New Zealand leader visits Fiji for first time in a decade

WELLINGTON: A New Zealand leader has visited Fiji for the first time since a military coup there a decade ago, although it's clear that political tensions remain.

Prime Minister John Key's two-day visit, which ended Friday, was an attempt to improve relations after Fiji held democratic elections in 2014. Since then, New Zealand has lifted economic sanctions directed against the South Pacific nation.

But while Fijian Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama said during his welcome speech that the relationship was being "reinvigorated and redefined" after a period of estrangement, he also used the opportunity to recount a number of historic grievances it has with New Zealand.

And Bainimarama rejected Key's requests for him to re-engage with neighboring nations on the Pacific Islands Forum and to lift a longstanding travel ban on some New Zealand journalists.

The visit came at an awkward time for Fiji. The government was criticized by human rights groups last week when it banned an opposition lawmaker from parliament for two years for comments she made about a government minister.

Bainimarama defended the move, saying Tupou Draunidalo's comments were racially charged and threatened the stability of Fiji.

Bainimarama first seized power during the 2006 coup and then retained his leadership role eight years later when his political party won the election.

He said during the welcome speech that the "strains and irritants" between the two nations in recent years provided a textbook case on how not to conduct friendly relationships between neighboring governments.

He described the New Zealand media as being "generally hostile" toward Fiji and criticized it for promoting the notion his election victory lacked legitimacy.

In defending the ban on some New Zealand reporters, he said Fiji "cannot allow the willful propagation of false information that damages the national interest and undermines our vulnerable economy."

Key told reporters Friday that he would "agree to disagree" on the ban. He said he thought democracy was made stronger when there were challenges from opposition lawmakers and the media. Key said he nevertheless considered the visit worthwhile.

Bainimarama did offer thanks to New Zealand for helping out after February's Cyclone Winston, which killed 44 people and destroyed thousands of homes in the nation of 900,000 people.