Monday, April 14, 2008

Tonga - another 'media Zimbabwe'?

Just when Tonga seemed to be making some headway in opening up to media freedoms and lively debate in the transition as an emerging democracy, a major blow has hit the state-run broadcaster with a tough restriction on political broadcasts. Would-be political journalists have had the rug pulled from under them just as the kingdom heads into an election. The Tonga Broadcasting Commission imposed a ban on reporters doing pre-recorded political interviews (without a vetting committee clearance) with the general manager ‘Elenoa ‘Amanaki claiming journalists didn't have the training or experience to do their job. What a scandalously demeaning statement about TBC's one journos. This is a reflection on the TBC rather than the journos. Journos gain experience by being on the job - and that means covering the elections. And what has been happening on the training front if journos are suddenly regarded as not up to the job. Why now? And why the "admission" on the eve of an election? PINA was a bit slow off the mark, in spite of many journos around the region clamouring online for a strong statement, but eventually PNG-based president Joseph Ealedona rapped the kingdom with a blast against censuring or privatising public broadcasters. Among many online critics have been the Tonga Review, which likens Tonga to Zimbabwe: "Tonga and Zimbabwe have something in common - restriction of freedom of speech. The latest government censorship on political campaigns for the upcoming election is similar to what media are experiencing in Zimbabwe. It is also similar to the way China and police states treat media. Freedom of the press is enshrined in our Constitution but it seems that the authorities are clinging on to the old adage that the 'state' knows what’s best for the media, especially state media, to communicate to the public.
"In an age where media freedom, albeit responsible media reporting, is critical for keeping governments honest, Tonga now seems to be heading the other way and dictating how its state broadcaster speaks to the people. This sets a dangerous precedent because the authorities can become brainwashed thinking that they know what is best for the people.
"The TBC is chaired by the Prime Minister and he has instructed officials to go through political programmes and edit any political rhetoric. This has caused controversy amongst the pro-government and pro-democracy movement. Officials have now become the authority over what can and cannot be said to the public.
"The problem is, you have some programmes that are pro-government such as the ones by Kalafi Moala and Viliami ‘Afeaki which is often critical of the Peoples Representatives and they are allowed and sponsored by government to be aired weekly. This is unfair and creates animosity against the state broadcaster."
Tonga Review
adds that the country's political leadership has "destroyed" the Fourth Estate. A bit sweeping - as the comparisons to totalitarian China. But definitely transparency and accountability have suffered a severe setback.

Pictured: PINA's Joseph Ealedona ... call for Tongan media to perform 'without fear or favour'.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Journo killing season begins again in Philippines

A newspaper columnist has been gunned down in Manila suburb - the first journalist to be murdered this year. Journalists have been murdered or assaulted with some alarming frequency that authorities established a special police unit to investigate cases of violence against the media.
Reporters Without Borders has been quick to put out a statement that it is "shocked" by the murder of newspaper journalist Benefredo Acabal in Pasig City on April 7 and calls on the authorities to do everything possible to establish the motives and bring those responsible to justice. Acabal, 34, was a columnist for The Pilipino Newsmen, a Cavite tabloid.
He was shot five times at close range by a man on a motorcycle and was pronounced dead on arrival at a hospital. The police officer in charge of the case, Lardy Ignacio, said it was too soon to say if the murder was linked to the victim's work as a journalist. The police are looking into the possibility that it was linked to Acabal's involvement in a trucking business.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Greenpeace at the coal face - from nukes to climate change

Greenpeace isn't on the port of Lyttelton's Christmas card list any more - if it ever was! But the charmed public image of the global environment lobby and activist group in New Zealand took a beating with a high profile attempted blockade of a "legal" shipment of coal to China late last month. This spectacular protest against the Hellenic Sea led to six arrests and ill-informed mutterings by the local establishment about Greenpeace tactics. In a Press article this weekend , Philip Matthews raised the question of whether the message about climate change is a harder sell than the old "black-and-white" issues of nuclear-testing and waste. But current Greenpeace executive director Bunny McDiarmid, who was a crew member on the original Rainbow Warrior at the time of the bombing by French state-terrorists in July 1985, reminds us about the harsh reality of back then. The RW's tactics were to try to get in the way of ships before barrels of nuclear waste could be kicked overboard. It's a shocker: back then, dumping nuclear waste was entirely legal. Greenpeace's action, both at sea and behind the scenes, were instrumental in having nuclear waste declared illegal.
"A lot of things that are considered legal today will be illegal tomorrow," she says.

I am quoted in the article about "classic Greenpeace" tactics to boost public awareness of the broader issue - in this case climate change.
In the earlier post-bombing years, Greenpeace - small, non-violent, determinedly independent in terms of not taking money from governments or corporations - was like an idealised version of New Zealand itself in the early years of the nuclear-free legislation. But the movement took a dip in membership in the 1990s as self-interest began to dominate community values. It's refreshing to see these grassroots protests making their mark.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Seeking a more balanced media view of Fiji

The Fiji news media gets a lot of ticking off these days. And a major critic remains Interim Finance Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, who just last month branded the media as "divisive and racist", saying it should be "licensed". He claims the media isn't responsible with the freedom it has been given. This is a familiar theme, of course, and he has filed Fiji's biggest-ever damages claim for defamation.
There were very defensive rumblings from the media in response to the recent discredited Anthony report on the "freedom and independence of the media". And there have been allegations by media of computer hacking. This led to a strong Fiji Times editorial challenging the regime - "put up or shut up"!.
But the flaws of the Anthony report don't change his essential message - there are serious problems in the Fiji media about training/professionalism and credibility and they need to be addressed. If not, then the regime or a future Fiji government is likely to impose something that is draconian and counter-productive.
Yes, the regime is disreputable and civil liberties, press freedom and the rule of law have been trampled on after the military coup. But media reports, such as in New Zealand, giving the impression that Fiji is a "Zimbabwe in the Pacific" (at least prior to the apparent ousting of Mugabe from office), is far from the truth. But, as many media people in Fiji point out, those not on the ground in Fiji and reading the reports would be inclined to be alarmed. The international image of Fiji has taken a battering, resulting in pressure from overseas governments and their refusal to grant any concessions to the regime.
The regime shot itself in the foot also by some misguided actions and is rightly blamed for the state of affairs. But the media is able to question and criticise the regime at will. There is some intimidation but not like in the early days of the coup.
In fact, if the media is put under as much scrutiny as the regime, there are many flaws in the coverage, but the reporting "power" is held by the media. The hysteria over the de-reservation of land that was kicked up and stoked by the media was clumsy and revealed lack of depth in reporting and editorial skills.
A big deal was made about the fact that reporters would no longer be able to call up the interim PM on his cell phone. Somehow this was supposed to be a yardstick for "media freedom". Where else in the world can journalists call up a PM on the phone for interviews?
It has been forgotten that the military ousted a government that was racist, divisive, corrupt and inefficient and consorting with coup-makers. The difference was that the Qarase government was cynically using democracy and existing laws to legalise its racist and illegal policies.
One of Qarase's ministers referred to Indo-Fijians as "weeds taking up too much space" while some senators called reporters "Satan's agents". They were not even reprimanded. In his last days, Qarase, in a desperate bid to cling to power, tried to incite indigenous Fijians to rise against Indo-Fijians by claiming that they supported the military.
So the man was willing to see the shedding of blood to remain in power. It was another example of how callously some leaders use the people for their own benefit. The media, naïve as it is, has made a ruthless politician and a dangerous leader like Qarase, appear "angelical"!
The Qarase government should also share blame for the coup. Had it remained in power, it is quite likely we would have seen some coup-makers in Senate, Parliament, in plum government jobs and holding board memberships. It would have increased consumption tax to 15 per cent to pay for its reckless spending. This would have strangled the poor even further.
If not for the coup, the shenanigans at the Fiji National Provident Fund would not have come to light. The national pension scheme quite likely would have gone down the tubes as the National Bank of Fiji did. Under the Qarase regime, even the workers' pension scheme was not safe or sacred.
Fiji had become a magnet and haven for conmen and carpetbaggers. There is criticism that no "hard evidence" has been uncovered to prove widespread corruption as claimed. Corruption is never easy to prove, more so in a country like Fiji which simply does not have the expertise. But there is enough prima-facie and anecdotal evidence to show there was something very sick in many organisations.
Journalists in countries such as New Zealand need to be prepared do the research, talk to credible people and get a cross-section of views instead of repeatedly using biased sources who are often not even in Fiji. Constantly only talking to those hurt by the military and who have reasons to hate it, inevitably serve up a less than balanced view.
There are many people with an axe to grind against the military, and there is a danger of them using the media to achieve this end. Of course the media will be quick to deny any such possibility but we all saw how easily the media was manipulated during the Speight and Rabuka coups. The media needs to be careful that it doesn't inflame racial feelings and buy into imposed external solutions with a double standard. The struggle for democracy could easily explode into an Timor-Leste style catastrophe.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Extraordinary insights in Scott doco about Fiji

Author Owen Scott and filmmaker Annie Goldson should be congratulated for An Island Calling, their compelling yet sensitive portrayal of the tragic double murder of John Scott and Greg Scrivener in Fiji in 2001 in the wake of the George Speight coup. This is a very courageous film and is likely to have very low-key screenings in Fiji. It was deeply shocking at the time and just as disturbing seven years on. Goldson and Scott have conveyed some extraordinary insights into Fiji's coup culture, the fundamentalist Christianity that has taken hold since Rabuka's first coups in 1987 and the cultural complexities of a troubled nation. Prime Minister Helen Clark was at the premiere at the weekend. For an account of the film and the debate around it, check out AUT student journalist Claire Rorke's piece. She writes:
One of the film’s central ideas is that Sitiveni Rabuka’s coups of 1987 ignited a wave of religious extremism and anti-democratic politics.
These have played out as coercive and repressive agents in Fijian society in the years since.
Rabuka was a Methodist preacher and regularly invoked God as being the hand that guided him to oust the Fiji Labour Party-led government with strong Indo-Fijian support in favour of indigenous Fijian interests.
Asia Downunder journalist Bharat Jamnadas says many Fijians are ardent churchgoers and evangelical influence extends from the pulpit through to Parliament.

Friday, March 21, 2008

New light on Fiji's John Scott political tragedy

Annie Goldson's new film on Fiji's coup number three and imprisoned frontman George Speight premieres next weekend during the World Cinema Showcase in Auckland. It will be watched with interest. Associate Professor Goldson, from the University of Auckland’s Department of Film, Television and Media Studies, has produced a feature-length documentary, An Island Calling, which traces the 2001 killings in Suva of Fiji Red Cross director-general John Scott and his partner Greg Scrivener. Goldson's media release says:
"The murder of this openly gay couple is still clouded in rumour and political mystery. Scott, a fourth-generation, Fiji-born European, was the repatriated prodigal son of a powerful colonial family. As the Director-General of the Fiji Red Cross, he had gained international attention during the coup of 2000 when he went to the assistance of hostages trapped in Parliament for 56 days. Guided by John Scott’s brother, Owen, the film features friends of the couple, lawyers, Fijian gay activists, and seasoned Fiji observers. The film also includes interviews with the family of 22-year-old Apete Kaisau, who was ultimately charged with the killings."
Bill Gosden, director of the NZ Film Festival Trust, which organises the World Cinema, describes the film as "excellent and level-headed". He sees the film as placing this tragedy within Fiji’s volatile heritage of colonial privilege, evangelical Christianity, immigrant work force and indigenous entitlement.
Shortly after the festival release, a shorter (44-minute) broadcast version of the film, entitled Murder in the Pacific, will air on New Zealand’s TV3 and Australia’s SBS-TV.
Pictured: Speight's gunmen "escort" Fiji Red Cross director-general John Scott from Fiji's Parliament building in 2000.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Horror from the past - a new twist on My Lai

As Economist picture editor Celina Dunlop writes, the name My Lai has become synonymous with "massacre" and atrocity. Contemporary US military atrocities are compared with what happened in the little Vietnames hamlet four decades ago and are often billed as a "modern-day My Lai". As Dunlop says: "The name is shorthand for slaughter of the defenceless, the benchmark of American wartime atrocity. The murders of 504 men, women, children and babies happened in a northerly province of South Vietnam on 16 March 1968. It proved to be a turning point for public opinion about the Vietnam War."
For me, there is a tragic sense of deja vu also for publication of photographs of that massacre in an Australian weekly newspaper, the Melbourne Sunday Observer - the same week as Life magazine in 1969. At the time I was chief subeditor. The editor, myself and the newspaper were prosecuted for "obscenity" (the case was eventually dropped) for publishing the horrendeous images. Yet for all of us working on that paper during a prevailing newspaper climate supportive of Australian involvement in the US colonial war, it was an "obscenity" that US, Australian and NZ troops were in Vietnam at all.
Dunlop writes about the so-called Peers Inquiry (chaired chaired by Lt Gen William 'Ray' Peers) that interviewed some 400 witnesses and tape-recorded their testimony: "In 1987, [the tapes] were shipped to the US National Archives, as one small portion of a massive group of records of US Army activities in Vietnam. There they remained hidden, never catalogued, never investigated, never uncovered - until last year.
I spent many months trying to track down the tapes.
Again and again, I was told they did not exist, but after much persistence, 48 hours of recordings from the key witnesses were declassified and made available to me."
The Peers findings set the benchmark for future guidelines for the US military in dealing with civilians.

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