Fiji’s armed forces chief tightened his grip on the country yesterday, posting censors in newsrooms and roadblocks on the capital’s streets as critics accused him of establishing a military dictatorship.
Commodore Frank Bainimarama sought to assure residents of the South Pacific country there would be no unrest following three days of political tumult that ended with the Constitution thrown out and a government that senior judges had declared illegal back in power.
“Emergency regulations are in force,” Bainimarama said in a national address late on Saturday. “However, these regulations are only a precautionary measure.”
The military-backed “information officers” stood watch in newspaper, news radio and TV 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 edition yesterday with several blank spaces where stories about the crisis would have appeared, but were blocked by censors, said Greg Baxter, a spokesman for Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd, which owns the paper.
“For the time being, we are acquiescing to the demands of the censor, given the direct threat to the safety of our staff that will arise if we don’t,” Baxter said.
The streets remained calm yesterday.
The commander seized power in a 2006 coup — the country’s fourth in 20 years — but had insisted his rule is legitimate. He had 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.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd added to the international scorn directed at Bainimarama following his latest actions.
“Australia condemns unequivocally this action by the military ruler of Fiji to turn this great country into virtually a military dictatorship, with the suspension of freedom of the press and actions which undermine prosperity for the ordinary people,” Rudd told reporters in the remote Western Australian town of Port Hedland, where his plane made a refueling stop after turning around in midflight after the East Asia summit in Thailand was canceled because of protests.
Australia has renewed travel warnings to its citizens to avoid Fiji and stay away from crowds because of the possibility of unrest.
Bainimarama was sworn in as prime minister by Fijian President Ratu Josefa Iloilo on Saturday. A day earlier, Iloilo had abrogated the constitution and declared a state of emergency in response to a senior court’s ruling that Bainimarama’s regime was unlawful.
Iloilo’s power grab included firing all of Fiji’s judges and magistrates and declaring a 30-day state of emergency. He set a timetable of five years for elections. He denied he was acting at the behest of Bainimarama.
Australia, the US, the UN and others accuse Bainimarama of dragging his feet on the restoration of democracy. Many countries have imposed sanctions and the country’s tourism and sugar export-dependent economy has plummeted since the coup.
On Thursday, a three-judge Court of Appeal panel upheld a challenge to Bainimarama’s rule by ousted Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase and urged Iloilo to replace the military government with an interim administration until elections could be held. The panel members were among the judges fired.