FIJI ‘APPOINTS US PR FLACK’ (continued)

But it was the appointment of Mr Ben Simmonds of PR company QORVIS as liaison officer at COP 23 that caused the biggest stir. Bandicoot understands that Ms Cohen awaits responses to the following questions:

QUESTION TO FIJI PM BAINIMARAMA

 The previous permanent secretary of the (Fiji) department of foreign affairs Mr Robin Nair says he believes that the appointment of a QORVIS consultant, Mr Ben Simmonds, to the position of liaison COP 23 in Bonn was inappropriate and that a foreign affairs official should have been employed in that position instead. Do you agree?

QUESTIONS TO GRAHAM DAVIS OF QORVIS

 Is it the case that you nominated a QORVIS employee, Mr Ben Simmonds, to the position of COP 23 liaison officer in Bonn, and that that this nomination was contrary to the advice of Mr Nair, who wished to nominate a foreign affairs staff member?

 Mr Nair says that the nomination of a QORVIS consultant to this role was inappropriate because he believed the role required specific diplomatic and negotiations skills and that it was crucial for this position to be staffed with a foreign affairs public servant not a PR consultant for this reason. Do you agree?

In a message to the world, Mr Bainimarama said Fiji was “determined to maintain the momentum of the 2015 Paris Agreement and the concerted effort to reduce carbon emissions and lower the global temperature, which was reinforced at COP 22 in Marrakesh”.

He said the global community “cannot afford to drop the ball on the decisive response agreed to in Paris to address the crisis of global warming that we all face, wherever we live on the planet.

“That ball is being passed to Fiji and I intend, as the first incoming COP president from a Small Island Developing State, to run with it as hard as I can.

“Every nation must play its part to combat the rising sea levels, extreme weather events and changing weather patterns associated with climate change.”

The Fiji PM said he intended to act as COP President “on behalf of all 7.5 billion people on the planet.

“But I bring a particular perspective to these negotiations on behalf of some of those who are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change – Pacific Islanders and the residents of other SIDS countries and low-lying areas of the world. Our concerns are the concerns of the entire world, given the scale of this crisis.”

Journalists working in Fiji say freedom of the press there is at an all-time low, with repercussions for those who upset the government. First-hand accounts and leaked documents reveal the extent of the Fijian government’s control over the media and public service.

Bandicoot has been unable to confirm if former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott will speak at COP 23. 

One consideration in the appointment of Mr Simmonds to a prominent role at COP 23 is the attitude of US President Donald towards climate change. For a US company to be so strategically placed in the hierarchy of the host nation, at the expense of the host nation’s own government officials, could provide the US with a lever in negotiations and decision making.

 ‘Background Briefing’ is repeated on RN (621 on the AM band) tomorrow at 1pm and on Tuesday at 12am. It can be heard at any time via the ABC website at http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/backgroundbriefing/fiji-silenced-part-2-controlling-the-message/8996054#transcript

UPDATE

ABC reporter Hagar Cohen asked questions of three people mentioned in her report on the extent of the Fijian government’s control over the media and public service. Words added in parentheses are aimed at making clear the questions. 

ALL QUESTIONS TO FIJI PM BAINIMARAMA

1. In 2009, journalist Mr Netani Rika, alleges that the PM has personally threatened him over the phone because his paper investigated a story about the purchase of the PM’s house and for publishing a number of opinion letters which were unfavourable of the military rule. Mr Rika alleges that the PM sworn (sic) at him by making references to Mr Rika’s mother and certain homosexual acts. Is this true?

2. Mr Rika alleges that the next day after this alleged phone call, his car was smashed, and that he made a complaint to the police about it in relation to this incident. Can you confirm whether the Hon PM had anything to do with the alleged smashed car?

3. Is it the case that in November 2010 the government requested the Fiji Times publisher to sack Mr Rika as editor in chief or else the government will pull all government advertising from the paper?

4. Our investigation into the deportation of 77 Chinese nationals from Nadi in August has found that some of the deportees were brought to Fiji as prostitutes. Can you confirm this information is correct? If not what was the reason? Did the Fiji government request they be deported?

5. What is your response to concerns journalists are reporting (on some issues and) they will be punished if they try (to) report on these issues?

6. What is the role of QORVIS in the government of Fiji, and why are they paid $1million a year for this service?

7. Will you make your employment contract with QORVIS public?

8. Is there any truth to claims that QORVIS has unprecedented amount of control and power in its dealings with the public service and the media?

9. Do you agree with claims made by a number of public servants who say that QORVIS consultants seek to control their work?

10. The previous permanent secretary of the department of communications and information, Mr Ewan Perrin, says that he became ethically conflicted in this role because of a number of tasks Mr Graham Davis of QORVIS required of him. What do you think about this situation?

11. Mr Perrin also says that he felt that in his role he was required to blindly follow instructions rather than participate in the decision making process or any discussion. Is this your expectation from senior public servants?

12. Mr Perrin alleges that on one instance in 2016 he was required by the office of the solicitor general to sign a sworn affidavit without reading the affidavit and other documents relating to the affidavit. What is your response?

13. Is it the case that Mr Perrin has been banned from returning to Fiji?

14. Mr Perrin says that there are a number of key position holders in the area of communications and the media that are occupied by relatives of the Hon PM and the AG and that this situation is unhealthy in a democracy. Do you agree?

15. Is it true that your ministers and public servants encouraged not to speak to certain journalists and media organisations such as the ABC and Radio NZ

16. Is it the case that late last year Mr Graham Davis of QORVIS had alleged to you that the NZ High Commissioner Mr Mark Ramsden had said about the Hon PM that he should be behind bars?

17. Did the Hon PM then warn Mr Ramsden in a meeting in September 2016 that he could be expelled from Fiji over such comments?

21. Is it the case that you nominated a QORVIS employee, Mr Ben Simmonds, to the position of COP 23 liaison officer in Bonn, and that that this nomination was contrary to the advice of Mr Nair, who wished to nominate a foreign affairs staff member?

22. Mr Nair says that the nomination of a QORVIS consultant to this role was inappropriate because he believed the role required specific diplomatic and negotiations skills and that it was crucial for this position to be staffed with a foreign affairs public servant not a PR consultant for this reason. Do you agree?

ALL QUESTIONS TO MR GRAHAM DAVIS, HEAD OF FIJI ARM OF US PR COMPANY QORVIS

1. What is your role in Fiji as a QORVIS consultant in the country?

2. A number of senior public servants and journalists have told us that the amount of control and power by you as a QORVIS consultant over the public service and the media, is unprecedented. Do you agree?

3. Last year you wrote a letter to Peter Lomas about the column ‘Coconut Wireless’ which included comments about lawyer Richard Naidu. Some people have said that this email, where you tell Lomas to stop writing about Naidu and the opposition, is inappropriate in a democratic society where the press is free from government interference. What do you think?

4. Why is it a concern to you or the government if the Fiji Sun inadvertently elicits sympathy to lawyer Richard Naidu?

5. Do you think it is the role of the Fiji Sun to be ‘helpful to the government’ in its reporting?

6. Do you think your role is partly to control the media in Fiji?

7. Is it true that QORVIS in Fiji calls the shots in all government communications?

8. The previous permanent secretary of the department of communications has said that in one instance you wrote an email castigating the Fiji Times for its reporting about certain plagiarism allegations, and then you demanded Mr Perrin to sign it and deliver it personally. Is this your recollection as well?

9. Is it your recollection that you persisted that Mr Perrin delivers the email personally despite his concerns with the email’s content, and his feelings of being ethically conflicted?

10. Did you expect the Permanent Secretary to become a ‘puppet’ of the government’s political agenda, and never speak up about his own opinions or contribute to discussions?

11. Was Mr Perrin expected to follow instructions blindly?

12. Mr Perrin says that when he told you over the phone about his opposition to this letter, you castigated him over the phone, and shouted at him using obscene words. Is this true?

13. Is it true that you hold an unofficial blacklist of journalists and media organisations, and that all public servants and ministers are encouraged not to speak to the media organisations and journalists on this unofficial list?

14. Is it the case that public servants and ministers are encouraged not to speak to journalists from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation?

15. The previous permanent secretary in the department of foreign affairs, Robin Nair, says that you have intervened and interfered with his department’s internal affairs which involves foreign affairs and sensitive diplomacy. What’s your response?

16. An email you wrote to the AG in October last year about your conversation with the British High commissioner appears to suggest that you’re advising the Attorney General not to consider Australia and New Zealand as a real friend, and to mistrust these countries’ alliances. Was this your intention?

17. Mr Nair says that your advice in the aforementioned email to the AG is inappropriate. Do you agree with this assessment?

18. Mr Nair claims that you attempted to destabilise the diplomatic relationship between Fiji and Australia/NZ. Is this true?

19. Mr. Nair claims that in September last year you told the PM that the NZ High Commissioner said that the PM Frank Bainimarama should be behind bars. Is this also your recollection?

20. Mr Nair claims that this was an example where you attempted to destabilise Fiji and NZ’s diplomatic relationship. What is your response?

21. Is it the case that you nominated a QORVIS employee, Mr Ben Simmonds, to the position of COP 23 liaison officer in Bonn, and that that this nomination was contrary to the advice of Mr Nair, who wished to nominate a foreign affairs staff member?

22. Mr Nair says that the nomination of a QORVIS consultant to this role was inappropriate because he believed the role required specific diplomatic and negotiations skills and that it was crucial for this position to be staffed with a foreign affairs public servant not a PR consultant for this reason. Do you agree?

ALL QUESTIONS TO GREG LAVANA OF QORVIS

1. What do you say to claims by former senior public servants in the Fiji administration that Qorvis went beyond the normally defined role of a media management company to interfering in sensitive diplomatic affairs with countries like Australia and NZ ?

2. The leader of the National Federation Party in Fiji’s opposition, Professor Biman Prasad, has requested – during the last budgetary deliberations – to have your company’s fees removed from the budget allocation because he believes that Qorvis is engaging in ‘government propaganda’ and this work is funded by the taxpayers in Fiji. What is your response ?

3. Can you confirm the fee that Fiji pays Qorvis annually, and can you outline the service you deliver for that fee? Are these services set out in a contract?

4. Emails obtained by our program ‘Background Briefing’ reveal your consultant – Mr Graham Davis – has requested actions that senior Fijian journalists and previous senior public servants believe to be inappropriate in any society with a free press and robust public service.

Some examples:

Mr Davis requested the editor of the Fiji Sun to stop writing about certain individuals in his column because it’s not useful to the government, also saying he is “Deeply concerned about the feedback I am getting generally around town about the Sun. ‘Zero credibility’, ‘rag’, ‘cocksucker’, is the general drift.”

Mr Davis’s email to a senior public servant requesting he sign a letter that the public servant was ethically uncomfortable with.

What do you think about these comments and requests?