Constraints still exist despite freed up pre-election debate in Fiji
Political parties say constraints are hampering the prospects of a free and fair election in Fiji.
Debate has opened up in Fiji in the run up to elections.
But scratch under the surface and there are constraints which political parties and pro-democracy activists say are hampering the prospects of a free and fair election.
Sally Round has been in Fiji and filed this report.
Sodelpa party volunteers start their Blue Wednesday meetings at Suva Party headquarters with the national anthem. Then the head of the Sodelpa party's youth wing, Pita Waqavonovono, revs them up by relating his own experience at the hands of the regime just after the 2006 coup led by Fiji's prime minister Frank Bainimarama.
PITA WAQAVONOVONO: They actually came to my house, they picked me up, they took me to the camp, they did whatever they wanted to do with me and then they just dumped me at the gate of our house.
The public order laws around holding such meetings have freed up considerably in the last two and a half years. You now only need a permit for outdoor meetings in public places in Fiji. In homes, backyards and village halls, there is plenty of discussion happening. A group of young concerned professionals have been meeting regularly over the last year or so. They say the space for debate has opened up in the last year on social and mainstream media. But they still feel pressure. Some members of the group have been arrested after protests over the past year and they say there's constant hassling from the police. This man has not been named for his own security.
MAN: It hasn't eased up, definitely not. I still get phone calls from time to time, asking me you know what are you doing. what do you think about this, why didn't you turn up to this, we were expecting you to turn up to this place and you didn't. For my case I was told if you were to turn up here, you would be arrested. It seems like any form of expression that opposes government policies or expresses any form of opposition or different view is clamped down on.
The aspiring independent candidate Roshika Deo says police intimidation and surveillance are seriously affecting her campaign.
ROSHIKA DEO: A policeman in civilian clothes came and sat in a meeting with civilian women and I wasn't aware he was from the community but the women were, so initially they were talking but as soon as he came he started recording quite evidently and the women stopped talking and interacting so that also affected our interaction with the women. It wasn't a safe space anymore.
The mainstream media in Fiji has freed up considerably over the past year. But some political parties say they are not getting coverage, and journalists say their job is a fine-tuned balancing act. The leader of the Labour Party, a former Prime Minister and staunch regime critic Mahendra Chaundhry took to the hustings to launch the party manifesto.
MAHENDRA CHAUDHRY: First of all we've got to restore democracy and remove dictatorship, that's the top priority.
Media reports later focused on the policies not the rhetoric. A Suva lawyer Richard Naidu says decrees are stifling media freedom.
RICHARD NAIDU: When you have a law which says you may not publish something which is in the national interest, well what does that mean? When you can be penalised for not reporting an issue in a balanced way. How can any media organisation feel free to report things objectively and accurately particularly when they are publishing against the authorities?
Mr Naidu took part in what was meant to be a series of panel discussions on various aspects of the elections organised by the Citizens Constitutional Forum. But a dispute with the elections authorities over the staging of the series has forced the group to postpone the talks. The group says it is now the subject of an official investigation. Amnesty International is calling for the Fiji regime to stop restrictions on freedoms and recommends the new government commit to a full agenda to protect human rights after the elections. It has released a report entitled Fiji Play Fair which documents torture, workers' rights violations and concerns about a lack of government accountability in the run up. Its New Zealand Chief Executive Grant Bayldon says there's still a pervasive climate of self censorship in Fiji.
GRANT BAYLDON: The election on the day will probably be run quite well and at least on a surface level will be largely free. The real question is whether it will be a fair election, whether in the lead up to the election, people have been allowed to speak out.
The government in Fiji maintains freedoms in Fiji are protected under a comprehensive Bill of Rights in the constitution, which it brought in last year. The Fiji police have so far not responded to our requests for comment on police monitoring of the aspiring candidate Roshika Deo.
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