Fiji held its highly anticipated election in September 2014, but does that make it a democracy?

There's much more to a functioning democratic system than people putting a mark on a piece of paper and dropping it in a box. Even the international election observers didn't go so far as to say the vote was free and fair – they chose their words with great care and said the result was 'broadly representative' of the will of the people.

Functioning democratic systems have several aspects to them, including neutrally applied rule of law, representative government, secure property rights and free speech. Fiji has problems in each of those areas, but one of the most significant relates to free speech and the role of the media.

During the period of outright military rule in Fiji, there were government censors stationed in newsrooms, checking every story before publication.

Those censors are gone, but local journalists I've spoken to say they are still cautious about how far they go in covering anything involving politics. They say they have a censor in their heads. And with certain media outlets having to apply for publishing or broadcasting licences for periods as short as six months, angering the Government is a risk they cannot afford to take.

There are many stories of late night phone calls from someone in a position of power to editors and publishers demanding that a reporter be fired or demoted for offending them with something they wrote or broadcast. These incidents are difficult to prove, of course, but what is undeniable is that journalists in Fiji are convinced this happens, and they adjust their behaviour accordingly.

Just as important, a culture has developed among those in power which is hostile to the very concept of robust journalism. Every reporter working in Fiji has experienced demands from those in authority that they be sent a list of the questions to be asked in advance of an interview (assuming they agreed to an interview in the first place, which is far from the case ordinarily). When, inevitably, reporters from outside the country refuse to accept such ridiculous conditions, the response is often anger. While it is perfectly reasonable for a reporter to indicate the general areas he or she would like to cover, providing questions in advance is completely unethical.

Also noticeable is a general reluctance of those in a position of authority to engage with journalists in a realistic way. Many times an Government department will simply issue a press release and tell reporters contacting them to use the release. Recently I myself had the head of a key Government body simply hang up on me for trying to get an interview about an important issue.

Visitors to Fiji can see this for themselves. Just turn on the television and watch a news bulletin. It is regarded as a perfectly normal thing for a newsreader to simply read out, in full, a Government press release. This is the sort of thing you'd expect to happen in North Korea, Zimbabwe or Cuba, not a democratic Fiji.

There is a culture in Fiji of not answering questions from journalists that has grown since the military coup of 2006, and the attitude towards the media, both local and foreign, was not particularly friendly even before then. 

The danger is that these attitudes have become entrenched for the new generation of Fijian journalists and will be difficult to change. If you know that people in authority refuse to answer questions, or if they demand questions in advance, or they simply issue press releases that don't answer the questions the public wants answered, then after a while it becomes hard to do your job properly. Fijian journalists are caught in an impossible situation, and one can only sympathise. I don't know that I would behave any differently under similar circumstances.

If Fiji continues to treat its journalists as mere royal heralds issuing pronouncements by those in power rather than as tribunes of the people who find out what's really going on up at the castle and tell the villagers about it, then its status as a functioning democracy must have a large question mark next to it.

Photo courtesy of the Fiji Department of Information.