Friday, January 8, 2010

Fiji censors, bloggers and the future of free expression



EIGHT days ago, Café Pacific made a New Year honours award to the University of the South Pacific's Wansolwara in the "independent newspaper" category. The academic staff person currently steering this journalism student publication is Shailendra Singh, a former editor of The Review news magazine. Global Integrity, an independent governance watchdog, has just caught up with him and interviewed him on his views over Fiji under the military censorship boot. The interview is reproduced here with the Pacific Scoop, Café Pacific and other links cited:

WE ARE GLOBAL: FROM FIJI, A JOURNALIST'S STAND ON CENSORS, BLOGGERS AND THE FUTURE OF FREE EXPRESSION

By Norah Mallaney of Global Integrity

In the South Pacific, I found a case study in modern censorship, as Fiji’s three-year-old military government collides with a once free local press, an emerging blogging culture and an ambivalent international community. Some basic facts are contested, but it is clear that free expression in Fiji is under intense pressure, in a sharp departure from Fijian cultural and political tradition. I talked over email with journalist and media academic Shailendra Singh, based in capital of Suva, about the future of free expression in Fiji.

Despite increasing government control over print media, Shailendra is determined. Journalists get heat from all sides, as even reporting the government’s arguments for media regulation has become controversial. But Shailendra argues for free exchange over partisanship. “It is absurd to fight censorship with censorship” Shailendra told me.

Shailendra worked with Global Integrity as a lead journalist in 2008, writing the Corruption Notebook: Fiji. As a senior lecturer on journalism, Shailendra encourages his fellow journalists and students to pursue stories to the greatest extent possible under the current restrictions. Bainimarama’s government, who seized power in a 2006 coup d’etat, has clamped down on the media. In a 2006 radio address, Bainimarama advised pro-democracy advocates to "shut their mouth," lest the military "shut it for them.” The arrest or deportation of prominent journalists followed.

This has never before been seen in the island nation, with the brief exception of a period during the 1987 coup staged by then military strongman, Sitiveni Rabuka. After the 1987 takeover, the media eventually regained full reporting rights. The future does not seem as certain now and Fijians turn to regional “parachute journalists” or anonymous bloggers for independent yet at times questionably reliable news. “In many cases the blogs are vitriolic and abusive,” Shailendra said. “On the other hand, some credible commentators who can no longer publish their articles in the local dailies have set up blogsites.”

Shailendra worries about the spill-over effect Fiji’s censorship may have on the region and he has spoken out on the need for Australia and New Zealand to put pressure on Pacific island governments that threaten press freedom: “Hopefully, they [AUS and NZ] will soon come to see that their own interests are at risk when basic freedoms are removed, and they will act accordingly instead of remaining aloof.”

“If you are looking for a silver lining,” Shailendra said, “the situation in Fiji has not only offered journalism an opportunity for self-reflection and improvement, but also a chance to focus attention on some very important areas that were overshadowed and neglected due to the heavy emphasis on politics. Local media is running a lot more human-interest stories. There is greater coverage of ordinary people, rural news and development issues.”

You can read our discussion below.

An inner-determination comes through in Shailendra’s responses, reflecting the fact that while open, public dissemination of information may be quelled for now, Fiji’s legacy of an active media will outlast the current crisis.

Norah Mallaney: Your Corruption Notebook: Fiji centered on the feeling of disillusionment among journalists and citizens who might have once hailed the 2006 coup as positive progress. Has this trend continued? Is current political dissent published in newspapers and other media outlets (radio etc)? Or is this more spoken of in private circles?

Shailendra Singh: The Fiji government currently censors the news media. As a result, political dissent is not published. There is no law stopping people from discussing politics in private. But people would naturally be more cautious than they used to be about what they say, and who they say it to. Apart from a brief period after the coups of 1987, Fiji has always had a free media. The country was on a par with Australia and New Zealand when it came to media freedom and freedom of speech. There was, of course, the usual ranting by politicians and occasional threats in Parliament to shut down newspapers, or to bring in new laws to curb “irresponsible” reporting when sex scandals or corruption involving politicians were exposed. But until recently, no such laws were implemented, and journalists, by and large, went about doing their work without fear.

Now, for the first time, the media is under full censorship, which is an alien experience for us. Current censorship is by decree. But government plans to bring in a new media promulgation that will curb some of the freedoms that we took for granted in the past. The government says tighter media regulations are needed to curb abuses by journalists. It blames the media for inciting racial animosities. It says such journalistic transgressions often go unpunished.

These assertions cannot be dismissed out of hand. Media has made mistakes. Some of these mistakes have been costly. But rather than censorship, training for journalists and supporting the setting up of independent media monitoring organisations, or media accountability systems, would be the proper thing to do.

Pio Tikoduadua, the permanent secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office, recently said that Fiji’s media would no longer be self-regulatory under the new media decree, which is expected to come in force in 2010. Under the new promulgation, it is expected that a new body will be formed to hear grievances by people who feel they have been unfairly treated by the media. This new body will either replace or work alongside the Fiji Media Council, a self-regulatory body set up by Fiji’s news media industry.

So self-regulation, which is practised by most democracies, could become a thing of the past in Fiji. The government’s argument is that the media cannot be judge and jury of its own conduct. It says the Fiji Media Council has failed to uphold ethics and improve standards. The media argues that excessive laws and punitive measures by government will only shackle the media, which could have grave repercussions in future. For instance, this government is strongly against corruption. Draconian media laws would be counterproductive for government’s anti-corruption drive.

Future governments may not be as well intentioned as the current government, and they may inherit a media law that they can use to shield their corrupt activities.

Norah: Blogs (both Fiji-based and in the broader Pacific region) seem to have taken on an identity as the “critical eyes” of the current government. Who is their intended audience? Considering internet penetrability rates, who is actually reading? How high is their credibility in Fiji and in the broader region?

Shailendra: Blogs have become an outlet for opponents of the present government to vent their frustrations, as they do not have any other avenue to voice their opinions. Blogs offer anonymity, thus safety from arrest and possible prosecution in court. Media consumers in Fiji are used to an outspoken and fairly aggressive media. Currently the media in Fiji has been tamed through a decree that the government introduced to encourage “a greater degree of responsibility” from the media. Journalists that fall foul of the decree face jail as well as stiff fines.

Readers in Fiji know that the media is being censored. They understand that the media is not able to report everything that goes on. There is a vacuum concerning government and political news, so a good number of readers are turning to blogs as an additional, or alternative, source of information.

Many blogs are based on opinion, hearsay or rumour. Ordinarily, such rumours would be investigated and reported by the mainstream news media. But presently this is not the case. So there is a lot of rumour mongering. People who read blogs choose to either trust or distrust the information.

It cannot be claimed that the blogs have taken on an identity as the “critical eyes” of the current government. For one, the bloggers are anonymous so their credibility becomes an issue. Some bloggers clearly have sinister motives. The bloggers are not bound by any journalistic principles, guidelines or ethics. They often publish without checking. In many cases the blogs are vitriolic and abusive. Many commentators and commentaries are racist.

On the other hand, some credible commentators who can no longer publish their articles in the local dailies have set up blogsites. This includes an economist and political commentator, Professor Wadan Narsey, who used to write regular columns in the papers. But the newspapers have stopped running his articles due to censorship. Professor Narsey posts his blogs under his names. His most recent posting was an analysis of the 2010 budget. In this instance the blog is playing the role of “critical eyes” on government as you put it. New technology has enabled Narsey to publish his work in an instant and makes it harder for governments to silence people.

However, internet penetrability is low in Fiji, so it would be mostly the urban educated who have access to and read these blogs.

Norah: How has the shift in media censorship impacted on the lessons, training and student population at the Journalism School at University of the South Pacific?

Shailendra: In terms of media education and research, we have a unique, real life case study of censorship at work to examine and test against textbook theories. We cannot report freely, but we can debate the situation in class presentations and seminars, and write essays and research reports.

Also, we invited the Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum as a speaker recently. Our students had an opportunity to question him. They wrote news reports about what he said. The AG’s comments were widely reported, and they generated a major debate among regional media observers and commentators.

Some people were of the view that the AG should not have been invited as a speaker. Our view is that it is absurd to fight censorship with censorship. We as journalists should be aware that there are two or more sides to an issue. Furthermore, had we not invited the AG and reported his comments, there would have been no discussion or rekindling of interest, awareness and generating continued publicity about Fiji.

If you are looking for a silver lining, the situation in Fiji has not only offered journalism an opportunity for self-reflection and improvement, but also a chance to focus attention on some very important areas that were overshadowed and neglected due to the heavy emphasis on politics. Local media is running a lot more human-interest stories. There is greater coverage of ordinary people, rural news and development issues.

For instance, a recent issue of USP journalism’s training newspaper, Wansolwara, had a front-page report on how gaming centers in Suva were luring young people to play and spend money there. The story led to a police crackdown on 24-hr gaming centers. The article received a high commendation at the 2009 Journalism Education Association of Australia and New Zealand student awards in Perth, Australia, last month (December '09).

Another story on how the legal marriageable age for girls at 16 was leading to their exploitation has resulted in the law being changed in Fiji. We have also focused on the environment with students researching and writing stories on coral reef degradation, shark-fin fishery and climate change impacts.

Norah: In a recent interview you did with Radio Australia, you spoke of the need for greater pressure from Australian and New Zealand aid donors to keep media freedom high in the region.

Shailendra: Australia and NZ are the largest aid donors and regional superpowers. As such they have a lot of influence with Pacific Island countries. The two nations are understandably reluctant to be seen as meddling in the internal affairs of their smaller neighbours. But these two countries should not keep silent, or make token gestures, when fundamental freedoms are threatened.

For instance, the Laisenia Qarase government that was ousted from power in Fiji by the military in 2006 had declared its intention to bring in a new media law, and also to introduce legislation to pardon people behind the 2000 coup. In my view, Australia and New Zealand did not do enough to try and deter the Qarase government from taking these apparently unconstitutional actions.

Some Pacific Island governments often threaten to restrict media freedoms. When they do this, Australia and New Zealand should speak out, not only because it is the morally correct thing to do, but also because their own interests are threatened when regional governments move to place unreasonable curbs on basic human rights. Apart form the massive aid the two countries pour into the region, they have a lot of investments in Pacific Island countries. If the media is muzzled, it will not be able to report on government corruption, and also, how efficiently aid is utilised.

Corruption is rife in some regional countries, and aid is also hijacked and diverted on a regular basis. The media often reports this, and this is why some governments are so keen to silence the media. In the absence of a free media, the corrupt will become even more emboldened, and the scale of the problems will only increase. So Australia and NZ need to be proactive rather than reactive when it comes to such issues. They need to persuade, sometimes coerce leaders, into institutionalizing transparency and accountability, if for no other reason, than for the sake of their own taxpayers and investments.

Australia and New Zealand are not averse to arm-twisting and riding roughshod over Pacific Island sensitivities when they feel that their interests are directly threatened, or when they are trying to gain an advantage, such as in trade talks. Aid has been used both as a carrot and stick. Examples of this abound.

The recent Julian Moti saga is a case in point. An Australian court dropped child-sex charges against Moti, a former Solomon Islands attorney general, last month (December). The Australian Federal Police (AFP) had resurrected the charges nearly 10 years after they were dismissed by a court in Vanuatu. The Supreme Court in Brisbane found that the prosecution was an abuse of process by police because its payments to the alleged victim's family in Vanuatu, totaling $AUD150, 000, brought the administration of justice into disrepute. The judge ruled against Moti's claim that the case against him was politically motivated as a result of the Australian government's concerns that his role as Solomon Islands attorney general would undermine a peacekeeping mission Australia was heading in the Solomons.

But many respected commentators believe this is precisely the reason the AFP went after Moti with such extraordinary determination. So it is not for nothing that Australia and New Zealand are sometimes referred to as “bullies” by their smaller neighbours. I am guessing that these two countries do not feel that freedom of the media is an important enough issue requiring their diplomatic intervention. Why else would they remain silent when media freedoms are threatened? Hopefully they will soon come to see that their own interests are at risk when basic freedoms are removed, and they will act accordingly instead of remaining aloof.

2 comments:

Liu Muri said...

Well said, Karua Shailendra. Media people in Fiji need to be pragmatic and adjust to the unusual situation they are forced to operate on.I must commend USP Journalism School for giving true meaning to the term " development journalism" that are suitable for developing countries to improve their well-being. The two stories about school truancy and child marriage are lessons for Fiji's mainstream media to focus on such stories that are more relevant to Fiji's developing status, and not indulge in political muckraking and racially inciting and divisive stories that threaten the soft fabric of racial tolerance in Fiji. USP Journalism School needs all the support from the region as it is the only fully-set infrastructure that can provide high level of undergraduate and postgraduate media education.The challenge to it from the National University of Fiji and Australian governments interference in sabotaging USP Journalism course by funding an unnecessary rival media education needs to be discussed in light of Julian Moti Saga.

Stephan White said...

It cannot be claimed that the blogs have taken on an identity as the “critical eyes” of the current government. For one, the bloggers are anonymous so their credibility becomes an issue. Some bloggers clearly have sinister motives.

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