Crosbie Walsh plays Devil's Advocate with the media
SPEAKING at the 2010 Pacific Islands Media Association (PIMA) conference in Auckland on Friday, the keynote speaker, well known and respected Tongan media publisher and media freedom activist 'Eakalafi Moala said: "Press freedom in the Pacific Islands is under constant threat" while "New Zealand journalists ... took freedom of the press for granted."
He said threats to Pacific media freedom were due not only to "government blocking" (he was especially critical of Fiji's Media Decree, where, incidentally, the Fiji Broadcasting Corporation reported his speech!) but also to "the social and cultural fabric of the local community" that accepted government actions less critically than in Western countries. "Media freedom," he said, "operated more easily within a Western-educated social structure and conduct.”
Taken at face value, most would agree. But I wonder. Is it as straightforward as this? In an ideal world, would press freedom always prevail? Or, to play devil's advocate, should it ever prevail? What, exactly, is media freedom? Can a case be made that restrictions should be placed on the media in some situations? What are those situations? 'Eakalafi talked of cultural constraints in the Pacific but are there no cultural or other constraints in Western societies?
How free, really, is the New Zealand media? Does it truly provide access to information the people need to know? Who decides what we will read and hear and how it is presented? Who decides the news? I'm reluctant to write about Fiji again in this context, but when did the NZ media last report a contrary view on the situation there? How have they helped to explain what is happening, and why? How do they decide who to interview? Do they ever verify their stories?
One can also ask what is meant by information when so much of what we see is sensationalism and trivia. What real balance exists in their coverage? Even media people ask what's happened to investigative journalism. We've never before had so much access to information, but we've also never has access to so much wrong or useless information. Sometimes I ask, do I know more about any matter of consequence because of the media, or am I merely more misinformed? And then I ask myself about the supposed role of the media in a democracy and what it actually does.
Who really is this freedom for? I am not an advertiser or a shareholder in the media. I don't vote for their boards or sit on their appointment committees. I have no say whatsoever in what they choose to publish or not to publish. I am not part of the media or any other establishment. I cannot vote them out with a letter to the editor or an appeal to the Broadcasting Standards Authority.
When it comes down to the hard questions, we should ask how significantly different are the NZ and Pacific media? Different masters, different circumstances and different stories, but I suspect that whoever pays the piper still calls the tune. My only freedom is the choice to switch off the TV and radio and not read the newspapers. Sometimes, not always of course, I wonder how they dare claim a special, elevated place -- the Fourth Estate -- in a democracy when their power is more akin to a "dictatorship of the publishitariat."
Freedom of the media, by the media, for the media? An overstatement, perhaps. But by how much?
Retired University of the South Pacific professor of development studies Dr Crosbie Walsh publishes a blog - Fiji: The way it was, is and can be
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