Prime Minister John Key is in Fiji this week, in the first visit by a New Zealand PM since the coup led by Frank Bainimarama in 2006. Bainimarama was subsequently elected as Prime Minister in 2014 – the first election to take place in 8 years.
In general terms it is a positive development that Fiji is open to normalising its relations with New Zealand following the transition to democracy. But we should not be too hasty in returning to ‘business as usual’ with Fiji.
As Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and a number of domestic observers have noted in the past week, there remain many challenges facing democracy and human rights in Fiji.
Despite having been elected nearly two years ago, the Bainimarama Government appears to be allergic to any kind of criticism. There is no reasonable defence of their ongoing ban on two journalists, Baraba Dreaver and Michael Field, who were thrown out when the now-Prime Minister overthrew the government and installed a military dictatorship.
There are other concerns.
Since 2012, Fiji’s media have been subject to a number of undemocratic restrictions laid out in ‘The Media Industry Development Decree’. This includes potential imprisonment for news editors who do not uphold “the national interest”.
The two-year suspension last week of an Opposition MP, Tupou Draunida, for calling a Government minister a ‘fool’, demonstrates the lack of respect for core democratic values in Fiji.
The reported intimidation and unlawful monitoring of human rights advocates, such as lawyer Aman Ravindra Singh, is another sign that the Government has not fully relinquished its authoritarian roots.
In responding to questions about his trip this week, Mr Key claimed that the military coup was now ‘ancient history’ and that Mr. Bainimarama was ‘quite popular and doing quite well there’.
His alleged popularity should not come as a surprise given the often violent suppression of dissent and critical dialogue in the eight years of military rule in Fiji. Until there is genuine protection for freedom of speech in Fiji, how can there be any free and frank opposition to the current government, or support of any alternatives?
In light of these issues, John Key’s meeting with the Fijian Prime Minister this week should address head-on the issues with freedom of speech and the climate of intimidation in that country.
Any interest in restoring good relations with Fiji should not be at the expense of the protection of human rights for Fijians who have struggled through eight difficult years of a military dictatorship.
Mr Key tends to genuflect to human rights, ever so lightly, before proceeding at the end of the day to the business end of things. It is there with Saudi Arabia, it is there with China, and it is there with Fiji. Time to reshape the national ordering of priorities.