Freedom in the World
New anti-union regulations, which took effect in September 2011, seriously limit trade union and collective bargaining rights. Also during the year, the interim government tightened control over the media, and prominent political opponents and critics continued to face harassment, including overseas travel bans, arrests, and serious charges such as sedition.
Fiji, colonized by Great Britain in 1874, became an independent member of the Commonwealth in 1970. Intense rivalry between indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians is the main source of political and social tension in the country. Indians, who were first brought to Fiji in the 19th century to work on sugar plantations, came to control a large share of the economy. Armed coups by indigenous factions in 1987 and 2000 overthrew governments led by Indo-Fijian parties.
Following the 2000 coup, the military installed Laisenia Qarase, an indigenous Fijian of the United Fiji Party (UFP), to lead an interim government. Qarase was elected prime minister in 2001 and won a second term in 2006. That year, differences between Qarase and military chief Frank Bainimarama—another indigenous Fijian—over the fate of the 2000 coup participants resulted in another military coup. In December 2006, Bainimarama ousted Qarase and dissolved Parliament. He soon began silencing his critics, including filing legal suits against opposition leaders, and detaining, arresting, and expelling journalists.
In 2008, a 45-member council—handpicked by Bainimarama—completed the drafting of the People’s Charter for Change, Peace, and Progress, a legal document designed to complement the constitution. The charter recommended addressing major sources of ethnic tensions by replacing communal electoral rolls with a one-person-one-vote system, and designating all citizens as Fijians, a term previously reserved only for the indigenous. The charter also officially confirmed the military’s role in governing Fiji, paving the way for the replacement of civilians with military personnel in many high-level positions.
In 2009, the court of appeals ruled that the 2006 dismissal of Qarase and his cabinet, the dissolution of Parliament, and the 2007 appointment of Bainimarama as interim prime minister were illegal. The interim president, Josefa Iloilo, was ordered to appoint a caretaker prime minister to dissolve Parliament and call elections. The next day, Iloilo suspended the 1997 constitution, nullified all judicial appointments, reconfirmed himself as president, reappointed Bainimarama as interim prime minister, and imposed Public Emergency Regulations (PER) to ban public protests and tighten government control of the media. In July 2009, Iloilo stepped down, and Vice-President Epeli Nailatikau assumed the role of interim president.
The international community reacted by terminating millions of dollars in development aid and suspending Fiji from the Commonwealth. In spite of international pressure, Bainimarama announced in 2009 that new elections would not be held until September 2014, pending the passage by 2013 of a new constitution that would address the recommendations of the People’s Charter. Bainimarama also declared in March 2010 that no politician active since 1987 would be allowed to run in the 2014 elections. In 2010, the interim government granted immunity from prosecution to all those involved in the 2000 and 2006 coups who had not been convicted in court hearings. Beneficiaries included Iloilo, Bainimarama, and members of the military, police, and prison service.
In 2011, the interim government continued to silence its critics. Ratu Tevita Uluilakeba Mara, a former lieutenant colonel and ally of Bainimarama in the 2006 coup, absconded bail and fled to Tonga in May, accused of making seditious comments and inciting a mutiny. Mara’s sister, Adi Ateca Ganilau, then lost her position in July as head of the Lau provincial council for allegedly criticizing the interim government. On December 30, Dr. Mere Samisoni, a 74-year-old former parliamentarian who has close ties to Mara’s family, was taken into military custody and charged with inciting violence. The interim government also increased its control of organized labor during the year, including limiting collective bargaining rights, refusing to grant permits for union meetings, and harassing union leaders.
Fiji’s economy continued to suffer from the global economic downturn and the suspension of development assistance from international donors. The government consequently intensified efforts to attract Chinese investment in casino gaming, hotels, and mining. In 2011, China promised $4.3 million to fund a new hospital and gave $3 million to various development programs. To increase state revenues, the interim government raised the value-added tax in January and cut pensions in September.
Fiji is not an electoral democracy. Under the 1997 constitution, which was suspended in 2009, Parliament consisted of a 32-seat Senate and a 71-seat House of Representatives. The president was appointed to a five-year term by the Great Council of Chiefs; however, this role was suspended in 2007. The prime minister was appointed by the president and was generally the leader of the majority party or coalition in Parliament. Since the suspension of the constitution, the interim government has essentially ruled by decree.
The two main political parties are the UFP, largely supported by indigenous Fijians, and the Fiji Labor Party, which has a largely Indo-Fijian constituency.
Official corruption remains widespread, and reform agendas by multiple governments have not produced significant results.
While the 1997 constitution provided for freedoms of speech and of the press, extensive government censorship has been in place under the PER since 2009. In 2010, the government created the Media Industry Development Authority to enforce more restrictive media laws, including one requiring all media organizations to be 90 percent owned by local entities. The interim authorities continued their crackdown on freedom of expression in 2011. Numerous Fiji Times reporters were detained or arrested for material deemed critical of the government or its industries. In May, Mahendra Mohitibai Patel, the owner of Fiji Times, was sentenced to a year in prison for abuse of office while he was the managing director of Post Fiji for buying a clock for the office building without board approval. In August, the Ministry of Information began to require all media organizations to send news headlines to on-site government censors for approval half an hour before stories are published or broadcast. The interim government arrested five people in October for graffiti it considered seditious, and requested a closed court for their hearing in December. Access to the internet is spreading with increased competition, but remains limited outside the capital due to cost and infrastructure constraints.
Freedom of religion is generally respected, but the interim government appears to target those, including religious leaders, who speak out against the regime. Most indigenous Fijians are Christians, and Indo-Fijians are generally Hindus. Places of worship, especially Hindu temples, have been attacked. In August 2011, the interim government canceled the Methodist Church annual conference for the third consecutive year, citing that the speakers included senior church officials critical of the interim government. Methodist officials were also banned from traveling overseas to attend church meetings and conferences. Hindus are also now required to obtain a permit to hold religious events that involve more than 10 people.
While academic freedom is generally respected, the education system suffers from a lack of resources, and indigenous Fijians are granted special privileges in education.
Freedoms of assembly and association have been restricted since 2009 when the interim government suspended the 1997 constitution and imposed the PER, which gives power to law enforcement authorities to prohibit any public or private assemblies or meetings by three or more people.
The interim government increased its control over organized labor in 2011. In July, the interim government stopped automatically deducting union dues from the salaries of civil servants, claiming that union dues were unnecessary since amendments to the Public Service Act protect the rights of workers. The Essential National Industries Decree limits trade union and collective bargaining rights for those employed in industries that are considered essential to Fiji’s economy, including the sugar industry, the airline industry, utility corporations, banks, and telecommunication firms. The decree took effect in September. Previously held collective agreements remained valid only for 60 days until new agreements could be negotiated, and strikes in essential businesses were banned. Violations carry a penalty of $50,000 or five years in jail. Furthermore, all union officials must be employees of the company whose workers they represent, and bargaining units must have at least 75 members. In October and November, the interim government arrested Daniel Urai and Felix Anthony, leaders of the Fiji Trades Union Congress. Urai was charged with sedition and released after posting bail, while Anthony was interrogated and released without being charged. Also in December, the government refused to grant permits—required under the PER—for union meetings.
Suspension of the constitution in 2009, the related dismissal of judges, and their replacement by appointees of the interim government have raised serious questions about judicial independence. The 2009 dismissals exacerbated an already serious backlog of cases, which continued in 2011. Prisons are seriously overcrowded, with poor sanitary and living conditions.
Race-based discrimination is pervasive. Indigenous Fijians receive preferential treatment in education, housing, land acquisition, and other areas. Discrimination, economic hardship, and political turmoil have prompted many Indo-Fijians to leave Fiji. A December 2011 study reported that an estimated 250,000 Fijians—many of them educated and skilled Indo-Fijians—had left the country in the last 25 years.
Discrimination and violence against women are widespread. Women are also underrepresented in government and leadership positions and do not receive equal wages. Homosexuality was decriminalized in 2010. A decree was passed in January 2011 to officially outlaw discrimination against people with HIV/AIDS. Fiji is a source country for the trafficking of children for sexual exploitation and a destination country for the trafficking of men and women for forced labor and prostitution.