The Government of Fiji has promulgated a new media law which severely restricts media freedom and ownership on the small Pacific island. The “Media Industry Development Decree 2010” was gazetted by the government on Friday, 25 June 2010 and entered into force yesterday.

The Fiji Media Decree is designed to replace emergency regulations placed on media organizations after the constitution was suspended last year, and was passed after a round of hurried “consultations” with the media. As IPI noted at the time, participants were reportedly given only two-and-a-half hours to read the 50-page document before being asked for comments and submissions. They were also reportedly not able to take copies away for circulation.

Among the deeply concerning clauses in the law is a requirement that any printed article of a length greater than 50 words include a byline. The decree also mandates jail terms for journalists whose work is deemed against the “public interest or order”. Offences against the decree are punishable by a fine of up to $10,000 or imprisonment of up to two years, and the penalty for any company which commits an offence may be as high as $100,000.

The decree further limits foreign ownership of the media to not more than 10%. This clause has particularly grave implications for the country’s oldest newspaper, the Fiji Times, which has repeatedly been critical of Interim Prime Minister and Military Commander Frank Bainimarama and his administration.

The Fiji Times is majority-owned by Australian media tycoon Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. According to the website of the newspaper, no decision has been taken yet as to the future of the paper, but independent sources said that the paper’s ownership must choose between closing the paper, or a takeover by a third party. News Limited chief executive and chairman John Hartigan told the media: “Regardless, either of these scenarios means a voice of democracy that has campaigned tirelessly on behalf of the people may be silenced.”

IPI Deputy Director Alison Bethel McKenzie said: “This decree is a blow to press freedom in Fiji, and a step backward for the country. Restricting foreign investment in media organizations to 10 percent is not only restrictive to the media environment, but also puts Fiji’s standing in the international community at risk.”

The decree also mandates the creation of a media tribunal, whose chairman will be appointed by the President on the advice of the Attorney General, and which has the authority to impose fines or jail terms on journalists.

International condemnation of the decree has been sustained and vociferous. Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and New Zealand Prime Minister John Key both spoke out against the law today. The law has also met with heavy criticism from international media organizations.

Fijian media have long struggled with censorship and draconian media regulations. In April 2009, when the constitution of the country was suspended, the government posted censors in various publication offices, and deported several foreign journalists. The suspension was a reaction to a court’s decision that the December 2006 coup by Bainimarama was unconstitutional.