Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Motibhai wins race for the Fiji Times

SO the word is out after the smokescreen for the past few days has finally lifted: Motibhai is buying out the Fiji Times group.

This is an astute business coup by Mahendra Motibhai Patel, who heads the Motibhai and Company Ltd group. It will give him a powerful weapon to fight arch rival C. J. Patel, who owns the controlling interest in the Fiji Sun.

But in spite of the positive spin put on the deal by both the Rupert Murdoch camp’s News Ltd and Motibhai, it isn’t a good thing for Fiji journalism.

Both the C. J. Patel-owned Fiji Sun, which already cosies up to the military backed regime, and the Motibhai-dominated “new order” Fiji Times will too busy concentrating on getting a good business edge than worrying about quality journalism in an ailing post-coup economy.

A free press in Fiji is still at the end of a long dark tunnel.

Since censorship was imposed after the April 2009 abrogation of the Fiji constitution and then the imposition of the Fiji Media Industry Development Decree, Fiji Times advertising revenue has slumped.

But from the News Ltd perspective, at least Motibhai has a good understanding of the ethos of the 141-year-old Fiji Times. He has previously served on the board of the Fiji Times as a non-executive director.

It is a mystery why the Fiji Times did not divest a significant slice of its shareholding to local ownership some years ago, as News Ltd did with its Papua New Guinea newspaper company, South Pacific Post Ltd. It might have headed off this crunch time with the Bainimarama regime had it done so.

Instead it is now forced to sell up 90 percent of its shareholding to the Motibhai group to ensure that it complies with the 10 percent foreign shareholding limit under the terms of the decree.

News Ltd confirmed it is selling Pacific Publications (Fiji) Limited, parent company of the publisher of the Fiji Times, for an undisclosed sum in a statement. The sale is subject to final regulatory approval by the Fiji Commerce Commission with the expected wrap-up date for the sale due on September 22 – six days before the final decree deadline.

News Limited's chairman and chief executive John Hartigan was quoted as saying: "The sale to Motibhai represents the best possible outcome for the staff, advertisers and readers of the Fiji Times

"Motibhai will be very good custodians of the newspaper and as shareholders they will be committed to the future of the Fiji Times.

Hartigan also thanked the directors and staff of the Fiji Times for their "hard work and loyalty" and for their "personal as well as professional commitment to the organisation".

A Motibhai Group statement said:"We understand the importance of history. The Fiji Times is 141 years old and Motibhai has been operating for 80 years.

"Together we will take the Fiji Times to new levels of success as we have done with our other major investments.

New team
Mahendra Patel told the Fiji Sun that a new management team would be named on September 22.

It is not immediately clear whether the Fiji Times real estate is part of the sale. The News Ltd statement did not give any indication but a Fiji Sun report today said it was believed the sale would “exclude the valuable property” in downtown Suva.

Fiji Times publisher Anne Fussell, who is expected to return to Australia soon, was reported to have told senior staff that “real estate is not included in the sale”.

“The sprawling Fiji Times headquarters in Suva fronts on to Victoria Pde, Butt St and Gordon St,” said the Sun. This area also includes the Fiji Times press.

But few staff had any idea about the fate of the newspaper. Just today, hours before the News Ltd announcement, popular Fiji Times columnist Seona Smiles made a plea for the survival of the newspaper at a global creativity and climate change conference at the University of the South Pacific.

And now, who will be the new Fiji Times editor?

Picture: Fiji Times vendor Salesh Chand outside the newspaper office in Suva today. Photo: David Robie

The sale news on the Fiji Times website


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