Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 April 2014, 14:04 GMT

Freedom in the World 2011 - Fiji

Publisher Freedom House
Publication Date 21 June 2011
Cite as Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2011 - Fiji, 21 June 2011, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4e00a0782.html [accessed 16 April 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Capital: Suva
Population: 844,000

Political Rights Score: 6 *
Civil Liberties Score: 4 *
Status: Partly Free

Trend Arrow ↓

Fiji received a downward trend arrow due to the replacement of additional magistrates with appointees who support the legitimacy and actions of the current military regime.

Overview

The interim government under the leadership of Commodore Frank Bainimarama continued to tighten its grip on power in 2010. Critics of the military regime were silenced through legal suits, arrests, and the suspension of pensions, among other measures. A Media Industry Development Authority was created in June to implement repressive media regulations. New military personnel were appointed to replace senior civil servants throughout the year, and a number of magistrates hired by previous governments were dismissed.

Fiji, colonized by Britain in 1874, became an independent member of the Commonwealth in 1970. Intense rivalry between indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians is the main source of political and social tension. Indians were first brought to Fiji in the 19th century to work on sugar plantations, but later made up a majority of the population and controlled a large share of the economy. Armed coups by indigenous factions in 1987 and 2000 overthrew governments led by Indo-Fijian parties.

Following the 2000 coup, the military installed Laisenia Qarase, an indigenous Fijian of the United Fiji Party (UFP), to lead an interim government. Qarase was elected prime minister in 2001 and won a second term in 2006. That year, a rift between Qarase and military chief Frank Bainimarama – an indigenous Fijian – emerged over the fate of the 2000 coup participants. In December 2006, Bainimarama ousted Qarase in another military coup and dissolved Parliament, asserting that the prime minister's removal was essential to addressing rampant official corruption.

Bainimarama became head of the interim government in January 2007. His emphasis quickly shifted from investigating alleged corruption to silencing critics, including filing legal suits against opposition leaders and detaining, arresting, and expelling journalists and news editors. Civil servants faced wage cuts, forced early retirement, and dismissals, while cabinet officials of the interim government received salary increases.

In 2008, a 45-member council – handpicked by Bainimarama – completed the People's Charter for Change, Peace, and Progress, a legal document that the interim government said must complement the constitution to guide government policies. The government also made its passage by Parliament a precondition for new elections. The charter recommended that the major sources of ethnic tensions be addressed, including the replacement of communal electoral rolls with a one-person-one-vote system and the designation of all citizens as Fijians, a term previously reserved only for the indigenous. The charter also officially confirmed the military's role in governing Fiji, paving way for the replacement of civilians with military personnel in numerous high-level positions. Opposition members, the teachers' union, the Methodist Church of Fiji, and residents of outlying Rotuma Island all opposed the charter.

In 2009, the court of appeal ruled that the 2006 dismissal of Qarase and his cabinet, the dissolution of Parliament, and the 2007 appointment of Bainimarama as interim prime minister were illegal. The interim president, Josefa Iloilo, was ordered to appoint a caretaker prime minister to dissolve Parliament and call elections. The following day, Iloilo suspended the 1997 constitution, dismissed the judges involved in the case, reconfirmed himself as president under a "new legal order," nullified all judicial appointments, named Bainimarama as caretaker prime minister, and imposed Public Emergency Regulations (PER) to suppress public opposition. These regulations gave the interim government authority to stop public protests and censor the media. Permits granted for pubic assemblies were revoked, and new media laws were adopted to tighten government control over news outlets.

In May, the European Union (EU) terminated millions of dollars in development aid, and Fiji was suspended from the Pacific Islands Forum, a regional political and economic bloc. The country was officially suspended from the Commonwealth in September. To spur the troubled economy, the interim government intensified efforts to attract Chinese investment and in November proposed allowing a casino to open to broaden tourism. It also threatened retailers with prison if they refused to stock certain items or raise prices above the government-recommended level.

In spite of international criticism and pressure, Bainimarama announced in September 2009 that new elections would not be held until September 2014, pending the passage by 2013 of a new constitution that addressed the recommendations of the People's Charter. In an effort to sideline the existing political class, Bainimarama declared in March 2010 that no politician active since 1987 would be allowed to run in the 2014 elections.

The interim government continued to silence critics and tighten its grip on power in 2010. In January, 20 Suva city council staffers were suspended on allegations of antigovernment activities. Also that month, a human rights lawyer was ordered to surrender her passport, and the government halted pension payments for former ministers who had criticized the regime. Former prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry, who had been under investigation for alleged tax evasion and money laundering, was arrested in October for purportedly breaching the PER by holding a public meeting. Chaudhry denied the allegations, claiming that he, his driver, and three friends had only met for a drink. The five were arrested and held in police custody for three days. Amnesty International and the U.S. State Department issued statements condemning the arrests and other human rights violations.

The regime issued a decree in April awarding immunity from prosecution to all those involved in the 2000 and 2006 coups who had not been convicted in court hearings. Beneficiaries of this decree included Iloilo, Bainimarama, and all persons in the military, police, and prison service who had acted under the instructions of the coup leaders. Iloilo retired as interim president in July, and Ratu Epeli Nailaikau was appointed to replace him.

Diplomatic relations remained strained with most countries in 2010. Fiji's ties with traditional trading and development partners like Australia, New Zealand, and the EU continued to deteriorate, while Bainimarama sought to expand relations with China, which maintained strong interest in Fiji's energy, fishery, and extractive industries.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Fiji is not an electoral democracy. Under the 1997 constitution, which was suspended in 2009, Parliament consisted of the 32-seat Senate and the 71-seat House of Representatives. The president appointed 14 senators on the advice of the Great Council of Chiefs, 9 on the advice of the prime minister, 8 on the advice of the opposition leader, and 1 on the advice of the council representing Rotuma Island. House members were elected for five-year terms, with 25 seats open to all ethnicities, 23 reserved for indigenous Fijians, 19 for Indo-Fijians, 3 for other ethnic groups (mainly citizens of European and East Asian descent), and 1 for Rotuma voters. The president was appointed to a five-year term by the Great Council of Chiefs in consultation with the prime minister, who was in turn appointed by the president. The prime minister was generally the leader of the majority party or coalition in Parliament. Since the suspension of the constitution, the interim government has essentially ruled by decree.

The two main political parties are the UFP, largely supported by indigenous Fijians, and the predominantly Indo-Fijian Labor Party.

Official corruption and abuse remain widespread, and reform agendas by multiple governments have not produced significant results.

While the 1997 constitution provided for freedom of speech and the press, media conditions have deteriorated considerably since 2009, when the PER authorized extensive government censorship. The interim authorities have openly warned against publishing or broadcasting criticism of Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama or his government. While privately owned newspapers and radio and television stations continue to operate, they face official harassment. For example, in 2009, all broadcasting licenses were revoked and two Australian Broadcasting Corporation FM radio transmitters were shut down. The government admitted to pressuring Fiji TV into dismissing two senior newsroom editors for allegedly biased reporting in April 2010. Also that month, the government created the Media Industry Development Authority to enforce more restrictive media laws that were adopted at the end of 2009. One of these laws requires all media organizations to be 90 percent owned by local entities. The new media authority consequently forced the U.S.-based News Corporation to sell or close the Fiji Times. Motibhai, a local business group, purchased the paper in September. Access to mobile telephony and the internet is spreading with increased competition, but cost and infrastructure constraints still limit access outside the capital.

Freedom of religion is generally respected, but the interim government appears to target anyone, including religious leaders, who speak out against the regime. In December 2010, the government lifted a ban on Methodist Church meetings; a conspiracy case against the church had been dropped in November for lack of evidence. Most indigenous Fijians are Christians, and Indo-Fijians are generally Hindus. Places of worship, especially Hindu temples, have suffered attacks.

While academic freedom is generally respected, the education system suffers from a lack of resources, and indigenous Fijians are granted special privileges in education. The interim government has promised that the new constitution will eliminate such favoritism. In November 2010, the government announced that beginning in 2011, students at the National University of Fiji who seek to become teachers must be fluent in both Hindi and Fijian to graduate.

Freedoms of assembly and association have been restricted since the suspension of the 1997 constitution and the imposition of the PER in 2009. The interim government has used the PER to outlaw public protests and ban public demonstrations by the Methodist Church and the teachers' union against the regime's policies. Workers can form and join trade unions, though these rights have reportedly been constrained under Bainimarama.

The 2009 suspension of the constitution and the related dismissals of judges raised serious concerns about the independence of the judiciary. The interim government in 2010 continued to purge the court system of individuals who came to their positions under previous governments, replacing them with its own appointees. These arbitrary firings have exacerbated an already serious backlog of cases. Prisons are highly overcrowded, with poor sanitary and living conditions.

Race-based discrimination is pervasive. Indigenous Fijians receive preferential treatment in education, housing, land acquisition, and other areas. Discrimination, economic hardship, and political turmoil have caused many Indo-Fijians to leave the country in recent decades. The resulting void has been filled in part by Chinese migrants, though their growing economic strength has made them targets of indigenous Fijian resentment and attacks.

Discrimination and violence against women are widespread. Cases of rape, child abuse, incest, and infanticide are reportedly increasing, as is the number of pregnancy-related deaths. Women are not well represented in government or leadership positions, and they do not receive equal pay. Fiji is a source and destination country for the trafficking of women and children. A controversial law banning all forms of prostitution came into effect in February 2010, but critics have argued that it may drive prostitution underground and increase the risk of HIV/AIDS infection. Homosexuality was decriminalized in March 2010.

* Countries are ranked on a scale of 1-7, with 1 representing the highest level of freedom and 7 representing the lowest level of freedom.

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