From jail to Parliament - and a result
In the final investigation in a three-part series on environmental destruction at Malolo Island, Melanie Reid and Mark Jennings go to Suva seeking answers and end up arrested and then hosted to morning tea by the Prime Minister.
It started off as an investigation into the environmental damage being caused by a major resort development on Fiji’s Malolo Island. It turned into our arrest and detention at Fiji’s central police station in Suva and ended with justice for the village and leaseholders harmed by a big Chinese developer.
Newsroom had gone to Fiji to see first-hand what was happening with the Chinese-backed company Freesoul Real Estate’s huge development on sensitive land at Malolo Island – the jewel in the Mamanuca chain.
Things did not go smoothly. From the minute we started filming we were harassed, chased and threatened by Freesoul employees. We witnessed one of the leaseholders of land adjoining the development being assaulted by a Chinese worker at the site. Navrin Fox was attacked when he tried to access his own land and show us the environmental damage caused by the development.
Despite four High Court injunctions to halt work at the development site, local villagers told us that Freesoul had continued on and caused significant environmental damage.
This included digging a channel through the fringing reef, dumping excavated material on seagrass beds, reclamation of a beach and the foreshore, destroying habitat for iguana, turtles, crabs, prawns and fish, and stripping trees from adjoining land.
Attempts to gather evidence of the destruction have been frustrated by Freesoul. It’s built a fence at the entrance to the site which is guarded around the clock by Fijian employees of the company.
When Newsroom flew a drone off a small boat in the waters near the development, Freesoul employees tried to bring it down by throwing rocks. A boat with three men aboard pursued us and tried to get us to hand over the drone. They yelled at us that the police would become involved if we didn’t leave the area.
We soon learned that somebody had been trying to find out where we were staying. The staff at one of the large resorts (there are many resorts on and around Malolo) where we had originally planned to stay tipped us off that “people” were asking questions about us.
Basing ourselves at a small, low-profile, resort turned out to be a good decision. We also took the precaution of copying our footage and stashing it with the villagers. Locals told us they were extremely careful about criticising the Government or anyone with money. Life can become very difficult very quickly, they told us.
Instead of taking a ferry to the mainland, we hired a small boat, landed at a remote beach before heading to Suva.
Two tasks remained. An interview with the lawyer representing the villagers and leaseholders with land adjacent to the development, and to approach Freesoul for comment.
Earlier attempts, from New Zealand, to talk to someone at Freesoul had ended with the phone being hung up.
The Freesoul office is in Suva’s main street. It is a public office and, until recently, was a well-known restaurant. We were hoping to find and talk to Dickson Peng, Freesoul’s local director.
The Chinese embassy would later distance itself from Peng, saying he might look Chinese but he in fact holds a Fijian passport.
Not knowing what to expect at the Freesoul office our cameraman started filming as we entered. The visit turned out to be uneventful - or so we thought.
When we found the reception area deserted, reporter Melanie Reid went through to where three people were working. Dickson Peng was not one of them.
Reid asked them if they could tell us why Freesoul had caused so much damage on Malolo. They replied the matter was before the courts and couldn’t comment.
We left and headed to lawyer Dr Ken Chambers’ office, a few blocks away.
A few hours later we were arrested and taken to Totogo police station where we would be detained for the night in a holding room. Two Freesoul employees had accused us of “forceful trespass”.
It became clear during our overnight detention that there was little interest in hearing our side of the story. Interviews with Newsroom’s co-editor Mark Jennings and cameramen Hayden Aull were started but not completed and Melanie Reid was not interviewed at all.
The lack of interest from detectives seemed to stem from the view that the whole thing was pointless. Hints were dropped that someone “higher up” had ordered our arrest.
We were released the next morning on the orders of the Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama. In a speech to the Fijian Parliament, Bainimarama blamed the incident on a small group of “rogue officers”. He followed this up with a personal apology to the three of us, which according to New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Winston Peters, “seems genuine”.
Bainimarama’s government keeps a tight rein on local media but investigations by media outside the country are problematic for the regime and its leader.
As Australian political scientist, Dr Dominic O’Sullivan, pointed out in a recent article for the Asia Pacific Report, “Bainimarama faces a diplomatic dilemma. Fiji’s economy needs Chinese investment but not Chinese developers’ environmental degradation.”
China is now the largest single source of direct foreign investment in Fiji but Bainimarama has made much of his strong stance on the environment. Climate change is a major plank of Fiji’s foreign policy and according to O’Sullivan, six of his 18 foreign policy speeches in 2018 dealt with this issue.
Things have moved quickly since we were released. Fiji’s Department of Environment has revoked Freesoul’s environmental impact assessment approvals.
The High Court, in a mandatory injunction, has ordered Freesoul to restore the beach, foreshore and reef at the Malolo development to its original state.
After a long period of operating without the required permits and approvals, Freesoul’s run has come to a sticky end.
Part 1: Surfers who helped stop disaster
*Investigation undertaken with the support of NZ on Air