The human rights situation in Fiji is getting worse by the day under the newly reappointed military regime, according to an Amnesty International fact-finding mission.
The population is living in fear as a result of draconian measures implemented by the regime. These followed the abrogation of the constitution and the subsequent sacking of all judicial officers and all constitutionally appointed office-holders.
Elections have been deferred for five years and martial law has been declared for a period of 30 days, during which time journalists have been forbidden from writing anything negative about Fiji or about the military regime.
Judges, lawyers and judicial officers have been blocked from entering court buildings since 14 April and a number of judges and judicial officers, including the Director of Public Prosecutions and the head of the Fiji Law Society, have been placed under house-arrest.
Amnesty International has condemned the censorship of media and detention of journalists, severe limitations on freedom of association, and threats to human rights defenders and critics of the regime.
The organization has also condemned the new “public emergency” regulations which protect police and military personnel from being held responsible for their actions even when their conduct results in death or injury of a person.
“What is developing is a culture of extreme fear and intimidation,” said Amnesty International’s Pacific researcher Apolosi Bose, who has just completed the mission in Fiji.
“The rule of law must be restored in Fiji immediately and the independence of the judiciary respected to ensure people’s rights to freedom of expression and association.”
“There is a very strong military and police presence on the streets, particularly around strategic locations such as government offices, and in the nation’s newsrooms. That is a constant and intimidating reminder that the new military regime will not tolerate dissent and will follow through on the warnings it has issued to critics.”
Further to the crackdown on journalists and any critics of the military or the interim government, it is now believed that the regime is monitoring email traffic and blogs as an additional means of suppressing any criticism.
“As a result, people are being forced to self-censor and important human rights groups in Fiji are unable to go about their work properly,” said Apolosi Bose. “There has been a major chilling effect on a once-robust NGO and human rights defender community.
“In the absence of a free press to hold the military to account for their actions and a judiciary to provide a balance of power, the work of these human rights organisations is crucial. But they are being crippled by repression.
“With no-one to stand up on behalf of the abused and the vulnerable, there is a real risk of further grave human rights abuses occurring against civilians.”
According to media reports, military chief Frank Bainimarama was reinstated as Fiji’s Prime Minister in spite of a court ruling that his regime was illegal.
The Court of Appeal – Fiji’s second highest court – had ruled that the military government was illegally appointed after a 2006 coup.
President Ratu Josefa Iloilo responded by abolishing the constitution and sacking the judiciary before reinstating Mr Bainimarama a day later.
According to recent media reports, The Fiji Times, the country’s main daily newspaper, published its Sunday and Monday editions with several blank spaces where stories about the crisis would have appeared. “The stories on this page could not be published because of Government restrictions,” read the only words that appeared on Sunday’s page two.
Reports also indicate that Fiji’s main television station, Fiji One, refused to broadcast its nightly news bulletin on Sunday. Instead it showed a simple message written across a black screen: “Viewers please be advised that there will be no 6pm news tonight.”
“Except for what the military want them to hear, the people of Fiji have no access to information about what is happening in their country,” said Apolosi Bose. “There is a real sense of confusion because people lack the information they need to make decisions in their daily lives.”