Fiji Water isn't just devastating to the environment of Fiji, the planet that endures the cost of shipping it, and the environments of the places where it is consumed. It is also the product of a brutal military regime that monitors all outgoing Internet traffic from the island for criticisms of the water business and immediately arrests people who transmit them, bringing them in for intensive questioning and the occasional prison-rape threat, as journalist Anna Lenzer discovered.
I sat down and sent out a few emails--filling friends in on my visit to the Fiji Water bottling plant, forwarding a story about foreign journalists being kicked off the island. Then my connection died. "It will just be a few minutes," one of the clerks said.
Moments later, a pair of police officers walked in. They headed for a woman at another terminal; I turned to my screen to compose a note about how cops were even showing up in the Internet cafés. Then I saw them coming toward me. "We're going to take you in for questioning about the emails you've been writing," they said.
What followed, in a windowless room at the main police station, felt like a bad cop movie. "Who are you really?" the bespectacled inspector wearing a khaki uniform and a smug grin asked me over and over, as if my passport, press credentials, and stacks of notes about Fiji Water weren't sufficient clues to my identity. (My iPod, he surmised tensely, was "good for transmitting information.") I asked him to call my editors, even a UN official who could vouch for me. "Shut up!" he snapped. He rifled through my bags, read my notebooks and emails. "I'd hate to see a young lady like you go into a jail full of men," he averred, smiling grimly. "You know what happened to women during the 2000 coup, don't you?"
Eventually, it dawned on me that his concern wasn't just with my potentially seditious emails; he was worried that my reporting would taint the Fiji Water brand. "Who do you work for, another water company? It would be good to come here and try to take away Fiji Water's business, wouldn't it?" Then he switched tacks and offered to protect me--from other Fijian officials, who he said would soon be after me--by letting me go so I could leave the country. I walked out into the muggy morning, hid in a stairwell, and called a Fijian friend. Within minutes, a US Embassy van was speeding toward me on the seawall.
Update: Fiji's response and Mother Jones's rebuttal here.
(Image: Fiji Water, a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike image from Jessica N. Diamond's Flickr stream)
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