Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Who on earth is Ashwin Raj? Part I

The new Chairman of Fiji’s Media Industry Development Authority, Ashwin Raj, has been cracking the whip on the nation’s press – and even on overseas journalists – ever since his appointment last year. His stridency is in sharp contrast to the style of his predecessor, FNU literature scholar Professor Subramani, who kept a low profile and seemed reluctant to carry out the regime’s media diktats. 

Ashwin Raj lays down the law to Fiji's media
Raj apparently suffers no similar compunction about playing the role of media commissar, and his assault on the press, both foreign and domestic, over the past six months has been dizzying. Basking in his new-found limelight, the previously obscure Raj has unleashed a vocabulary that would drive even the most erudite faculty member to a dictionary. By attempting to impress with polysyllabic prowess, however, the diminutive failed academic displays an intellectual inferiority complex that is as enormous as it is obvious.

Raj first moved against Fiji's media last October, when he announced that MIDA would set up a media monitoring unit to ensure that coverage of the coming election campaign will be balanced and unbiased. He also announced that freelancers, public relations operatives, and foreign journalists in Fiji would henceforth have to register with MIDA and follow the regime’s restrictive Media Decree. The Cook Islands-based Pacific Freedom Forum spoke out against the added restrictions as “another layer of scrutiny in what is already a tightly regulated media environment.” Some Fiji media actually dared to report on that story, which apparently led to a sharp private rebuke from Raj.

At the annual Attorney-General’s conference in December, Raj lashed out against those who saw the Media Decree as an attempt to gag the press.
Alarmingly, little effort has been made to actually enter the protocols of the Decree and read through its provisions, which provides a nuanced framework for the enforcement of media standards. If media holds the State accountable, the question then is ‘who guards the guard?’ What legal recourse does the public have in the event that the media has wronged them?
But these were merely appetizers for Raj’s showdown with journalists in the New Year. At the Pacific Islands News Association conference in Noumea in February, he took umbrage with ABC journalist Sean Dorney telling an interviewer that some there felt the press in Fiji “wasn’t as free and open . . . as it should be.” At a social function that evening, Raj reportedly went off on Dorney, who had also privately urged that PINA should stand up more for press freedom, calling him a two-faced “Janus” and promising that he would never be allowed back into Fiji. He followed that up with a letter of protest to the ABC’s Managing Director that threw around howlers like “asseverated,” and “epistemic,” as if to show the Australians how intelligent he was. “Mr Dorney’s lucubration’s [sic.] are mired in generalisations without any substantiation,” railed Raj, who simultaneously deemed MIDA a rousing success with regional governments. “Five months into my appointment, MIDA is beginning to enjoy the trust and confidence of the international community.”

The silliness continued in what can only be described as MIDA’s own version of March Madness. Unable to extract retribution against Dorney, Raj dragged into his feud the Pacific Media Assistance Scheme, which is funded by the ABC administered by ABC International, forcing it to cancel a planned workshop for journalists in Fiji. Raj then demanded that PACMAS distance itself from the ABC and Dorney. In outlining his independent media monitoring unit of "people who have a wealth of experience in the media industry," Raj then announced that he would also require all media outlets to disclose their editorial policies. “I need to know why certain letters get published at the exclusion of others.” The craziness recently culminated, of course, when Raj could simply stand no more of the Fiji media’s insolence and insubordination. After Fiji TV reported a speech by a chief in the prime minister’s home province that pointed to ethnic divisions in Fiji society, Raj deemed it hateful and summoned the press for a stern tongue lashing, even admonishing assembled journalists for discussing such issues on social media like Facebook. 

All of which begs the question, who on earth is Ashwin Raj? He has absolutely no media experience in his background, from what I can tell, and as such he would be highly unlikely to enjoy even a scintilla of confidence among members of the industry he regulates. His most extensive media experience, it seems, comes from reading newspapers and authoring the occasional response. “I would engage with the media as a bystander,” he has explained. “I’d write letters to the editor.” His lack of expertise on media issues is painfully obvious, and his independence is highly suspect. “I’ve got a six member board that keeps me accountable,” he has said, yet the membership of MIDA – which is supposed to include representatives of women, children, and consumers, in addition to the Solicitor-General and someone with media experience – is apparently a closely-guarded state secret.

He is also not a lawyer, as he freely admits, which you would think might come in handy for someone tasked with administering a regulatory act. “I’ve always read law from the perspective of society,” he reasoned for journalists.
It’s one thing to have pure, legal interpretation of the law and another to say, well what does it mean for society and how does society think through legal instruments? Law means nothing unless and until it materializes in the lives of people.
So what do we know about Ashwin Raj and his actual accomplishments? Does he have any to his credit? It is highly unlikely that any journalist in Fiji would dare investigate, much less report on his background, or lack thereof, under the current reign of media terror over which Raj presides. That leaves it to this blog to find out what is known about him and publicize it in order to put the current media climate in Fiji into context. In his day job, Raj is a mid-level administrator at a regional university. He comes from an extremely modest background, being born to a Muslim seamstress and a Hindu gardener (at Marist Brothers school) and raised in a Vatuwaqa shack. His parents' elopement apparently caused his mother to become estranged from her family, which objected to the mixed union, and caused no small amount of distress for young Ashwin. He came out as gay a few years ago and was active in the Drodrolagi movement which advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer rights in Fiji until quitting the group a couple of years ago. He then began to ingratiate himself with the regime and has been advancing within it rapidly. He delivered the opening address to the 2012 Attorney General's conference (at about the same time that I was being hounded out of Fiji), at which he declared his admiration for the regime's "surgical strike" in 2006. Within a few months, he had been elevated as the Master of MIDA.

Ashwin Raj in Hawai'i
Ashwin Avinesh Raj holds a Master’s degree in Political Science from the University of Hawai’i, which he attended from 2002-05 on a United States-South Pacific Islands scholarship to the East-West Center. He then enrolled in doctoral studies at Australian National University’s program in Pacific and Asian History, where he began work on his dissertation topic: “Allegories of the Human: Rights of Indentured and ‘Free’ Indians and the Production of Humanity, 1879-1937.” That is where his academic career went off the rails, however. Despite spending a year doing research in the Fiji Archives, Raj proved to be all talk and no action, failing to submit even one chapter of his doctoral thesis. He was eventually required to leave Australia on the expiration of his student visa in 2009. 

Raj did prove to be a prolific letter writer during his time in Canberra, however, and some of his submissions to the Fiji Times belie his current complicity in the regime. “Instead of channelling hundreds of thousands of dollars to investigate the media and institute meaningless commissions of inquiry that tell you the obvious,” he wrote in 2008 to criticise the Fiji Human Rights Commission, including its report on Fiji media by University of Hawai’i political scientist James Anthony, “that money would have been better spent feeding and clothing the poor and the homeless.” A letter published the previous year, however, provides an even more delicious irony given Raj’s current position in charge of the regime’s machinery of media repression. He began it in a manner eerily similar to his recent diatribe against the Fiji media, which began: “I’m quite perturbed by the level of public discourse in Fiji as we head towards the national elections.” His 2007 letter began: “I am perturbed by the mood of public discourse in relation to the political developments since the 2006 military takeover.
Rampant anti-intellectualism, purist and locationist jibes and the very curious rise of self selected moral entrepreneurs who give philanthropy without democracy now seem to be the dominant discourses of this particular strand of democracy propagated by the proverbial monkey of good governance called the “interim administration.”
Next: Ashwin Raj on the “(Im)possibilities of Democracy.”

Saturday, April 5, 2014

MIDA takes on Facebook

Apparently it’s not enough for the Media Industry Development Authority to intimidate Fiji’s journalists into self-censorship and timidity. Now the new masters of MIDA want to also rein in discussion on social media like Facebook. There’s only one problem. As usual, they don’t seem to have the foggiest notion of what they’re talking about.

MIDA's Ashwin Raj (left) and Matai Akauola
MIDA Chair Ashwin Raj summoned the nation’s press to a “mandatory” press conference the other day, the metaphorical equivalent of a misbehaving child being summoned to the headmaster's office for a scolding. The nominal subject was “hate speech,” of which Raj had found Fiji TV guilty (without the need for a hearing, of course) for broadcasting rather mild comments by a chief in the prime minister’s home province who pointed to ethnic divisions in Fiji society. As ethnic divisions aren’t allowed to exist in Frank Bainimarma’s multiracial paradise, the regime went off the deep end. Its media authoritarians were immediately tasked by the prime minister with bringing to heel not only Fiji TV, but the rest of Fiji’s press corps as well, lest reporting of the upcoming election campaign get out of hand and actually include criticism of the dictator.

The omnipotent Raj dutifully complied with remarkable alacrity, quickly finding Ratu Timoci Vesikula to have violated hate speech provisions of both the 2009 Crimes Decree and the recent regime-imposed constitution and referring the matter to Fiji’s Solicitor-General for disposition. He also found Fiji TV guilty of violating the 2010 Media Decree and ordered it to broadcast an apology and retraction, as if the speech never happened.

As a result of this finding, Fiji TV’s licence can now be summarily revoked by the government under the 2012 TV decree, with no possibility of appeal. Its licence inconveniently came up for renewal two years ago at the same time that it made the mistake of airing interviews with two former prime ministers who questioned the need for yet another constitution. It has been renewed for only six months at a time ever since in what has been described as less a licence than a “good behavior bond.”  FijiTV, which trades on the South Pacific Stock Exchange, promptly issued a statement to shareholders last week that promised to comply with MIDA’s order. 

This set the scene for Thursday’s remarkable press conference, an audio recording of which has been uploaded to YouTube. “I’m quite perturbed by the level of public discourse in Fiji as we head towards the national elections,” Raj began, reading from a five-page letter to FijiTV which was also released to the press. 
What is even more disconcerting is the complicity of select Fijian journalists and media either wittingly or those that remain oblivious to the laws of Fiji despite several awareness workshops on the Crimes Decree, the Media Industry Development Decree and the Constitution.
Raj was just getting warmed up. In addition to finding the chief’s statement unconstitutional and in contravention of the Crimes Decree, and FijiTV in breach of the Media Decree (all without the need for a hearing or apparently even legal submissions), the non-lawyer and failed academic personally absolved himself of muzzling the press.
My decision this morning cannot be misconstrued (emphasis in the original) as an impingement on the freedom of expression or dismissed as yet another instance of gagging media freedom by MIDA as has been insinuated by some who are posturing as the praetorian guard of human rights but sadly very quiet over the issue of hate speech.
He then ran through the possible punishments for Ratu Timoci – imprisonment for 10 years – and FijiTV – a fine of up to $100,000 and imprisonment of up to two years for its senior managers. Raj then announced that he would take further legal advice on FijiTV’s punishment and ordered retraction as a preliminary measure. In reading his decision, Raj took the opportunity to put the entire Fiji news media on notice and to impose further restrictions and threats of sanction on them. MIDA will be “closely monitoring the tone of public discourse,” he said, through its recently-established “independent” media monitoring unit. 

Not only that, Raj told the assembled media throng, but henceforth he would require, “in the interests of transparency,” translations to be provided of speeches given in Fijian and Hindi at political rallies. “It is incumbent on the media in Fiji to ensure that there is no dissonance in the content of speeches and texts presented in either the vernacular or English in their various modes of delivery.” As further punishment, freelance journalists in Fiji will also now have to register with MIDA and provide "a full declaration of the organisations that they serve."

As he ran through his seven-point decision which imposed sanctions not only on the offending parties but by now on all Fijian media, Raj often deviated from his prepared text to further excoriate the assembled journalists. So it was when he finally reached his seventh and last point, which was obviously one of some vexation for the regime. Not only had Fijian journalists been derelict in their duty to report the news to the satisfaction of the regime, but they had been guilty of *shock horror* discussing it among themselves.
The conduct of a number of journalists on blogsites leaves much to be desired. One just has to see their contribution on Friends of the Fiji Media blogsite. I’m now asking all editors to address this issue as a matter of urgency.
Here is where he deviated from his text and proceeded to scold the nation’s press. “This is a question of professionalism,” he told them. “This is a question of ethical journalism.”
Be very careful what you write on these blogsites, because you’ve got an important responsibility. This is not to suffuse [sic.] the fact that you have, you know, certain political proclivities. We all have subjectivity. But that should not come in the way of your work.
He then singled out, although not by name, two members of the Facebook group Friends of Media Fiji, of which I am a member. “I’ve seen a very senior person from DFAT [Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade] who I’ve had several meetings with,” he said, obviously referring to public affairs officer Dennis Rounds, “fully engaging in Friends of the Fiji Media.” He then took a run at freelance journalist Samisoni Pareti. 
I know of an ABC correspondent who’s also with Islands Business, writes all kinds of statements, I mean absolutely callous remarks, you know, unsubstantiated. That’s not the way journalists should be conducting themselves in this country.
Raj insisted that he was not embarking on a “vendetta against select media outlets” and claimed he was independent. “People are saying that I’m a lackey of the regime,” he noted. “I’ve got no dog in the fight, except for the fact that I've got to judiciously undertake this responsibility.” But  his message to journalists was clear. “Don’t resort to blogsites where you just trash people, because that is not a sign of democracy,” he told them. “That is not a sign of freedom of expression.”

That MIDA is unfamiliar with social media is painfully obvious from its conflating of blogs with the social network Facebook, where the group Friends of Fiji Media conducts its online discussions. Blogs have bedeviled the regime for years, ever since it imposed martial law in 2009 and clamped down on the press. Free online blogging sites such as Blogger and Wordpress, which had recently become popular, allowed users to set up sites on which to post their online ramblings. The result was the Fiji Freedom Blogs, which served as a kind of underground press in reaction to the regime’s clampdown on the mainstream media. The survivors, which are still active five years later, can be found listed on this blog, which I started in mid-2012 to chronicle some of Fiji’s media craziness. That misdeed got me run out of the country by the regime’s propaganda machinery more than a year ago. The junta has been unsuccessful in rooting out other Fiji Freedom Bloggers because most of them are already located safely offshore and aren’t so foolish as to put their name and picture on their blog, although the identities of several are well known.

Social media such as Facebook and Twitter, on the other hand, are networks and groups of friends who select each other. As a result, their discussions are not available for anyone to read, as blogs are, but only to selected "friends." These groups are self-policing on multiple levels. At the group level, administrators can delete posts deemed to be abusive and banish group members who are malicious. This has recently happened in the Friends of Fiji Media group, whose administrators have become increasingly concerned with the problem of vitriol hurled between group members. New Zealand journalist Michael Field and myself, being foreigners, are lightning rods for abuse from regime cheerleaders who have infiltrated the group. The group has also recently been faced with the problem of rooting out fake members who have obviously (to me, at least) been set up by one particular regime cheerleader for the purpose of attacking myself and other regime critics. Without revealing the content of our discussions, which are supposed to be confidential, group members have recently been mulling its very existence in light of the fact that the regime has obviously been monitoring it. Apparently not all group members abide by the ethic of confidentiality, because the regime seems to be privy to our every word.

But MIDA’s complaint about abuse – “absolutely callous remarks” in Raj’s words – could be resolved easily enough by simply complaining to Facebook, which is quite willing to delete abusive posts or pages. It did so when I complained about this page set up by my bĂȘte noire regime cheerleader. It also deleted an illustration by a regime critic after a Fiji Sun reporter complained that it used her picture without permission. Of course, that doesn’t prevent the Sun from reprinting Facebook discussions if that serves its purpose of discrediting regime critics. It did so with a recent exchange between political hopeful Roshika Deo and regime hitman Graham Davis, without Deo’s consent. She promises that a complaint to MIDA will be forthcoming as a result. (How do you like her chances?) Grubby recently quit the blogging business and went underground as a Facebook troll after I outed him as a regime propagandist. He actually inhabited the Friends of Fiji Media group briefly last year after the Sun complained that we were talking about him behind his back. He tried to give me the business there, but I gave it back to him in spades and he thought the better of continuing. It seems that MIDA has other proxies there, although I have been trying to shine a spotlight on them, too.

Social media, especially Facebook, promises to be a key battleground in the upcoming election campaign (it hasn’t started yet, has it?), as Radio New Zealand recently pointed out. You would think that the regime would have the upper hand there, as social media smear campaigns are a specialty of its Washington-based spin doctors, Qorvis Communications. You’d also think that the $1 million a year Fijian taxpayers pay Qorvis would entitle MIDA’s masters to some tutoring on the subject of social media. It is badly needed.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Singapore-style press control? Not in Fiji

My article comparing press control systems in Fiji and Singapore has now been published online by Sage and will be forthcoming in the April issue of the A-ranked journal International Communication Gazette, which is published out of the Netherlands. It is a revised version of a paper I presented at the 2011 Fiji Literary Festival. Here's the abstract:
Constraints imposed on the press in Fiji under the 2010 Media Decree have been compared with the system of press control in Singapore. The two systems are, however, quite different. The type of hegemonic control that has been achieved in Singapore is unlikely to be replicated in Fiji. The press in Singapore was brought to heel over a period of decades through regulation, including licensing, and legal intimidation in a sophisticated system that utilizes corporate control to ensure that journalists exercise self-censorship. A military dictatorship in place in Fiji since 2006 instead criminalized journalism ethics in the Media Decree and has engaged in repression and censorship of journalists. Fiji’s press system, and the regime’s attempts to control it, were the subject of intense scrutiny in advance of elections planned for September 2014.
The thrust of the article is that those who liken the crude system of press control introduced by the 2010 Fiji Media Decree to the subtle and insidious system in Singapore are greatly mistaken. The government in Singapore has developed and continually tightened its grip on that country's press over the past 40 years or so. Newspaper companies are required by the 1974 Newspaper and Printing Presses Act to trade shares on the stock exchange. A number of management shares are required to be held by the government, which as a result is entitled to appoint directors to the company's board. The resulting top-down control has brought self-censorship which has been called 'Singapore's shame'. The foreign press has been brought to heel by a series of economic disincentives to criticise the Singapore regime, including huge damage awards for libel awarded by a captive judiciary and the banning or limiting of circulation for offending publications.

Fiji, on the other hand, has simply criminalised the former code of ethics of the defunct Media Council, threatening fines and even jail sentences in the Media Decree for what were once ethical violations. Foreign journalists who dare to report critically on the regime, such as Michael Field and Sean Dorney, are simply banned from the country, which of course doesn't prevent them from reporting critically. Censorship imposed under the Public Emergency Regulation has conditioned journalists to refrain from criticising the regime, and media outlets that do dare to question dictator Frank Bainimarama are dealt with harshly. Recent examples of that include the Fiji Times being hit with a $300,000 fine for reprinting a soccer story from New Zealand that included a comment from a FIFA official questioning the independence of Fiji's judiciary, and Fiji TV being put on a series of six-month broadcasting licences (as opposed to the usually 12-years) under the TV Decree, which was imposed shortly after it aired interviews with two former prime ministers who questioned the need for a new constitution.

So how did the misconception arise that Fiji's Media Decree was patterned after Singapore's repressive press model? It likely began with the controversial 2008 Anthony Report, which urged that 'wise restraints . . . be culled from the Singapore legislation on the establishment of a Media Development Authority.' The dictator then called on the media to be more like the Singapore media, 'not pro this Government or any government but pro-Fiji nation.' Many thus assumed that the resulting Media Decree was patterned after Singapore's system, and the myth was perpetuated by a Radio Australia interview. A comparison of the Media Decree with Singapore legislation published in the Pacific Journalism Review concluded that 'many of the sections were copied word-for-word' from Singapore's 2003 Media Development Act. The comparison, which was authored by a prominent Fiji public relations executive while he was a graduate student at Bond University in Australia, was correct as far as it went. It failed to apprehend, however, that Singapore's Media Development Act regulated only broadcasting and online media. Newspapers were regulated by the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act. How did that gaffe slip through the peer-review process? No wonder PJR is a B-ranked journal.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Regime propagandists throw in the towel

The silence from Grubby has been deafening these past few months, and now Croz has announced that he’s decided to “put the blog on hold for a few months.” This can only mean that these two shameless propagandists have outlived their usefulness to the regime. Frank Bainimarama’s military junta has imposed its preferred constitution on the country, one which continues to limit human rights as if the nation was still under martial law. It has silenced dissenting voices inside the country with its intimidation tactics against the Fiji Times and Fiji TV. It has obviously given up on trying to convince the rest of the world of the rightness of its actions because it must know by now that there will be no putting lipstick on this pig. 

The Old Whore From Horowhenua
Just as they did with Time magazine in August, the junta leaders refused to speak with a visiting American reporter recently. “Bainimarama declined an interview with The Associated Press, as did his right-hand man, Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum,” noted AP journalist Nick Perry in a feature article that went out to thousands of media outlets worldwide last week. “Qorvis, whose clients also include Sri Lanka and Equatorial Guinea, did not respond to interview requests.” The junta is obviously gun-shy after its Al Jazeera experience last April, in which correspondent Andrew Thomas scored a sit-down, on-camera interview with Bainimarama, only to hit him with this zinger: “Are you confident that you will win next year’s election and is that because you’ve essentially rigged the constitution to make sure you do get elected?” The dictator’s spluttering response was a classic, and worth watching over and over just for amusement. “You don’t rig constitution,” protested Bainimarama as the camera rolled. “The constitution is for the people of the Fiji. You think I did all this just to rig the constitution?” Um, yes?

Perry’s 1,200-word feature, which went out to the AP’s 1,700 member newspapers and more than 5,000 radio and TV stations in the U.S., plus thousands of other subscribers, included interviews that simply could not be published or broadcast in Fiji given the repressive media environment there currently. “He’s committed treason, and he must account for it,” said UFDF leader Mick Beddoes of Bainimarama. Perry even managed to get a few words from Yash Ghai, the former head of the Constitution Commission who has rarely been heard from since his ungraceful exit from the country almost a year ago. “They didn't particularly want an independent process,” Ghai said of the sham that ended with the ceremonial torching of his commission’s draft constitution, which proposed to restore human rights limited by the junta in innumerable decrees. “Having agreed to it, they changed their minds.”

Perry’s dissection of the junta’s malefactions, which a rudimentary Google search shows was published on more than 7,000 websites, including those of Business Week and Yahoo, left no doubt that the junta is steering a course closer to that of certain authoritarian regimes than to anything that might be described as democratic.
Bainimarama has since worked to improve ties with countries including Russia, North Korea, Turkey and, most importantly, China. Fiji announced this year that 300 senior government and agency officials would be trained in leadership skills in China.
Meanwhile, the regime continues what I call its “mushroom” strategy with Fijians – keep them in the dark and feed them B.S. A classic example of the latter which brought gales of laughter the other day was when Bainimarama told the A-G’s conference that his Media Decree allows for investigative reporting and “especially journalists holding public office holders more accountable.” Puh-lease! How stupid do they think Fijians are? Wait, don’t answer that.
“We look to our journalists to assist in the process of introducing a genuine democracy," he said. "The Media Authority doesn't exist to wield a big stick and inhibit public discourse. It exists to remind the media of its ultimate obligation to report with scrupulous fairness and balance in the interests of every Fijian."
So perhaps it’s no wonder that Grubby and Croz should bow out of this Bizarro World spectacle. Grubby has hardly been heard from since August, when he went after Bruce Hill of ABC so unfairly that I had to challenge him on Facebook. It was nothing short of Grubbygeddon. He has obviously found out the hard way that if he wants to be a self-respecting journalist in Australia, he can’t be a propagandist for a Third World dictatorship at the same time.

As for Croz, he is obviously tired of butting his head against the brick wall that is Bainimarama’s stupidity. The Old Whore From Horowhenua, as Fiji Democracy Now splendidly dubbed him, says he has “run out of new things to write about.” It’s more likely that he’s finally come to realize that nobody’s listening.
There was a time when I immodestly thought the blog  had a role to play in modifying opinions. Then, slowly, reality checked in. The New Zealand media and government are not interested in different perspectives. They have their minds made up. The opponents to the Bainimarama government likewise. And I doubt any senior member of the Fiji government even reads the blog.
It seems my work here is done. But don’t worry. If either of these creeps starts with the propaganda again, I’ll be right there to shine a light on it. Bula vinaka, Fiji!

Friday, August 30, 2013

Frank stiffs Time – and pays the price

Perhaps Fiji’s dictator forgot for a moment (again) that his omnipotence over news media doesn’t extend beyond the country’s fringing reefs and that he can’t fine or jail or bash overseas journalists who speak ill of his regime. Maybe he was so taken with his new media strategy of silence – which has served to muzzle Fiji’s domestic journalists because of his Media Decree’s requirement for “balance” – that he thought he could use it effectively on one of the world’s great magazines. Once again he has learned to his chagrin that real journalists are not so easily cowed.

The latest example of Frank Bainimarama’s stupidity – or more likely that of his media dominatrix Shazzer Smith-Johns – has now snapped back in his face all over the pages of Time magazine. (Hat tip to the ever vigilant Bubu for unearthing this little gem.) The magazine has used the dictator’s own intransigence against him in posting the most scathing indictment yet of the junta’s media strategy, not to mention laying bare the damage the military regime has been doing to Fiji’s economy for the past few years.

Time correspondent Ian Lloyd Neubauer was tipped off to the appalling situation with foreign investment in Fiji by his DJ buddy Bar’el Wachtel, who told him about what happened last week at the Cloud 9 resort near Nadi, which opened in June. Wachtel recently came from the Maldives to spin tunes at the resort’s floating Club 9, which is moored less than a kilometre from the Cloudbreak reef legendary with surfers. As is often the case in Fiji, the idyllic image presented to tourists was soon shattered by the reality of the country’s tribal lawlessness. The floating restaurant/bar, as was well reported by Fiji media, was briefly cut adrift from its moorings last Wednesday by machete-wielding thugs in a brazen daylight raid. Neubauer traveled to Fiji from Australia to investigate, and he soon learned of other such disturbing attacks on tourist facilities. The raid on Cloud 9, he reported, was “but one in a long line of clashes between indigenous landowners and investors in Fiji.” The halting of a multimillion-dollar expansion project at Vuda Marina earlier this year and the severing of costly zip-line cables last month in the Sabeto Valley were other examples he uncovered. Neubauer used a cutting quote in his report from the owner of the zip lines, which were in a new jungle-adventure park where locals also “pointlessly” poisoned hundreds of fish.
“They still eat people in Fiji,” says the park’s American owner, Kevin Purser, in reference to the unsavory past of what were once known as the Cannibal Isles. “Only now they do it in a different way.”
Ouch! Neubauer followed that comment with one from the junta’s least favorite overseas academic. (Although surely I must be pushing hard for that honour.)
“People take the law into their own hands because that is [the] way things are done in Fiji,” adds Brij Lal, Fiji expert and professor at Australian National University. “There is no real guidance on what people should and should not do.”
The regime will be reeling from that one-two combination, but Neubauer was only just getting warmed up. He followed that salvo with his own damning indictment that put the quotes into context and for a finishing blow added a coup de grace from Lal.
It’s comments like these that put a spotlight on business stability in a country that has seen foreign investment plummet from $450 million in 2009 to a paltry $16 million last year. . . . Says Lal: “Investor confidence will only increase when there is proper rule of law and clarity over ownership.”
Like any good journalist would, Neubauer attempted to balance his story with comment from the interim government. He dutifully submitted his request for an interview with Bainimarama. “But after spending 10 days in hotel rooms while my request was passed backward and forward to members of his inner circle, the interview was denied.” Unlike journalists in Fiji, who are forced to labour under the Media Decree, that didn’t stop him from telling his story. After all, as well-trained journalists realise, you don’t HAVE to get comment from all sides to fulfill the requirement for balance. You only have to give them the opportunity to comment. If they don't want to give their side of the story, you can report that, too. And so not only did Bainimarama’s refusal to comment get reported in Time magazine, but so did the reasons behind it.
Fiji’s military government has refused to comment on the raid at Cloud 9 or the security of tourists and investors in the country. That doesn’t come as a big surprise given its vexed relationship with the media. Fiji’s once-dynamic press has been reduced to a docile government mouthpiece since the army seized power in a 2006 coup, while foreign reporters who rock the boat face deportation.
So again the dictator has egg all over his face, as does the country. Neubauer aptly concluded his article by quoting from his DJ buddy, who might also have expressed the sentiments of many Fiji journalists. “I expected doing business in Fiji would be hard,” Wachtel says, “though not this hard.” 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Case studies in self-censorship #1: FLP calls for caretaker government

Vijay Narayan denies that self-censorship is a problem in Fiji journalism and took me to task last year for telling Radio Australia it was. He demanded to know what study I had conducted to prove my contention. Legend FM and its sister stations ran news items on consecutive days lambasting me for speaking without proof. They even conducted a poll of Fiji journalists (four in total), all of whom denied practising self censorship, as if any would admit to the shameful practice.

Forget for a moment that others actually did offer empirical evidence that self-censorship is endemic in Fiji under the current reign of terror. Never mind that self-censorship is difficult to "prove" in a business as subjective as news, where story selection is largely a matter of opinion. But those who consume Fiji media daily and also pay attention to overseas media and the freedom blogs know that some stories simply aren't covered in Fiji. Many are given a regime-friendly spin, always putting the dictatorship's response first. Self-censorship, according to the latest research, is still a "severe" problem in Fiji. Unless that changes in the next year, planned elections cannot be free and fair because of the advantage it would give dictator Frank Bainimarma, who plans to stand for election as prime minister.

But while statistical proof of self-censorship might be difficult to assemble, circumstantial evidence can be gathered to provide evidence sufficient for an informed opinion, at least. This can be done using the "case" method, in which case studies are presented. By examining what stories were covered by whom and how, conclusions can be drawn. So let's pick a recent story and see how it was covered. How about the Fiji Labour Party's annual Delegates Conference, which was held in Lautoka last weekend? Political party conventions, after all, are a staple of political journalism in democracies around the world. Media coverage of these events is important because it provides voters with information about the party's platform that helps them to make informed voting decisions. In the U.S. and Canada, they are usually telecast live, with journalists providing breathless running commentary. So what kind of coverage did the FLP conference get?
  • Fiji Live was the only media outlet to run a story on Saturday. The article by Reginald Chandar focused on the FLP's call for a caretaker government to "take charge of the process of restoring Fiji to democratic and constitutional rule." The online-only publication has proved fairly fearless in covering national politics. In my search last January for any published criticism of the regime's rejection of the Ghai Draft, Fiji Live was the only domestic media outlet to have run any. 
  • Government-controlled FBC ran a story the next day and included at the end of it a comment from Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, whose brother Riyaz is CEO of FBC.  The comment, which was the only one in the story, left no doubt that the regime would ignore the FLP's call for a caretaker government, which the Ghai Draft also identified as essential for free and fair elections. "The Prime Minister has already set out a roadmap to the lead-up of the elections of September, 2014, and that has been the position that government has always adhered to." 
  • Radio New Zealand International also ran a story on Sunday. It also focused on the FLP's call for a caretaker government, but it did not include any comments.
  • The Fiji Sun didn't run a story until Monday, but it was a substantial 763 words and listed five of the resolutions passed at the conference in addition to the call for a caretaker government. Instead of leading with the FLP's insistence that the Bainimarama regime step down prior to elections, however, the article by Rosi Doviverata led with the A-G's insistence that it would not happen, lifting his comments straight off FBC's story, which it credited. In fact, the Sun story's first 200 words were devoted to that angle, after which a hard news lede curiously appeared, focusing on the FLP call and quoting party leader Mahendra Chaudhry. As if to explain why it led with the reaction, the story refered to "another" and "the latest" FLP call for a caretaker government. This suggests that Sun editors considered the story old news, which is arguably true.
  • The Fiji Times also ran a story on Monday under the byline of Maciu Malo, but it was only 150 words long. Instead of focusing on the FLP's call for a caretaker government, it led with its resolution calling for the Great Council of Chiefs to be reinstated. While it listed numerous other resolutions that were passed, it did not mention the call for a caretaker government.
So who's missing? There are several notable media outlets that didn't appear to cover the story at all. 
  • While the string of radio stations under Narayan's news direction provide probably the most comprehensive news coverage in the country, I could find no story on the FLP conference listed on CFL's website Fiji Village.
  • Fiji TV also does not seem to have run a story. At least, I couldn't find one listed on their newscasts. Neither was the FLP conference the subject of its Sunday public affairs programme Close Up.
  • ABC's Pacific Beat, which normally covers Fiji politics like a glove, does not appear to have run a story.
The omissions are glaring, but not wholly inexplicable. Fiji TV has been operating under six month licences for the past year after coming under government fire for airing interviews with two former prime ministers who criticised the constitutional review process. The regime then passed the TV Decree, which allows it to yank the licence of any TV station that violates the Media Decree. It recently appointed a news manager straight from the army who is said to be the regime's inside "censor." Pacific Beat came in for withering criticism recently by regime propagandist Grubby Davis for ignoring a speech that was favorable to the dictatorship, then aired a story on it several days after the fact when Davis filed a formal complaint. Could the esteemed ABC have been intimidated by Davis into ignoring the FLP conference? The paltry coverage by the Fiji Times, which totally ignored the call for a caretaker government, is also possibly the product of regime intimidation. The newspaper already has two strikes against it for contempt of court, the most recent of which cost it $300,000. (In baseball, for those not familiar with the game, a third strike puts you "out.") I am told that the regime has threatened in no uncertain terms to put the Times "out of business." Another misstep could prove a serious existential threat. Under the circumstances, it would be understandable if the Times were to look the other way on stories unfavorable to the regime.

But what about CFL? It's possible that a story ran on one or more of its radio stations without making it onto the Fiji Village website, but it is unlikely. For a media outlet that covers Fiji news as thoroughly as it normally does, to ignore the FLP conference is a glaring omission. Hey, Vijay! You guys don't self-censor to suit the regime, do you?