Fiji Electoral Decree "muzzle" on NGOs - Human Rights Coalition
NGOs in Fiji say the Electoral Decree is acting as a muzzle, stopping NGOs from doing their jobs.
The NGO Coalition on Human Rights in Fiji says the Electoral Decree's attempts to muzzle non-governmental organisations in the lead-up to the September elections is extremely disturbing.
Section 115 says any group receiving foreign funding cannot campaign on election issues, which includes organising debates, panel discussions or publishing information.
Violating the Decree can result in a US$27,000 fine or ten years in jail.
Mary Baines reports.
The Coalition's chair, Shamima Ali, says the group wrote to the Attorney General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, about a month ago to clarify the restrictions imposed and ask that the section be removed. Ms Ali says it has not heard back. She says the section is an unjustified attack on the integrity, independence and freedom of speech of NGOs.
We have asked the Attorney General to remove section 115. There's no other jurisdiction in the world that has that sort of a clause in electoral legislation. We are in a very uneasy situation - we really don't know how far can we go, and do we continue as we have done before, promoting human rights, the rule of law, democracy.
Ms Ali says it has appealed to the Electoral Commission for help. But she says the commission has said that section 115 was missing from the document when it saw the draft copy. She says it is "in the dark" on what the provision means and is seeking independent legal advice itself. The Electoral Commission could not be reached for comment. The University of the South Pacific has declined to host Fiji Media Watch's event, "Reporting Now and After the Elections" as it is likely to be in breach of the section. A journalism lecturer, Pat Craddock, says the university will put on a replacement panel discussion on the media and elections.
It excludes educational organisations such as the USP, so we're going to do it ourselves, because there is no point in putting any NGO under pressure. They can be fined up to 50,000 bucks and they can get 10 years prison or both.
The director of Media Watch, Agatha Ferei, says it is encouraging the public to attend USP's event but still plans to hold a workshop and a discussion on media freedom at its offices.
The way we are handling this is respecting what we've got as a clause, and at the same time, trying to work the limitation and be able to carry out activities. That is still important, for organisations to continue to carry out activities that they have planned out to do.
But Shamima Ali says the cancellation of the event shows how dangerous it is that the clause has not been properly clarified by the Attorney General. She says the cancellation is uncalled for.
An academic institution where debate and discussions and dialogue should be taking place and should be vibrant and robust, that is not being allowed to happen and the excuse is that it might be breaching the decree.
Ms Ali, who is also the coordinator of the Fiji Women's Crisis Centre, say it will continue to submit its manifestos to all political parties on women's issues and encourage women's political participation. She says it has received legal advice and is not in direct breach of section 115, because it is not aligned to any particular political party and is not campaigning.
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