Trouble in paradise

Media organizations protest attack on a Timorese newspaper design editor by military police and expulsion of an expatriate newspaper publisher from post-coup Fiji

By David Robie
AsiaMedia Contributing Writer

Thursday, March 13, 2008

AUCKLAND, New Zealand --- The media in both post-coup Fiji and East Timor -- where a recent double assassination bid against the country's top leadership failed but left East Timor President Jose Ramos-Horta in a coma in an Australian hospital -- have faced recent threats.

East Timor Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, who escaped unharmed from the assassination attempt by rebels led by renegade Major Alfredo Reinado -- shot dead at Horta's home -- had earlier this year threatened to "arrest" media that caused instability.

In February, a layout editor for the Timor Post, the country's most independent daily newspaper, was seized at 2 a.m. by military police while traveling to a printing office in the capital Dili.

The designer, Agustinho "Agus" da Costa, possessed a computer file of the latest edition of the Post and an identity card for his paper.

The police allegedly beat him up at the checkpoint and then took him to a police station where they bashed him again.

His editor-in-chief, Mouzinho de Araujo, protested the assault and 11-hour detention of his editorial team member. De Araujo, who worked for some time in Papua New Guinea and gained his journalism diploma at Divine Word University in Madang, believes the attack came because his paper has been "tough on the authorities," not because da Costa had broken the 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew.

"Agus showed his identity card, explained he was taking the edition to be published and then these police punched him. He was later beaten at the police station by several men," De Araujo told The Australian.

Da Costa was released on Saturday after suffering cuts and bruises to his face.

De Araujo has filed a formal protest with the Timorese authorities and the International Federation of Journalists has also protested.

East Timor's Secretary for Internal Security, Francisco Guterres, later apologized to the Timor Post for the use of "unjustified force" in the assault.

De Araujo told Pacific Media Watch: "We're never afraid to fight for our freedom, the freedom of media in Timor-Leste."

In Fiji, the media was condemned recently by the military-backed regime's interim Prime Minister, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, for its alleged lack of ethics in coverage of national issues.

The sweeping attack came in the wake of a front page report detailing tax evasion allegations against the interim Finance Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, a former Labor Party prime minister.

The story claimed Chaudhry was under investigation over foreign bank accounts involving more than AU$1.6 million. Chaudhry announced he was filing defamation writs against both the Fiji Times and the Fiji Sun, another daily newspaper that initially exposed the allegations but without naming the minister.

On Monday night, the Sun's Australian publisher and managing director, Russell Hunter, 59, was detained and then deported on a flight to Sydney the next day.

A statement from the office of Defense and Immigration Minister Ratu Epeli Ganilau, a former chief of the military forces, said an investigation had shown that Hunter was conducting himself in "a manner prejudicial to the peace, defense, public safety, security and stability of the sovereign state of the Fiji Islands."

Ganilau claimed Hunter had violated the terms and conditions of his work permit in Fiji and he was now a "prohibited immigrant".

Ironically, it was the second time Hunter had fallen foul of Fiji's immigration laws, having previously had his work permit renewal blocked in 1999 while he was editor of the Murdoch-owned Fiji Times. He was forced to leave the country for several months before regaining the legal right to return.

Chaudhry has long had a stormy relationship with the Fiji media, accusing them of bias and at one stage claiming that the Fiji Times was "fanning the fires of sedition and racism."

Media organizations strongly supported Hunter. The Fiji Media Council said it was shocked by his expulsion, especially as he still had a further 18 months to run on his work permit.

Chairman Daryl Tarte protested in a statement, saying: "The action by the Immigration Department, with the approval of the Minister, was taken without due process being followed, without regard for his fundamental rights, without him having access to legal advice, nor any consideration for the plight of his family.

"He was taken from his home at 8:30 at night and transported to Nadi airport."

"Furthermore, the deportation took place despite an order from the High Court in Suva restraining the Director of Immigration from deporting Mr. Hunter."

"The Minister's justification for the deportation is that he is a prohibited immigrant under the new immigration act that came into force on Jan. 3, 2008. No specific details of what Mr. Hunter is supposed to have done were given."

Hunter said on arrival in Australia the Fiji media should carry on undeterred. Asked why he had been declared a "prohibited immigrant," he told reporters: "In my view, the fact that we revealed Mahendra Chaudhry's tax evasion and secret overseas bank accounts."

Hawaii-based Dr. Jim Anthony, who made headlines last year as a controversial choice to head a widely criticized inquiry into the media organized by the Fiji Human Rights Commission, fired off a salvo to the Fiji Times.

"All other foreign journalists on work permits in Fiji ought to be put on notice -- all their permits will not be renewed," Dr. Anthony said.

"Fiji ought to get its act together and train and promote its own people to report the news fairly, accurately and in a balanced way right across the board ... Australia and New Zealand are not necessarily the only beacons of hope or measures of decency in the world."

Among other flaws, Anthony's media report (PDF) was sketchy about the degree of training and education that does go on in Fiji, for example the long-established University of the South Pacific journalism and diploma degree programs and also the fledgling Fiji Institute of Technology course.

In an editorial, the Fiji Times said: "The deportation of Fiji Sun publisher Russell Hunter as a security risk to this nation is deplorable. And his treatment as a human being was reprehensible... Even convicted fraudster Peter Foster was treated better than Mr. Hunter."

Early last month, Reporters Sans Frontières had condemned what it described as the Fiji Appeal Court's harassment of the Fiji Sun editor, Leone Cabenatabua, and of Fiji Women's Rights Movement leader Virisila Buadromo over an article criticizing the appointment of three new judges by the regime.

Fiji may be facing a major step up in intimidation of the news media, leaving a cloud over plans for a general election in March 2009.