Brigadier General Jone Kalouniwai, chief of staff for the Republic of Fiji military forces, wrote that the authorities have “good reason to silence criticism” as part of the government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This opinion was strongly criticized by defenders of press freedom. In addition, the call by civil society groups to respect human rights with health-related measures was highlighted.
On April 22, 2020, the newspaper Fiji Sun published an opinion column written by Kalouniwai, who argues why restricting freedom of expression is justified during a national emergency.
… In times of such national emergency such as this global pandemic or war against COVID-19, our leaders have good reasons to stifle criticism of their policies by curtailing freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
They are apt to have deep concerns about this enemy within, which have been fueled by irresponsible citizens selfishly breaking mandatory curfews, social distancing requirements and questioning the rationale of our leader’s decision to impose such restrictions.
These reactions when maliciously aired on social media can become very contagious with fear and confusion becoming the order of the day.
… In times of such a national emergency, such as this pandemic or global battle against COVID-19, our leaders have good reason to silence criticism of their policies with restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
They are prone to great concern for this inner enemy, which has been fueled by irresponsible citizens who selfishly breach the mandatory curfew, the requirements of social distancing, and who question the rationality of our leaders' decision to impose such restrictions.
These reactions, when maliciously broadcast on social media, can be highly contagious with fear and confusion being the order of the day.
It is perceived that Fiji Sun supports Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama. When confinement by COVID-19 was ordered in late March for Lautoka in the west of the country, the distribution of copies of Fiji Sun in the area, but not Fiji Times, the country's independent newspaper.
On April 15, the Government decreed a State of Catastrophe due to a natural disaster to contain the spread of the virus. It was a double disaster for Fiji, already heavily hit by Tropical Cyclone Harold, one of the most powerful storms to hit the South Pacific in years.
Since April 27, Fiji has registered 18 cases of COVID-19.
Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières, RSF) reminded Kalouniwai and the Government of Fiji of the importance of protecting press freedom. Daniel Bastard, head of RSF's Asia Pacific department, wrote:
No authority, and certainly not a military officer, should be arguing in favor of placing any kind of curb on press freedom
We urge the Fijian government to do what is necessary to guarantee the right of its citizens to inform and be informed, which is an essential ally in combatting the spread of the virus.
No authority, and certainly no military officer, should argue in any way to restrict freedom of the press.
We urge the Government of Fiji to do whatever is necessary to guarantee the right of its citizens to inform and be informed, which is an essential ally in the battle against the spread of the virus.
State of Fijian democracy.
Military general says COVID-19 is a good reason for political leaders to stifle citizens ’criticism of government policies by curtailing freedom of expression and freedom of the press. In the Fiji Sun today. pic.twitter.com/GdTD8XUaPK
– Kelvin Anthony (@kelvinfiji) April 21, 2020
The paradox of our rights in times of danger.
Fijian state of democracy.
The Army general assures that COVID-19 is a good reason for political leaders to silence criticism of government policies with restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Today in Fiji Sun.
Kalouniwai's controversial opinion column also drew attention to the concern raised by human rights groups regarding the government's excesses in dealing with the crisis.
The NGO Coalition for Human Rights called for humane treatment of prisoners in light of the large number of arrests made by police against so-called quarantine violators:
The COVID-19 pandemic is not an excuse for human rights violations. Excessive force and brutality are unacceptable from any of our enforcement or security forces.
This situation is extremely worrying, especially at a time when hundreds of people are arrested daily over COVID-19 precaution breaches. Their rights and dignity should be protected at all times, even if they are detained.
The COVID-19 pandemic is no excuse for human rights violations. Excessive force and brutality are unacceptable by any of our security forces.
This situation is extremely worrying, especially at a time when hundreds of people are arrested daily due to COVID-19 violations of precautions. Their rights and dignity should be protected at all times, even if they are detained.
In addition, he criticized the excessive deployment of military personnel to reinforce measures against COVID-19:
The deliberate display of armed military personnel to maintain social distancing is heavy handed and unnecessary, as it only fuels public fear and intimidation.
We understand that law enforcement personnel may struggle to get citizens to observe restrictions and social distancing, however, it should not be used as an excuse to increase armed military presence on our streets, which is unacceptable as we are still a democracy.
There are laws in place that address any breaches of restrictions but also guarantee that citizens' rights are protected whilst ensuring that public order is maintained.
The deliberate deployment of armed military personnel to maintain social distancing is awkward and unnecessary because it only fuels public fear and intimidation.
We understand that law enforcement personnel can fight to make citizens respect restrictions and social distancing. However, that should not be used as an excuse to increase the armed military presence on our streets, which is unacceptable, as we are still a democracy.
There are laws that address any violation of restrictions, but they also ensure that citizens' rights are protected while ensuring that public order is maintained.
Opposition parties urged the government to listen to and accept the criticism:
If the government is sincere about the “veilomani” tag-line, or to care for each other in order to beat covid-19, central to that traditional philosophy is also the spirit of “veirogorogoci”, or the ability to be able to listen to each other and accept criticism.
If the government is sincere about the motto veilomani or take care of each other to beat COVID-19, the spirit of veirogorogoci or being able to listen to each other and accept criticism.