**Updates IFEX alert of 25 and 24 November 1999**
(PINA/IFEX) - On 30 December 1999, the Fiji Islands government gave "The Fiji Times" editor-in-chief Russell Hunter twenty-eight days to leave the country, the newspaper reported. It stated that a faxed letter sent to the newspaper's lawyers said that Minister for Home Affairs Joji Uluinakauvadra had rejected an appeal against the refusal to renew Hunter's work permit. The three-year work permit held by Hunter, who is originally from Scotland, expires 31 December.
The government decision follows continuing tension between the government and the country's independent news media, and especially "The Fiji Times". The newspaper, which is part of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, is a previous winner of the PINA Pacific Freedom of Information award for its defence of freedom of expression and the Fiji public's right to know.
"The Fiji Times" reported publisher Alan Robinson as saying he is stunned by the decision, especially since Attorney-General Anand Singh had given a verbal understanding that Hunter would be given a three-month reprieve. This was to enable the newspaper to argue its case further, Robinson said. Uluinakauvadra said he was refusing the appeal against the Immigration Department's decision because he believed there are locals who could take up the position.
The original letter refusing "The Fiji Times" application for the renewal was received on the day the newspaper accused the government of conducting a "vendetta" against it. The company has local editors for its daily newspaper, Sunday newspaper, Fijian and Hindi language weekly newspapers and a regional news magazine, and an editor-in-chief for the group posted from News Corporation. Hunter has extensive newspaper management and training experience in Britain, Australia, and the Pacific Islands and this year was elected by the region's newspapers and magazines as their representative on the PINA executive.
The Fiji Islands has amongst the most diverse and free news media in the Pacific Islands. They include: three seven-day-a-week English-language daily newspapers; weekly newspapers in Hindi, Fijian, and English; news, business, trade and entertainment magazines; independent commercial, community and religious radio stations; government-owned public and commercial radio stations; and commercial and community television. However, the news media have come under continuing criticism from Prime Minister and Information Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and his assistant information minister, Lekh Ram Vayeshnoi. This follows the election of their new Fiji Labour Party-led coalition government in May (see IFEX alerts).
On 27 October, there was widespread criticism in the Fiji Islands of threats by Prime Minister Chaudhry to bring in a government-regulated media tribunal with powers to impose penalties on the media. One of the country's three daily newspapers also reported on the government's plans to introduce legislation requiring compulsory licencing of foreign-owned Fiji Islands media. This included setting strict conditions under which they had to report and operate or risk losing their licence.
PINA president William Parkinson called the threats to the news media a "disgrace" and "unbecoming of a prime minister of a supposedly democratic country. We have not had this kind of threat made since the military government in 1987. Fiji is very much a beacon for the rest of the region with regards to media freedom. We have a very dynamic media industry which apart from a period around the military coups in 1987 has been able to operate freely."