WHILE the Multinational Observer Group’s final report on the first post-coup Fiji general election since 2006 last week found the poll “credible” – as expected based on its preliminary report in spite of the cries of “fraud” by critics – it has offered a raft of recommendations for improvement, including with the news media.
Among these recommendations is a call for an independent watchdog for the controversial Fiji Media Industry Development Authority (MIDA), which had a mixed role during the elections.
Arguing that should MIDA continue its role in future elections, the final MOG report said there was a need for “an independent institution to adjudicate complaints about its actions”.
Citing the 2013 Constitution’s section 17 providing for freedom of “speech, expression and publication”, MOG was in general complimentary about the Fiji news media, saying they “made good efforts to cover the election”.
However, the restrictive and vague media framework, including potentially harsh penalties, “limited the media’s ability to rigorously examine the claims of candidates and parties”, the final report said.
The amended Political Parties Decree in February 2013 prohibited media for describing prospective parties as “political parties” until they were registered, noted MOG.
Fines, jail terms
“This included established parties that were seeking reregistration (news organisations faced fines of up to FJ$50,000 or a five-year jail term for violation),” said the report.
The report also highlighted the threat of penalties under the Media Industry Development Decree 2010, that established MIDA, but it did not go so far as to recommend scrapping the decree, which Café Pacific advocates.
However, in spite of these media restrictions, MOG acknowledged the efforts of the Fiji media.
“The press began to report more widely on the political process, including some criticism of the government,” MOG said.
The report added that MOG believed that engagement through the media was “essential in order to encourage public ownership of the electoral process”.
According to Agence France-Presse, which had the most thorough international coverage of the MOG report, it said the report “criticised the threat of draconian punishments for media deemed to have broken Fiji’s restrictive media laws, or breached a three-day blackout on election reporting in the lead-up to polling day”.
Actually, the report never said “draconian” and used surprisingly diplomatic language about the media decree.
MIDA carried out several functions for the elections and the areas most closely monitored by MOG were the authority’s role in media accreditation, policing the campaign blackout and ongoing investigative work.
The Fiji Elections Office required all media workers to be accredited by MIDA for the poll. Two days before the election on September 17, MIDA announced that 431 local and 37 international media staff or freelancers were registered with MIDA and accredited by the FEO.
The Pacific Media Centre sent two journalists from Auckland to cover the elections but they were interned with local media organisations and accredited as local journalists and filed their stories for Pacific Scoop.
The MOG noted that it had received several complaints about this process, “which generally related to a lack of clarity over accreditation procedures”.
The deadline set for submitting applications was considered too early by some media organisations (this was subsequently extended after a suggestion by the MOG) while others were unaware that they had to apply both to MIDA and the FEO for accreditation. The MOG is not, however, aware of any media organisations that applied for accreditation and did not receive it.
Under the Electoral Decree, MIDA had authority to investigate any breaches of the 48-hour campaign blackout before polling day. MIDA also had authority to “approve” – ie be chief censor – reporting during the blackout period.
MIDA provided briefing to local and international media in order to explain the campaign blackout, although many commented this was unclear … The burden this placed on MIDA and media organisations was heavy.
But the report added that MIDA did not take any action against media outlets for breaching the blackout, and it “did not directly hinder” election reporting.
The MOG also found the effectiveness of media in providing information for an informed choice on polling day mixed – especially “between the urban and rural areas”. It also noted the coverage of the election campaign in the final stages “included both instances of both neutrality and partiality among the local media”. While the report did not point the finger at any individual media organisations, it said any complaints about biased media coverage “should be addressed and adjudicated by an independent institution regulated by law”. It did not mention MIDA in this context, but clearly the MOG has in mind a “super” watchdog to keep watch on MIDA.
The report’s key media recommendations were:
- The media accreditation process should be simplified and all media outlets, including international media, should have sufficient advance notice of deadlines and timelines.
- The Media Industry Development Authority [MIDA] should issue clear, timely and practical reporting guidance.
- Penalties for breaching election-related reporting rules should be reviewed.
- Should the MIDA continue in its role in future elections, there is a need for an independent institute to adjudicate complaints about its actions, consistent with Fiji’s legal and constitutional framework.
- There is a need for a regulation as well as an independent institution to prevent and adjudicate media biases, thus ensuring a level playing field among election participants.