Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Crosbie Walsh problem

Comment is free, as legendary Guardian editor C.P. Scott once famously quipped, but facts are sacred. The problem begins when a commenter cannot get his facts straight. How much stock should we then put in his comments? He gets his wires crossed, doesn’t double check, or relies on secondary sources. (Perhaps, like Grubby Davis, he even relies on hearsay and gossip in making ad hominem attacks on a certain messenger.) He may be guilty of all of the above. But that doesn’t stop him from viciously attacking someone who does get his facts straight and actually does his job very well. Perhaps, because the commenter is in his “golden years,” he thinks he is above criticism and knows better than everybody else. I suspect that “all of the above” may apply to Crosbie Walsh.

The retired political science professor, who lives in New Zealand, has become increasingly acquiescent in his support of Fiji’s interim government since admitting last month to taking a free trip to Suva at their expense. While once his blog offerings at Fiji: The Way it Was, Is and Can Be were somewhat even-handed and occasionally even questioned the interim government’s actions, they have become increasingly one-sided. Now they are almost an extension of MINFO, even laughably running weather bulletins during the recent visit of Cyclone Evan, perhaps with the expectation that worried Fijians would go there first for information. As if to weakly fill some quota, Old Croz has taken to running speeches from the recent Attorney-General’s conference, publishing government press releases, and even reprinting Xmas messages from first the President and then the Prime Minister.


My favorite was the double offering earlier this month from someone named G. Larson (although one was first credited to a G Lawson). “How Laws are Made in Bainimarama's Fiji,” cited the Media Decree as an example of wide government consultations.What the Judiciary Can and Cannot Do,” claimed that the courts cannot strike down laws. As I was then having to be careful about blogging or commenting on blogs under my own name, I was moved to post comments on these entries anonymously, which I am normally loath to do. I asked about G. Larson/Lawson’s legal credentials and never did get an answer from Croz, who instead questioned mine. (I was a legal affairs journalist for 10 years.) I pointed out that the draft Media Decree was delivered with only two hours notice before responses were due. Judicial review, I noted, is a legal process that allows judges around the world to overturn laws that are arbitrary, capricious, vague, or inconsistent with higher laws, such as a country’s constitution. Now that I am safely out of Fiji, just a step or two ahead of Yash Ghai, I can blog again and comment under my own name. I will be doing so with increased frequency.


Walsh’s blog has come in for considerable criticism from those who long for democracy to return to Fiji. He has actually done some scholarly research on the blog phenomenon, however, so he should know what he's doing. In 2010, Walsh published a journal article comparing his blog and the anti-government Coup 4.5 (no conflict there) and providing a comprehensive listing of Fiji's 72 then-known political blogs. He disputed the contention by some that Fiji’s freedom blogs are “expressions of democracy in the face of censorship and repression by Fiji’s military-led government.”
The anti-government blogs, hailed by coup opponents as advocates of democracy, are little more than agents of uncritical dissent that at this point in time looks to be leading neither to the imperfect democracy of yesterday nor the promised democracy of tomorrow.
As Croz noted, whether Fiji’s freedom blogs are an expression of democracy “depends, of course, on how one defines democracy in Fiji.” Some, of course, believe that true democracy is neither extant nor even possible, instead coming at best in the guise of technocracy, in which the propaganda machine “manufactures” consent for government policies, or mediaocracy, in which the populace is both controlled and distracted by a compliant media, including blogs. Propaganda, of course, is practiced largely through disinformation, as Croz himself has pointed out. Spreading false and distorted information is widely used as a technique to discredit regime critics in Fiji, as I know from personal experience, but to be effective it must be artfully done and not easily refuted, or the public will see through it. Counterpropaganda, such as I have been engaged in recently, is aimed at exposing disinformation.

Which brings me to Professor Walsh’s blog entry of yesterday. In it, he attacked Radio Australia journalist Bruce Hill, who is one of the few reporters who covers the Pacific critically, for his interview with outgoing constitution commission chair Yash Ghai. In it, Hill managed to get Ghai to confirm rumours rampant on the blogs that printed copies of the draft constitution had been seized by the government and burned. It turns out, as usual, that there was some truth and some exaggeration to the rumours. Yes, the press run of 600 copies had been seized by police, but only a few “proof” copies used for making corrections were actually burned. Yet the account provided in the telephone interview with Ghai was extremely vivid and a scoop of major proportions for Hill. As Ghai recalled: “I was saying ‘Why are you setting it on fire?’”
They brought a tin of kerosene and spread all the papers, brought some stick with a flame at the end and started the burning of it, and every few minutes or seconds they would come and put another dose of kerosene, so the flames would rise up again until everything was reduced to ashes.
Walsh, in his capacity as Chief Apologist for the regime, found the interview “inflammatory” (pun intended). He published a transcript on his blog, which was annoted with his comments. He highlighted in bold, italics, and underlining where he thought the interview was inflammatory (no pun intended), questionable, or mistaken. He quibbled with Ghai’s legal status, now that his commission has run its course, and he objected to the interview’s focus on the imagery of incineration. But most of all he objected to Hill’s choice of questions in drawing the story out of Ghai. “It shows how a supposedly neutral interviewer reveals his true colours,” complained Croz.
No one could possibly be in doubt about his feelings during the Yash Ghai interview. There was no attempt at neutrality. He provided a grossly inadequate background, did not challenge Prof Ghai on some matters that should have been questioned, and towards the end of the interview when talking about the "burning" incident he asked a string of heavy loaded leading questions.
As evidence of bias, he pointed to a comment Hill purportedly made in introducing his recorded interview with Ghai. “Predictably the regime has not responded to the allegations.” There is only one small problem with that quote. Hill never said it. Walsh was obviously working off the version published by Coup 4.5. Here’s what Hill said:
“The Fiji interim government has so far not responded to the allegations.”
That was obviously a bit too bland for the mad bombers at C4.5, who perhaps thought it was OK to spice up the copypasta by adding “predictably” and changing the regime’s preferred “interim government” to . . . well, “regime.” I pointed out to Croz in a comment posted on his blog before I discovered the above discrepancy that from visiting with Bruce and his producers in their Melbourne studios recently I found they bend over backwards to be fair to Fiji. No doubt this is as a result of numerous complaints which have issued from the regime and its apologists. What Croz seems to object to most is the imagery Hill evoked with the burning of the proofs of the draft constitution. Believe me, any world-class journalist would have done the same. That Walsh would argue he should not have played up that aspect of the story, which was big enough to make the ABC television news, only betrays his own bias. Judging by the other comments on Walsh's blog entry, he may have lost any credibility he once enjoyed. My advice to Croz: “I suggest you quit before you become even more of a laughing stock.” Obviously as thin-skinned as the regime he relentlessly defends and perhaps as understanding of the essential role censorship plays in propaganda, Walsh deleted by comment as "offensive," while he left up one that referred to his wife as a "slut." To my mind, that makes him a shameless censor in addition to a puppet propagandist.

Now I have some more advice for you, Croz. You owe Bruce Hill an apology. Brutally frank, perhaps, but someone had to say it.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Press freedom guaranteed, but only if. . . .

Press freedom is guaranteed in the proposed Bill of Rights contained in the draft constitution that was delivered by Yash Ghai and his team last week. For press freedom to become a reality in Fiji, however, the document lists provisions of the 2010 Media Industry Development Decree and other laws made by the interim government that must be repealed. The draft constitution’s freedom of expression guarantees are almost identical to those contained in the 1997 constitution, with a couple of additions, including academic freedom (wouldn't that be nice?) and "freedom of imagination." Here’s the new section.
Article 27  Freedom of expression, publication and media

(1) Everyone has freedom of expression and publication, which includes––
(a) freedom to seek, receive and impart information, knowledge and ideas;
(b) freedom of the press, including print, electronic and other media;
(c) freedom of imagination and creativity; and
(d) academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.
The subsequent limiting section is considerably different from that contained in the 1997 constitution, however. (NOTE: A listing of allowable limitations on freedom of expression that was dropped from the 1997 constitution has been deleted, as those limitations are allowed for elsewhere in the draft constitution.) The 1997 constitution’s hate speech provision has been retained in the draft constitution, but with reference to a longer list of prohibited types of discrimination. Under Article 21 (3), discrimination is prohibited on the basis of 20 categories: “birth, age, ethnicity, social origin, race, colour, primary language, religion, conscience, belief, culture, sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, pregnancy, marital status, disability, social status or economic status.” That compares to the dozen types of discrimination prohibited in the 1997 constitution: “race, ethnic origin, colour, place of origin, gender, sexual orientation, birth, primary language, economic status, age or disability; or opinions or beliefs.” Here’s the complete limiting section.
(2) Freedom of expression and publication does not protect–
(a) propaganda for war;
(b) incitement to violence or insurrection against this Constitution; or
(c) advocacy of hatred that––
(i) is based on any prohibited ground of discrimination listed or contemplated in Article 21 (3); and
(ii) constitutes incitement to cause harm.
(NOTE: An extraneous subsection to this article appeared earlier by mistake and has been deleted.)
Licensing of media is allowed in the draft constitution only for the allocation of broadcasting frequencies. Other media, it explicitly states, "must not be subject to licensing." Procedures for regulating the airwaves, it adds, "must be independent of control by government, political interests or commercial interests." Article 57 Regulation of public media begins by stating: "Free and open discussion and dissemination of ideas is essential in a democratic society." State-owned media, it goes on to state, "are free to determine the editorial content of their broadcasts or other communications independent of political or government control." State-owned media must be impartial, it adds, and must allow divergent views and dissenting opinions. In an apparent swipe at the Media Decree's unilateral regulation of media content, the draft constitution explicity reserves that power for elected legislators, stating: "An Act of Parliament must establish a body to set media standards and regulate and monitor compliance with those standards." Such a body must be independent of government control and political or commercial interests, according to the draft constitution, and must "reflect the interests of all sections of the society." Candidates and political parties contesting an election, states Article 60 Campaigning, may not be denied reasonable access to state-owned media.

In a separate Explanatory Report, the constitution commission states that  laws that are inconsistent with its proposed Bill of Rights would have to be repealed or amended, including the Media Decree, the Television Decree, and the State Proceedings Amendment Decree. Included in the sections of the Media Decree to be repealed is the controversial Section 8, which vaguely prohibits publication of anything "against public interest or order, or national interest, or which offends against good taste or decency and creates communal discord." As Shailendra Singh pointed out, "what is for or against the public interest can be a highly debatable issue."
The government can have one view, the opposition another and the media an entirely different one. Some believe plurality of views is healthy for Fiji. Others believe Fiji needs a benevolent dictatorship. But the question remains: Will a newspaper be guilty of a crime if it were to carry a strident editorial opposed to the government’s stand on an issue concerning the national interest?
Also to be dropped from the Media Decree under the draft constitution would be the Media Code of Ethics and Practice, under which journalists are now subject to sanction for what were once ethical guidelines. So is the provision that decisions under the decree may not be appealed to the courts, which the constitution commission has taken a dim view of generally. "The aim is that everyone will have physical access to a court, and to an appeal to a higher level of court," it states in the Explanatory Report. Also to be repealed is the provision of the 2012 Television Decree that prevents stations from going to court to appeal the lifting of their licence by the government. So is the section of the 2012 State Proceedings Amendment Decree which grants government ministers and media outlets immunity from defamation lawsuits for making or publishing defamatory statements.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Who is Truncated Lounge?

Fiji's most entertaining letter writer has gone mainstream. That is, if you consider the Discombobulated Bubu blog mainstream. The fictitous correspondence between Permanent Secretary for Information Sharon Smith-Johns and regime propagandist Graham Davis is side-splitting hilarious. I was lucky enough to get on the email distribution list early on. The missives come from someone who calls himself Truncated Lounge. The first mention I can find of them online came from pro-regime blogger Crosbie Walsh, who has become Crazy Welsh in the letters. Croz mentioned in a comment of 6 October that he had received "a cleverly written but insulting email." My favorite blog commenter, Graham is a sellout, then pasted the letter into the comments section of Walsh's blog, but disavowed authorship, claiming he had also received it by email. He urged the octagenarian Kiwi to lighten up. "In defence it clearly says this is a spoof so stop being so prim and proper for once Croz and have a laugh." At first the letters showed up once a week. With the crisis in constitutional consulations that hit Fiji in November, however, they started coming daily. My favorite passage was in the letter of 26 October.
The boys in green had a good idea to save money. They decided that if all prisoners only had one leg they would not be able to escape. So they have just tested it out and amputated the leg of one of the BSP bank robbers. In theory it is a great idea but as ever they don’t think things through properly. They are now going to have to add an extra 2 feet to every prison wall in Fiji because as we saw in the Olympics one legged Fijians are the best jumpers.
I simply had to reply to that one and used my best reporter's skills to try and learn TL's identity, but he refused to be outed.
I prefer to remain anonymous. I am a Fijian with only a Fijian passport and I need to work here in Fiji. But I am frustrated by ex pats teling us what to do and this little letter is really a way to vent my frustrations.

I have been hounded out of Fiji

Did I jump, or was I pushed?

Let's just say it was a little bit of both. I was certainly pushed. To the Edge, you might say. In the end, I decided it would be better to make an orderly exit from Fiji than to be bundled off kicking and screaming under a deportation order. Unfortunately, this blog made things a little bit too hot for me with the country's military dictatorship. It complained endlessly about entries that questioned media-related decrees, such as the TV Decree, and more recently about my efforts to shine some light on the regime's propaganda machine. It even complained about a joke I told about regime propagandist Qorvis Communications and then about a funny email that I forwarded. The email was the latest installment in the satirical "Shazzer and Grubby" series of fictitous love letters between chief propagandist Sharon Smith-Johns and blowhard blogger Graham Davis. As this one involved me, I thought certain people would like to read it. I particularly enjoyed this passage.
“Shazzer, my flaming Goddess.” You addressed me in your whiney little boy voice. “Professor Edge has been mean to me. He has been saying nasty things about me and writing them on his blog. He has been weally, weally mean and I can’t shut him up and he just ignores my award winning attacks on him. I don’t think he knows I won a Walkley and a Logie otherwise he would treat me with more respect. Perhaps no one has heard of them outside of Tasmania.” You got down on your knees before me and continued. “Pwease my bwutiful goddess will you get him sacked and deported. Send him back to Canada.”
Happily, these riotous letters are now being published on the Discombobulated Bubu blog, with some dandy illustrations added. The identity of the author has become the subject of intense speculation in Fiji. He calls himself Truncated Lounge (I infer the gender from his email address), and we have struck up a correspondence. He is rightly guarded about anything that might give himself away. We are united in our drive to destroy Shazzer and Grubby through mirth, if there is no other way. Regime cyberbully Davis, of course, was the main agent of my downfall with his constant carping about my advocacy for press freedom, media and democracy, journalism standards, etc. I seem to have become an obsession for Davis, as I have been all he has been able to blog about for two months. First he got my scalp, but that wasn't enough. He wanted my head, and he put enough pressure on that he got it. But two can play at that game. Stay tuned for the revenge. Turnabout, as they say, is fair play. Then you can look forward to buying the book. I am told that it might even be a movie. If so, I want Tom Cruise to play me. But who should play Grubby? Surely someone suitably villainous. Suggestions?

But the nail in my proverbial coffin likely came from old Crosbie Walsh, whose recent junket to Suva drew a rebuke in the last blog entry I dared post before exiting the country. Well, except for the cryptic comic book cover that signaled my existential struggle, and a dandy shot of Cyclone Evan as it ravaged the islands. Old Croz announced that the Fiji government had paid his way to Suva for a visit so he could write about it on his blog, then seemed surprised when some, including me, pointed out the conflict of interest this created. According to Croz, I did not have the right to criticise him because . . . well, because he's somehow above criticism and, more importantly, he has the dictator on his side. Others, he pointed out, had been thrown out of the country for less. "He is on a work permit issued by the Fiji government he constantly criticises, and a significant portion of his salary is paid for by the Fiji Government," scolded the regime's Chief Apologist. "He is not a citizen and is a relative newcomer to Fiji. If I were similarly placed, I would listen and say little."

Well, let's just say that when this came to the attention of the powers that be, my days in Fiji were numbered. The cretins in the regime don't like criticism, either. But here's the delicious irony. They think they can get rid of the problem I created for them by getting rid of me. But they are so intellectually challenged that they can't think more than one move ahead. As long as I was in Fiji, they had some control over me. I had to maintain at least a modicum of respect for a regime for which I have none. Now, the gloves will be off. I can blog as often as I want about anything I want. Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama will now be Commodore Frankly Bananas, as Truncated Lounge so delicously labeled the Tinpot Dictator. I have re-posted my entry of November 1, "Who/what is Qorvis Communications," which I took down after a demand to do so by Permanent Secretary for Information Sharon Smith-Johns. I will have much to say about this Aussie she-devil in coming weeks, as her reign of terror over Fiji media simply must end if there is to be any hope for democracy in that benighted Pacific outpost. Luckily the banned blog entry lived on thanks to Fiji Today, which aggregates almost anything of interest in Fiji politics. I am also posting an entry I wrote at the height of the assault on me in mid-November, "Who is Truncated Lounge," but dared not publish while I was still in the country. And I have a half dozen fresh entries in the hopper which I will post over the next few weeks. I will be making Fiji media a research interest of mine wherever I wind up teaching next, and I have ideas for several journal articles, not to mention the promised book, which will be titled Fiji Media Wars: The Story of a Blog.

I have proudly joined the ranks of Fiji Freedom Bloggers. Hang on tight. This is gonna be fun!