Monday, July 6, 2009

Post-putsch Fiji journalism training under cloud

MIXED REPORTS seem to dog the AusAID-spawned journalism schools that have been springing up around the Pacific. In spite of the usually gushing puff pieces that get turned out by the technical institutes and the donor guardians, things don’t seem to be as rosy as they’re portrayed. Given the climate of censorship and media paranoia in post-putsch Fiji, there should be a lot more scrutiny about their activities and progress. In the light of many jaundiced messages from media old hands around the region, Café Pacific wonders how rigorous these new schools are – certainly compared to the transparent and thorough practices in the universities.

On the one hand, it is good to be providing more entry-level opportunities for both students and media practitioners to develop their professional skills, However, many oldtime professional educators are troubled about the “bypassing of establishing teaching institutions” and the undermining of the sustainable institutions in the region offering journalism programmes – the University of Papua New Guinea (j-school founded in 1975), Divine Word University at Madang, PNG (1982) and the University of the South Pacific (1987). Journalism being taught with a bunch of skills but without critical studies (the training of the ability to think and question) is rather pointless for a serious Fourth Estate role. And the universities are out on their own in this regard.

Some old hands are questioning the value of the Fiji Institute of Technology j-school, for example, describing it as “poorly thought out and implemented in a jiffy”. According to some media education and training critics:
Many courses are under-taught, poorly taught or not taught at all. Attendance by both lecturers and students are poor.

But somehow students are still graduating.
Students are voting with their feet … and they have some horror stories to tell.

The TVets were supposed to have become self-funding. But this has not happened. Recently AusAID pumped another $190,000 into the FIT programme to stop it becoming yet another failed Pacific media aid project and an embarrassment.
Café Pacific wonders whether it was also to avoid uncomfortable questions from taxpayers. How much longer will AusAID continue propping up these schools. What happens when AusAID eventually bails out? And why is that there is virtually no critique of standards? Not just in Fiji, but in the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and elsewhere as well. For years, the university courses encountered flak from some industry quarters when in fact time and again they demonstrated value – by winning awards against international, competition in Australia and New Zealand, for example.

Where is the independent media being produced by these TVet programmes? All the university j-schools have run their own media for years – newspapers, television programmes, radio stations etc. This is the hallmark of good and challenging journalism programmes overseas. Yet the TVet outputs are almost invisible. Merely producing fodder for industry at a time when critical, independent journalism needs to be nurtured more than ever. And where are the transparent audits of these virtual courses? If a flourishing Fourth Estate across the Pacific is what they really had in mind, the AusAID moguls must be regretting their investment.

PM Sikua supports new journalism school
UNESCO supports new approach to journalism training

Friday, July 3, 2009

Timorese PM under fire in food contract scandal

By Matt Crook in Dili

PRESSURE to resign is mounting on East Timor's Prime Minster, Xanana Gusmão, amid claims that he misused authority when he signed-off on a multimillion dollar government contract last year to a company his daughter has ties with.

Fernanda Borges, leader of the opposition National Unity Party, has demanded that Gusmão be held accountable for his role in the awarding of a contract to import subsidised rice worth US$3.5 million* to Prima Food, a company his daughter Zenilda Gusmão owns a stake in.

"Did Zenilda Gusmão have a business before her father became important? No. Does Zenilda Gusmão have the right to a government contract? No," she said. "That's not why Mr Gusmão was elected."

Under East Timorese parliamentary law, the prime minister is required to sign off on all government contracts above $1 million, and government tenders cannot be awarded to companies in which close family members of government officials, including the prime minister, have a stake exceeding 10 percent.

Money for the rice contract came from the country's Economic Stabilisation Fund, which functions partly to ensure food prices are kept under control. The opposition is raising questions about whether the rice in question was even imported.

"Did the rice come in? Where is the rice? People out in the districts, a lot of them have not received any rice or had the opportunity of buying cheap rice from the government. So where did all that rice go or did it ever come in? We don't have proof," Borges said.

But the government refutes the allegation.

Deputy Prime Minister Mario Carrascalao says the contract being signed off may have simply been an oversight.

"OK, he signed that without going through and examining it," he said. "[The government] distributed money to [16] enterprises. In one of those enterprises there is the daughter of the prime minister, but she is not alone. The enterprise called Prima Food is not just her enterprise. She is one of the associated members, so I don't think the prime minister did anything wrong when he signed it."

Backing for PM
The prime minister also has the backing of the East Timorese President José Ramos-Horta.

"Just because someone became president, became prime minister, became a minister, does not mean his family all have to go into unemployment, all have to sell their business and stop," he told Radio Australia.

However, the opposition isn't buying the explanation.

"My worry is if he stays and he thinks that, especially with all this denial and weird interpretation of our Constitution and existing laws, that [the government] can give families contracts," Borges said. "What are we building here? A state for [their] families?"

Arsenio Bano, an opposition MP from the Fretilin party, demands that the prime minister step down.

"The rice contract is one of the biggest scandals. It is demonstrating nepotism. We will keep pushing for [Xanana Gusmão] to be accountable and even to resign as prime minister," he said.

"He can't sign under the law a contract with a company that his own daughter is in."

East Timor became independent in 2002 three years after an overwhelming majority of the population voted in favour of separation from Indonesia after a brutal 24-year occupation. If opposition protests grow louder, this scandal could pose a real threat to the stability of this new democracy.

But Christopher Samson, a campaigner from Lalenok Ba Ema Hotu, a Dili-based anti-corruption watchdog, cautions that it is a bit too early to jump to conclusions.

"[The] law did not say that families of ministers or the prime minister or members of government should not participate in business," he said. "I feel there should be an investigation before we speak about this process."

Matt Crook is a correspondent of the Inter Press Service (IPS). Image source: Timor Lorosae News

* East Timor's currency is US dollars.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Veteran Fiji broadcaster gagged on Pacific radio

A RECENT wide-ranging interview about Fiji has led to the suspension off air of veteran broadcaster Bulou Amalaini Ligalevu from her popular Pacific Media Network programme. Bulou Amalaini, an experienced former Radio Fiji broadcaster who started her 531pi Fijian-language Voqa Kei Viti (Voice of Fiji) in 1980, has fallen out with her bosses over a 20-minute interview with Fiji’s human rights advocacy group Citizens' Constitutional Forum (CCF) executive director Rev Akuila Yabaki (pictured). The programme included insightful views about media censorship and current developments in Fiji.

But while the programme drew some 25 comments complimenting Bulou Amalaini over the interview, three people emailed the radio station complaining about a section discussing the recent Methodist Church controversy. Regime leader Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama banned this year’s annual conference of the 200,000-strong church. The commander also demanded that the church sack two former presidents who were involved in previous coups, Rev Manasa Lasaro and Rev Tomasi Kanailagi, and are being blamed for “incitement”.

Acting chief executive Tom Etuata, of Niue, suspended Bulou Amalaini off air in response to the complaints – even before discussing the programme with her. He says the radio network aims for "balance". Bulou has now been told the suspension has been lifted, but it is understood she has not actually been scheduled for the regular five-hour Saturday evening Fiji slot since her June 6 broadcast.

All three complainants were hostile over Yabaki's and her criticisms of the Methodist Church. Said one: "And to bring such a person to openly criticise my church and its affairs to the people on New Zealand, how dare she do that. She continues to add on comments and remarks with suggestions about how we should run our church - who the hell is she?"

In this current post-Easter climate of media censorship in Fiji and the dearth of quality comment about the political situation, Bulou Amalaini’s programme has been a gem. It has been marked by quality and in-depth research and credible commentators. “But a lot of people don’t like Rev Yabaki for his forthright and independent views – and for the same reason, some don’t like me,” she told Café Pacific.

Among views expressed in the Yabaki interview were:

On censorship:
It’s difficult to get national news broadcast out of Fiji without it being censored by the regime. We have to find an alternative way of transmitting this information to the outside world, particularly when we are depending on the international community to help out.
On the abrogation of the 1997 Constitution:
Yes, it’s true that our Constitution has been abrogated. However, basic human rights still exist globally - and this includes the right of freedom of speech. Every human being has the right to freedom of speech and although the Public Emergency Regulation is in force … we have to try and work a way around this censorship.
On the chilling of free speech:
People are not so forthcoming for fear of victimisation, whereby they could lose their jobs and all interviews are being screened as directed by the regime. This does not augur well for a solution. Instead we need to keep the dialogue open. And, as I have mentioned before, there were some discriminatory overtones in the last Parliament but that does not mean that freedom of expression should be curtailed altogether.
On arbitrary arrests and detentions:
We are concerned at the arrest and detention of people by the police and military. Following the abrogation of the Constitution on April 10, the Public Emergency Regulation (PER) was promulgated for 30 days [and Bainimarama says it will now be in force until the end of the year] ... This PER [was] embedded in our Constitution and can be executed by Parliament as a security measure if there is civil unrest or disturbance in the country. It had never been used before until the coup was staged in December 2006 and more recently after 10 April 2009.
On the banning of the Methodist Church annual conference:
The Methodist Church chose not to be a member of the National Council for Building a Better Fiji (NCBBF) ... The Methodist Church is very much in disarray. If you look at the history of the stand that the Methodist Church has taken in the past 20 years, you will note that it supported the first coup of 1987 and also George Speight’s coup in the year 2000. But it opposed the coup of 2006 because it believes that Fiji should be governed by Fijians, who are their members, as if it were their divine right. This was the case when Dr Timoci Bavadra and Mahendra Chaudhry’s Labour Party won the general elections of 1987 and 1999.
How ironical that those objecting to the Bainimarama regime’s censorship in Fiji should seek to gag a prominent Fiji broadcaster in New Zealand for trying to open up debate.

Picture of Rev Akuila Yabaki - The Fiji Times.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Resign calls mount in East Timor over corruption allegations against Gusmão

CALLS ARE mounting for East Timorese resistance hero and founding president Xanana Gusmão to resign as prime minister amid fresh allegations of corruption, this time involving a lucrative contract with his daughter Zenilda as a beneficiary. The Sydney Morning Herald’s Jakarta correspondent, Tom Allard, reports that if these latest allegations are proven, they could be a major problem for Gusmão, "who has staked his reputation on cleaning up East Timor’s bureaucracy and its tender system”.

The SMH cited a a spokeswoman for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade saying the Canberra government “took allegations of corruption seriously and was working closely with the East Timorese government to increase accountability”. The unnamed spokeswoman said the Australian aid programme to Timor-Leste was carefully monitored to “prevent and detect fraud”. The Fretilin oppositionhas spearheaded these allegations and is already channelling protests. According to Allard, citing documents obtained by Fretilin:
Mr Gusmão awarded a $US3.5 million ($4.4 million) contract for rice imports to Prima Foods, a company Fretilin says is partly owned by his daughter, Zenilda. The contract was awarded under a $US45 million government program to import basic foodstuffs.
The allegations first surfaced in stories by Radio Australia reporters Steve Holland and Stephanie March, who reported yesterday:
Zenilda Gusmão, the prime minister's daughter, is listed as a Prima Food shareholder in East Timor's 2008 business registry.

Radio Australia has also confirmed that the wife of another senior minister has profited from government tenders.

The country's procurement law bans "agents of the administration", politicians and bureaucrats from awarding government contracts to businesses associated with close family members.

The deputy leader of the opposition Fretilin party, Arsenio Bano, alleges it is a blatant example of corruption in the Prime Minister's Office and called for the Prime Minister's resignation.

"It's absolutely a strong indication of corruption, he has violated Timor Law, and before it goes to the courts the prime minister should resign," Mr Bano said.

Gusmão was unavailable for comment.
The Prime Minister's daughter, Zenilda Gusmão, declined to comment.

However, a spokeswoman for the government confirmed to Radio Australia that Zenilda Gusmão was a shareholder of Prima Food.
President José Ramos Horta has distanced himself from a scandal, involving the country's Prime Minister. He says it is not his business to intervene.

The Gusmão coalition government has faced persistent corruption allegations.

The administration awarded a $US400 million contract to a Chinese Government-owned company to build two powerplants without calling for open tenders. Under the deal,
East Timor will import expensive and highly polluting heavy oil, even though it is rich in natural gas.

The husband of the Justice Minister, Lucia Lobato, was reportedly awarded a lucrative contract to rebuild a prison and supply uniforms for guards. Lobato, who is responsible for the prison system, is suing the journalist who broke the story.

Picture of Xanana Gusmão - Repúblika Banana.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Tribute from Brij Lal - Farewell, Ron, Fare Well

By Brij Lal

IT SAYS a lot about the nature of the world we live in that I received the news of Ron Crocombe's death via email in Switzerland where I am on holidays. The message is brief: Ron was on his way back to Rarotonga from Nukualofa via Auckland when he suffered a massive heart attack and died on a bus to the airport. No doubt more details will become available in due course as obituaries are written and assessment made of the contribution Ron made to the development of Pacific studies at the University of the South Pacific, where he taught from 1969 onwards before becoming an emeritus professor. I suspect Ron would be happy the way he went: mobile and alert, returning from an academic gathering of distinguished peers, talking and listening while crisscrossing his beloved Pacific Ocean.

Ron had written to me just a few weeks ago about Fiji, saying how sad he was with the way things were there. I had met Ron in person the last time at the PHA Conference in Suva last December. He was in fine form, as always: lively, energetic, full of anecdotes about this Pacific personality or that, full of opinion about everything under the sun. That was Ron, or one side of him. He was more busy in retirement than when he was a fulltime academic, he said. Tome after fat tome testified to his inexhaustible thirst for knowledge about things Pacific. He appeared to know everything and everybody who ever worked on the Pacific. Kenneth Emory: yes, and he would recall some event to make a point. Douglas Oliver, Jim Davidson, Harry Maude, Oskar Spate, "Jack" Crawford, John Gunther, Dick Gilson. That kind of knowledge in one person is now hard to imagine. Ron was one of a kind. There won't be another Ron Crocombe in our lifetime, if ever.

Ron taught me at USP in the early 1970s. I particularly remember his course on Advanced Pacific History. The course ranged from prehistory to the future of the postcolonial Pacific. We were not expected to master every topic, but after a broad introduction, Ron expected us to choose a topic and do an indepth study of it. Despite his affable nature, Ron was a stickler for standards, a task master who did not hesitate to push you near to the edge. He saw a talent for history in me, but I think he wanted me to work on something more in the present. Ron had an instrumentalist view of history: as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. Why would a bright lad like me want to be marooned in the past? But he encouraged me nonetheless. Ron was not a disciplined lecturer. Discipline was "alien" to him. A lecture on prehistory could traverse a very large field, even venture into the present. But that did not matter. He had his reading list, and he expected us to do the learning on our own. He was not an Ivory Tower academic. That side of him impressed me deeply, perhaps even influenced my own intellectual development.

Ron was personally kind to me. As I was finishing my undergraduate degree, Ron wrote to at least two dozen places around the world, from SOAS to the East-West Centre, singing my praises and urging them to accept me (on a scholarship). Eventually, the University of British Columbia did. Its head of History Department, Margaret Prang, was on a cruise ship in Suva. Ron pleaded with her to give me a teaching assistantship in her department. She did: a full graduate fellowship. Ron then arranged with Canadian Pacific to fly me over to Vancouver at their own expense. I shall never forget his personal generosity. Over the years, I disagreed with Ron on many things, but a deep residue of respect for him remained. For Ron, disagreements and debates were never personal. I have a lot to learn from his example.

Ron will be remembered for many things, but perhaps most of all for his work in facilitating the study of the Pacific islands by Pacific islanders themselves through the Institute of Pacific Studies at USP. His vision was right for its time: for its time, I would emphasise. He hoped that after the initial encouragement, those who wanted to pursue an academic career would enter more rigorous institutions for further training. Few did, content to rest on their USP laurels. In private, Ron sometimes muttered his disappointments, but his overall enthusiasm for things Pacific and for Pacific Islanders remained undimmed.

In his early years at USP, Ron was an important institution builder. He founded the South Pacific Social Sciences Association which published a number of important monographs. He founded the journal 'Pacific Perspectives,' which lasted for about 10 years. With Marjorie Crocombe and Albert Wendt, he was instrumental in setting up the South Pacific Creative Arts Society, which published the literary journal Mana. He was the organiser of the first "Pacific Way" conference in Suva in the early 1970s from which came the influential publication The Pacific Way: Social Issues in National Development. (I am quoting the title from memory). The list goes on.

Ron's passing marks the end of an era in the evolution of Pacific studies. He was there at creation, so to speak, and he saw the emergence of a new era with different intellectual and cultural concerns. I am not sure that he totally approved of the new trends. He was a man with his feet firmly on the ground. I feel sad that Ron is not among us today. It is hard to believe that he is not. But he lived a long and rich life with his beloved Marjorie, and has left behind a legacy that will remain long after many of us are gone. Vinaka vakalevu, Ron, moce maca.
  • Brij V Lal is professor of Pacific and Asian history at Australian National University's Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies.
Pictured: Emeritus professor Ron Crocombe with Tongan Prime Minister Dr Feleti Sevele at his 'Atenisi University fellow induction ceremony just three days before he died. - Photo: Pacific Media Centre

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Balibo thriller exposes brutal murders of six journalists

BALIBO, the film about truth and justice in East Timor and the brutal murders of six journalists while the fledgling nation struggled for its independence against the Indonesian invasion in 1975, is certain to cause shock waves in the region.

The film, being screened at the Melbourne film festival next month and due for general release in August, is an indictment of successive Australian governments.

And New Zealand authorities are also bound to be embarrassed by the chilling story of political betrayal and death.

Five journalists – including a New Zealander – working for Australian television networks – were killed in the border village of Balibo on 16 October 1975 and a sixth in the capital of Dili eight weeks later.

Indonesian special forces led by Yunus Yosfiah murdered Australian-based journalists Greg Shackleton, Tony Stewart, Gary Cunningham (a New Zealander), Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie, who were reporting on Indonesia’s then covert invasion of East Timor.

Roger East, who went to investigate their deaths, was also murdered in Dili during the formal invasion, on December 7 – he was among 86 people summarily executed on the Dili wharf and their bodies dumped in the sea.

The military commanders involved in these atrocities today lead lives of impunity in spite of their crimes.

Director Robert Connolly unveiled some of the footage in a preview of his film at the recent 58th World Press Institute conference in Helsinki, Finland, earlier this month.

Balibo tells the story of the six murders through the eyes of war correspondent Roger East (played by Anthony LaPaglia) and a young José Ramos-Horta (now President of Timor-Leste).

In 2007, New South Wales deputy coroner Dorelle Pinch ruled that the Balibo five were deliberately killed by Indonesian troops to cover up the invasion of East Timor.

Associate Professor Damien Kingsbury, of Geelong’s Deakin University Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights, writes:
As a movie, Balibo is confronting, heart-wrenching, and raises a sense of legitimate anger. These responses parallel how many Australians responded to events in East Timor in 1999, when by their numbers they compelled the Australian government to finally intervene.

Such responses also parallel how many Australians felt in 1975, and in the years since. If the concerns of 1975 faded, it was because our governments so effectively covered-up the truth of these events, and the horrors subsequently perpetrated upon the people of East Timor. The Indonesian government led that complicity, culminating in the carnage and its ignominious departure from East Timor in 1999. But our own governments, under Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke, Keating and Howard, participated in that complicity.

The movie
Balibo also captures the reality that East Timor’s people were just ordinary human beings caught in terrible circumstances. The scenes, too, in the forests and of streams, over the steep mountains and of the sea and sky are so accurate because they are East Timor. Dili’s emblematic Hotel Turismo had, and retains, the atmosphere of a Graeme Greene novel.

Balibo’s critics will attack it not for its art, but citing that Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is, these days, positive, and East Timor is now an independent state with its own aspirations and struggles. What they are unlikely to admit it that the problems that East Timor has endured since independence have been rooted in its brutal past.

Papa Ron dies after lifetime contribution to Pacific

THIS PICTURE must be one of the last of “Papa” Ron Crocombe, who died suddenly on Friday while on a shuttle taking him to Auckland International Airport on his return to the Cook Islands. Café Pacific’s David Robie had been with him just a couple of days earlier in Tonga for the induction ceremony of six international fellows (Ron and David included) at Atenisi University.

One of the fathers of Pacific regionalism, Ron Crocombe (top: on far right, next to Tongan prime minister Dr Feteli Sevele), had been emeritus professor of Pacific studies at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji since his "retirement". After working in Papua New Guinea for seven years where he ran the New Guinea Research Unit, he became the founder of the Institute of the Pacific Studies at USP and was director for more than two decades. Sadly, the IPS and his legacy have virtually disappeared in restructuring at USP.

In his so-called retirement, Professor Crocombe, aged almost 80, was also a great achiever and continued to work tirelessly for the South Pacific region as an inspiration, critical thinker, adviser to governments and politicians, mentor to Pacific writers and researchers, and contributor to developing a strong regional civil society. While at ‘Atenisi, he spoke strongly of the achievements of founding Professor Futa Helu and 40 years of education at the university and institute. Among a collection of books he donated to the university was an original edition of Mariner’s 1817 classic Tonga Islands. (William Mariner was a teenager on board the English privateer Port Au Prince, captured by Tongan warriors in the Ha'apai island group. He was one of the few who survived and after living in Tonga for four years wrote a detailed account of his experiences).

Professor Crocombe was a frequent critic of Australian and New Zealand policies in the region and about hypocrisy over aid (and Fiji’s disproportionate influence on regionalism). For example, he made these comments about the Pacific Plan in one ABC Radio interview:
Australia and New Zealand have always – Australia particularly – always tried to kill any question of labour mobility. Australia says, “You must open up everything where Australia will benefit from – your markets, your investment, your everything else. But anything that you will benefit from ...” – and about the only thing [Pacific countries] will benefit from is some labour market access – “No, you can't have that.”
In recent years, Professor Crocombe had worked towards benefits from greater cooperation with Asia, particularly China, in the region. He advocated greater awareness and preparation in Pacific countries for the “Asian century”. Among his recent works for the IPS were publication in 2007 of the 623-page tome about the “spectacular transition” underway in the Pacific detailing a half century of growing Asian involvement in the Pacific and declining Western influence. Entitled Asia in the Pacific Islands: Replacing the West, the latter book notes:
Asia is already more important than Western sources in some dimensions (eg. exports and investments) and the relative importance is increasing steadily. However, few in the Islands are preparing for the change. It has been clear for over 30 years that Pacific curricula need to emphasise Asia more, and that many more Island students, media and diplomats sent abroad for study should spend more time in Asia – especially its Pacific coast nations, which they will need to understand and deal with. One hopes too that more Asians will take a positive interest in the islands.
Ron Crocombe is survived by his wife, Marjorie Tuainekore, four children, 14 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. He will be sorely missed by academics, politicians, civil society advocates, writers, colleagues and friends throughout the region for his refreshing, insightful and uncompromisingly independent views. Café Pacific offers our condolences to Ron's family.
  • A memorial service was held at the Pacific Islands Presbyterian Church in Newton, Auckland, on Monday afternoon.
Pictured: ‘Atenisi fellows: Dr David Robie (from left), Dr Ian Campbell, Professor Futa Helu, Dr 'Opeti Taliai, Dr Wendy Cowling, Prime Minister Dr Feleti Sevele and Dr Ron Crocombe. - Pacific Media Centre. Dr Niko Besnier, of Amsterdam University, was also inducted but is not in this picture.

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