Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Fiji media decree also clouds Daily Post

THE FOCUS on Fiji media and press freedom invariably centres on The Fiji Times and its "valiant fight" for Fourth Estate independence in the face of an "oppressive regime". While the courage of the Murdoch-owned Fiji Times journalists certainly needs to be acknowledged, the vested interests of a group of Anzac journalists and media need to be seen for what they are. More attention needs to be given to the other Fiji news media and varying perspectives they offer on the reality of post-coup Fiji today - and a closer look is needed at their constrasting strategies for "media freedom" ... and survival. Take the struggling Fiji Daily Post for example:

Reluctant newspaper publisher may have to fold as ownership decree bites

By JOEL GIBSON of The Sydney Morning Herald

ALAN HICKLING is the other Australian owner of a Fiji newspaper. But unlike his competitor, Rupert Murdoch, the little-known Hickling is no media scion.

Six years ago, the Melbourne businessman became the majority owner of the Fiji Daily Post ''by accident'' after visiting the country to train aged-care nurses for a church group.

The father-in-law of his friend, Dr Robert Wolfgramm, a Monash University academic born in Fiji, wanted to take over the business.

When the previous owners agreed to part with the paper for ''a token gesture,'' Hickling agreed to back them. Doing due diligence after the sale, they were ''gobsmacked'' to find a $1 million injection of government funds had been embezzled.

''It was never my intention to make money,'' Hickling, who now owns 80 percent of the newspaper, said.

''Robert is a personal friend and I said I would help him get it on track and sort the legal case out. I was going to distribute my shares to all members of staff. It would be their paper and if they wanted my help I would stay on the board.''

Today, their lawsuit is stalled in Fiji's unstable court system and the paper's operations are suspended due to the military regime's Media Industry Development Decree, which this week required all Fiji media to be 90 per cent locally owned within three months.

''It's disappointing that the regime has taken this approach because we were quite supportive of the Fijian people and we are about creating jobs there,'' Hickling said.

The Daily Post is 19 per cent-owned by the Fiji government.

Murdoch's newspaper, The Fiji Times, also faces closure or an uncertain financial future.

If both were to fold, they would leave only the locally-owned Fiji Sun - the organ generally considered to be closest to the military regime [New Zealand-born journalist Peter Lomas is publisher].

Sharon Smith-Johns, a former Fairfax sales executive and now Fiji's Permanent Secretary for Information, said this week that reaction to the decree had been ''sensationalised''. She denied it was designed to gag critical media.

''I think you have to be in Fiji to understand some of the damage that can be caused in the media here and the sensational headlines, the very biased reporting,'' she said. ''[But] … I'd say 90 percent of stories are reported in the paper every day.''

Smith-Johns left Fairfax and started an online women's magazine, SheSaid.com.au, in 1999, but sold her share after six months to be with her Fijian boyfriend, Billy.

She has risen to be the military government's chief spin doctor and will have to enforce the new laws.

''She was always bloody driven … I can't imagine her wearing a sarong and drinking mai tais for the rest of her life,'' her former business partner, Monique Talbot, said.

Fiji Media Industry Development Decree 2010

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