Radio Australia and the historian Brij Lal didn’t believe it. Their doubts set off a firestorm in anti-regime circles, accusing Grubsheet and others of being wrong and even fabrication when we reported that the former governing party in Fiji, the SDL, had called for the introduction of a Christian state in a submission to the country’s Constitutional Commission. Well here’s the proof – a direct copy of the document presented to the Commission in Suva last Friday by a delegation that included the SDL’s President, Solomoni Naivalu.
It now transpires that this is just one of a number of SDL submissions being made in advance of the main version to be presented next month. Naivalu has since explained to the Fiji Sun that the party’s various “constituency committees” around the country are putting forward summaries of the main submission before the full detail is outlined at a final session. It explains why the same summary presented at the Suva Civic Centre was identical to one presented at a separate session in Nasinu. It gives the appearance of a grassroots “tagi ni vanua”, a cry from ordinary members of the i’Taukei. But it stands to reason that both summary and final document will include the same contentious proposals.
The “summary” clearly states that “Fiji is to be a Christian State” and that “Christianity is to be the state religion”. It also states that “Fijian is to be the national language of the state”. The document also confirms the other provisions reported by Grubsheet earlier this week; that the term Fijian only apply to indigenous people and the rest be known as Fiji Islanders, that dual citizenship be abolished, that the rights of gays and lesbians no longer be constitutionally protected and that the Great Council of Chiefs be restored and have the sole power to appoint the president and vice president.
Quite why the story was thrown into doubt is a lesson for a credulous media, notably Radio Australia and its Pacific Beat reporter, Bruce Hill. He reported that when he telephoned the SDL offices in Suva, he was told by an unnamed person that the party had yet to present its submission and the stories that it had were wrong. Yes, the main submission is still to come. But what the spokesman failed to tell Hill was that a summary of it was presented and contained the call for a Christian state and the other contentious provisions.
Evidently accepting that nothing had happened, Bruce Hill then sought comment from the exiled Indo-Fijian historian, Brij Lal, who opined on air that he very much doubted that the SDL would ever call for a Christian state in Fiji because – among other things – it had accepted the principle of one man, one vote. He maintained that the original reports must have been based on comments to the Commission by one or two individuals, who might have said what was claimed, but that it was unlikely to have been an official SDL submission. The entire tenor of the Radio Australia report was that the original report was wrong.
The story had been broken first by one of Fiji’s most senior journalists – Vijay Narayan, the news director of the radio stations of Communications Fiji Limited, and carried on CFL’s widely read website, Fiji Village. It first went on the site soon after 5.00pm on Monday evening local time. The first outlet to give it wider publicity was the New Zealand website of the academic blogger, Crosbie Walsh. Later in the evening, Grubsheet also published its own pungent commentary on the submission. The stories set off a firestorm of criticism of the SDL and the controversy raged for 24 hours without any denial from the SDL that the contents were true. That only came in the denial given to Bruce Hill when he rang the Party’s Suva headquarters. He clearly didn’t realise that the spokesman was being disingenuous, a denial that the final official submission had been lodged, not about whether the party had called for a Christian state. But with that denial and Brij Lal’s “it can’t possibly be”, it was enough to run with on the international airwaves. Journalist and historian have been dealt a very harsh lesson about the veracity of SDL statements.
When contacted the following morning, Vijay Narayan said he “stood by his story 100 per cent” and gave the precise details of what happened at Friday’s Commission hearing, including the presence of the SDL President, Solomoni Nailavu. A number of questions now arise. Why didn’t Bruce Hill contact Vijay Narayan before he ran the story? Why did he seek comment from an exiled academic, in the form of Brij Lal, who lives in Canberra, thousands of kilometers from the action? Lal wasn’t issuing a denial because he had no idea what had happened in Suva. He was merely opining that in his judgment, the original story must have been wrong. How on earth would be know? And why would Bruce Hill use such an opinion to broadcast a story casting doubt on the report, especially when it appears that he made no real effort to discover the facts from those closest to what had happened? Judge for yourself but we think Bruce Hill and Radio Australia were far too ready to take the word of the SDL over those who actually witnessed the submission being presented. Brij Lal might also finally start thinking a bit more critically about the circles he moves in.
Fiji SDL party deny calling for a Christian state
Fiji’s opposition SDL party has denied making a submission to the country’s constitution commission calling for Fiji to be declared an officially Christian state.
It’s been reported in Fiji that the largely indigenous Fijian party has called for Fijian to be the official language of the country, for only indigenous i-Taukei to be known as Fijian, and for references to sexual orientation to be removed from human rights laws. But a senior party official says they have made no such submission, and they are still working on what they will say to the commission, which will probably come in late September. The official said some individual SDL members have have said things on their own, but they do not represent the party as a whole. Dr Brij Lal is an academic and a commentator on Fiji affairs, and he tells Bruce Hill that the SDL almost certainly doesn’t hold the extreme positions that are being attributed to it.
Speaker:Fiji academic Dr Brij Lal, from the Australian National University in Canberra
LAL: My sense is that the SDL as a responsible party, as a major party in Fiji, I just don’t believe that they will be making those kinds of statements now. I mean they have publicly embraced the idea of one person one vote, for example. So I’d be very, very surprised. My own sense is that it’s probably some individual member of SDL who shares those nationalistic views who has made a submission and maybe his remarks have been misrepresented and attributed to SDL. So my own sense is that a major political party would make official submission later on and not so early in the piece. So I would take this “claim” with a huge grain of salt.
HILL: Why would it be reported in the Fiji media that this is the SDL party submission when we called the SDL, they point blank denied it and said they’re still working on their constitutional commission submission, which won’t be ready until the 10th of September? Why would the Fiji media be reporting that it is their position when they’re saying that it’s not?
LAL: Well this is an important and intriguing point. Maybe it is in the interests of some groups in Fiji, maybe even some individuals of political parties to portray SDL as a racist party without really checking with the leaders of that party. I mean Mr Qarase was just jailed recently so I think the party has other things on its mind rather than preparing a detailed submission to the commission. So maybe there’s an element of mischief making in this, I can’t tell. But it is beyond me that any responsible party would make those kinds of claims now, especially now that the demography has changed in business Fiji inside and outside majority, and I think most sensible people in Fiji would say that it is far more important to live a Christian life than to have a Christian state. So I think that these claims have to be taken with a huge grain of salt.
HILL: There has been a stream within some indigenous Fijian iTaukei thought about these ideas for some time. I remember a politician called Sakiasi Butadroka who was toying with a lot of these ideas, the idea that only Fijians were really Fijian and that Fijian should be the language, Christianity should be the official religion of the state. How widespread do you think this still is within the iTaukei community in Fiji?
LAL: Well these ideas have been around for a long time. In 1974 Mr Butadroka asked for the deportation of all Indo-Fijians back to India. I mean these positions were circulated before the Reeves Commission in 1995/96 by the SVT, Mr Rabuka’s party. The idea of being a Christian state was also advocated by a number of other Fijian parties. So there is a history to this. But that was a time when Fijians felt threatened, they were in a minority and they took these extremist views. And there are a number of church leaders and political leaders who actively propagated these ideas. But my sense is that since 2000 and later on the political climate in Fiji has changed and the demographic transformation that has taken place in Fiji has taken some of the heat out of these very, very sensitive and contentious issues.
Not so, Professor. To follow is the actual document – the “summary” of the main SDL submission submitted to the Constitutional Commission by Solomoni Naivalu’s team. He evidently didn’t speak but was present as other party representatives addressed the proposals. It ought to lay to rest this journalistic and historical canard once and for all because the document specifically says it is an SDL submission. Whether the main one hasn’t been presented is neither here nor there.
Page Five is the “smoking gun” that has now gone off in the trusting Brij Lal’s face. How on earth will he to explain to Hindus ( 32 per cent of Fiji’s population) and Muslims ( six per cent) why they should bow before a Christian system of government in Fiji, as the party he keeps defending wants them to do? Where is the defence of their religion, language and customs? Yes, from the hated dictator, Frank Bainimarama, who woke up to the SDL’s secret agenda long ago. Brij Lal’s position – along with that of other non-indigenous SDL apologists like his brother-in-law Wadan Narsey – is untenable. And now that the truth has been exposed, he’ll doubtless be realising the implications with mounting horror.