Fiji’s cabinet has approved a bill to repeal a repressive media law that mandates prison time and fines for content deemed to be against the national interest, Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka said Wednesday.
Removal of restrictions on the press was a campaign promise of Rabuka, who formed a coalition government after national elections in December. Fiji was the lowest-ranked Pacific island country on a worldwide media watchdog’s Press Freedom Index last year.
“The nation is looking forward to this, it was part of our [election] promise,” Rabuka told reporters. “Yesterday the cabinet approved the tabling of a bill to repeal the Media Development Act of 2010. The bill will repeal the Act as a whole, not amend, it will repeal.”
Removal of the media law would be a positive development for press freedom in Pacific island countries at a time when China’s government, which tolerates media only as a compliant mouthpiece, is vying against the United States for influence in the region.
Pacific islands media were largely prevented from directly covering a June 2022 tour of 10 Pacific island nations by China’s foreign minister at the time, Wang Yi. Meanwhile, Papua New Guinea’s government has outlined a plan for changes to the country’s media industry that, critics say, would curtail press freedom.
Rabuka said media freedom and freedom of expression are the “oxygen of democracy,” which allow people to hold their government accountable.
“I am proud to stand here today to make this announcement which was key to our electoral platform and a demand that I heard echoed in all parts of the country that I had visited,” he said.
Rabuka’s election victory ended the 16-year rule of Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, a former military chief who came to power in a 2006 coup. The media law, imposed by decree in 2010, allows prison sentences of up to two years for content judged by authorities to be against the public or national interest.
It wasn’t immediately clear when parliament would vote on the repeal bill.
The fate of the media law could be a litmus test of Rabuka’s commitment to repairing Fiji’s democratic credentials.
A former soldier himself, Rabuka led two coups in 1987 that aimed to reassert the political power of indigenous Fijians, but now presents himself as a reformer who intends to right what he sees as the wrongs of Bainimarama’s rule.
Fiji was ranked 102 out of 180 countries in the 2022 Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders – a plunge from 55th place in 2021.
The advocacy group’s report said the media law as well as the threat of sedition charges had fueled a climate of fear and self censorship in Fiji’s media.
Stanley Simpson, a director of Fiji’s Mai TV, said Rabuka’s announcement marked an emotional moment.
“We had this hammer hanging over our heads, so nice to see the hammer being removed,” he said in a Twitter post.
BenarNews, an online news service affiliated with Radio Free Asia, produced this report.