Saturday, July 19, 2014

Raj to demand media policies: Narsey

According to Professor Wadan Narsey, MIDA honcho Ashwin Raj plans to follow through on his threats to demand written policies from Fiji media outlets, although from the wording of Raj’s ramblings it seems to be print media only so far. The move will come with less than two months to go before the planned September elections which will hopefully return Fiji to democratic rule from military. 

Narsey published on his blog an email from Raj to MIDA director Matai Akauola which asks that it be circulated to Fiji media outlets. In it, Raj seems to seek Akauola’s agreement that such a demand is reasonable. It refers to policies regarding publication of “opinion pieces, [and] letters to the editor.” As usual, Raj takes pains to absolve himself in advance of any possible press repression. “This is an important issue about access and equity and must not be misconstrued as MIDA muzzling media freedom,” he writes.

Raj also appears to back off his plan for a media monitoring unit, which with the coming election might smack just a bit too much of regime intimidation. “The mainstream media unequivocally rejected,” the plan for a media monitoring unit, Raj writes, “even though such an initiative has been undertaken in many advanced liberal democracies that are strong on freedom of expression.” Here he is mistaken, as most media monitoring operations are not government-run but rather done by academics, NGOs, or professional pollsters. To have government scrutinizing news media coverage on the eve of elections would just validate perceptions that Fiji’s ruling junta is tightening the screws on media, which are already heavily co-opted or intimidated. Doubtless media advisors Qorvis scotched this idea.

The full text follows.
Dear Matai,
You will attest to the fact that on several occasions, I have requested the mainstream media to disclose their in-house editorial policy. In the interest of transparency, the public should know exactly the rationale behind the publishing of select articles, opinion pieces, letters to the editor to the exclusion of others. There are some who have received unfettered access and prominence in select media outlets and still lamenting that their contributions are being heavily censored while there are those who are complaining that they have no access to mainstream media at all.
I had also suggested the idea of setting up a media monitoring unit which the mainstream media unequivocally rejected even though such an initiative has been undertaken in many advanced liberal democracies that are strong on freedom of expression.
So the onus is really on the media to substantiate their claim that they have in place an in house editorial policy that ensures that the media is balanced, that they are committed to ensuring access and equity and are transparent at all times.
 This is an important issue about access and equity and must not be misconstrued as MIDA muzzling media freedom. How does the mainstream media ensure that there is balance?
 To date, I have received nothing from the media houses. I am now requiring the media to disclose this.
 Appreciate it if you can circulate this e mail to the media. Can we convene an editors roundtable soon please?
 Regards,
Ashwin. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

In Fiji, one must choose between being an advocate for media freedom and a journalist


By Shaivalini Parmar
Human Rights Watch

In Fiji, one must choose between being an advocate for media freedom and a journalist.
The chairman of the Media Industry Development Authority (MIDA), the government body tasked with regulating the media, advised a prominent local journalist in March to make exactly that distinction in his work—providing a revealing insight on the position of media freedom in the island-nation. In Fiji, the practice of free journalism remains limited by government retribution against those who are perceived as critical of the ruling administration.

Special Broadcasting Service
Parliamentary elections, scheduled for September, should be Fiji’s first democratic elections in nearly eight years. The country has been without an elected government since Rear Admiral Voreqe Bainimarama seized power in a December 2006 military coup. Bainimarama’s government arrested, arbitrarily detained, and imposed hefty fines against journalists.  Foreign journalists, including Sean Dorney of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, who have reported on topics that the government perceived as controversial, have been summarily deported.

Multiple cases of government interference of media

As elections near, allegations of government intimidation and interference with the media have resurfaced. Newsrooms no longer host censors as in the immediate post-coup period, specifically after the Public Emergency Regulations (an act that gave authorities absolute control in determining legitimate journalism) was lifted in 2012.

But the draconian 2010 Media Decree remains in place. The decree imposes severe penalties on any publication that MIDA deems threatening to “public interest or order.” Journalists found guilty of violating the vaguely worded decree can be jailed for up to two years and fined up to 100,000 Fijian dollars. The decree also severely restricts foreign media ownership in Fiji. In addition, the government also issued the Television Amendment Decree of 2012, demanding that all broadcasting comply with the provisions of the Media Decree. It threatened to discontinue Fiji TV’s license if it broadcasted anything perceived of as “anti-government.”

And where official censorship may not occur as blatantly as in the past, this last month alone has seen multiple cases of government interference and intimidation of the media. On June 25, MIDA called for the investigation of two journalism academics from the University of the South Pacific (USP) who commented on the military’s use of torture and on the state of media freedom in Fiji. The authority lambasted the pair, claiming the statements were both unsubstantiated and could cause irreparable damage to Fiji.

In another incident in late June, MIDA denied accreditation to a prominent Fiji-based journalist, effectively barring his attendance of the Pacific Islands Development Forum in Nadi. —an act that was condemned by regional media rights groups for its lack of transparency and due process. 

Pressure on media to provide pro-government coverage

Critics have alleged that there is increasing pressure on local media to provide strictly pro-government coverage. With past contempt cases against local news outlets including the Fiji Times—in 2013 a Fiji High Court verdict imposed on it a fine of 300,000 Fijian Dollars for republishing an article questioning judicial freedom in Fiji—it is likely that publishers will continue to verge on the side of caution. The repercussions from acting to the contrary are too severe.

In a paradoxical move this past month, the government sponsored a series of voter awareness and media training sessions. But without a critical basis for unbiased reporting and open debate, these programs are rendered meaningless. When major news sources are deterred from publishing anti-government views, it creates an unbalanced playing field that will give pro-government parties an advantage in the upcoming polls.

Authorities have met all allegations of censorship and harassment with denialMIDA chairman Ashwin Raj described the USP Journalism academic’s statements as “unsubstantiated and anachronistic,” maintaining that journalists need to stay clear of debating between legality and legitimacy, and contending that journalists continue to hold a “plurality of voices.” However, as evidenced by the authority’s response and subsequent call for investigation, it is clear that certain voices are excluded from that same plurality.

If the government is committed to a democratic transition, it should cease the harassment of journalists ahead of the elections. It is imperative that authorities lift restrictions on the media, including both the 2012 Public Order Amendment Decree and the 2010 Media Decree.

Shaivalini Parmar is a senior associate with the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Will Fiji Times dodge a bullet in Kabakoro case?

Suppression orders are routine in cases of domestic violence in most countries, a fact which apparently escaped just about everyone yesterday after word leaked out that the dictator’s son Meli Bainimarama and his beautiful bride of only six months, Hosanna Kabakoro, had both been arrested and charged after a weekend altercation. Most cases of domestic violence go unnoticed by the media, of course, but this one has a double dose of the news value we call Prominence. Any time celebrities are involved, the newsworthiness of a story goes up, and this one was too sensational for a couple of Fiji news outlets to resist. Unfortunately for them, that is a crime under the 2009 Domestic Violence Decree, which allows for a suppression order to be made on the names of the parties involved. The intent is to protect the victim, of course, but the name of the accused is also usually banned from publication if a suppression order is made because publishing it would tend to identify the victim. The question in this case is exactly who is the victim.

Please don't spoil her beautiful face
After the Fiji Times and FBC ran stories naming the couple on Monday, Director of Public Prosecutions Christopher Pryde sent a memo around to media outlets informing them that a suppression order had been made. He also ordered media to immediately retract any account of the proceedings that had been published or broadcast. It would be impossible to recall every copy of the Times that had been printed, of course, but the newspaper did remove the story it had posted on its website, as did FBC. From the wording of Pryde’s memo, the order was made on Monday morning. It was likely made after regular business hours commenced, or several hours after the Fiji Times would have hit the streets. This could save the Times, which was fined $300,000 for contempt of court a couple of years ago. Another conviction would likely bring an even larger fine, which could potentially bankrupt the newspaper.

The question becomes, did FBC air the story before or after the suppression order was made? According to Google, its story was posted online five hours after the Fiji Times story. If it was aired after the suppression order was made, it could be in hot water. We would be amazed, however, if the regime-friendly broadcaster, which is run by the brother of Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, suffers any consequences. If it doesn’t and the Times does, then there will be much justified howling about favoritism.

The evidence
Word of the story leaked out Sunday on Facebook, with Fairfax New Zealand reporter Michael Field posting a cryptic item that basically dared Fiji media to investigate. “Reliable reports coming out of Suva that a key figure in the military regime is in police custody and his wife is in hospital in a bad way,” he wrote. “Local media too frightened to report.” Field reported the story on Monday, but committed an embarrassing spelling mistake. As if to prove Field wrong, the Times surprisingly ran with the story, perhaps without getting legal advice, reporting that Kabakoro suffered lacerations to her hands and bruises on her body.

According to Repúblika magazine, in a Facebook post that has also been removed, Meli Bainimarama faces four counts of assault, was released on $3,000 bail, was ordered not to have any contact with his wife, and will appear in court again on August 11. Kabakoro was also bailed, according to Repúblika, “but must appear in the High Court in the next court date because her charges are more severe. She is charged with intent to cause grievous bodily harm.” Repúblika also reported that an interim suppression order had been issued, which could spell trouble for the Times and FBC, both of which reported the story after the couple had appeared in court and been released on bail.

To make the story even more newsworthy, Kakaboro is herself a journalist, being an editor at Mai Life magazine and a former Miss Congeniality in the 2010 Miss Teen USA contest. Her family fled Fiji following the 2000 coup and she attended the University of Southern Idaho. She shacked up with Meli Bainimarama, a former soldier who now runs his own company of mercenaries and lives with his parents, and actually moved into the dictator's home with him last year, according to Field. Their New Year’s nuptials were not without controversy, Field reported, although not as much controversy as the wedding of the dictator’s daughter eight years previously. (No wonder the junta slurpers hate Field so much. He gets all the dirt.)
The couple decided to marry on December 21, but a family row blew up and the couple left for Nadi – and a small family-free wedding on New Year’s Eve at a luxury resort. Fiji media sources say local media have been told not to report any of the drama. The daily Fiji Times instead devoted its front page to the Boxing Day wedding of a Fiji clan leader, Anare Peni, 71, to one Merelita Canauvi, 20.
The most prominent person in this story, of course, is the dictator himself, and the blogs are having a field day with the hypocrisy involved. “How many lectures have we had from the leader of Fiji Fist on domestic violence?” asked Fiji Democracy Now. “From the start there has been a contradiction between the high sounding regime rhetoric and the practice.” Not six weeks ago, the dictator called violence against women a “national disgrace” and vowed to crack down on it. “It is time for all of us to think long and hard about the treatment of women in our nation because the continuing level of domestic violence in Fiji,” he said. “Through my government’s initiatives, the police have adopted a policy of zero tolerance of all violence against women.” It will be interesting to see who gets cracked down as a result of this sorry incident – husband, wife, or media.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Some excellent questions from Wadan Narsey

Sometimes we get so overwhelmed with quantity from Wadan Narsey that we lose sight of the quality of his observations. He has been researching and writing about Fiji’s economy for decades, and he has a broad understanding of how things work there. He and I are basically on the same page WRT Fiji media, except that he focuses primarily on ownership, which is my usual perspective. I believe that with the small number of players and the heavy hand of government dominating the media landscape in Fiji, ownership is not yet a consideration. The suppression of voices of dissent is an impediment to democracy ever visiting these shores again. If ever voices of opposition are ever heard here again, that will be a sign that media freedom is increasing.

Professor Narsey has posted a list of questions for MIDA boss Ashwin Raj. While waiting for his undoubtedly eloquent response, I offer my own answers and/or snarky asides, in italics.
“Questions for MIDA and Ashwin Raj”  also sent as Open Letter to Editor 
(The Fiji Times, Fiji Sun, Island Business) 3 July 2014.
Chairman MIDA  
Dear Mr Raj
I totally agree with, and support your constant reminder to the public, that MIDA should not be, and is not just concerned about media freedom and/or media censorship, but also the overall good development of the industry, as is clearly indicated by the name, Media Industry Development Authority.  
I would be grateful therefore if you would answer the following media development questions, which have been raised directly and indirectly in the public arena over the last year or so, some with you as well.  
1.         Earlier in the year, you gave a commitment at the World Press Freedom Day panel that you had written to the editors of the newspapers, seeking clarification of their policies on what letters to publish and not.  
(a)       Could you please tell the public what has been their response and whether MIDA is comfortable with their position.
Newspapers may have a written policy on letters to the editor. It is unlikely they have a written policy on news content. They may have a code of ethics. See Warren Breed’s "Social Control in the Newsroom” (1955) 
(b)       Could you also please ask all the television and radio stations what their policy is on interviewing experts on public policy issues in various fields (for example, the humble field of economics which all political parties, candidates and voters are focused on currently)?    
The foremost Fijian expert on economics is probably running against Bainimarama. Dean Biman Prasad is a keen intellect who puts school-leaver Bainimarama to shame. The media will have to interview him. Professor Narsey would be a close second, with nobody else really close behind, but the media will interview him only reluctantly, as he is well-known for telling the truth.  
2.         As a “level playing field” is an essential part of the development of a free, fair, competitive and transparent media industry, could you please inform the public what is your position on:  
(a) tax-payers advertisement funds being channelled by the Bainimarama Government only to Fiji Sun with The Fiji Times, the oldest Fijian newspaper, being totally denied
This is squarely in the political economy field which Professor Narsey and I share. Money talks, and you knows what walks. The junta has not been shy about putting its money where its marching orders are.
(b) outright subsidies given to FBC via government budget and government guarantees of loans from FDB, with no such subsidies given to either Fiji TV or the other radio broadcasters, Communications Fiji Ltd.
See above. Through the purchasing power of the Fiji government – or more correctly the borrowing power – the junta has been able to import the latest techniques of public opinion shaping. Qorvis is small potatoes in its own country, but by controlling the media, and thus public opinion, it can basically rule Fiji.
(c) the clearly intimidating renewal of the license for Fiji TV on a six monthly basis, while FBC TV suffers from no such restriction 
Richard Naidu was never more correct than when he described it as less a licence than a “good behaviour bond.”  
(d) While Fiji TV’s accounts are available to the shareholders, FBC accounts are not available at all to the taxpayers who supposedly own FBC.
There has been a decided lack of transparency in Fiji, especially on the part of the government.
(e) Mai TV’s “scoop” at obtaining rights to the broadcast of FIFA World Cup (a legitimate entrepreneurial transaction admired in the business world) being forcibly shared by decree amongst the other broadcasters, on financial terms dictated by the Bainimarama Government rather than negotiated amongst themselves as a market transaction.
“Reward your friends and punish your enemies,” Samuel Gompers, 1850-1924. Enough said.
3.         Given that you (and the PS Ministry of Information Sharon Smith Johns) have often publicly admonished journalists to be “robust” and “boldly investigative” in their work, did you query Fiji TV and the owners Fijian Holdings Limited why respected senior journalist and administrator Mr Anish Chand was sacked from Fiji TV on this year’s World Press Freedom day, because of complaints from the Bainimarama Government (as was related to you during the World Press Freedom Day panel at USP).
From all accounts, the order to fire Chand came from ASK. Raj was hired by ASK. And he would query this. . . why?
4.         Can you inform the public what your reaction is to this obvious “intimidation” (to use a euphemism) of a senior experienced award winning journalist, which clearly encourages other journalists to “self-censor” in the interests of their jobs and family welfare?   You might wish to know that well before you became Chairman of MIDA, Anish Chand had also been demoted in 2010 for having friends in the National Federation Party, while another colleague of his at Fiji TV, Merana Kitione, was also removed from her area of expertise and work, for similar reasons.
Only in Bizarro World would Mr Raj be able to give you a reaction to the obvious intimidation of journalists in Fiji, because he has been the one most pro-active in intimidating them.
Yours sincerely 
Professor Wadan Narsey Suva

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Discretion needed in moral entrepreneurship

Outrages abound for anyone who is forced to live in a military dictatorship. For a journalist, the natural instinct is to do everything possible to help by shining a light on the outrages.  A similar duty applies to an academic, especially if an outrage falls within a scholar’s area of expertise. The response from an academic, however, should be more measured and contemplative. Making expert comment in the media, for example, would be one way of expressing one’s informed opinions. Issuing denunciatory press releases . . . not so much.

Patrick Craddock
The situation becomes more complicated if the person is both a journalist and an academic. In which capacity – and in which manner – should the person speak out? It gets even more complicated if the person is a foreigner. To be teaching on a work permit in Fiji imposes some constraints on engaging in domestic politics. The fact that the country is gearing up for its first elections in more than eight years makes the situation even more sensitive. Making expert comment on issues within one’s area of academic expertise is risky enough, as I began finding out two years ago. I was careful not to comment on Fiji politics or culture and to stick to matters of media and media policy, on which I felt I had not just a right  but a duty to comment. As media policy is determined by the government, however, any criticism I made of measures such as the TV Decree or the State Proceedings Amendment Decree was taken as political meddling and a government complaint was inevitably made to my employer. As a guest in Fiji, I would never have considered criticising matters such as military torture or police brutality, however odious. There are others, such as Amnesty International, whose job that is.

All of which renders mystifying recent media statements made by Patrick Craddock and, to a lesser extent, Matt Thompson. The pair, who are journalism lecturers at a certain regional university, took the unusual step a week ago of issuing a press release saying they were “appalled that one of Fiji’s top journalists was denied accreditation to the Pacific Islands Development Forum and [that] police allegedly harassed another.” They might have been able to get away with that, as these are matters pertaining to the media and thus are arguably under their purview. Scholars don’t usually issue press releases, however. Press releases are usually issued by the institutions that employ them. The real problem, however, started when they criticised Brigadier-General Mosese Tikoitoga, the head of Fiji’s military, for apparently having justified torturing Fijian citizens. Thicko had told the Sydney Morning Herald he “wouldn’t deny” that Fijians have been beaten and tortured by the military regime, claiming it was necessary to stave off civil disorder. “But a lot of these people were actually trying to instigate violence by creating anti-government movements or militant groups,” he said. “They were talking on the radio and so on.… If you let them continue to have a voice, you create a potentially dangerous environment. So it was the lesser of two devils.” That apparently outraged Craddock and Thompson. “Do Fijian soldiers beat and torture people they see as troublemakers while on peacekeeping missions or do they reserve that treatment for Fijian citizens?” asked Thompson in their press release. “The military don’t seem to have a clue about democracy. The media have all kinds of absurd restrictions on them but the armed forces can seemingly do what they want. What a sad state of affairs in which to enter an election period.” 

That brought the predictable reaction. First, Thicko backtracked on his statement. “I did not admit to anything, let's get that clear,” he told the Fiji Times. “What I told the journalist at the time was that I would not deny that some people were taken to task. I said I would not deny it because there were so many reports done and there were so many investigations carried out on that issue.” Then Ashwin Raj took umbrage with the allegations of both journalistic intimidation and military torture. “These reckless academics are trying to instill fear in the citizens of Fiji,” the gnome-like Chair of the Media Industry Development Authority told FBC. “It’s another feeble attempt to keep us in a perpetual state of crisis.” He told the Fiji Times that the pair should have contacted MIDA and the Ministry of Information to check the facts before making such statements. “Any responsible academic as a necessary measure would have first ascertained and corroborated the facts before making a series of gnomic pronouncements about freedom.”

Exactly what business this was of MIDA is not clear, as it is charged with regulating the media, not with regulating people who make statements to the media. Raj was doubtless enraged, however, by the personal attack that Craddock made on him in the press release. “Where was the loud-mouthed MIDA when this [intimidation of journalists] happened?” asked Craddock. “It was silent and still is. The Chairman, Aswhin Raj talks about robust journalism. It is all mouth water talk. What an insult to freedom of speech.” Raj responded by calling the duo “ill-informed, self aggrandizing, self-selected moral entrepreneurs.” The stoush has now caught the attention of international media, including the UK newspaper The Guardian.

Raj is also a mid-level administrator at the same institution where Craddock and Thompson teach, so it wasn’t long before they were called on the carpet and asked to repudiate their press release and promise not to issue such statements again. They were then each issued a written demand to sign a letter agreeing to restrictions on their rights to freedom of speech and academic freedom or suffer the consequences. A deadline of Friday passed. A second press release was issued on Sunday, this time under Craddock’s name alone. “The letter implies that there were inaccuracies in the Media Release,” it noted. “There were none. The army has admitted that they have tortured and beaten people.” As if that wasn’t defiance enough, the release unusually included excerpts from a recording of Craddock’s meeting with university administration, in which a senior administrator is heard saying “All of us understand that we don’t live in a normal democratic government situation. . . . whatever we put out in the news media we are very careful.”

This effectively seals Craddock’s fate, as he can now expect to be dismissed for insubordination. The only question is whether Thompson will follow suit or knuckle under to muzzling by his employer. Unfortunately the real losers in this spat will be the students whose education has already been disrupted twice in the past 18 months, first by my departure, then by that of my successor. Craddock and Thompson were brought in on short notice under emergency conditions to keep the ship from sinking. Unfortunately, they may end up being the ones to send it to the bottom.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Dictator inadvertently endorses Fiji Times

The bumbling dictator has done it again. Frank Bainimarama has begun his campaign for the September election, but his rhetoric is so over the top as to literally defeat its purpose. The oldest propaganda trick in the book is the Big Lie, under the theory that if you tell a lie big enough, people simply have to believe it. Bainimarama is apparently intent on testing the limits of this theory, but the outrageousness of his latest pronouncements could serve to pull back the curtain enough to reveal his grand deception.

Wrapping himself in the flag
“Our intentions are pure,” he insisted at the official launch of his FijiFirst party this past week. “Judge for yourself what we have been able to achieve for you so far, judge for yourself how much life has improved under my government, judge for yourself the true and genuinely inclusive intentions I have for the betterment of all Fijians.” Given both the dire state of the Fijian economy and the brutal repression of political participation seen in the country of late, such an invitation risked audience members falling down laughing, if such disrespect would not ensure a quick trip to the Queen Elizabeth Barracks. The recent fiasco over the withdrawal of a scholarship from a university student whose only crime was to campaign for an opposition party is just one example of the stranglehold the government has placed on political participation. The government-mandated exclusion from the political process of union officials, academics, NGOs and other intellectuals, not to mention the “old” politicians Bainimarama so reviles, is further testament to his grip. The uber-authoritarian regime that has ruled Fiji since 2006 has so repressed freedom of expression and controlled public discourse through its MINFO and Qorvis spin doctors that apparently no lie is too big for the dictator to feel confident in trotting out. In his Biggest Lie of all, the military dictatorship has brought Fijians not only prosperity but intellectual freedom as well.
[Fijians] have also yearned for a more liberal society where people can question, ask and think outside the box, without being told not to do so, because of culture, tradition or religion. All of this has been made possible under my government. And the work we started 7 years ago, must now continue for the sake of all Fijians.
But Bainimarama’s biggest bugaboo, of course, is the news media, most of which he has been able to either control or co-opt, except for a couple of pesky outlets such as the Fiji Times and Fiji TV, which try to tell the truth whenever possible. Thus he just couldn’t resist taking a shot at one of his favorite targets. “Beware of media organisations such as Fiji Times whose journalistic standards are not only unprofessional but are blatantly biased,” he told the captive audience at FijiFirst’s launch. “They seek to distort facts, manipulate figures and blatantly print misleading headlines and stories. If they have a political bias they need to declare it.”
In the meantime I urge all Fijians to get other sources of information other than the distorted views of Fiji Times. . . . Many of their senior journalists and associates through social media and other forums spread misinformation and are anti-government. Therefore how can we expect them to be professional and give you the right information?
Questioning any of the junta’s many missteps and even misdeeds, of course, is not allowed in Fiji. Bainimarama much prefers the sycophants at CFL, FBC, and the Fiji Sun who will slavishly promote his party line. Luckily, a few brave others aren’t afraid to speak up about the charade. “We normally have coverage towards the back of the paper,” Social Democratic Liberal Party leader Ro Teimumu Kepa told ABC reporter Liam Fox while he was in the country recently. “[It comes] after Bainimarama’s photo and whatever he has to say on the front page, and then after all the supermarket ads and the sports and film and television ads.” Ro Teimumu added that when her party has campaigned in some communities, police have turned up afterwards to question people about what was said. Fox also interviewed National Federation Party leader Dr Biman Prasad, who was forced to resign his long-held professorship at a regional university in order to contest the election because of its proscription against political participation. “We’re telling the whole world we’re holding an election, yet the world must also see there are all these restrictions that are in place which do not allow political parties to engage freely,” he said. “People who are opinion makers, academics, NGOs, trade union officials, they’ve all been barred from taking part in political activities and actually talking about issues.”

NFP candidate and former Fiji Law Society president Dorsami Naidu was even more blunt in answering Bainimarama’s charges of media of bias against him. “I think he’s got to look at himself in the mirror and hear his own voice played back to him because he has suppressed the media for so long that he doesn't know what a free media is and what criticism is,” Naidu told Radio New Zealand International. “I mean, he thinks he’s above criticism. And if he thinks he’s done the right thing then let the people be the judge.”

The blogs, which have served as the underground press in Fiji ever since the 2006 coup, are more than happy to shine a light on the regime’s deceptions. “The Bainimarama government has a lot of faith in propaganda,” observed Fiji Today recently. “They’re convinced if they repeat a lie often enough and stop any political rivals from having access to the media to refute their lies, the lies will win.”
Sometimes I think they could almost succeed. They pump out publicity and the Fiji Sun laps it up. Every day Sun readers are treated to stories of success and optimism under the ‘popular’ dictator. Inevitably, some people will think good things are happening somewhere even if they can’t see it in their own neighbourhood. But there is a problem the propaganda machine can’t deal with – the truth. When they tell us how much they’ve improved water supply and health the suspicion grows that we are being fed on a diet of lies. The truth about water supply and hospitals can’t be hidden from people whose taps are dry or sick people turning up to clinics that don’t have the bandages or medicines they need.
Of course, the campaign has only just begun, and we can expect much more fun and games in the coming months. The latest outrage has yet to build steam, which is the admonition the press received the other day from the Fijian Elections Office, which has apparently taken the media-bashing baton from MIDA, whose masters are indisposed at the moment, what with Ashwin Raj being on the sick list and Matai Akauola reportedly resigning to contest the election himself. Members of the press were summoned to a pre-election talking to this past week from communications director Josua Tuwere, who was appointed straight from the ranks of the Fiji Sun. According to the Fiji Times, Tuwere admonished media organisations “to impart the right information to members of the public about voting.” Stand by for the fallout on that one.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Young journos speak out against media repression

As if to prove that not all  Fiji journalists have been browbeaten into submission, a few brave young reporters have begun speaking out against the junta's machinery of press repression, which even as it bullies and intimidates media organisations insists with a straight face that the country's press is free. Yet the sourcing for these daring reports leaves much to be desired, which in turn leaves the writers open to recrimination from the regime. As far as the Ministry of Truth is concerned, after all, the press in Fiji is now officially free.

Primal scream as apt metaphor
The student newspaper Wansolwara devoted most of its latest edition to press freedom issues following World Press Freedom Day earlier this month. The issue's editor, Tevita Vuibau, stuck his neck out with a front-page story on the recent termination of Fiji TV reporter Anish Chand, and an editorial which called for the press in Fiji to play its proper role in the promised return of democracy there with September elections. The problem is that his story did nothing to cast light on what actually happened to Chand, who was cashiered  in what Vuibau described as “shadowy” circumstances. “It is understood company policies restrict Fiji TV management and Chand from commenting on his departure,” wrote Vuibau. “Allegations that Chand was sent home following a phone call from a high government office to Fiji TV also remain unsubstantiated. Attempts to acquire comments from the Ministry of Information on these allegations have proved futile.” The story included not even an anonymous source testifying  to what actually happened. What we are left with, in other words, is conjecture and innuendo. As has been well established, this is what the Fiji media are best at. Facts . . . not so much.

Vuibau, who is also a reporter for the Fiji Times, led his story off by writing that "former and working journalists maintain that an element of fear exists among reporters" as a result of whatever happened to Chand. A climate of fear has existed for years among Fiji journalists, however, so that is not news. It may well have been amped up by Chand's departure and rumours which have been circulating about what led to it. The problem is that Vuibau's story establishes only what is NOT known. His editorial inside the issue made a heartfelt plea for the basic standards that anyone who appreciates good journalism hopes to some day see in Fiji's media. “We want journalism to rise again, and to see an end to the era of the ‘churnalist’ – press release writers and other reporters in too much of a hurry or too anxious to ask real questions.” Yet while lamenting a truly lamentable state of affairs, it couched the situation in layers of qualification. “Fear, timidness and meekness – whether real or imagined – are assumed to be the rule by many media practitioners and observers in and out of Fiji, yet exceptions do exist.”

At about the same time that Vuibau was going to press with his non-exposé, Ricardo Morris was taking to the air to provide at least a bit of information, however unsourced. “It has been confirmed by various sources what transpired that led to Anish Chand’s departure from Fiji Television,” Morris told Radio New Zealand International's Alex Perrottet. “Fiji Television are piloting a new political show in the lead-up to the general election, and there were vox pops that were brought in for the pilot show. The majority of the vox pops had people supporting Bainimarama, supporting the government, and supporting his proposed party.”
So what we understand is that the suggestion from Anish Chand was that some attempt should be made to try and get alternative views, try and find people who hold different views and would go on camera with those views. And it is understood somebody at that meeting, or who heard about that meeting, then passed the message on and then a phone call was made from the Attorney General to the management of Fiji TV. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Ricardo Morris
Morris, who has been RNZI's correspondent in Suva for some time now, also told Perrottet that he recently resigned under pressure as coordinator of the Cook Islands-based press advocacy group Pacific Freedom Forum. "I have become ineffective in the role of coordinator because of the pressures that have been brought to bear.” He did not identify who exerted the pressure, but told Perrottet that such pressures are brought to bear regularly on media outlets that are not pro-regime. “Probably the bigger media organisations like Fiji Television and Fiji TV, they come under inordinate pressure every day in all kinds of ways. And, you know, if there's any kind of complaint about broadcast, pressure comes to bear on them from the management. And I think that's the circumstances they're operating under every day.” While not providing any concrete examples, Morris nonetheless bravely called out the regime for bullying Fiji journalists. “I think it's got to be said that there are clear restrictions. Even if people don't call out the emperor as having no clothes, I think it should be said, everyone knows that there are restrictions and that there are things that you can and cannot say.” Morris is also publisher of Repúblika magazine, which similarly focused on press freedom in its May issue. “There exists much frustration, hate and a sense of being victimised for journalists to do their work without fear despite the strong stand by the Fiji Media Industry Development Authority (MIDA) that those in the profession were free to report without any pressure,” wrote Kelvin Anthony.

The Masters of MIDA will doubtless not take kindly to Vuibau and Morris coming out and saying what everybody knows anyway. Their job is to create an image in the world's mind that the media in Fiji have now been officially freed. Behind the scenes, on the other hand, they are wont to send out barbs to media whenever one dares to criticise the lack of press freedom in the country. Witness the memo that reportedly went out after the Pacific Freedom Forum protested MIDA's clampdown on freelance journalists last October. “Media outlets, especially the editors, must explain the reasons for using the PFF article,” wrote MIDA Director Matai Akauola. “It does not mean that when you get both sides, you run the story. You have to check whether it's accurate.” This effectively sets up MIDA as a virtual Ministry of Truth, deciding what may and may not be reported by the nation's press. Also witness how MIDA Chair Ashwin Raj went off on ABC reporter Sean Dorney for merely telling an interviewer in February that some delegates to the Pacific Islands News Association conference in Noumea felt the press in Fiji “wasn’t as free and open . . . as it should be.”

Unfortunately, the lack of sourcing for Vuibau's article and Morris' interview that call out the regime's deception leave them wide open to retaliation, either under the Media Decree or otherwise. But perhaps the Masters of MIDA would be wiser to just let it alone, as to clamp down again now would be to prove the very point of critics.