Sunday, June 24, 2012

A chill goes through Fiji's news media

Did he or didn't he? Did Fiji's controversial Attorney-General and Communications Minister, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, threaten not to renew Fiji TV's 12-year broadcasting licence "if its newsroom continues to run stories with anti-government angles." That's what the anti-regime blog Coup 4.5 alleged on June 10. Given C4.5's reputation for wild allegations, New Zealand blogger Crosbie Walsh quickly posted what was apparently a skeptical entry, which he soon took down after the A-G promised to issue a statement. When that statement did not deny C4.5's assertion, Croz apologised in a rare climb-down for the retired political science professor. "In these cicumstances [sic.] I unreservedly withdraw my posting Disinformation #6, and the inference of disinformation against Coup4.5, and apologize to those I may have unwittingly mislead or accused." The Cook Islands-based NGO Pacific Freedom Forum quickly condemned the apparent threat to press freedom in a statement quoting PFF co-chair Titi Gabi of Papua New Guinea.
PFF condemns this demoralising and shameful action by the regime forcing journalists to ditch their ethics and professional integrity when they report for duty, and calls for its immediate retraction. . . . This episode clearly shows that the regime censors may be out of the newsrooms, but their work of keeping journalists gagged by fear for their families, intimidation and self-censorship continues.
The PFF's partner group, the International Federation of Journalists, issued a similar condemnation the same day. Then Fiji TV issued some cryptic statements to shareholders, which didn't clear up matters at all. First, to defuse concerns over its licence, company chairman Isoa Kaloumaira revealed on June 13 that Sayed-Khaiyum had already promised in writing last October that Fiji TV's licence would be renewed. Yes, Kaloumaira admitted, Fiji TV management had met with government officials regarding its licence renewal, but only to discuss such technical matters as "coverage area, number of hours of local content, hours of prime time broadcast, ethnic language based programmes," etc. That head-scratcher was followed the next day by a more fulsome confession from Kaloumaira that he had indeed met with Sayed-Khaiyum on May 25 to discuss news reporting. "Fiji TV acknowledges Government's position on the need for balanced and fair reporting," he said. "Fiji TV will ensure that it will improve its news reporting." But Kaloumaira took pains in the statement to distance Fiji TV from the allegations of political repression on the blogs.
The initial reports that have come out regarding Fiji TV in the international media and the politicization of this issue by political parties and politicians, does not have any merit. None of these reports or allegations has been verified by the Chairman or the board of Fiji TV. Accordingly, the Fiji TV board wishes to categorically state that it does not wish to be part or involved in anybody else's agenda.
Then Fiji's redoubtable Permanent Secretary for Information, Sharon Smith-Johns, went on the offensive, telling Radio Australia's Bruce Hill on June 14 that the Coup 4.5 story that was picked up by the Pacific Freedom Forum and the International Federation of Journalists was a "load of rubbish." Smith-Johns took PFF and IFJ point person Lisa Williams-Lahari to task for swallowing Coup 4.5's tale whole without so much as double checking it. "The story was not true and it’s been proven not true," insisted Smith-Johns. "It was not sourced. There was no official government statement on it." The PSI said Williams-Lahari would get a different picture if she was actually on the ground keeping track of Fiji news content.
She’s not in Fiji and she’s not reading the newspapers and watching what’s on TV. . . . There’s no self-censorship going on whatsoever. . . . The IFJ should question where it gets its information from. Getting it off a blog site is not good enough and I’m not going to reply to what’s on a blog site.
Alex Perrottet, a Master's student at Auckland University of Technology who spent a week in Fiji doing media research last month, found that a compelling argument. He repeated on AUT's Pacific Scoop the complaint by Smith-Johns that the PFF and IFJ had simply accepted as true the unverified Coup 4.5 story. Perrottet also averred that during his time in Fiji he was swayed by Smith-Johns generally. "I was surprised at the adapting attitudes of the Ministry of Information," he wrote, pointing to the raucous coverage of World Press Freedom Day noted in this blog's initial entry. "Smith-Johns is right – people should visit Fiji first and see things for themselves. If you do, you will find two things – an improving media climate, but also that all is not as clear as some in the government and the media would have it seem." That brought a response on  the PFF listserve from Williams-Lahari, who accused Perrottet of the same sin Smith-Johns accused her of – not checking.
As the [Coup 4.5] blog published, PFF was already busy doing verification work on what was happening. The statement would have come out regardless of the blog you referred to and unfortunately you are creating a perception that we rely on blog sources like this as our sole avenue for alerts, which is unfair and untrue.
Williams-Lahari declined to reveal her sources to this writer, citing concerns for their safety. And Smith-Johns IS right. The proof will be in the pudding, as they say. Watch the Fiji media carefully and see if opposition voices are heard. If not, then a chilling effect can be inferred from this episode. Sure, it's difficult to watch the Fiji news carefully if you're not in the country, but the content of both dailies, the CFL radio newscasts, and even the Fiji TV newscasts are all available online. Wait, what's that you say, Fiji Today? "No Censorship? It has been over a week since any political comment by an existing party has been published in the mainstream media."
Well, you don't have to shout.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The gloves come off

Things started to get nasty between Fiji’s dueling dailies on World Press Freedom Day in early May. Both newspapers used the occasion to take a stand on the issue, which has been controversial here in recent years. The Fiji Sun asked in an editorial what kind of press model would be right for Fiji, the “developed world model” thriving on conflict and “gotcha” journalism? The discredited brand of journalism practiced by the now-banished Rupert Murdoch? “Or should it be the developing world model emphasizing nation and peace building? The journalism of hope, as some have put it, rather than the journalism of despair?” Well, if you put it that way, there’s really no choice, is there? Who wants despair, when you can have hope? In media studies, this is an example of what we call framing, where an issue is presented in such a way as to suggest a conclusion.

The newspaper’s editorial postion, BTW, followed from a bit of a debate in the Sun over the previous week about just what role the press should play in Fiji going forward. It all began with a reply I wrote to a blowhard blogger whose musings just happen to get printed verbatim across full pages of the Sun. I argued for more discussion in the Fiji media on political issues, which is the hallmark of a free press.
It might be painful and messy, I said, but it will be necessary – rather like lancing a boil – if Fiji is to get over its recent political trauma and return to democracy.
A former publisher of the defunct Fiji Post, who recently did a Master’s degree in New Zealand, took me to task for this, arguing that Fiji was not ready for First World media freedom. He added an ad hominem attack that my arguments for press freedom and against so-called “development” journalism showed a “lack of depth about underlying media problems in Fiji and the Pacific.” Well, I was pretty sure that I could offer a fair amount of depth on the subject, so I was forced to reply, pointing out that the new Master’s graduate had declared his bias from the outset in his thesis attacking the Fiji Times for fomenting the 2000 coup with its coverage of the government of the day. I added that in my opinion that disqualified his thesis as a work of scholarship. That brought an angry reply from his thesis supervisor. Which brought an overwrought response from Mr. Blowhard Blogger. And on it went. Lovely stuff leading up to World Press Freedom Day, for which we had an event planned on campus, at which the U.S. ambassador to Fiji would be the chief guest.

Not to be outdone, the Fiji Times filled a two-page centre spread that day with stories on press freedom, including an interview with the permanent secretary for information, in which the interim government was described as a “military junta.” Well, at least that was balanced. But my favorite was the story that told how one a Times photographer was barred from the Sun newsroom when he attempted to take pictures there, and how its editor refused comment when asked about public perceptions that the Sun is a “medium of government information.” This is a complaint that has been voiced increasingly here, including by the National Farmers Union, which recently called the Sun “a puppet of the regime.” Mick Beddoes, president of the United Peoples Party, has been  pounding the Sun recently for its reporting. There has even been criticism that the Sun does not run critical letters, although I must say they ran my replies verbatim.

This is what is sometimes called “lively” journalism and is harmless if not taken to extremes. Plus it makes for interesting reading, if you know the respective political positions of each publication. I find it interesting that issues of press freedom have become so contentious in Fiji recently. These questions have long since been resolved in most advanced societies, which have decided that press freedom is essential to their development. I believe it confirms the central role that news media play in any society, especially in an emerging nation like Fiji. That’s why it’s such a battleground, because those who wish to exercise political control know that they must first control the media. It is a battle that will help determine the future course of democracy in Fiji and of human rights here.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

A blog is born

This blog is a result of my experiences teaching Journalism at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji, specifically the events surrounding World Press Freedom Day 2012.