explicitly references press freedom) as pivotal in the materialisation of freedom of speech, expression, thought, opinion and publication, it reminds us of justifiable limitations to protect the rights and freedoms of individuals.

These limitations are not peculiar to the current Constitution. The 1997 Constitution had similar provisions and unabashedly lampooned by critics of the current Constitution and the Media Industry Development Decree as essential in protecting the rights of minorities.

These justifiable limitations are also consistent with the recommendations of the International Convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination on combating racist hate speech.

Furthermore, pursuant to Section 7 of the Constitution, the relationship between rights and limitations must be interpreted in accordance with democratic values as well as international law.

Censorship

The political landscape has shifted dramatically. Fiji now enjoys parliamentary democracy. The military is no longer present in the newsrooms and we must accept this reality no matter how politically inconvenient this reality maybe to our ideological dispositions or political proclivities.

The Public Emergency Regulations have been repealed.

The Media Industry Development Decree 2010 (through a very nuanced Media Code of Ethics) and the Constitution guarantee freedom of the press and consistent with the decision of European Court of Human Rights and Article 10 of the Freedom of Expression provision in the European Convention of Human Rights, the Constitution also protects the confidentiality of journalistic sources.

The media is free to publish material including those that are critical of government policies and this is evidenced in the opinion pieces and letters to the editors that are published in our dailies.

The Media Industry Development Decree has been reviewed removing fines and penalties imposed on individual journalists.

Sedition and freedom of expression

It is imperative to note that criticism of government is not sedition (defined under Section 66 of the Crimes Decree).

A seditious intention is one which inter alia brings into hatred or contempt or to incite disaffection against Government but a speech or act is not seditious (section 66 (a) (b) (c) and (d) when it is done with the intention of pointing out defects in Government or the Constitution, or to suggest that Government has erred in any of its measures and to persuade a change of law by lawful means.

The ability of citizens to criticise government is an act of democratic dissent. Furthermore, the Johannesburg Principles 1995 provide that expression may be deemed as a threat to national security if a government can demonstrate that:

expression is intended to incite imminent violence;

is likely to incite such violence; and

there is a direct and immediate connection between the expression and the likelihood or occurrence of such violence.

No hefty fines or imprisonment terms have been recommended because of media content.

In fact journalists who were threatened were deemed as pro-government journalists and very few spoke up against these threats.

Fiji has gone up in World Press Freedom Ranking on the following criteria compiled by Reporters Without Borders: pluralism, media independence, environment and self-censorship, legislative framework, transparency and infrastructure.

Anti-government blog sites saturated with content that is nothing short of hate speech is readily accessible.

Radio Australia is freely available in Fiji through an FM frequency, which is facilitated by FBC, which in turn is owned by the Government of Fiji.

It is aired live and therefore there is no editing of the content which is very critical of government.

Democratising newsrooms

It is a matter of profound irony that those claiming that the media and dissenting citizens are labouring under the weight of “silent censorship” and “self-censorship” have had their opinion pieces published in their preferred media and the only reason I am and I guess we all are aware of self censorship or silent censorship because they’re openly and freely talking about it and it is being published.

Barring the obvious fact that “self-censorship” is a self imposed condition, “silent- censorship” or “self-censorship” does not take into account at all the enormous power differentials within the newsrooms and the powerful interests that decide what makes the headlines, which opinion pieces and letters to the editors get published to the exclusion of others.

In house editorial policies have never been disclosed.

So we must also talk about censorship by the media and not just censorship of the media.

Accuracy, balance and fairness

Criticism has been levelled against the Media Industry Development Decree and in particular the fact that its code of ethics requires that media reports be balanced obligating the media to give individuals and institutions the opportunity to reply.

Concerns have been raised by the media as well as the recent US Human Rights Report on Fiji that this requirement has enabled government to ‘delay and prevent publication of stories by not responding in a timely manner…making it impossible for the media to fulfil the Decree’s requirements for balanced reporting’.

The report further alleges, ‘media sources reported that if a story was positive towards the government, they could ignore the balance requirement without consequence’.

My question is why should the media ignore these requirements for balance, accuracy and fairness at all?

The law makes no exception for Government so why should the media?

Does this mean that all is well?

Freedom of the press is an embodiment of the public’s right to know and participate through a democratisation of the flow of information and the media is an important conduit between people and power. Political bias both of the media as well as those in positions of power remain a major challenge.

Reckless reporting on sexual violence and the rights of minorities remain a major concern.

The media can and must become an instrument of social cohesion, a voice of reason when political fault lines run deep without abnegating its role in holding institutions and individuals to account.

The media is not above principles of accountability and transparency and as it holds those in power to account, it must also be accountable.

Media training to ensure that the media understands the perimeters between free speech and limitations on free speech in accordance with international human rights law, especially from the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights is of paramount importance.

Feedback:  jyotip@fijisun.com.fj

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