Monday, May 18, 2009

Sugar-coated offers from Beijing?

SO THE 30,000 Fiji Islanders directly affected by the sugar industry are now being made to suffer – along with another 200,000 people whose livelihoods are in some way linked. Just days before the harvesting season seriously gets under way. While the politicos and media flacks in New Zealand and Australia are rubbing their hypocritical hands with glee, cane growers are wondering how to survive. Now that the European Union has confirmed it will not be paying the 2009 sugar allocation for sugar industry reform (worth more than $US30 million) for the second year running, it is a matter of looking to Plan B. The EU has blocked the sugar assistance because of the military-backed regime’s refusal to return the country to democratic rule (until 2014).

When the funds were first suspended, Fiji was found to have breached the Cotonou agreement between the EU and the ACP bloc of countries (Africa, Caribbean and Pacific). Speculation was rife about whether Fiji regime censorship would gag this story, but it has at least slipped past the censors on Fijivillage News and Fiji Daily Post websites. Fijivillage added that it had been told that regime leader Voreqe Bainimarama said – before flying out to sugar meetings in Guyana and Brussels - that the governments of Australia and NZ were “trying to collapse the Fiji economy”.

Sabotage in other words. And yet another relentless push into railroading Fiji further into the arms of China and chequebook diplomacy. Chinese aid to Fiji has soared after the December coup - from $US23 million in 2006 to $US160 million in 2007 and still climbing.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Fiji media freedom - news from another angle

By Crosbie Walsh

RADIO NZ reports that the Fiji government will soon sign an agreement with Fiji TV for a government channel to broadcast from two to seven hours a week. Government also plans to sign an agreement with the Fiji Sun to include a 12-page weekly report on government policies and programmes. A new media law decree is also likely to be introduced when the emergency regulations expire next month.

Government stands internationally condemned for its "infamous" emergency regulations -- and restrictions on "media freedom" that were the main purpose of the regulations. Pacific Freedom Forum (PFF) would even like to see the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) remove its offices from Suva because of current press censorship.

There is no question that, in normal circumstances, the media should be free, and no question either that in all circumstances the media should publish fair, honest, informed and balanced reports. Anything less is media negligence, media licence or sheer propaganda, not media freedom. It is not enough for people within the media to protest. Freedom has to be earned. Others, outside the media, will decide where the pendulum rests between "freedom" and "licence."

My crude "contents analysis" of the Fiji media since my blog started is that it often fell short of its stated goals. Its idea of balance, as stated in earlier posts, was usually to publish one statement from the government and one each from up to five government opponents, making the tally not 1:1 but 1:5. Its selection of news was also biased, focusing far more frequently on what someone said government got wrong than on what the government was trying to do.

While not in agreement, I have some sympathy, therefore, for Permanent Secretary of Information Lt. Col. Neumi Leweni when he said: “If I was given the choice, I’d leave [the censorship controls] there for the next five years, ” thereby making it clear that Fiji media should not expect to go back to reporting the "irresponsible" way they did prior to April 10 when the Public Emergency Regulations were enacted. He said the controls would be lifted if media organizations agreed to willingly follow the direction that was being set by his ministry.

While this may seem Orwellian and outright draconian, Leweni does have a point. Much reporting, he said:
constantly focused on the negative ... [and] carried one-sided and sensationalised stories in its coverage of politics, crime and most other events.

The government’s position is you feed the public with bad things and it registers. In some instances it could lead to people doing whatever is being published. You’d be surprised if you asked the police for statistics on people breaking the law. They’ll tell you it’s dropped tremendously in the past month. It’s to do partly with the media. You feed the public good things and shape public perception with positive things, they will react accordingly. When you dish out negative issues and a lot of other things like crime, etc, it gets to people and in the end they produce those sorts of activities themselves.

From my discussions with people on the streets, they actually appreciate the news more now with a lot of positive issues being addressed ... and it’s also come from government departments that they’re now getting calls from reporters on positive stories whereas before, a lot of them were reluctant to answer questions because it was based mostly on negative issues.

It [is said] bad news sells [but] the media is still selling their newspapers....and there are a lot more positive issues being addressed in the media now.
Professor Crosbie Walsh is a former director of the Institute of Development Studies at Massey University, New Zealand. He lived in Fiji for five years and built up the Development Studies programme at the University of the South Pacific. His research interest is as a population and development geographer and in globalisation.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Meet Herb Bell, a Samoa radio star in the making

ONE of the highlights for Café Pacific’s David Robie at last week’s media freedom seminar in Samoa was meeting up with an 18-year-old blind journalism student – and being interviewed by him live on Fetu FM radio. Herb usually teams up with Ikoke Tauga on his own new current affairs programme. But due to a squeeze on David's other commitments, Herb piggybacked his interview on a special edition of Cherelle Jackson’s popular News in Focus show. The topic? Media issues raised by one of David’s earlier books, The Pacific Journalist (2001), which he produced with a team from the University of the South Pacific and around the region. It is used as a standard text at the USP and National University of Samoa j-schools (and at many other institutions). Café Pacific just heard the other day from USP that it has now sold the last copy.

Herb asked David did he have plans for another edition. The short answer was no, certainly not in that form. A regional resource like that is useful, but it's best for j-schools in the Pacific to develop their own culturally specific books and resources. David is working on another book, but this is very wide-ranging and will undoubtedly be controversial in media circles.

All his life, Herb has wanted to be a journalist. Right from a young age he was inspired by the “Talofa lava, here is the news” voices and vowed to do the same one day. Secondary schooling at St Joseph’s College served to boost his journalism ambitions. “TV stuff like script writing, documentaries and voice overs, like at the South Pacific Games, gave me some opportunities,” he says. He has a natural voice and an acute sense of politics, social justice and issues – arguably more so than others of his own age. He has topped a current affairs class and has generally hovering around the top of his other classes.

Initially, he had a hiccup on getting into the j-programme at NUS because of the lack of resources for students with disabilities. Fortunately, an appeal was lodged and he got a second chance and as well as being a model student himself, he has taken a lead at NUS in developing Braille software and other facilities for fellow students.

Herb shared time at the seminar with other NUS students, such as Beauman Fuimaono Reti, Martha Taumata, Unumoe Esera and Lanuola Tupufia. For all of them, rubbing shoulders with some of the region’s media freedom “champions”and hearing insights from them was an inspiring experience.

Herb and Ikoke’s young programme is heard live on Thursday evenings on Fetu FM 93.7 and 104.1 from 7.30pm to 8pm. It is a lively blend of “music and attitude” - hip hop, r & b and rock, requests and some “good listening” commentaries. And already in its short life, the show has stirred some controversy. An item about “young people drinking during school time” earned the wrath of some Apia parents. Why did Herb have to name and shame the school involved, they asked? Course tutor Vicky Lepou, one of David’s journalism graduates from USP, deserves a mention here in support of Herb’s emerging career. So too, Cherelle, for her encouragement for young journos in the making like Herb.

Future plans? Herb hopes to get a job with the radio station when he graduates and eventually go to the United States and learn from radio greats. All power to you, Herb and Ikoke, you’re an inspiration to the new media generation.

Pictured: Top and middle: Herbert Bell (NUS journalism student) and David Robie on Fetu FM. Above: David Robie with former students Francis Pituvaka (Solomon Islands), Vicky Lepou (Samoa) and Esther Tinning (Vanuatu) at the Pacific Freedom Forum seminar in Apia.

Netani Rika's brand of Fiji 'courage under fire'

OUTSPOKEN Cook Islands publisher and broadcaster George Pitt ruffled a few Pacific feathers with the most unpopular comment of the week at the highly successful UNESCO-funded Article 19 media freedom seminar in Samoa. Speaking after an off-the-record session about the future of PINA, he stunned Pacific Freedom Forum stalwarts in Apia by branding Fiji journalists as a “bunch of wimps” for their allegedly compliant acceptance of the military regime’s draconian censorship since Easter weekend.

Fiji Times editor-in-chief Netani Rika replied on behalf of the four-member Fiji contingent: “I have been threatened, bullied and intimidated. My car has been smashed, my home firebombed. Despite this, my staff and I are still there. We remain committed to the ideals of a free media. I resent the allegation that we are wimps.” A day earlier, Rika had given an impassioned and inspiring plea for the defence of a free media in Fiji.

He spoke of the difficulty of making such a public address at the seminar when “you know that everything you say has the potential to be a threat to the very existence of 180 people with whom you work and close to 1000 who depend on them for a living”. He soundly criticised the inconsistencies of the censors and police henchmen:
In Fiji it is often the case that rules can change from day to day without warning or explanation. As days and weeks have passed, the number of censors has increased, as has the number of police officers. These enforcers of the law are no longer in plain clothes and sometimes take on the duty of the censors, deciding what we are permitted to print.

What, you may ask, are we permitted to print?
Basically any story on government must put the interim regime in a positive light or it will not be permitted. No views contrary to those of the interim government are permitted – even if balance is provided in the form of a comment from a minister of state or a senior public servant.
After the ill-fated “blank stories” edition of the Sunday Times – when the paper was threatened with closure if it repeated this protest, the Fiji Times group was forced to strategise on how to deal with the censorship.
What, then, do we do next? We have decided to go about our daily assignments in the normal manner. Our journalists and photographers cover every possible assignment attempting to get as many sides of the story as possible. Yes, we continue to cover stories which do not portray the interim government in a good light. Those stories are assigned to pages and go to the censors each day. More often than not these stories are declared unfit for consumption by the people and are knocked back by the censors.

The next day we cover every assignment again – including the stories which the interim government does not want – and inundate the censors with copy.
Sometimes the stories get through, at other times they are spiked. It is an extremely frustrating exercise.

Last week a domestic airline was forced to close because of financial difficulties which are not linked to the current regime.
Our business writer prepared comprehensive coverage, covering all angles of the story, providing fact files, historical background – a masterpiece from a young journalist. The censor on duty did not allow our reports to run unless we carried a quote from a specific minister. We refused and pulled the story.

The following day we placed the same stories in front of a different censor – No worries, the issue was covered, albeit a day late.
It is safe to say that the greatest challenge we face with censorship is inconsistency. What we may or may not cover is at the discretion or more often the whim of the censor on duty.
On May 10, the Public Emergency Regulation was extended for a further 30 days.
A plethora of blog sites has sprung up spewing Fiji stories, rumour, gossip and speculation into cyber-space. Most of this news is accessible only to the small portion of the community which has access to the internet. Unable to halt the onward march of the bloggers, Fiji’s rulers have resorted to ordering the closure of internet cafes from 6pm each evening in an attempt to stem the tide.

But how does it stop the coconut wireless which for generations has provided steady – if not entirely factual – news in countries around the region?

But we gather this week to discuss courage under fire.
To say that Fiji’s media has been under fire since December 2006 is no exaggeration.
Picture of Fiji Times editor-in-chief Netani Rika in Samoa by David Robie.

Rika's courage under fire
The 'sulu censors'
Too much pressure

Sunday, May 10, 2009

'Gangsta paradise' story and the Samoan media vendetta

IF YOU believed the partisan Samoan press about TVNZ’s Pacific correspondent Barbara Dreaver over the past month, you could be forgiven if you thought she was about to be dispatched on a a witch’s broom to a fiery rendezvous, or simply burnt at a stake outside Aggie Grey’s. She has become Samoan tourism and the media’s public enemy number one. Her April 6 TVNZ report on “guns, gangs and drugs” has been getting a terrible hammering lately in the Apia press and around the media traps. Such is the level of venom, that the issue even forced its way as chief topic at a talanoa session one evening at the UNESCO-funded media freedom conference last week. (A welcome relief from the focus on Fiji). The TVNZ report (and sequel) has generally been branded as a “hatchet job” by Samoa's Newsline, for example, and a Sunday Samoan “editorial” referred to the “evil side of journalism”.

A series of articles, distorted, and – in many cases – clearly defamatory and malicious, have made Barbara Dreaver the target of hostility. Such has been the level of animosity that Dreaver was even reluctant to travel to Apia to take part in this Pacific Freedom Forum debate. She had fears for her safety. How sad and demeaning for Pasifika journalism that one of the people who has worked so hard to build up the Pacific affairs media profile – mostly very positive – in the New Zealand television media scene should be treated in such a vindictive and unprofessional manner. Café Pacific’s David Robie said as much at the Apia talanoa.

The TVNZ programme does have flaws, of course – as much journalism does, once it is put under an intense public forensic microscope. But there is due process to follow here – file a complaint with the Broadcasting Standards Authority and get an independent adjudication based on the facts, not selective and emotive personality attacks. (At least, the Samoan government has finally embarked on this process). How quickly some of the region’s journos descended to the dog-eat-dog level has been a disappointing spectacle. Perhaps some of the Samoan editors have selectively forgotten about “fairness and balance” and they appear to have a perfunctory grasp of media law. Newsline in its May 6 edition even repeated many of the defamatory statements with a frontpage headline claiming “Barbara Dreaver threatens Newsline” (when she is merely trying to get her side of the story heard). Newsline’s Pio Sioa, in an editorial note, offers a lame duck explanation about why the newspaper didn’t run Dreaver’s side of the story in the first place (namely her sworn affidavit of April 22 publicly released by TVNZ in the absence of actually talking to her):
The [daily] Samoa Observer published the affidavit in an issue ahead of [weekly] Newsline and it left little recourse but for Newsline to make reference to it only.
So fairness and balance at Newsline has deteriorated to the level of making a judgment based on what the opposition newspaper has done? Nonsense. Also, maybe nobody told the editor that while a lawyer’s “defamatory” letter is protected by privilege, republishing the statements in the paper is not. Café Pacific notes that Barbara Dreaver has engaged one of New Zealand’s top media barristers, Simpson Grierson’s William Arkel, in her corner. Good luck, you media fellas in Apia, we hope your anti-gangsta vendetta doesn’t take you to the cleaners.

Not everybody in Samoa is deluded by the Samoan pro-tourism press smokescreen. Take this indignant blog posting as a footnote:
Barbara Dreaver [has] exposed a weakness in our culture … dissenting youths who are on fringe of society!!
The clampdown on the Barbara Dreaver [programme] is all about ensuring the reputation of Samoa to tourist is seen as gangsterless and ok under matai control. All for big dollars eh? How about the safety of the locals? None whatsoever is there any media concerns about our people's safety. When the Vaiala government paid pulenu’u (village mayor) and his gang attack innocent women children over disputed lands, the government did not give a sh%*t about the local women and children's welfare! Now everyone's jumping on the bandwagon of tourist safety as a justification for denying Dreavers article on the existence of gangs in Samoa! As a Samoan who had been abused and clamped down by Samoan gangsters led by Samoan public servant, the pulenu'u, I would say, Ms Dreaver exposed the truth about Samoa which some of us have suffered at the hands of government-endorsed gangster like the Vaiala pulenu'u who continues to harass and exert power over helpless women and the disabled ....
- Barbara Dreaver debater!
Picture of Barbara Dreaver by Pacific Media Centre's Alan Koon.

Pacific reporter fights off smear campaign
NZ drug trade fuels Samoa gun smuggling [video 4:51]
Drugs, guns and gangs in Samoa: Barbara Dreaver explains
[video 2:50]
Barbara Dreaver on journalism and integrity

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Media freedom advocates advise Pacnews: Dump Fiji

PACIFIC media freedom advocates meeting in Apia, Samoa, this week did their best to keep the Fiji censorship problem in proportion and give other regional issues a good hearing. But it was tough. The Fiji challenge kept bubbling to the surface, leading to a spirited debate on the future of PINA at one session and feisty calls for the regional news service Pacnews to get out of Suva at others. Fiji dominated all the speeches on the opening day with several of the region's media freedom heavyweights giving the regime a hard time - but they also warned that the young generation coming through into the industry should not be seduced by government freebies. Some quick thoughts:

Savea Sano Malifa (Samoa Observer): Go for the hidden stories without compromise.

Netani Rika (The Fiji Times): “How do we build ... courage? Simply, by not backing down.”

Kalafi Moala (Taimi Media Network): PINA and Pacnews must not stay silent.

Russell Hunter (Samoa Observer): It's "appalling" that Pacnews and PINA are staying put in Fiji.

The Pacific Freedom Forum made some tremendous advances at this UNESCO-funded seminar. More in a later blog, but in the meantime Pacific Media Centre has a report and here is the final communique.

Picture: Participants at the Article 19 media freedom seminar in Samoa. Photo: PFF.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

'What do you expect, a kiss on both cheeks?'

PREDICTABLY, the Fiji military regime reacted defiantly over the inevitable Pacific Islands Forum suspension. Acting PM Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum seized on the lack of protocol, condemning the PIF for announcing the move by press release first before delivering a diplomatic note to the regime. He also pointed out the hypocrisy in the light of the original coups in 1987 when Sitiveni Rabuka never held elections for five years but didn’t face suspension by the Pacific political body. The entire region is the loser for this action - the first suspension of a PIF member in 39 years. A leading academic from the University of the South Pacific, Dr Steven Ratuva, says the suspension could hurt small Pacific nations more than Fiji. While the international responses have come thick and fast to Fiji’s increasing isolation, Café Pacific notes John Boonstra of UN Dispatch tried to sort out misleading statements by Australian PM Kevin Rudd earlier this week about the Fijian peacekeepers:
For those who may have been following the strange saga of whether or not Fijian troops have been barred from UN peacekeeping missions, the tale may -- or may not -- have taken a twist the other day, when Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced rather unequivocally that the UN was not accepting any troops from Fiji.

At issue is the fact that the government of Fiji, which came to power in a coup two years ago, still has not held elections. Since troops going to UN peacekeeping missions would come from Fiji's military, this would indirectly lend support to Fiji's military junta.

Australia and New Zealand have a problem with this, and they have led the effort to make sure that no new Fijian troops join UN peacekeeping missions. Except... Fijian peacekeepers haven't been deployed to new missions since the 2006 coup, and even under current policy, Fijian troops currently deployed -- such as 500 in Iraq -- will not be forced to leave. So it's unclear whether Rudd was articulating standing UN policy, or was calling for stricter measures against Fijian peacekeepers.

The military leader of Fiji, for his part, kindly told Prime Minister Rudd to bug off. We'll see where this goes.
Back in Suva, Fiji-born journalist Graham Davis filed a colour piece along with his exclusive Sky News and Australian interview with military leader Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama (pictured) giving his 11th hour plea for face-to-face talks with Rudd and NZ Prime Minister John Key – they didn’t take him seriously. The report gave some interesting insights into life with the commander in his lair – the Queen Elizabeth Barracks, where he survived an assassination attempt in November 2000 by rebel elite forces supporting coup leader no 3 leader George Speight:
[Bainimarama] has just shown me the bullet holes that riddle the timber panels of his office in an adjacent building that came under attack by rebel soldiers during the mutiny of 2000.

"We leave it unrepaired to remind us just how close we came to disaster. It was only because I was at lunch in the mess that I survived," Bainimarama says.

"When we realised we were under attack, my security detail rushed me through the back door and down the hill to safety. We were dodging bullets and rocket-propelled grenades. Three loyal soldiers died that day, and we must never forget."

Bainimarama readily concedes that five captured rebels were beaten to death, but denies reports that one had his penis cut off, another his tongue ripped out. Any mention of extrajudicial killings is curtly dismissed. "These people came to kill us. What do you expect, a kiss on both cheeks?"
Meanwhile, tomorrow is World Media Freedom Day – and it has been silenced in Fiji this year following the Easter putsch. A strategic media freedom workshop planned for Suva with UNESCO backing was banned and a hurriedly organised alternative programme was conjured up in Apia, Samoa, thanks to the efforts by Pacific Freedom Forum’s facilitator Lisa Williams-Lahari and her team. But over in Tonga, the fallout from a controversial libel lawsuit has many of the local editors more concerned about a 'wake up call' over media responsibility.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Australia, NZ kick Fiji into the forum dead ball zone

SO THE countdown begins – the moment of truth arrives. By midnight on May Day, the Fiji military regime of Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama faces suspension from the 16-nation Pacific Islands Forum. And given that the regime leader has thumbed his nose at the Forum May 1 deadline for an announcement of elections and a poll by the end of the year, it seems the inevitable will take place. And then the 53-nation Commonwealth, which will take its cue from the forum, undoubtedly will follow suit. The regime is optimistic that the forum won’t take this drastic step right now. Bainimarama wrote an 11th hour letter to the forum explaining the regime’s roadmap ahead leading to a 2014 vote.

But the optimism doesn't appear well founded. Bainimarama's strongest supporter in the forum, PNG prime minister Sir Michael Somare, has apparently deserted the regime and is siding with the Australian and New Zealand isolationist push. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd gloated over the claimed United Nations decision not to award any more peacekeeping duties to the Fiji military. The hypocrisy of Australia and New Zealand is deafening. And this can only end badly, even disastrously for the region. The regime is likely to respond with anger. Will it be time to toss out the Australian high commissioner? The forum has never taken such drastic action against a member in almost four decades of virtual “Pacific way” consensus. If it does so this time – excluding the most influential and crossroads island nation of the region – the isolationist policy will come back to the bite the forum in most unpredictable ways.

It will also open the door to a dramatic rise in Chinese influence in the region, at the expense of Canberra and Wellington. It was interesting to see the turnout for the swearing in of Ratu Epeli Nailatikau as Vice-President – ironically the chief was ousted as military commander when Sitiveni Rabuka staged his double coup in May 1987 (against both Dr Timoci Bavadra's Labour government and against his own two higher ranked army officers). Present for Nailatikau were the high commissioners of India, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea and the ambassadors of China and Kiribati. As one of several Fiji correspondents to Café Pacific noted in response to Rudd’s combined statement with Somare about peacekeepers, the media and the forum, the Pacific’s failed policies will simply ratchet up the response and counter-response until what … a counter-coup and ruin for the region?:
It is this form of conduct towards Fiji that has elicited the response we now have. The seriousness and the severity of response will continue apace. So why not choose a smarter approach?

My own view is that the position taken towards Fiji is “lazy”. It is knee-jerk and quite “unsmart” - unless, of course, complete destruction of the Fiji Islands as a state is intended? It appears to be.

In the face of increasing aid from China, it is hard to imagine how or why such an un-nuanced position would be adopted at this juncture? That is precisely why I believe the Commonwealth connection is of paramount importance. All our historical ties are to the Commonwealth of Nations and they have the capacity to understand how to engage with Fiji.

Painting a military regime into a corner is jousting with fire. The fire is already lit. Why would one continue with such utter folly? However, there is obviously an ultimate end in sight. I shudder to think what it might be. No good will come of it. And those of us on the ground in Fiji who have an inkling of what is intended will never ever forgive such an approach.

I should like to remind all those at the Australian National University and in the Australian government that Fiji is not a rugby ball with which one may play as one sees fit. The ordinary people of Fiji deserve better than that. They have suffered for years from what I might call a gung-ho, flippant and off-hand approach from those in this region who ought to have a deeper, more decent, humanitarian concern.

Delivering us all into the furnace is scarcely that?
In a Correspondents' Notebook blog posting earlier this week about the forum deadline, Radio Australia's Bruce Hill leapt to the support of Australia and New Zealand:
For a pair of neo-colonial, ignorant, un-nuanced, non-indigenous bullies with a political system transplanted from the other side of the planet and imposed at musket-point, Australia and New Zealand are very popular places for Pacific islanders to live.
American Samoan congressman Faleomavaega Eni Hunkin has hit back at criticism of his meeting with Bainimarama. He has again condemned Australia - and also New Zealand's "shameful" policy over Fiji citizens, saying that Fiji needs dialogue now at this critical time. Café Pacific notes a couple of pieces worth checking out at the Pacific Media Centre - David Robie's round-up of Fiji censorship and David Brooks' focus on the blogosphere. Over at Global Voices, Michael Hartsell examines the crisis of the forced retirees - all those in the civil service over the age of 55. While the Public Service Commission has said more than 1600 public servants are affected by today's deadline (Bainimarama, who turned 55 earlier this week, is exempt), one blog has estimated that the true figure is closer to 2200.

Picture of Voreqe Bainimarama in Nuku'alofa, Tonga, in 2007 in more optimistic times by Scoop co-editor Selwyn Manning.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Fiji news media stripped of the usual tempo

FIJI news media seem so banal these days, deprived of their usual gutsy, punchy and lively political stories and debate. Sport has taken over on many front pages. “Gateway” Fijilive – the website that took the world by storm during the George Speight coup in May 2000 – offers headline stories such as hotel bank loans may be linked to local and environmental value, a downtown jewellery theft in Suva and five being held over a murder. But the global scare of the moment on swine flu virus has an impact here too. The odd story like defence chief Ratu Epeli Ganilau being in Tonga (he says the military doesn’t need downsizing) for a regional “security” strategic meeting gets a run. And, of course, a chief headline on Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama and his top brass getting gongs for “services to humanity”. A handful of international journalists and some are doing a fine job on the ground - Philippa Tolley of Radio NZ for example. In a Listener article this week, entitled "Sticking to his guns," Rebecca Macfie asks while Bainimarama says he wants a racially fairer electoral system, "are his more self-serving motives catching up with him?"

The regime plans to review the martial law parameters now that the country has endured two weeks of censorship. Hopefully the decrees will be relaxed.

Café Pacific notes a couple of recently posted stories on why many Fiji islanders are turning to the blogs again in droves in an effort to keep abreast of both factual info and the rumours. More fact-based blogs, like Coup Four And A Half have emerged and Croz Walsh’s Fiji continues to do a fine job on analysis (he has just posted a scathing condemnation of TVNZ's Lisa Owen and her parachute beat-up about "civil unrest"). Former Fiji Broadcasting Corporation chief executive Sireli Kini is quoted in the David Brooks story on blogs for AFP as saying:
It's human instinct, people want to know what's happening and when somebody spreads a rumour it spreads like wildfire and it's very destructive… [The blogs] have taken over the role of the conventional journalism by informing the members of the public.
In another article, Pacific Media Centre’s David Robie wraps up the state up of play with the crisis. While the local media remain gagged, more international journalists have filtered in –providing they were” approved” by not being in the regime’s bad books (ie. filing earlier stories that annoyed the military and/or some of its civilian henchmen). He notes that the media have become rather muted, but not for long. He has spoken on the creativity and adaptability of Fiji journalists and opined that they would find other ways to dodge the gag.

Pictured: Colonel Mohammed Aziz (Chief of Staff), Prime Minister Commodore Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama, Commander Land Forces Colonel Pita Driti and Warrant Officer Semesa Leweni at Government House after receiving their awards. Photo: Fiji government portal

Friday, April 24, 2009

Clinton told: Don’t listen to ‘heavy-handed’ Australia, NZ on Fiji

A STORY that didn’t rate too highly in the Australian and NZ press this week was Congressman Faleomavaega Eni Hunkin’s "advice" to US Secretary of State Helen Clinton to take a reality check on the briefings being dished up by Canberra and Wellington. This was important for two reasons: First, somebody of his stature in the Pacific giving prominence to another, more conciliatory view on Fiji. Second, it highlights the lack of an effort on the part of “big brother” media in the region to get the diverse and balanced Pacific viewpoints over Fiji. One of the few journalists to be diligent in this respect is Radio NZ's Richard Pamatatau who has consistently provided fresh angles in his Pacific reporting.

The Fiji media, of course, were quick to give their spin as part of their new regime-tailored “journalism of hope” era, but they often overlooked another important part of Faleomavaega’s discussion on a more comprehensive US policy on the Pacific: Clinton reportedly expressed support for greater autonomy for West Papua – another blind spot in the NZ media. (This was in response to Faleomavaega's request that the Obama Administration review the political status of West Papua and "hold Indonesia accountable for continued human rights abuses" in Jakarta-ruled "province".)

Faleomavaega met Clinton after returning from a visit to Fiji (he met privately with regime leader Voreqe Bainimarama and former prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry) and his message was don’t listen to the “nasty accusations” against Fiji and the country shouldn’t be pressured into rushing into elections – it isn’t ready yet.

According to a statement from his office, Faleomavaega said: “The situation in Fiji is more complex than it appears. [The United States] has had no coherent policy toward some 16 Pacific island nations; very indicative of the fact is that we have not had any USAID presence in the Pacific region for many years now."
And for too often, and for too long, Madam Secretary, in my view, we've permitted Australia and New Zealand to take the lead even when Canberra and Washington operate with such a heavy hand that they are counterproductive to our shared goals," Faleomavaega added. It makes no sense, Madam Secretary, for the leaders of New Zealand and Australia to demand early elections just for the sake of having elections in Fiji while there are fundamental deficiencies in Fiji's electoral process, which gave rise to three military takeovers and even a civilian-related takeover within the past 20 years - along with three separate constitutions to govern these islands. I totally disagree with the nasty accusations that the leaders of New Zealand and Australia have made against Fiji given the fact that it's more complicated than it appears.
Faleomavaega immediately copped blasts from the Coup four point five media blog and Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi. According to a report by Savali editor Tupuola Terry Tavita, Tuilaepa reckons Faleomavaega Eni Hunkin has been in the US too long and he is out of touch with Pacific politics:
Perhaps [Faleomavaega] has forgotten that Fiji has been independent since 1970 and its Legislature, Judiciary and the Executive branches of Government have been functioning until the military started to meddle with the affairs of government – a responsibility it was least capable of performing…
The good congressman completely ignores the fact that the regime in Fiji is a military dictatorship. And that Bainimarama’s regime has been engaging in a ruthless crackdown on dissenting public opinion and complete suppression of the media. Is not freedom of speech, freedom of the media and engaging in free and fair elections hallmarks of American democracy?

Fiji's political baggage, silent commentators and a nabbed Kiwi

ONE OF the curious things about this second phase of Fiji’s fourth coup, or "Coup four and a half", as one news blog dubs it, is the limited analysis in the New Zealand press.

Radio New Zealand’s Sunday and TVNZ's Media 7 and a handful of fringe radio and television programmes have tried to add some depth to the debate, but apart from one or two analysis pieces from predictable commentators far from the scene there has virtually been nothing in the newspapers. None of the regional and international commentators from the University of the South Pacific - including military specialist Dr Sitiveni Ratuva - have been used – even when there was a window of a opportunity before the crackdown snuffed out dissent. NZ media largely concentrated on the expulsion of three journalists in the first few days of the crisis. A small range of politically correct sources who would be safely vigorous in their condemnation were used. No scratching of the surface.

What we witnessed was another coup ranking with Sitiveni Rabuka’s second coup in September 1987, four months after the original May rebellion that launched Fiji’s so-called “coup culture”. But unlike all the previous coups, Voreqe Bainimarama’s consolidation of power didn’t even make front page news in the largest paper, New Zealand Herald. Instead, only a couple of single column items were tucked away in the paper over Easter weekend.

One of the more unusual analysis pieces to come out internationally is perhaps a piece on “Fiji’s coup crackdown” carried on the ISN (International Relations and Security Network) website today. Based on solid information on the ground? Hardly. The author, security analyst (and Middle East specialist) Dr Dominic Moran is safely in Tel Aviv, thousands of kilometres away from Suva. His sources? Auckland University academic and Pacific specialist associate professor Hugh Laracy (somebody who could have been better used by the New Zealand media for commentary) and an unnamed “Fijian media commentator”. A photo accompanying the article transformed the sky blue Fiji flag into a blood red ensign (it's actually the maritime version). Nevertheless, in spite of the distance, it was a reasonably fair backgrounder. While Laracy talked about the commodore’s attempts to build a “more inclusive” society free of the race political baggage, the mystery “commentator” concentrated on gloom and doom:
The country is on the verge of bankruptcy. Overseas investors are reluctant to invest because of the country’s political climate. The cost of basic food items are sky rocketing and thousands of families cannot afford to put food on the table. Many people will lose their jobs because the private sector will not be able to generate new jobs – it’s a very, very bleak future.
In the Philippines, a New Zealander has been arrested as a suspect involved in the Makati City business mutiny in 2003. According to the Philippine Daily Inquirer, a Kiwi was seized along with six retired and unnamed military officers by special police. Chief Superintendent Leon Nilo dela Cruz gave no information about the New Zealander’s alleged involvement with the ex-soldiers (now training as VIP security officers), but he had been found to “have an expired tourist visa”, the paper said. Authorities were still questioning the arrested group over alleged involvement in the shortlived uprising in the exclusive Oakwood Apartments in Makati City in July 2003.

Photo of Voreqe Bainimarama: Radio Fiji

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Fiji’s gag on news goes regional

NOT CONTENT with gagging the local media and expelling pesky foreign journalists who have got up its nose, the regime is now picking on the Suva-based regional news agency Pacnews. And like their local media cousins, they’re toeing the line. Well, on the surface anyway. But disgruntled journos can’t be gagged for too long.

Speculation on Pacnews jumping ship to another base – such as Auckland (Radio NZ) or Brisbane (ABC) – as the fledgling agency did after the Rabuka coups in 1987, is unlikely to gain much traction. Radio NZ’s Philippa Tolley, one of the few journos to slip through the regime’s “approval” screening, reported from Suva:
At present, Pacnews is not choosing to include any Fiji stories in its news feed that gets sent out regularly throughout the day. This means it avoids having a censor come into its office to vet stories concerning Fiji. Despite the fact it’s aimed at its regional subscribers, the Fiji government’s spokesperson, Major Neumi Leweni, says if it’s based here it must follow local guidelines: “Well, they are based in Fiji, so they say when you are in Rome you do as the Romans do”.
The Pacific Islands News Association, owner of Pacnews, reckons the agency won’t be bowed by the political crackdown. But president Joe Ealedona, who heads PNG’s National Broadcasting Corporation, says the safety and security of the editorial team is top priority.

Meanwhile, amid the climate of self-censorship, the ether is buzzing again. Civil society might have gone quiet for the moment, but cyber society is doing nicely. And it is good to see a few new blogs operating that are being run by journalists with a bit more respect for facts – instead of the rabid hate blogs that have long ganged up on the regime. Welcome to Fiji uncensored and Coup four point five are among recent players. But for a blog that is actually trying to make sense of this mess with some rational analysis, Croz Walsh’s Fiji is still the best. Two good pieces over at the Pacific Media Centre on the comparisons with Thailand and a certain debate on the Marae programme.

Spare a thought for small NGO groups which are involved in development communication but don’t get the attention the bigger media boys get. They also face censorship – such as the feminist group FemlinkPACIFIC:
As coordinator Sharon Bhagwan Rolls shared, “[We send] our broadcast log and community news collation to the Ministry of Information prior to each broadcast. We are also being intently monitored when we are on air (a community radio volunteer received a phone call when she was on air and was told we were being monitored). I have subsequently had to clarify with the Ministry that they channel all communication to me rather than cause extra anxiety to our young women volunteers who, I have to say, are coping marvelously.” She added: “Even if we are communicating within an eight - 10 kilometre radius, it is an important space that we will work hard to retain. We just hope the rural broadcasts can continue too...Ultimately though, with information and communication channels being tightly controlled rural women will be (are being) further marginalised and isolated.”
Finally, a word of solidarity for Television New Zealand Pacific affairs reporter Barbara Dreaver who has responded to the nasty coconet wireless campaign against her over her controversial “guns, drugs and gangs” story in Samoa with a sworn affidavit. TVNZ backs the accuracy and integrity of her report solidly. And so does Café Pacific. She is one of the journalists who have contributed enormously to boosting serious coverage of Pacific issues in New Zealand.

Cartoon: Malcolm Evans in Pacific Journalism Review.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Rabuka’s legacy and the seduction of Bainimarama

ROBBIE ROBERTSON, author of two books on Fiji’s coups and a former professor in governance at the University of the South Pacific, isn’t too impressed with Graham Davis. The Fiji-born journalist’s controversial article about “dealing with the dictator” has won a lot of traction in some quarters. At the very least, it balances much of the weight of media coverage in Australia and New Zealand, which has been so simplistic. But while New Zealand seems to be softening its stance towards the regime, at least to possibly open the door to some future dialogue, Robertson warns against being seduced by regime leader Voreqe Bainimarama merely “because of what he promises”. In a message to Café Pacific, he says: “I fear that even if he delivers, the result may not be what we wish for.” Robertson, who co-authored Shattered Coups about 1987 with his wife Akosita Tamanisau, and co-wrote Fiji: Government by the Gun in the wake of George Speight in 2000, has been so troubled that he penned a letter to The Australian. Here is his reply to Davis:
Fiji’s political kingmaker
GRAHAM Davis ("Dealing with the dictator", Features, 16/4) exhibits a very common fallacy about Commodore Frank Bainimarama's reconstituted coup. Bainimarama's goal of instituting a non-racial system of voting may be a very laudable objective in a country whose recent history has been riven by racial division. But the means chosen to implement that goal is entirely inappropriate.

Many people thought that Sitiveni Rabuka's 1987 coups (and that of George Speight in 2000) had similarly laudable objectives. They were designed to uphold the rights of indigenous Fijians who feared being swamped by Indo-Fijians. In fact, as Davis rightly points out, this was largely a myth perpetuated for more mercenary goals.

The consequence for Fiji was a political storm far worse than today's, but within 10 years it had retreated from ethno-centrism and introduced a new Constitution in 1997 that it could rightly be proud of. Speight in 2000 was a bloody reminder of the danger the Rabuka path would always hold for Fiji if institutions succumbed to its logic.

Fiji emerged from those political storms stronger than ever, with a hugely sophisticated and active civil society, a dynamic free media and a strong legal system. Yes, the old Fijian nationalist Laisenia Qarase was not as wise as he should have been when in office, but his rule was no dictatorship. He eventually agreed to a power-sharing arrangement with the opposition Labour Party as the Constitution required, and that decision was popular. If allowed to continue, it might have transformed Fiji's politics and helped to break down the racial divisions both leading parties still reflect.

In other words, change was already in the air, not least because the purported threat Indo-Fijians posed to Fijian dominance has dissipated. Indo-Fijians comprised nearly half the population in 1987; by 2006 only 37 per cent. It is estimated that their proportion may fall to under 25 per cent by 2020. Under these circumstances, electoral systems will have to change, and such change was already being publicly debated before Bainimarama chose to overthrow the recently elected parliament in which power was being shared for the first time among the representatives of 80 percent of the population.

The danger Bainimarama poses lies not in what he says he will do but what he does. Here is a man who claims he and the military forces he represents have the right to interfere in the political process whenever they, and they alone, choose. This is the Rabuka legacy, and if Bainimarama succeeds in recreating Fiji's democracy in five years' time, he will have confirmed for all time the role of the military as Fiji's political kingmaker.
Robbie Robertson
Meanwhile, seasoned Australian Pacific affairs journalist Sean Dorney has wowed students at Queensland University of Technology. According to Alan Knight's blog DatelineHK, Dorney says the Fiji media are being forced "to buckle under" and censorship is being branded as the “journalism of hope". In New Zealand, the Television New Zealand Maori affairs programme Marae has featured Bainimarama’s elder brother, Sefanaia. Others on the panel were former Fiji Broadcasting Corporation Ltd chief executive Sireli Kini and Nik Naidu, spokesperson for the Coalition for Democracy in Fiji.

Pacific Media Centre news blog has posted an insightful backgrounder about Fiji's woes by advocate against poverty Fr Kevin Barr, who explains the People's Charter process. Also, Violet Cho offers a roundup of reaction. A new media blog, , is focused on Fiji.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

'Toxic and irresponsible' troops comment by Key

UNBELIEVABLE! NZ Prime Minister John Key's statement about the military is astonishingly inflammatory, given his own remarks a few days ago about how volatile the situation was in Fiji. He said NZ would consider sending armed forces to Fiji if they were "needed to stabilise the peace". Café Pacific considers he means the peace that NZ's foreign policy has contributed to destabilising in the first place. Contributor Pat Craddock writes:
Why on earth does John Key shoot his mouth off by saying that New Zealand would consider sending armed forces troops into Fiji if they were needed to stabilise peace as part of a multi-lateral action?

This uncalled for statement is unworthy of the man many citizens voted into power last year. He would have been better informed to keep quiet. Any moment now, he is possibly going to relapse into quotes from a former leader and say you are with us or against us.

Fiji has enough problems of its own. This inflammatory language by our Prime Minister can only feed into the unfortunate poisonous rhetoric of Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama about our country and its politicians.

Mr Key, you are my Prime Minister now. Fiji is our neighbour and New Zealand must try to keep dialogue open. How do you do it? I don't know. But I sure can recognise toxic and irresponsible language from our top leader?
Picture: Flashback to cartoonist Tom Scott's view of an earlier phase of Bainimarama's coup -- Dominion Post, 9 November 2007.

NZ 'would consider sending troops to Fiji'

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