Friday April 25, 2014 

NGOCHR Press Release

The NGO Coalition on Human Rights is  dismayed with section 115 of the Electoral Decree 2014, which was imposed on Fiji on 27 March 2014.

"Section 115 is completely unjustified and is an attack on the integrity and independence of NGOs" said Shamima Ali, the Chair of the NGO Coalition. " Furthermore, section 115 restricts the freedom of expression and the right that NGO employees have to participate fully in the political process."

Section 115 of the Decree restricts those organisations which receive funding from foreign Governments and their employees from engaging in, participating in or conducting any campaign that is related to the election or any election issue or matter

Election issue or matter is not defined, but under section 2 of the Decree, " Electoral matter" is defined as "a matter that affects or is intended or likely to affect voting in an election." Campaign is defined as "any act done for or in connection with promoting or opposing, directly or indirectly, a registered political party or the election of a candidate or any act done for the purposes of influencing, directly or indirectly, the voting at an election, through any medium."

"These definitions are extremely wide ranging and have the potential to be interpreted so as to capture a wide range of activities carried out by NGOs" said Ali. "Any public education on elections, including calls for transparency, accountability, the positions that parties and individual candidates hold on issues- all are likely to affect voting. An informed populace will naturally be influenced in its voting by the information it receives. The state of the health system, corruption, the 2013 Constitution, the rising cost of food - all of these issues may affect voting."

"The effect of this provision is to effectively muzzle NGOs and all employees of  NGOs, between now and September, from expressing any opinion on most issues" added Ali. " This section is contrary to the fundamental human right of freedom of expression. This right is enshrined in the 2013 Constitution, and while section 17 (3) (a) allows the freedom to be restricted in the interests of, amongst others, "the orderly conduct of elections", this is only to "the extent that it is necessary".

"The question that must be posed is whether section 115 is indeed necessary - the proposed restriction is for a period of 5 and a half months - it is extremely wide ranging and breaching the section has very severe consequences - it is so widely drafted that arguably a post on an NGOs facebook page, commenting on the elections could run foul of the law."

Ali added that NGOs in Fiji have always been at the forefront of discussion and awareness raising on human rights, democracy and the Rule of Law. " NGOs have fearlessly and consistently advocated for constitutional government, a return to democracy and adherence by all to the Rule of Law. Given the important role that NGOs play, this attempt to muzzle us is extremely disquieting and disturbing" Ali said. " There is no equivalent to section 115 in any other country, because most democratic Governments welcome independent enquiry and vigorous debate."

"Furthermore, NGOs such as the Fiji Women's Crisis Centre and the Fiji Women's Rights Movement provide training and awareness for women and girls on leadership and women's participation in the political process. Such training and awareness raising is part of the core work of these NGOs and the restriction that section 115 arguably imposes has the potential to stop us from performing our day to day community education activities and programs."

Ali added that the NGO Coalition wanted section 115 to be removed from the Decree. " We have met with the Attorney-General and Solicitor General on this issue, and have followed this up with a letter, but no response has been received" said Ali. " Electoral Commission members have also stated at an NGO Consultation that they were " in the dark" on many aspects of section 115 and have sought an independent legal opinion."

"Why is the Government so wary of NGO involvement in the elections" asked Ali. "The presence of NGOs will only add to transparency and accountability in the Election process, and will contribute to free and fair elections. And surely, at the end of the day, free and fair elections are what we all want."

For more information contact Shamima Ali  9992875