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Key’s visit to Fiji seen as significant

Saturday 11 June 2016 | Published in Regional

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FIJI – Prime Minister John Key says he and his Fijian counterpart will have to agree to disagree on Fiji’s blacklisting of some New Zealand journalists.

Fiji’s prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, staunchly defended his ban on some journalists entering Fiji at a formal function last night – claiming the reporters dispensed with facts.

“Certain journalists in New Zealand and Australia and certain journalists in Fiji think nothing of dispensing with the facts if they get in the way of the politically-motivated narrative they want to tell and we are saying to the news organisations that employ them to send someone else.”

TVNZ Pacific correspondent Barbara Dreaver and long-time Pacific reporter Michael Field are among those blacklisted.

Key said he raised the issue with Bainimarama immediately after he made his commnets at a speech at the function, and again the next morning during their formal talks.

But he said they simply did not see eye-to-eye on the issue.

“He takes on board what we’re saying, but he believes that the ban for those particular journalists should be there – I don’t agree with that.”

Key said being challenged by the media and opposition politicians was an important part of democracy.

Following his formal meeting in Suva, Key said he wanted to build a better relationship than the one which was strained following Bainimarama’s 2006 coup.

“This is an important step in the relationship, as I said to the prime minister, I didn’t come to Fiji to relitigate the issues of the last 10 years,” Key said.

Bainimarama described their meeting as fruitful and a solid foundation for improving relations.

He said: “And we have begun the process of rebuilding and redefining our relationship and we have a much better understanding of our respective positions.”

Suva pulled out all stops to welcome Key this week, who is the first New Zealand prime minister to visit Fiji in a decade.

A 100-strong guard of honour, waving schoolchildren and a massive roadside billboard featuring the New Zealand leader marked the end of chilly relations since Bainimarama’s coup of 2006.

Bainimarama’s Fiji First Party was elected to power in 2014, leading to the full restoration of diplomatic links between the two countries, but top-level talks have taken longer to ensue.

Key said the main aim of his visit was to reset the relationship.

“The personal chemistry seems very strong,” he said “I think they are genuinely very grateful for the work we have been doing for Cyclone Winston. This is a very deep relationship.”

Key also broached another sensitive topic – encouraging Bainimarama to end his boycott of the Pacific Islands Forum.

“It will be great to have the Fiji prime minister back at the Forum. I think the Forum prime ministers would like to see that. At every other level now, Fiji’s fully engaged so it’s really the last step that needs to be taken. We can’t force them to do that but we can actively encourage them and we’d support that.”

At a banquet to honour Key on Thursday night, Bainimarama said he intended to work with the New Zealand leader to strengthen and redefine the relationship.

Much of his welcome speech was devoted to defending his ousting of the government of Laisenia Qarase in 2006 and his administration’s efforts since to bring equality to all in Fiji and stamp out corruption.

“There appears to be a substantial body of opinion in New Zealand by a generally hostile media that what has happened in Fiji somehow lacks legitimacy, that somehow I lack legitimacy and that my government lacks legitimacy. This is simply not borne out by the facts.”

He said he looked forward to a more collaborative and mutually respectful relationship with New Zealand.

“The strains and irritants that have marked our political relationship in recent years are a textbook lesson on how not to conduct friendly relations between neighbouring countries. They must be replaced by genuine co-operation and understanding.”

Key ended his visit to Fiji on a warm note, visiting a Fijian school rebuilt by New Zealand troops after Cyclone Winston.

Naiyala School, about 90 minutes out of Suva, lost many of the roofs from its classrooms in the cyclone and New Zealand Defence Force troops helped rebuild it.

Hundreds of school children, as well as adults from the surrounding villages, came to see Key and the children even wrote a dance and song to perform in his honour.

Fiji’s Education Minister Mahendra Reddy welcomed Key and thanked New Zealand for its contribution. He said the prime minister’s visit was a significant moment for the country.

“This significant moment will leave everlasting memories which all Fijians will remember.” - RNZI/PNC