Digital buturaki: Government-sponsored blogs assail critics of
’s military dictatorship Fiji
Marc Edge, Ph.D.
A PAPER PRESENTED TO THE WORLD JOURNALISM EDUCATION CONGRESS,
JULY 14-16, 2016, AUCKLAND,
A series of coups beset
following its independence from Great Britain
in 1970. Some blamed the press, segments of which had been critical of the
government, for fomenting a coup in 2000 (Singh, T.R., 2011). According to Robie (2003: 104), ‘Many
powerful institutions, such as the Methodist Church in Fiji, and politicians in
the Pacific believe there is no place for a Western-style free media and it should
be held in check by Government legislation’. Self-regulation of the press by the Fiji Media Council was criticized as
2004). A clampdown on press freedom by the military, which took
control of the country in a 2006 coup, saw a new type of publication emerge in
response. Enabled by websites such as blogger.com which offered free software
and hosting of personal diaries, web logs or ‘blogs’ became popular at the millennium.
Pro-democracy blogs in post-coup Fiji
were almost exclusively anonymous, however, as anyone caught spreading
anti-government sentiment risked being arrested and beaten by the military. It
detained several suspected bloggers and also put pressure on the country’s
telecommunications provider Fintel to block blogger.com. In response, a group
of bloggers from New Zealand
offered to host Fijian blogs on their servers (Fiji Times, 2007). According to Foster, by cracking
down on press freedom, the military ‘unleashed’ the blogs. The resulting ‘public
relations nightmare’, she concluded, proved worse for the regime’s image than a
free press would have.
The blogs’ no-holds-barred approach to military criticism picked holes in media coverage of the crisis, with blogs running stories detailing alleged military abuse as well as releasing several confidential documents (Foster, 2007: 47–48).
Not all political blogs in post-coup
were anti-regime, however. In early 2009, New Zealand resident Crosbie Walsh
began a blog he called Fiji: The Way it Was, Is and Can Be, partly in response
to what he saw as biased reporting on Fiji in the mainstream media of his
country. A retired professor from the University of the South Pacific (USP) in Fiji,
Walsh also published a study in 2010 which catalogued 72
known political blogs in , of which 42 were active. ‘Fifty-three were anti
[-government] – 19 extremely so; 15 were
more or less ‘neutral’, and three were pro-government’ (Walsh, 2010: 164).
Walsh deemed his own blog ‘mildly pro-government’, compared
to blogs such as Coup 4.5, which actively
incited unrest. ‘The anti-government blogs, hailed by coup opponents as
advocates of democracy, are little more than agents of uncritical dissent’ (Walsh, 2010: 174). Coup 4.5 was among the most popular
blogs, noted Walsh, with a ‘staggering’ 60,000 visitors in November 2009
compared with 30,000 visitors to his own blog over a longer period (Walsh, 2010: 158). Fiji
In April 2009,
’s Fiji Appeal Court ruled the 2006 coup unconstitutional, prompting the
government to abrogate the constitution, sack the judiciary, declare martial
law, and clamp down on civil rights. Several foreign journalists were deported and
censors were installed in newsrooms to prevent negative news about the
government being published. Blog activity spiked in an attempt to fill the news
vacuum, prompting a renewed government crackdown. The pro-regime blog Real Fiji
News published the names of several prominent residents it claimed were behind the anti-government blog
Raw Fiji News, including the editor of the Fiji Times and three Suva lawyers, who were arrested and detained briefly for questioning
(Merritt, 2009). In 2010, the regime appointed former Fairfax Media advertising
executive Sharon Smith Johns as Permanent Secretary for Information, making her
admittedly the country’s ‘chief censor and media strategist’ (Davis,
2010). A Media Industry Development Decree (Media Decree) was enacted by the
military government the same year. It provided for fines of up to F$1,000 for journalists found in contravention
of its guidelines, which increased to F$25,000 for publishers or editors and F$100,000
for media organisations
(Foster, 2010; Singh, S. 2010). Suva
In February 2011, Australian journalist Graham Davis began a blog he called Grubsheet after his production company Grubstreet. It covered a range of topics for its first year, but by early 2012 it began to focus on
politics almost exclusively. Davis, who was born in Fiji, began that focus with
a blog entry that criticised Coup 4.5 for alleging that Muslims were
‘colonising’ Fiji at the behest of Bainimarama’s right-hand man,
Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, who was a Muslim. ‘This grubby little
offering isn’t just inflammatory but utterly false’, wrote Davis.
‘Simply put, Coup 4.5 – with this base offering – has become the local
equivalent of a Nazi hate sheet’ ( Davis,
2012a). The blog entry was reprinted in the pro-regime Fiji Sun newspaper,
as well as on Auckland University of Technology’s Pacific Scoop and Pacific
Media Centre websites, and on the blogs of Walsh and AUT journalism educator
David Robie. ‘Who are these people?’ asked Davis
of the contributors to Coup 4.5. A few wrote under their own names, he noted,
including former Fiji Sun investigative reporter Victor Lal, who lived
in England, and economist Wadan Narsey, who had been forced to resign his teaching
position at the USP as a result of his outspoken opposition to the military
government. Most, noted Davis, did
They’re always anonymous but are said to be a group of Fiji journalists running their site out of Auckland, with contributions from members of the deposed SDL government, ex civil servants and a hard core of anti-regime ‘human rights’ advocates. . . . The wonder is that some of 4.5’s content is written by respected journalists and academics who are Indo-Fijians to boot (
In October 2011, the
regime contracted with U.S.
public relations company Qorvis Communications at a cost of US$40,000 per month.
According to Bainimarama (2011), the purpose was ‘to assist with training and
support for our Ministry of Information – to ensure its operations take into
account advances in social media, the Internet and best practices regarding the
media’. New Zealand
journalist Michael Field, who was among the journalists barred from Fiji
for reporting critically on the regime, pointed out that Qorvis had a sinister
reputation in other parts of the world where it operated. ‘Qorvis specialises
in putting a spin on dictators like those of Tunisia
and Egypt who
resisted Arab Spring. . . . Hiring Washington
spin-doctors is a well-walked road for dictators who work on their image in Washington
and at the United Nations’ (Field, 2011). American journalist Anna Lenzer, who
had been arrested on a recent assignment to Fiji,
noted in the Huffington Post ‘the Fijian junta’s exploding internet and social media presence in the weeks since Qorvis
began its work’ (Lenzer, 2011). The Huffington Post had earlier questioned the tactics
employed by Qorvis on behalf of the dictatorship in Bahrain. ‘Beyond
disappearing bloggers and rights activists, Bahrain
also tries to disappear criticism’, it noted. ‘Most of the U.S.-based fake
tweeting, fake blogging (flogging), and online manipulation is carried out
from inside Qorvis Communication’s “Geo-Political Solutions” division’ (Halvorssen,
More so than intimidation, violence, and disappearances, the most important tool for dictatorships across the world is the discrediting of critics. . . . Oppressive governments are threatened by public exposure, and this means that it’s not just human rights defenders but also bloggers, opinion journalists, and civil society activists who are regularly and viciously maligned (Halvorssen, 2011).
The Huffington Post also reported in 2011 that an exodus of Qorvis operatives had taken place over the firm’s unsavoury tactics and clients. In a space of two months, it noted, more than a third of the partners at Qorvis had left the firm, partly because of its work on behalf of such clients as
Arabia and Equatorial
Guinea. ‘I just have trouble working with
despotic dictators killing their own people’, one former Qorvis insider said
regime lifted martial law in early 2012, which resulted in censors exiting the
country’s newsrooms. Numerous decrees, however, impinged on press freedom in
addition to the Media Decree. A TV Decree enacted in 2012 permitted the
minister responsible for communication to revoke the licence of any television
station found to have contravened the Media Decree. It was enacted shortly
after Fiji TV aired interviews with two former prime ministers who questioned
the need for another new constitution. The broadcaster was reportedly then warned
by the regime that its soon-to-expire broadcasting licence might not be renewed
as a result (Ashdown, 2012). It was, but for only six months at a time instead
of the usual twelve years. Soon a campaign began against critics of the
military dictatorship. Following is an analysis of issues focused on by
pro-regime blogs in Fiji
subsequent to the lifting of martial law in early 2012 until elections were
held in September 2014.
1. Bruce Hill and Radio
A favorite target of pro-regime blogs, especially Grubsheet, was reporting by Radio
the foreign service of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), and its influential
Pacific Beat programme. One regular target of Davis
was Pacific Beat reporter Bruce Hill. When the Pacific Islands News Association
(PINA) controversially held its conference in Fiji
in early 2012 despite the country’s restrictions on press freedom, Davis
assailed Hill’s reports of dissension at the event. ‘It’s pretty clear in the
minds of conference organisers that Hill came to PINA spoiling for a fight, or
at least to pursue his favoured narrative of a Pacific media umbrella in
tatters by continuing division over Fiji’, Davis wrote in a blog entry that was
reprinted not only in the Fiji Sun but also in The Australian (Davis,
2012b). Hill interviewed a delegate from one South Pacific country who claimed
it was not the job of journalists to oppose governments, then filed a story
that highlighted the comment, which drew criticism from Davis.
The AUT’s David Robie observed that without Hill’s presence, there would have been little dissention at PINA. Robie described the . . . fracas as a construct of ‘western-style conflict journalism’. Hill, he said, had set out to generate controversy by seeking a contentious opinion and then using it to generate more controversy (
It is more than a grave editorial lapse. It is also contrary to law. On the available evidence, it’s a case of the publicly funded broadcaster taking a partisan position in a manner that contravenes every aspect of the ABC’s Charter. This legally requires it – under an act of Parliament – to report without fear or favour in the interests of every Australian (
In a subsequent blog entry, he called for an inquiry into the matter. ‘Bruce Hill needs to explain himself, as does the entire Radio
news team’, he wrote. ‘Because without a doubt, it is one of the most blatant
instances of censorship and news manipulation Grubsheet has ever witnessed’ ( Davis, 2013b). By this time, Davis had revealed he was working for Qorvis
Communications on its Fiji account ( Davis,
2012d). He spent much of his time in Suva working for Qorvis, he admitted, flying back and
forth from his home in Sydney
and staying at a leading local hotel. The admission came in September 2012, two
weeks after Davis had been named host of the Southern Cross
Austereo network’s weekly public affairs television programme The Great Divide
( Jackson, 2012).
2. Yash Ghai and the Constitutional Review Commission
A Constitutional Review Commission that was tasked by the regime with drafting a new constitution for
Fiji ran into difficulties throughout 2012. Yash Ghai,
a law professor who headed the commission, first complained of interference
from the head of the military government, then clashed dramatically with the
regime at year’s end. In a November interview with Radio University of Hong Kong Australia’s Campbell Cooney, Ghai revealed there had been ‘massive
interference’ by the regime with the commission’s work. ‘I get emails from the
PM to do this or not to do that, and this is a kind of harassment’ (Radio Australia,
2012a). The situation came to a climax after
the commission submitted its draft constitution to the government just before
Christmas. Ghai ordered copies printed for distribution prior to it being
considered by a special Constituent Assembly of citizens, which was planned to
ratify it. Police seized the copies over Ghai’s objections, however, and incinerated
several while he watched. ‘I have never been in a process where there
has been such an attempt to hide the recommendations of a body which was set up
by this very government’, Ghai told Hill in an interview (Radio Australia,
2012b). The regime at first denied the seizure and burning, but pictures of the incident were soon posted online.
Davis was unusually silent on the issue, having recently
informed readers of his blog that he was bowing out of the Fiji political fray because of his work for Qorvis. ‘I
have a clear conflict of interest when it comes to commenting on political
matters in Fiji,
and especially partisan politics in the lead-up to the election,’ he wrote. ‘I
am now spending much of my time in Suva working on the Qorvis account that services
the Fijian Government’ (Davis, 2012e). Walsh accused Hill of ‘making a mountain
out of a mole-hill’ and deconstructed his interview with Ghai line by line. ‘It
shows how a supposedly neutral interviewer reveals his true colours’, wrote
Walsh. ‘No one could possibly be in doubt about his feelings during the Yash Ghai interview.
There was no attempt at neutrality’ (Walsh, 2012a). Walsh followed that with another
blog entry two days later. ‘Government’s intention was never to prevent public
discussion on the draft decree [sic.]’, he wrote. ‘The whole Ghai-police
incident and its fallout is unfortunate, inflated, and has been largely
misinterpreted, by the media mainly unintentionally, by anti-Government
bloggers deliberately’ (Walsh, 2012b).
Walsh then speculated that the cause of the seizure was that the regime had lost confidence in the neutrality of the Commission. ‘There were so many stories of Yash Ghai socialising with known Government opponents. . . . I can well understand why government was concerned: a commission whose key member was no longer neutral was also no longer independent (Walsh, 2013a). The Fiji Sun then ran a front-page story under the screaming headline ‘ACCUSED: Neutrality Of Yash Ghai’s Commission Questioned’ (Bolatiki, 2013). It repeated Walsh’s speculation and outlined in detail the military government’s objections to the Ghai draft, including that it would restore the Great Council of Chiefs, which the regime had earlier abolished (Bolatiki, 2013). Walsh objected in a subsequent blog entry that the newspaper had been selective in reproducing his analysis. ‘The Sun did not misrepresent what I said but it only published half of it – the half sympathetic to Government’ (Walsh, 2013b).
By then the Ghai draft had been published on Fijileaks, a new blog by Victor Lal that specialized in publishing leaked documents à la Wikileaks (Fijileaks, 2012). In addition to restoring the Great Council of Chiefs, it would have repealed or rewritten decrees such as the Media Decree which restricted human rights, provided a role in
politics for NGOs, and greatly reduced the role of the military. Despite his
promise to refrain from commenting on Fiji
politics, Davis charged that the Ghai
draft was ‘a patently flawed formula’ for achieving democracy that required major
revision. ‘If you dissect its provisions, Fiji would
wind up with an elite of non-elected representatives and hereditary chiefs
whose numbers would far exceed those directly chosen by the people. And what –
pray tell – is democratic about that?’ ( Davis,
2013c). Davis quoted an anonymous
‘friend’ of Ghai who speculated that his ‘emotions may well have got in the way
of his better judgment’. Ghai had a ‘distinctly romantic notion about
finally being able to resolve the intractable “Fiji Problem”’, according to
this friend, and had come to believe that he could be ‘just as big a
saviour as Frank Bainimarama’ ( Davis,
2013c). According to Davis’ single anonymous
source, Ghai was disappointed when he was initially criticised on
anti-government blogs as a stooge of the military government and set about
correcting that assumption by courting elements known to oppose the regime. Ghai
then went over to their side, according to Davis,
deciding to ‘go rogue’ and ‘thumb his nose at due process’ ( Davis,
2013c). The Ghai draft was rejected out of hand by the regime, which wrote its
own constitution that expressly permitted its restrictive decrees, excluded
NGOs from the political process, and provided a continuing political role for
the military. It then cancelled the Constituent Assembly that had been planned
to ratify it (The Economist, 2013).
3. Participant observation
The author also became the subject of by attacks by pro-regime blogs starting in mid-2012 while Head of Journalism at the USP in
Suva. In a Radio
Australia interview with Hill in April of that year, I corroborated his account
of dissention remaining within South Pacific media despite a lack of open
conflict at the PINA conference. Davis, who along with the AUT’s David Robie had
promoted a ‘Pacific media at peace’ meme following the conference, called the
interview ‘the biggest crack at revisionism in recent Pacific media history’ ( Davis,
2012c). His blog entry was reprinted in the Fiji Sun and on Walsh’s blog,
and was the subject of a news story on AUT’s Pacific Scoop (2012). ‘Our
recollections of what took place are so vastly at odds that I wonder if we were
on the same planet’, he wrote, ‘let alone at the same venue in the same country’
( Davis, 2012c). The conference was
boycotted by numerous delegates because PINA decided to hold it in media-managed
there were people who stayed away from PINA because it was being held in Fiji’,
admitted Davis. ‘Yes, a breakaway
organisation, PasiMA, was formed after the debacle in Vanuatu
of mainly Polynesian delegates opposed to Fiji’s
coup. Yes, one or two delegates . . . made their displeasure felt’.
But for one of the region’s most prominent journalistic educators to seek to exacerbate that division when others are trying to build bridges speaks of a man who simply doesn’t grasp the subtleties and nuances of island relationships (
In mid-2012, I started a blog called Fiji Media Wars. ‘It does seem like a bit of double jeopardy’, I blogged about the new TV Decree. ‘Not only are TV stations subject to fines for violating the Code of Ethics and to having their journalists thrown in prison, now they can be put out of business as well’ (Edge, 2012a). That brought a government complaint to USP, as a result of which I put Fiji Media Wars on hiatus for more than two months after posting only a few entries. In September 2012, I organised a two-day symposium at USP on Media and Democracy in the South Pacific. On the first day of the event,
posted a blog entry which referred to the event as ‘Edgefest’ and claimed it
had caused official consternation across the region. ‘Dr Edge caused intense
heartburn right from the start as he set about organising this conference’, he
wrote ( Davis, 2012e).
He appears to have set out to be deliberately provocative. In the first draft of the program placed on the USP’s internet website, the list of speakers included two journalists formally banned from
Fiji. . .
. There was also general astonishment when Dr Edge posted the following [Call
for Papers] to the conference comparing certain Pacific countries to the
repressive regimes in the Middle East that sparked the
‘Arab Spring’ ( Davis, 2012e).
In November 2012 I posted a blog entry which summarized available information about Qorvis Communication. ‘The more I learn about these rascals’, I wrote, ‘the more I suspect that I have been a victim of their back ops’ (Edge, 2012c). A subsequent blog entry questioned Walsh’s ethics for accepting a trip to
that was paid for by the regime and designed to provide material for his blog (Edge,
2012d). Another regime complaint to USP demanded that I remove the blog entry
about Qorvis. I did so, but I was nonetheless stood down as Head of Journalism by
USP administration. I remained at USP as a senior lecturer, however, and both
Davis and Walsh repeatedly demanded that I be dismissed. ‘The School is said to
be irrevocably split between the brainwashed first years who worship Dr Edge
and senior students who think he is bordering on the certifiable’, wrote Davis,
who also complained about a joke I made about Qorvis at the annual USP Journalism
awards night. ‘He has brought the USP and its journalism school into disrepute
and the sooner he departs these shores the better’ ( Davis,
Walsh took umbrage with my criticism of him for taking a trip to
paid for by the regime. ‘The problems begin with him accepting what’s called a
“junket” in the journalism world’, I wrote. ‘As any first-year journalism
student knows (mine certainly do), you will not have any credibility if you do
not maintain independence from those you write about’ (Edge, 2012d). Walsh
claimed the criticism by myself and other bloggers was unwarranted and
suggested that my work permit should be cancelled. ‘It says much for the
tolerance of the government and the university that he is still able to publish
partisan polemic exercises on his blog’, he wrote. ‘Others have their
association with the university terminated, and their work permits
cancelled, for less’ (Walsh, 2012c).
After his August 2013 attack on Radio
Davis blogged infrequently and not
always on Fiji
in the year leading up to the election, which saw Bainimarama returned in a
landslide. In a December 2013 blog entry responding to my noting his
months-long absence, Davis (2013e)
wrote that he had ‘gone quiet primarily because my work is done. . . . Everything
that I set out to achieve when I started Grubsheet at the beginning of 2011 and
began highlighting the Bainimarama revolution’s achievements has been
accomplished’. His absence from the Fiji
blogging fray, however, may have instead been the result of a complaint I
lodged with SCA CEO Rhys Holleran in mid-2013 about Davis
simultaneously acting as a TV news host and a propagandist for a regional
Political commentary in the
has been likened to a ‘spin cycle’ or ‘echo chamber’ of like-minded pundits
repeating and reinforcing pre-determined ‘talking points’ (Kurtz, 1998;
Jamieson and Cappella, 2008). This case study shows the same phenomenon
imported to Fiji.
The fact that Qorvis Communications was a U.S.-based public relations was
likely not coincidental to the Fiji
regime adopting an American-style system of ‘attack’ commentary. A cycle of
attacks on regime critics by regime-friendly blogs such as those published by
Davis and Walsh was amplified by their frequent reprinting in the pro-regime Fiji
Sun, not to mention on other blogs and on several websites associated with
the AUT. This not only gave their commentary wider circulation but also greater
legitimacy. The online treatment of regime critics by pro-government blogs,
while typical of Qorvis operations elsewhere in the world, assumed in Fiji
a vicious nature not unlike the beatings meted out to pro-democracy advocates
and escaped prisoners. This ‘digital buturaki’, as with the real-life
beatings, served as a form of social, political, media, and even academic
control. It proved a powerful deterrent to anyone who would dare to criticize
the regime and a key component of its hegemony.
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