Winds of Change for Fijian Media: The End of the Media Industry Development Act
Finn van Herten
Three months have passed since one of the Pacific’s most prohibitive media laws was repealed in Fiji. From April 6, 2023, journalists in the island nation of over 900,000 were no longer subject to the ironically named Media Industry Development Act 2010 or the Media Industry Development Authority, which the legislation and its earlier decree had established.
With Fiji’s new coalition government taking force, and the formerly governing Fiji First party being relegated to the political wilderness of opposition, there is hope among press freedom advocates for change and liberalisation.
The question is: just how high can hopes be realistically set, considering the significant task of creating a national framework of media safeguards? Meanwhile, media ownership concentration and ever-intensifying local geopolitical contests could pose wildcards to the longevity and stability of Fijian media freedom.
So, where does the Media Industry Development Act’s repeal leave Fiji’s press landscape? Under what conditions was it first conceived, and can Fijian media be protected from reincarnations of the Act? What forces, other than domestic political conditions, could still impact freedom of information in Fiji?
Political background: Fiji’s record of coups d’état
The trajectory of the Fijian government’s relationship with media, naturally, somewhat corresponds with the country’s history of coups d’état (mostly bloodless) and political crises. In the last 36 years, crackdowns on media freedom have mostly come from coup organisers and their governments rather than sitting administrations.
Coups in 1987 were chiefly orchestrated by Lieutenant-Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka. Rabuka is now Prime Minister of Fiji, and has been since late 2022. He formerly held the top job between 1992 and 1999. These coups were justified as efforts to ‘protect’ the rights of indigenous Fijians, given that – at the time – a majority Indo-Fijian government was in power.
The first coup in 1987 cut communications, forcing the media to seek alternative means of access to marine and radio communications infrastructure. This was all while Rabuka struggled to manage local and international media coverage, with the army later being given permission to detain and harass international journalists, drawing stern condemnation from the Australian government.
In December of 1987, an interim government took power, and civil and informational freedoms eventually returned to Fiji until a (ultimately failed) coup that occurred in 2000, where media were again attacked by coup supporters.
In 2006, however, a long-running political crisis culminated in a successful coup launched by then-Commodore Frank Bainimarama. Press freedom was immediately targeted, with the nation’s leading newspaper, The Fiji Times, temporarily halting publication. The military demanded that it be afforded oversight of editorial content and access to journalists’ sources.
Commentators have observed that Fiji’s decades of political instability are in large part linked to enduring tensions between indigenous iTaukei Fijians and Indo-Fijians, who are mostly descendants of Indian labourers brought to Fiji by the British in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mostly under dubious pretences.
As such, the breadcrumb trail from these tensions to coups d’état (with the greatest media crackdowns tending to occur at these times) shows evidence of a convoluted relationship between Fijian governance and press freedom.
Fiji’s unique ethnic sociocultural context has resulted in domestic media fragmentation along linguistic lines, mainly across the three official languages of English, Fijian and Fiji Hindi, which has Eastern Hindi roots.
The endurance of the Media Industry Development Act
The Media Industry Development Authority regulated all media to ensure that they did not publish reporting that was critical of government actions or strategy. Section 22 of the Decree, which preceded the Act, barred all media services from publishing material against the public interest/order, as well as the national interest. The main reason cited for this was that such reporting could cause ‘communal discord’ – a highly subjective and vague stipulation.
Furthermore, Section 33 required existing and prospective media to register with the Media Industry Development Authority. Maximum fines and prison sentences were set for individuals and companies in breach of the law. These requirements represented a sustained, legally enshrined step-up in media censorship (though some sentences and fines were removed in 2015, a development praised by press freedom advocates).
The Media Industry Development Authority was also given powers, forcing media outlets to publish statements containing ‘facts considered by the Authority to be true’, particularly to amend ‘problematic’ articles.
Also of note was the Media Industry Development Act’s severe restriction on foreign ownership of Fijian media outlets. This was justified by the Authority with self-affirming logic that Fijians are best-placed to report on Fiji. As a result, even Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited was compelled to sell The Fiji Times.
The legislation has been a key factor behind Fiji’s ‘problematic’ ranking on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, which has ebbed and flowed over time. In 2022, it fell 47 places to 102nd – the third-largest fall for any country in the world that year.
And the legislation was not the only difficult factor. As COVID-19 raged in 2021, The Fiji Times was barred from distribution in parts of the country as the press were deemed ‘a non-essential service’.
Winds of change
In 2022, ahead of what was just the third general election held since the 2006 coup, Sitiveni Rabuka’s coalition campaign made a key promise to repeal the Media Industry Development Act, which was only opposed in parliament by the government’s sole opposition: the Fiji First party, formerly led by Frank Bainimarama, which presided over the initial decree.
This leaves Fijian media in an interesting position. Firstly, as momentum in the press space built ahead of the Act’s official repeal in April, arguments were made at the University of the South Pacific that legislated safeguards for critical media would be hard to design with respect to Fiji’s multiethnic demographics, as well as the nation’s relatively small population.
Furthermore, media ownership structures (another area targeted by the Act) were already being considered a risk to a diverse mediasphere. Though print media expanded in the mid-2010s, the nation’s two major publishers, The Fiji Times and the Fiji Sun, have been owned by local groups which may hold various other business interests.
This challenge is certainly not unique to Fiji – media ownership in Australia, for example, is among the most concentrated in the world. Nevertheless, editors and journalists across Fiji have welcomed the repeal and its implications for democracy and freedom of information.
The Fijian government seems to have read the room when it comes to the Media Industry Development Act. Siromi Turaga, Attorney-General and Minister for Justice, acknowledged in January that media freedom is predicated upon the absence of severe legislation. Current Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka, who publicly apologised and sought forgiveness for his role in the 1987 coups just two months ago, also cited nationwide demands he had received calling for the Act to be abolished.
With a steady stream of positive dialogue for press freedom circling the Fijian mediascape, the newest threats perhaps stem from heating geopolitical contests and foreign business interests in the Pacific. The media sector alone is not necessarily able to counter these forces, and some outlets’ limited finances could impact their capacity to critique such influences.
In some cases, the media have faced varying degrees of restrictions during state visits to Fiji by foreign delegations from both China and the US, with regards to asking probing questions. Whether similar situations will be affected by the recovering domestic regard for press freedom is yet to be seen, but will be determined as Fiji inevitably welcomes more state visits.
In the meantime, repealing the Media Industry Development Act could lay the groundwork not just for new media protections, but also for a renewed media culture centred on freer reporting. The coming changes to Fijian media are in their infancy, and they have brought hope to many Fijian journalists, but 12 years under the eye of the Act will likely leave their mark on Fiji’s mediascape.
Finn van Herten is completing his final year studying a Bachelor of Communication (Social & Political Sciences) and Bachelor of International Studies (China major) at the University of Technology Sydney. He is currently External Affairs Analyst at PremierNational, a government relations and corporate affairs consultancy. Finn has broad interests in seeing Australia develop collaborative relationships with Pacific nations, and the quality of Australia's bilateral engagement with China.