- The Washington Times - Monday, April 13, 2009

SUVA, FIJI (AP) - Fiji’s military government threatened foreign journalists with expulsion Monday as local media protested new censorship by canceling evening news broadcasts and leaving large parts of newspapers blank.

The government of Commodore Frank Bainimarama asked an Australian reporter and a New Zealand television reporter and cameraman to leave Monday, in a sign that international coverage of the latest military power grab is being closely scrutinized.

Australian Broadcasting Corp. correspondent Sean Dorney said he was initially told he would be deported.

“They called me to the immigration department this morning and informed me they were unhappy with my reporting, which was being broadcast on the local Fiji One network,” Dorney said.

He said he was allowed to return to his hotel to pack and was then asked if he would leave voluntarily.

“I said no. I’m here to report and my visa is still valid, and now I’m awaiting further information,” he said.

It is not known when he would leave the country.

Also ordered out were New Zealand’s TV3 reporter, Sia Aston, and cameraman, Matt Smith, who are in Fiji to report on the political situation. Aston had video tapes and her personal cell phone confiscated by Fiji officials.

Fiji’s latest political upheaval began Friday, when President Ratu Josefa Iloilo abolished the constitution, fired all the judges and declared a state of emergency in response to a senior court’s ruling that Bainimarama’s regime was unlawful. He set a timetable of five years for elections. He denied he was acting at the behest of Bainimarama.

The next day, Bainimarama was sworn in as prime minister and quickly tightened his grip on the country, posting censors in newsrooms and roadblocks on the capital’s streets.

“Emergency regulations are in force,” Bainimarama said in a national address late Saturday. “However, these regulations are only a precautionary measure.”

Military-backed “information officers” stood watch in newspaper, news radio and television offices to prevent the publication or broadcast of any reports that, Bainimarama said, “could cause disorder.” Police were granted extra detention powers.

The Fiji Times, the country’s main daily, published its Sunday and Monday editions with several blank spaces where stories about the crisis would have appeared. “The stories on this page could not be published because of Government restrictions,” read the only words that appeared on Sunday’s page two.

Fiji’s main television station, Fiji One, refused to broadcast its nightly news bulletin on Sunday, instead showing a simple message written across a black screen: “Viewers please be advised that there will be no 6 p.m. news tonight.”

The network later informed viewers that it could not present some prepared stories because of the new censorship regulations.

The nation’s Ministry of Information said in a statement that there would be “a slight disruption” to the country’s courts Tuesday because Iloilo was still in the process of appointing new judges and magistrates. The appointments were expected “soon.”

Court staff were instructed to report for duty, and people scheduled to appear in court Tuesday were told to do so.

The Fiji Law Society, meanwhile, asked all fired members of the judiciary to turn up for work.

Peter Williams, a leading New Zealand lawyer who has tried cases in Fiji’s courts, said any imposed judicial system would be “a sham.”

“The independence of the judiciary is the most important quality of all. How can any person become a judge if that person is to agree to be a slave to a pirate government?” he told TVOne News.

Pacific Islands Forum head Neroni Slade said restrictions on media and freedom of speech, as well as the disregard for judicial independence, “were especially worrying.”

Bainimarama seized power in a 2006 coup _ the country’s fourth in 20 years _ but has insisted his rule is legitimate. He has said he would eventually call elections to restore democracy, after he rewrites the constitution and electoral laws to remove what he says is racial discrimination against a large ethnic-Indian minority.

Australia, the United States, the United Nations and others accuse Bainimarama of dragging his feet on the restoration of democracy. Many nations have imposed sanctions, and the country’s tourism- and sugar export-dependent economy has plummeted since the coup.

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