Fiji Threatens to Expel Foreign Journalists as the Media Protests Censorship Laws

Three foreign journalists were expected to be expelled by Fiji's military government Tuesday after being taken into custody as local media protested new censorship by canceling evening news broadcasts and leaving pages of newspapers blank.

The government of Commodore Frank Bainimarama threatened the three television journalists with expulsion Monday.

Australian reporter Sean Dorney, New Zealand television reporter Sia Aston and cameraman Matt Smith were asked to leave, a sign that international coverage of the latest military power grab is being closely scrutinized.

A local Fiji One tv reporter, named by colleagues as Edwin Nand, was also taken into custody by security officials, reportedly for transmitting news material overseas.

Regional powers Australia and New Zealand have labeled the Fiji regime a military dictatorship.

"We've got effectively a self-appointed dictator" and a "very unpredictable" regime, New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully said Tuesday.

On Monday Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith also called Fiji a dictatorship, echoing Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's earlier comment that Bainimarama had turned Fiji into a military state by suspending freedom of speech and undermining the well-being of its citizens.

McCully said Fiji now is "a much less predictable place" than it was under previous coups when it had been "a relatively stable environment most of the time."

"This time we're seeing a very ugly side of the regime ... clamping down on personal freedoms, media freedoms, and ... some serious sense of a crackdown on the institutions and individuals defying the government," he told New Zealand's National Radio.

Australian Broadcasting Corp. correspondent Dorney said he was initially told by officials that he was to be deported.

"They called me to the immigration department ... and informed me they were unhappy with my reporting, which was being broadcast on the local Fiji One network," Dorney said Monday.

He said he was allowed to return to his hotel to pack and was then asked if he would leave voluntarily.

"I said no. I'm here to report and my visa is still valid, and now I'm awaiting further information," he said.

It was likely the trio would be expelled from the country on an airplane Tuesday, but officials would not confirm their next moves.

Fiji's latest political upheaval began Friday, when President Ratu Josefa Iloilo abolished the constitution, fired all the judges and declared a state of emergency in response to a senior court's ruling that Bainimarama's regime was unlawful. He set a timetable of five years for elections. He denied he was acting at the behest of Bainimarama.

The next day, Bainimarama was sworn in as prime minister and quickly tightened his grip on the country, posting censors in newsrooms and roadblocks on the capital's streets.

"Emergency regulations are in force," Bainimarama said in a national address late Saturday. "However, these regulations are only a precautionary measure."

Military-backed "information officers" stood watch in newspaper, news radio and television 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 Sunday and Monday editions with several blank spaces where stories about the crisis would have appeared. "The stories on this page could not be published because of Government restrictions," read the only words that appeared on Sunday's page two.

Fiji's main television station, Fiji One, refused to broadcast its nightly news bulletin on Sunday, instead showing a simple message written across a black screen: "Viewers please be advised that there will be no 6 p.m. news tonight."

The network later informed viewers that it could not present some prepared stories because of the new censorship regulations.

The nation's Ministry of Information said in a statement that there would be "a slight disruption" to the country's courts Tuesday because Iloilo was still in the process of appointing new judges and magistrates. The appointments were expected "soon."

Court staff were instructed to report for duty, and people scheduled to appear in court Tuesday were told to do so.

The Fiji Law Society, meanwhile, asked all fired members of the judiciary to turn up for work.

Bainimarama seized power in a 2006 coup — the country's fourth in 20 years — but has insisted his rule is legitimate. He has 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.

Australia, the United States, the United Nations and others accuse Bainimarama of dragging his feet on the restoration of democracy. Many nations have imposed sanctions, and the country's tourism- and sugar export-dependent economy has plummeted since the coup.