By David Robie
AUCKLAND — Fijian and New Zealand protest groups plan a direct action campaign to halt or disrupt a visit by military coup leader Major-General Sitiveni Rabuka.
Rabuka plans to address the annual conference of the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA). The invitation has plunged South Pacific newspapers and journalists into a bitter row over ethics and press freedoms.
Rabuka deposed the elected Fijian government of Timoci Bavadra at gunpoint in 1987. He recently quit the military and was appointed to the interim government as co-deputy prime minister and minister of home affairs.
PINA — a regional organisation of media publishers, editors and broadcasters — has invited the general to speak at its conference here October 7-11.
Although the previous Labour government twice blocked attempts by Rabuka to visit New Zealand, the present National Party government has signalled warmer relations. It declared there would be no opposition to a formal visa application by the general.
Foreign minister Don McKinnon said that if Rabuka visited New Zealand he would be offered "the courtesies normally extended a deputy prime minister". New Zealand officials now regard the coup leader as a civilian politician. Fiji is due early next year to have a general election under a new constitution which is condemned by opponents as racist and unjust because it discriminates against Fijians of Indian origin.
Pro-democracy Fijians living in New Zealand and the anti-apartheid group HART — organiser of the anti-Springbok tour campaign in 1981 — have protested against the planned visit. They have condemned PINA for its "insensitivity" and called for the invitation to be dropped.
Representatives of groups opposed to the visit — including HART, the Coalition for Democracy in Fiji, Citizens Association for Racial Equality, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the NZ Workers Party — met over the September 8-9 weekend and planned a campaign aimed at forcing the abandonment of the visit.
A spokesperson for the Coalition for Democracy in Fiji, Adi Asenaca Uluiviti, said it was inappropriate for "the man who killed democracy in our country" to be welcomed in New Zealand.
Leading newspapers and journalist' organisations have also harshly criticised the invitation. The NZ Journalists and Graphical Process Union said it was ironic that PINA had invited Rabuka when he represented a regime that had jailed, intimidated and harassed journalists in Fiji and arbitrarily restricted the entry of foreign journalists.
Frank Senge, a prominent PNG journalist and president of the Pacific Journalists Association (PJA) — representing working journalists throughout the region — said the invitation showed "remarkable naivety". He added that it would inevitably give credibility to the coup leader.
PINA was founded in the early 1980s by former Fiji Times publisher Sir Leonard Usher, who was for many years a publicist for Fiji's ruling Alliance Party. Many members of the Alliance government defeated in the April 1987 election, including interim prime minister Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, regained power through Rabuka's coups.
After Rabuka seized power on May 14, 1987, troops were ordered into the offices of Fiji's two daily newspapers, and their journalists were put under house arrest. Foreign journalists were harassed and detained, their hotel rooms raided, tapes and notes seized. Radio reports were censored.
The papers were closed again after the second coup four months later. The Fiji Sun refused to publish again under censorship and closed.
Since then Fiji journalists have faced being jailed without charge, threatened with government licensing of newspapers and harassed by a zealous minister of information. Reports by the PJA, Amnesty International and other organisations have cited examples of harassment and intimidation.
In 1988, the now retired editor of the Fiji Times, Vijendra Kumer, was arrested by soldiers and detained over a typographical error which upset Rabuka. A chief reporter for the paper was also jailed without charge.
In July a leading Tongan journalist and editor of Matangi Tonga, Pesi Fonua, was briefly detained in Fiji while travelling to Tonga from Vanuatu. This followed the two-day detention of an Australian Broadcasting Corporation television crew.
Last month, charges of "malicious fabrication" against the publisher of the Daily Post and two staff journalists were dropped. The journalists had been charged last October for publishing a news report about plans by students to burn copies of the republican constitution following the kidnapping and torture of Suva academic Dr Anirudh Singh by soldiers.