Frank Bainimarama climate change
Fiji's Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama.

Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama is not a man to mince his words, especially when it comes to dealing with certain sections of the Australian press. Speaking last year about his Pacific island nations continued ban on certain Australian media organisations and individuals he had this to say:

“But we cannot allow the wilful propagation of false information that damages the national interest and undermines our vulnerable economy, and that is what has happened in the case of certain New Zealand journalists and others from Australia, and we are saying to the news organisations ‘send someone else’.”

Who was he talking about? The most notable bans of journalists by the Fijian government have been veteran ABC correspondent Sean Dorney, Fairfax reporter Michael Field and TVNZ correspondent Barbara Dreaver. In addition there was also series of high-profile expulsions of expatriate editors and publishers: Rex Gardner from the News Corp-owned Fiji Times, his predecessor Evan Hannah and Fiji Sun publisher Russell Hunter.

This all happened years ago, but it was the result of a long feud between the Fiji government, led by Bainimarama, and the then-Australian government of John Howard that led to Australian warships being stationed off Fiji, sanctions, condemnation and accusations of human rights abuses being leveled at Fiji by Australia. Some of the Australian press copped flak from Fiji for reporting the Australian view. Bainimarama made it clear he was not going to be pushed around by Australia.

Why is this still relevant? Well, on the weekend, Fairfax documented the plight of one asylum seeker who managed to get the hell out of Australia’s gulag on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. It was an interesting story that said a lot about what the asylum seekers there face under Australia’s supposedly benign rule. (Maybe the individual had read reports like this.)

His is a story that has all the elements of a film script: young man sent to tropical prison for fleeing his homeland; recognised as a refugee; takes the chance and gets released. He can only go to Papua New Guinea, gets beaten up, goes to jail in one of the roughest countries on earth. The misery of his situation forces him to attempt suicide. He gets released and ends up back in detention. Then he once again agrees to be resettled in PNG. He manages to get himself to Port Moresby and on a flight out of there by lying about his identity.

Now there are not many places you can fly to out of Moresby. The main one is Australia but there are flights to Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines. But they are no good. Those governments will just lock the fellow up again. There is another choice. Further east into the Pacific. Fiji is where he goes. He is there today and the UNHCR are due to interview him.

In many ways, Fiji is a perfect choice for an asylum seeker fleeing Australian detention. The government has a long history of antagonistic relations with Australia since the 2006 coup led by Frank Bainimarama. Australia does not like Fiji and Fiji does not like Australia.

Now the lawfully elected Prime Minister, Bainimarama has been quite vocal in his criticisms of Australia’s offshore processing. He doesn’t like the policy and he doesn’t really like Australia. Which is fair enough as we tried all we could to depose him in 2006, just short of invading the place.

Australia imposed sanctions and, for a while, it looked like Howard was ramping the situation up for military intervention with some of the largest ships in the Australian navy deployed off the coast. In 2006, a military task force dispatched to evacuate Australians in the wake of the coup led to the crash of a Black Hawk helicopter and the death of one Australian serviceman. Bainimarama basically told Australia to shove it

At the height of the tensions between Australia and Fiji in the years following the coup in 2006, Australian journalists were expelled from the country and the Australian media was generally critical of the governance of the island nation.

Which brings us back to the asylum seeker.

It remains to be seen what the fate is of the Iranian asylum seeker but one thing is clear. On it was explained: “Broke and destitute, the young Iranian asylum seeker Logham Sawari has been given refuge by a Fijian family and is planning to present himself to Fiji immigration officials on Monday to seek protection.” Whatever the case, he is now at least free of the administration of Australian authorities and from the demonisation of some sectors of the Australian media. 

It is interesting that although Fairfax broke this story on Saturday only The Guardian followed it up on Monday. News Corp and the ABC didn’t report it. Well what are they worried about? It is not like they are going to get their journalists visas to Fiji. I think old Frank Bainimarama has made that pretty clear over the years. And the ultimate irony is a regime once derided in the Australian press for abusing human rights is now deriding Australia for our abuses on Manus and Nauru. To such a point that for a desperate young Iranian man, who had been in Australian detention since he was 17 (he is now 21), when he looked at a map the only way out to a place he could walk freely was to Fiji.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey