Politics

Ardern, Peters back media after Fiji arrests

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters have spoken out against the detention of three Newsroom journalists in Fiji, saying media freedom must be protected.

However, Peters has appeared to cast doubt on reports of the trio’s incarceration, while denying the incident has any connection to a major Chinese government initiative tied to the Newsroom team’s investigation.

Newsroom co-editor Mark Jennings, investigations editor Melanie Reid and cameraman Hayden Aull were placed in a holding room at the Totogo police station on Wednesday night after developer Freesoul Real Estate - the controversial Chinese resort developer accused of environmental desecration of an island in the tourist jewel of the Mamanucas - accused them of criminal trespass.

The journalists were released on Thursday morning after the intervention of senior police, with Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama delivering an urgent statement to Parliament attributing the arrests to “a small group of rogue officers” and saying a probe was underway.

Bainimarama would meet the journalists to apologise for their detention, and said he shared public outrage about the conduct of Freesoul.

Fiji’s Police Commissioner Sitiveni Qiliho told the Fiji Times that no further action would be taken against the journalists, saying they had never been locked up in a cell.

“The three were provided meals, taken to a restaurant to get their dinner and this morning were in the care of officers from the Tourist Police in their office where they were given breakfast and coffee was brought in for them,” Qiliho said.

“New Zealand defends the freedom of the press, no matter where in the world that freedom is being exercised or attempted to be exercised, so that’s a very important principle for us.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she had been advised of the arrests on Thursday morning but did not have further details, adding that media freedom was a paramount consideration for her government.

“New Zealand defends the freedom of the press, no matter where in the world that freedom is being exercised or attempted to be exercised, so that’s a very important principle for us.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters also backed the rights of the Newsroom team to carry out their investigation and welcomed news of an official investigation into the matter.

“It’s pretty credible if you look at his words: he’s been most effusive about his apology, about the need for environmental security and protection of the environment in their constitution, and he seems to be enormously supportive of the rights of these three journalists to find out what was going on.”

However, Peters seemed to question whether the journalists had been detained by police as reported, saying the use of “detention” was “a rather difficult word in this case because of the nature of it”.

“It’s very difficult to try and work out what legal status, what legal rights they were losing here because they were taken to a restaurant, they were given a meal and the whole 100 yards, which is not what sounds like normal detention.”

Melanie Reid responded from Suva that two police staff escorted the trio to McDonalds, down the road from the police station, about midnight, after six hours of being at the station. They went from the room they had been detained in, had some takeaway food and then returned to that room for the rest of their detention. 

UN, Belt and Road sensitivities

The arrests come at an inopportune time for Fiji, with the United Nations’ Deputy Commissioner for Human Rights Kate Gilmore in the country for a week-long official visit.

During the UN’s last review of Fiji’s human rights record in 2014, a number of countries raised concerns about restrictions on media freedom and the intimidation and harassment of people who criticised the Fijian state.

However, the Fiji government claimed its Media Industry Development Authority had “actively encouraged the mainstream media, both print and broadcast, to report freely and critically on public opinion and views, including those which were critical of the government”.

In early 2018, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said the limits imposed on journalists in Fiji were “highly worrying” and limited coverage of issues that were deemed sensitive, according to RNZ.

Another factor behind the journalists’ detention may have been the resort’s links to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, a trillion-dollar project seen by many as a push for soft power in the Pacific and elsewhere.

Peters dismissed the suggestion that diplomatic sensitives over Belt and Road may have been a factor in the arrests, saying he would not “be detoured or sidetracked down some other devious line of questioning”.

Freesoul’s Chinese-language website says it signed an agreement in 2017 with the Shanghai Media Group to help it explore the “highly promising” Fiji tourism market as part of the Belt and Road policy.

“With the intentions of highlighting China's soft power [and] spreading China's image and voice, [the Shanghai Media Group] has broadly sought local resources in Fiji.”

The website for Freesoul’s sales agent in China describes Fiji as the “strategic hub of the Belt and Road” in the South Pacific, focusing on the importance of the initiative to the Pacific country through tourism projects like the Malolo resort.

Bainimarama was the only South Pacific leader invited to the first Belt and Road Forum in 2017, the site says.

However, Peters dismissed the suggestion that diplomatic sensitives over Belt and Road may have been a factor in the arrests, saying he would not “be detoured or sidetracked down some other devious line of questioning”.

“I’m having a very difficult job here trying to make a connection between the facts here and your line of questioning.”

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