Friday, August 7, 2009

Media freedom and dealing with the Fiji regime's gag

THE EXPECTED fallout from PINA 2009 has been fast flowing since the two-yearly regional media circus. Many rifts were on show long before the conference began in Port Vila late last month - for example, the criticisms of PINA's recent lukewarm actions over regional media freedom and the founding of the successful upstart Pacific Freedom Forum by PINA dissidents; the hostility between the conference hosts, Media Asosiesen blong Vanuatu (MAV) and the country's main newspaper, Vanuatu Daily Post, and publisher Marc Neil-Jones; and the calls for PINA and Pacnews to be relocated outside of Fiji as a protest against the regime's media censorship. The election of MAV president Moses Stevens as PINA president only served to fuel the animosity. Stevens was elected ahead of talented Stanley Simpson of Fiji's Mai TV, an innovative graduate of the University of the South Pacific, to take the regional body forward for the next two years. He cited training for young journalists as a policy priority and also hinted at the possibility of Australian and NZ media groups being allowed to fully join PINA. Reflecting on the conference's results, Matangi Tonga editor Pesi Fonua wrote:
What appeared to be a sincere intention by the former PINA board to turn its biannual convention into a Pacific Media Summit under the theme "Breaking Barriers - Access to Information'" did not live up to expectations.

Despite the great effort to attract as many participants as possible to attend the Vanuatu PINA inaugural summit, their contributions did not see the light of day, because most participants were not permitted to attend the AGM, and so some serious observations made by working journalists and media people were not translated into the decision-making process.
Café Pacific's correspondents report that the meeting became quite tense when it was realised that two military censors - both women - had been invited and were present. The mood was becoming ugly, with some people questioning why the censors were there - how dare PINA invite them?

Cook Islands News editor John Woods (elected vice-president as the Cook Islands is hosting the next conference) was a particularly strong critic. He wanted the pair to be barred from the meeting. He said their presence would have a chilling effect on Fiji journalists and discourage them from speaking their minds. Woods described their presence there as "despicable". However, some journalists thought the whole issue rather over-dramatised and that it was important to get an insight into the thinking of the Fiji censors - one of them even a former journalist.

One leading regional journalism educator, Shalendra Singh, is head of journalism and media at the University of the South Pacific. He is a former news magazine editor and is committed to all sides of the story. He defended the women's right to speak as representatives of Fiji's Ministry of Information (a PINA member, although there was some doubt over whether the Minfo was actually paid up).

"Talk about shooting the messenger! The irony is staggering," Singh said later. He said the women should be allowed to speak. The conference should not do to the women what the regime administration in Fiji had done in gagging the media. Singh also mentioned that journalism was about balance and getting all sides of the story. It was an opportunity to put the regime representatives under the spotlight and question them. He said journalists should practise freedom of expression, not just preach it. Singh also described how Fiji was facing draconian censorship and there was a danger that people might become used to the status quo.

Some views changed then and other people present, such as Lisa Williams-Lahari, founding coordinator of the Pacific Freedom Forum, spoke in favour of the women speaking but only in a session about censorship under a military regime, not this one devoted to regional stories of media freedom under fire. She also strongly asked the censors during the Q and A whether they felt Minfo should withdraw as a PINA member without waiting for PINA expulsion. Another panellist, Fiji Times editor-in-chief Netani Rika, walked out in protest at the presence of the censors after his presentation. (He was awarded the region's media freedom prize).

Only one journalist - Dev Nadkarni, a former USP journalism coordinator - commenting on this contentious issue noted the fact that one of the regime's representatives, Lance Corporal Talei Tora, was in fact educated on the USP regional journalism programme and herself a former broadcaster. Tora was well-trained in rigorous journalism skills and freedom of speech. But now as a soldier - one of Fiji's pioneering women officer cadet recruits - she follows military orders. Her elder sister, Luisa Tora, is also an award-winning journalist and long a free speech advocate.

Corporal Tora raised issues of media bias in Fiji, of media paying journalists badly and exploiting them, and other shortcomings - but these issues were not discussed at all. Media in the Pacific does not like to discuss criticism that is leveled at it - as Café Pacific has noted often in the past. There is no critical self-scrutiny as there should be at such meetings - or as happens in many other countries that have challenging "media watch" style radio and television programmes, such as Media 7 in New Zealand. Pacific media too often just plays the victim.

Café Pacific understands that some mention of Pacific Media Centre director associate professor David Robie's past research on Fiji media at the time of the Speight coup was cited - the detailed findings were published in his 2004 USP book Mekim Nius: South Pacific media, politics and education. In Nadkarni's review of freedom of speech issues at the PINA convention, he wrote:
[Corporal Tora] said she was a civil servant and had a job to do and pointed to a number of cases of inaccurate reporting (for which several of the media outlets have since apologised).

The questions flew thick and fast: Would she and her colleague be reporting the proceedings to their military bosses? Would the emergency regulations apply to Fiji journalists now they were in a different country? Would they be liable to action? Tora stood her ground and answered questions with confidence, although she used her comparatively junior rank to express inability to comment on the more sensitive matters.
Freedom of speech cuts both ways. If media bleatings over the gagging of Fiji news organisations are to be taken seriously in global contexts, then a major effort needs to be taken by the region's journalists to be fully informed about the complexities of Fiji politics and to report with more insight and balance and to defend open dialogue. Ironically, two of the best reports to come out of Fiji in recent times have not been from Pacific media at all but by Australian-based investigative journalists Graham Davis and Mark Davis for their attempts to give the "other side of the story" of Bainimarama's claimed plan for genuine democracy shorn free of racism.

Pictured: Fiji Times editor Netani Rika speaking at the PINA convention - he was awarded the PINA media freedom award for his defence of free speech in Fiji; Moses Stevens. Photos: Fiji Times; MAV.

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