Auckland, July 22, 2023
Former Fijian Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama has been criticised for his ‘nasty comments’ and threatening remarks against journalists in Suva this week.
According to reports in Fiji and elsewhere, Mr Bainimarama verbally abused reporters and technicians from Mai TV, Fijivillage and Fiji Sun outside the Magistrate’s Court in Suva where he attended an ongoing trial against him on July 20, 2023.
Mr Bainimarama and suspended Police Commissioner Sitiveni Qiliho are on trial on a count each of attempting to pervert the course of justice and abuse of office over an abandoned investigation relating to the University of the South Pacific in 2020.
It is understood that Mr Bainimarama said in the iTaukei language “Qarauna de dua tacaqe, au na qai caqeta yani na muna,” which reportedly translates into English as, “Be careful, no one stumbles, for I will then kick your backside.”
FMA also reported that earlier in the week, he told a Fiji Sun Photographer, ‘Kwan, Kwan,’ a term widely used in iTaukei to chase away dogs and other animals.
Rakesh Kumar of the Fijian Media Association said in a report that the FMA labelled the comments as “distasteful, unbecoming and unacceptable.”
“The FMA found these comments highly offensive. The Association continues to reiterate that journalists, photographers and videographers are doing important work of informing the public, and threats of violence against them are unacceptable,” he said in the report.
The Association said that journalists had endured 17 years of media oppression since the military coup on December 5, 2006, after which Mr Bainimarama assumed power.
“Journalists have been beaten, intimidated and abused but they will not let these threats deter them from doing their duty,” Mr Kumar said.
Respect Journalists: Biman Prasad
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Professor Biman Prasad told the Fijian Broadcasting Corporation during an interview that journalists should be treated with respect.
Speaking at a Press Conference held at the FBC offices, he condemned the remarks of Mr Bainimarama, saying that such incidents should not be treated lightly.
“It is quite unbecoming of a former Prime Minister to use that kind of language against a journalist. Of course, journalists do ask difficult questions. I think all right-thinking people in this country would condemn that kind of statement, attack on a journalist, or threat of violence against a journalist by people who should know better,” he said.
Dr Prasad said that the threat of violence against anyone is a criminal offence in Fiji.
FBC reported Dr Prasad as saying that the coalition government believes in the freedom of the media and the latter’s importance in doing its work in a fair, transparent and accountable manner.
“Press freedom is critical for democracy and the development of the Nation,” he said.
ABC Report from Australia
Reports and tales of threats against journalists in Fiji are now surfacing in Australia.
Veteran Journalist Netani Rika told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in February this year of an incident when he and his wife were startled out of their sleep by the sound of smashed glass.
“I got up and slipped on the wet surface. I turned on the lights and a bottle and wick were spread across the floor. It was one of the many acts of violence and intimidation that I endured after the 2006 military coup,” Mr Rika said.
He was then Manager of News and Current Affairs at Fiji Television told ABC that he vividly remembers the time his car was smashed with golf clubs by two unknown men, one he would later identify as a member of the military, and the day he was locked up at a military camp.
ABC quoted Mr Rika as saying, “We were monitoring the situation … once the takeover happened, there was a knock at the door and we had some soldiers present themselves. We were told that they were there for our protection but our Chief Executive at the time, Ken Clark, said ‘Well if you are here to protect us, then you can stand at the gate.’”
Mr Rika remembered denying their request and publishing a notice on behalf of Fiji TV News that said it would “not broadcast tonight due to censorship,” promising to return to air when they were able to “broadcast the news in a manner which is free and fair.”
“There was no news at six, there was no news at 10, it was a decision made by the newsroom,” Mr Rika told ABC.
Mr Rika said that he had reported incidents of violence to the Fiji Police, but he said that detectives told him his complaints would not go far.
“There was a series of letters to the Editor which I suppose you could say were anti-government. Shortly after … the now-honourable Leader of the Opposition (Mr Bainimarama) called, he swore at me in the Fijian iTaukei language … a short time later I saw a vehicle come into our street,” he said.
The ABC said that it contacted the Fiji First Party (of which Mr Bainimarama is the Leader) and the Fiji Police for comment but did not receive a response.
Following is an extract from a Fijivillage Report on July 20, 2023:
Mr Bainimarama has been charged with a count of attempt to pervert the course of justice while Mr Qiliho is charged with a count of abuse of office.
It is alleged that Mr Bainimarama, sometime in July 2020 as the Prime Minister, directed the Police Commissioner to stop the investigation into a police complaint, in the abuse of the authority of his office, which was an arbitrary act prejudicial to the rights of the University of the South Pacific which is the complainant.
It is alleged that Mr Qiliho, on the 15th of July, 2020 as the Police Commissioner, directed the Director of the Criminal Investigations Department Serupepeli Neiko and Inspector Reshmi Dass to stop investigations into the police complaint by the USP, in the abuse of the authority of his office, which was an arbitrary act of prejudicial to the rights to USP.
Mr Bainimarama and Qiliho are represented by R Patel Lawyers Devanesh Sharma and Gul Fatima while Acting Director of Public Prosecutions, Ratu David Toganivalu and Nimisha Shankar are representing the State.
The trial will resume on August 2, 2023.