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“Erosion of academic integrity at USP: the 2014 Elections” (9 November 2017)

09/11/2017

No changes for the 2018 Elections?

It seems that Khaiyum and Company have dug themselves in and will not bring about any significant changes to the electoral system and elections processes that enabled them to “win” the 2014 Elections.  There is indeed little public pressure on them, beyond Opposition parties referring to the Multinational Observer Group Report and Recommendations, which Khaiyum and Bainimarama Government could not care about.

There is indeed no informed and expert opinion being publicized through the media that can support the Opposition calls for a fairer system.

Why aren’t there any “expert” calls for change, especially given that one has three universities now in Fiji full of so-called experts on all things under the sun?

Why MOGs and not USP?

In countries like Australia, neutral university academics are often called upon by governments, media and society to shed light on contentious policy issues and offer constructive policy recommendations.

It is therefore extremely strange that in Fiji, calls by the Opposition Parties for changes to the electoral system  do not refer to the local university academics, but to the findings and recommendations of the Multinational Observer Group (MOG) that came to observe the 2014 Elections.

Why are prominent USP academics expert in politics not to be heard at all on the current weaknesses of the electoral system and processes which were unilaterally imposed on Fiji by the Bainimarama Government?

This omission is extraordinary given that USP’s flagship Journal of  Pacific Studies devoted an entire edition to the 2014 Election (Special Issue on the Fiji General Election of 2014 (Volume 35, Issue No.2), edited by senior USP academics Professor Vijay Naidu and Dr. Sandra Tarte.

Sadly and unfortunately, however, this JPS Special Issue demonstrates all too well, how USP’s academic integrity has been compromised in recent years.  This JPS Special Issue shows all too clearly how the senior academics refused to systematically analyze the evidence that they themselves present, but marginalized in footnotes and endnotes, which taken together establishes so conclusively that the 2014 elections were NOT “free and fair” and  that the system MUST be changed as the Opposition Parities are demanding if there is to be electoral justice.

This failure is more pronounced when one notes that Professor Naidu and another JPS contributor (Catholic priest Father David Arms) were both members of the Fiji Electoral Commission and would have seen at first hand virtually all the unfair aspects of the 2014 Elections.

The senior academic editors (Naidu and Tarte) showed an abysmal lack of judgement in the design of a the cover which had the word  “ENDORSED”  accompanied by photos of smiling Bainimarama and Khaiyum, suggesting that the voters had fairly elected the FFP to government.

To rub salt into the academic wound, the Special Edition was launched with great praise by the prominent and very effective head of Women’s Crisis Centre (Shamima Ali), who once was a courageous defender of human rights in Fiji.

MOGs and banana republics

Developed civilized countries like Australia or NZ don’t have foreign Multinational Observer Groups flying in to observe if elections are free and fair.

It is only backward Third World countries where there is no faith in governments, public institutions and civil society that that MOGs comprising international organizations like United Nations or Donors, come to do the verification that all was “hunky dory”.

Some may do their work well or badly.  Most certainly, government are never accountable to them nor are MOGs accountable to the people concerned. Any criticisms and recommendations made by the MOG can be safely ignored, just as the Bainimarama Government is currently doing.

Which is why it is important to ask why our university academics are not providing the public the guidance that they deserve and instead, why they produce an academic journal  which at best fails to enlighten the public on the fundamentally flawed nature of 2014 Elections, and at worst gives an overall impression that the 2014 Elections “endorsed” (i.e. fairly elected) the Bainimarama Government.

Overall JPS impression?

Guest Editor Dr. Sandra Tarte reported (USP News Bulletin, 19th October 2015) that the Special Edition of the JPS aimed to provide “impartial, scholarly analysis” of the 2014 Elections, and that this was “reinforced by our Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor Rajesh Chandra at a meeting with him last year”.

Father David Arms (Member of the Fiji Electoral Commission) wrote in his article in the JPS  “The general verdict on Fiji’s 2014 September elections is certainly positive … the basic job got done”.

The front cover of the Special Edition of the JPS had a photo of smiling Bainimarama and Aiyaz Khaiyum and emblazoned with the word “ENDORSED”, giving the clear impression to readers that the 2014 Elections had endorsed the Bainimarama Government.

That was all reinforced when the Special Edition of the JPS was launched in glowing terms by Shamima Ali (Coordinator of the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre and powerful advocate against domestic violence).  Ali pronounced that the 2014 General Election was discussed “in a relatively impartial way” and concluded that it would be “a crucial resource for people interested in Fiji’s electoral politics and politics in general, as well as for Fiji scholars, students and observers”. Ali even recommended that the JPS Special Edition should be read by “political leaders and aspirant leaders, scholars, journalists, NGOs, feminists and the wider community”.  She also “appreciated the chapter on women candidates and how women fared better in the latest election”, a debatable conclusion.

However, it is far more useful for readers to judge the JPS Special Issue by its contents and more specifically on the endnotes and footnotes in some articles.

I emphasize that I find no fault with most of the articles by the other academics examining narrower issues in the 2014 Elections, as no doubt assigned to them by the senior academics Naidu and Tarte.

The damning footnotes and endnotes

The Introduction by the Editors  bluntly stated “Formerly influential institutions and entities such as the Great Council of Chiefs, the Methodist Church, trade unions, the media and even NGOs were either eliminated or so hobbled by years of repressive decrees that they became largely ineffective… accompanied by a constitution that entrenches several hundred decrees which cannot be challenged in any court of law, and a social environment that constrain fundamental freedoms.”  

But that was where the brave analysis ended.

From then on, the objective observations and analyses are to be found mostly in the endnotes and footnotes, as for instance  by Professor Naidu who noted the following, without spelling out the critically important wider ramifications:

  1. the Bainimarama Government rejected the Report and Electoral System recommended by its own appointed Yash Ghai Commission (we note of genuine experts);
  2. following the 2009 Court of Appeal decision, members of the judiciary such as magistrates and judges were dismissed or resigned;
  3. the Bainimarama Government rejected electoral options recommended by the NCBBF Working Group 1;
  4. the Fiji Times has been denied government advertisements altogether;
  5. The Fiji Times was fined $300,000 and its editor sentenced to six months imprisonment (suspended for 2 years) for republishing a story about the Fiji judiciary appearing in a NZ newspaper;
  6. FICAC questioned the Chairman of the Fijian Electoral Commission about his role in the holding of a panel discussion on the elections;
  7. threats by Bainimarama against the Leader of SODELPA were recorded by media;
  8. All major NGOs complained against the Bainimarama Government’s refusal to abide by all the principles of democracy, freedom of the media, and basic human rights.

The article by Liku and Slatter stated in Endnote 8

Unprecedented decreed restrictions on the commencement of political party campaigning, on media reporting, and on civil society organizations’ involvement in the elections, together with close relations between the incumbent government and the military, made for a very controlled election climate”.

This article, despite claiming to focus on gender issues, did not discuss the fact that the Bainimarama Government had rejected the Ghai recommendation for a “Closed List” which would have given a guaranteed representation of women in parliament, depending on the ratio of women required in the Closed Lists, almost certainly far more than actually achieved in the 2014 Elections so praised by Shamima Ali.

The unfair biases not systematically discussed

Absolutely extraordinary is that neither the Senior Editors nor the other authors in the Special Edition of the JPS have any systematic and sustained discussion on all the important mechanisms through which the Bainimarama Government “controlled” (some would say “manipulated” or “rigged”) the entire elections resulting in unfair  outcomes:

  1. the suppression of trade unions and unionists, the GCC and the Methodist Church;
  2. the massive financial support given to Bainimarama by the capitalist classes (whose fundraiser is now sitting on multiple government boards);
  3. the suppression of the enormously damaging Auditor General’s Reports from 2007 to 2013, released only after the elections were held;
  4. the suppression of an important FBS Employment and Unemployment Report which clearly showed that the negative economic impact of the Bainimarama Government;
  5. the pro-Bainimarama Government bias of the Media Industry Development Authority (MIDA) and its Chairman (Ashwin Raj);
  6. the draconian Media Decrees, the media censorship, biased media ownership and management, and overall suppression of the free media by the Bainimarama Government;
  7. the clearly biased Supervisor of Elections who refused to comply with legitimate instructions given by the Fiji Electoral Commission (approving an inappropriate candidate while eliminating one approved by the FEC);
  8. the legislative demand that new parties must have the names and signatures of 5000 voters, all openly published in the Fiji Sun (while ninety percent of FFP Members of Parliament had less than 1000 votes each) making a farce of the principle that elections must be a “secret ballot”;
  9. the prosecution and jailing of political opponents to disqualify them from standing as candidates;
  10. the exclusion of photos, names and party symbols of candidates, leaving only 250 numbers out of which one had to be ticked, giving clear advantage to Bainimarama;
  11. the tight control of the polling stations, the voting, the counting and the final reporting processes
  12. the banning of voter education by NGOs;
  13. the massive vote buying using taxpayer funds prior to polling day and promises of more.
  14. Bainimarama’s advice to Indo-Fijians that there would be no further coups if he was returned to power.
  15. the impact of an extremely biased media, including the government-owned FBC TV and radio stations whose CEO was the brother of the Attorney General, the preferential financial support of the owners of the pro-government Fiji Sun (while Fiji TV was on six month license extensions), the biased media journalists of these two media organizations
  16. a former MIDA CEO and FBC employee who late in the day became FFP candidates
  17. the banning of exit polls at any of the polling stations, the norm in other countries.
  18. the fact that not a single polling station result was independently verified by the FEC, despite requests from concerned members of the public.
  19. the significant disqualification of votes because small political parties and Independents could not get the massive 5% minimum threshold, or 27,000 votes (which even twenty of the FFP Members of Parliament could not obtain in aggregate).
  20. a final result which was so incredibly lop-sided (some twenty FFP MPs have less than 1000 votes each) making a total mockery of the idea that voters were democratically electing their Members of Parliament.

While some individual articles in the Special Edition do a reasonable job of analyzing the particular aspect aimed at, the analysis of the totality of the 2014 Elections is extremely poor.

Indeed, any good junior academic could use merely the authors’ endnotes/footnotes and at least the salient facts listed above (there are more), to credibly establish the proposition that the 2014 Elections were NOT  free and fair but “rigged”, and that the entire system and restrictive legislation need to change as the Opposition Parties are demanding.

The failure of the editors themselves to do this is extremely disappointing especially given that both Naidu and Slatter have long been active exponents of “leftist class analysis”  of Fiji’s history and political economy as clearly seen in their PhD theses.

Were they mindful of their contracts at USP?  Professor Naidu has been on short-term contracts at USP at the mercy of Vice Chancellor Rajesh Chandra, an open Bainimarama Government supporter.  Were they merely following the “second best” solution that “something is better than nothing” even if watered down? Or are they simply closet supporters of the Bainimarama Government and its mantra “we are all Fijians”?

The Senior Editors’ choice of contributors however indicates a deliberate attempt to exclude different  views of the 2014 Elections, while a recent attempt to change the management structure of the JPS suggests that the hand of USP management was not far away.

Biased choice of contributors

The back cover of the JPacS informs the world that it “welcomes scholarly contributions “ on topics relevant to the development problems of the Pacific islands, and that submissions would be judged by the usual academic criteria, including relevance, contribution to the literature and current debates.

Why then did the JPS Special Edition not approach two of the foremost writers on Fiji’s electoral systems, Professor Jonathan Fraenkel and Professor Wadan Narsey to contribute to their Special Edition on the 2014 Elections?.

Both Naidu and Tarte are personally aware that Narsey for more than a decade been involved in  in community education alongside both of them including as part of initiatives by the Citizen Constitution Forum (CCF)  on electoral systems, including that in the 1970, 1990, 1997 and especially the imposed 2013 Constitution under which the 2014 Elections have been held. Narsey was also part of the Yash Ghai Commission deliberations and conducted electoral workshops at USP.

Narsey has published  more than twenty articles in The Fiji Times, on the “2014 Election Issues” in the 2014 Elections; spoken to gatherings of three Opposition parties (SODELPA, NFP and PDP) prior to the election; and prepared a rather prophetic Voter Education Kit for the Fiji Women’s Rights Movement and run workshops for the 2014 Elections even though the NGO’s voter education was banned by Bainimarama. All his writings have been on his personal website NarseyOnFiji read throughout Fiji.

      When the Senior Editors were asked why I was omitted, Dr. Tarte said “she did not know”, while Professor Naidu said “We did not go outside of the university schools to seek contributors”.  But in the same breath Naidu admitted that “the exceptions to this were Fr David Arms, and Chantelle Khan”. Why would Naidu and Tarte have made these particular exceptions?  The mind boggles with Chantelle Khan.

      Naidu later wrote to me (17 April 2016)  “on hindsight I am sorry for what now appears to me as a silly oversight”. 

      But Naidu also added “I am very sorry that USP senior management actively prevented you from participating as a panelist and key note speaker on a number of occasions. This was not right and violated the principle of academic freedom, and the fundamental role of the university to promote debate and critical thinking. You correctly criticize the media situation in Fiji –it is pretty bad.”

It was no oversight to exclude critical views of the 2014 Elections.  Naidu and Tarte were not interested in paying any attention to the need to have objective scholarly contributions in the JPS Special Edition devoted to the 2014 Elections, which would not only have enhanced the literature but encouraged the “debate” that the JPS claims to have as a central objective of their publication.

Censoring the JPS Board

The nature of the JPS Special Issue on the 2014 Elections is given another dimension given that Professor Vijay Naidu himself wrote to two senior economics professors trying to remove them from the Editorial Board of the JPS.

Without any meeting of the JPacS Editorial Board, it was announced that the Editor-in-Chief (Professor Biman Prasad) had been replaced by Professor Vijay Naidu and  also excluded from the JPacS Board.  Professor Narsey was also informed by Naidu, in writing,  that he was no longer a member of the JPacS Board. Upon protest, both Professors Prasad and Narsey were soon reinstated on the Board, again without any explanation.

The question remains: who gave the orders to exclude Professor Biman Prasad and Professor Wadan Narsey from the JPS Board?

A mere Board Member himself, Naidu had no authority to exclude Professor Biman Prasad as Board Chairman and appoint himself; nor to exclude Professor Narsey, one of the most prolific academics writing on Fiji and Pacific issues.  It is more likely that the initiative came from  USP Vice Chancellor Rajesh Chandra, a Bainimarama supporter, with Professor Vijay Naidu merely signing his name to the orders, paying little heed to principles of fairness or academic integrity.

Of course, both Naidu and Tarte are well aware that the USP Vice Chancellor (Professor Rajesh Chandra) has interfered with the academic freedoms of USP staff and students, pressured senior academics and managers to resign, cancelled academic panel discussions, prevented guest speakers from speaking at World Press Freedom Day, and even stopped students protesting against the Indonesian Government’s suppression and genocide of the West Papuan people.

They would have known that Vice Chancellor Chandra would not have been happy with a critical analysis of the 2014 Elections “which called a spade a spade” nor would he have been keen to renew contracts of some academics who he could claim had “gone past the retirement age”.

The Silent Fiji Electoral Commission

It is pertinent that none of the former Fiji Electoral Commission (Chairman Chen Bun Young, Professor Naidu, Larry Thomas, James Sowane, Alisi Daurewa, or Jenny Seeto) have publicly criticized the clearly unfair elements of the 2014 Elections and none have publicly supported the calls by the Opposition Parties for changes to the systems.

The implicit message that has gone out to the voting public and the media is that all these former members of the FEC, labelled by the Bainimarama Government as “experts of one sort or another,  endorsed the2014 elections processes and outcomes. It could be argued that they are all “closet” supporters of the Bainimarama Government and implicitly of the 2006 military coup.

The JPS Special Edition on the 2014 Elections and the involvement of Professor Vijay Naidu, Dr. Sandra Tarte, David Arms and Shamima Ali can all be viewed as part of the civil society “legitimation” of the repressive military Bainimarama Government and their legislation, rules and regulations manipulating the 2014 Elections, and eventually enabling them to claim that they had been democratically elected by the voters of Fiji.

It just as well that Fiji’s Opposition Parties are referring to the mild Report of the foreign Multinational Observer Group rather than the writings or views of USP’s local “experts”.

It is extremely sad that there are no university academics in Fiji who are prepared to point out the horrible erosion of academic integrity that has taken place at The University of the South Pacific, the once premier tertiary institution in the Pacific, under the management of Professor Rajesh Chandra, a mediocre academic/manager relying on the patronage of the Bainimarama Government to obtain and protect his job at USP.

Post-script 1

The involvement of Australian Catholic priest, Father David Arms, in Fiji’s election processes deserves special treatment within a broader analysis of the competing support of Fiji’s religious institutions for military coups and the ability of unqualified but white expatriates to fill vacuums in leadership in a morally bankrupt former colonial and mentally colonized country like Fiji.

Post-script 2

The involvement of prominent citizens (like Jenny Seeto, Larry Thomas, etc) in accepting appointments to the Fiji Electoral Commission also deserve separate analysis. There is of course now a new lot being paraded as part of the Khaiyum Machinery for Elections, about some of whom (e.g. fishing capitalist Graham Southwick) one can already make some interesting conjectures merely from recent news items about them.

Post-script 3

Also needing separate analysis is the decline in activity of NGOs like the Citizens’ Constitutional Forum which used to be in the forefront of advocating constitutional and electoral changes for making elections fair and is now reduced to calling on voters to be brave in voting. Or of once human rights battlers like the CEO of Women’s Crisis Center.

 

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