Thursday, December 23, 2010

Pacific journalists face tough struggle tackling corruption

AMONG the many persuasive and compelling presentations by Pacific journalists at the Media, Investigative Journalism and Technology (MIJT) conference in Auckland, New Zealand, earlier this month, was the series on investigating corruption. Kim Bowden of the Pacific Media Centre reports:

Pacific-based journalists struggle to adequately play watchdog in countries rife with public and private sector corruption, according to Fiji media stalwart Shailendra Singh.

Despite highlighting a few standout cases of well-executed investigative journalism in Fiji, Singh called for more Fourth-Estate style journalism in the country during his presentation at the MIJT conference held at AUT University.

The experienced editor and media academic said one of the key reasons investigative journalism needed to be encouraged was because good governance was a major problem in the Pacific.

He referred to “daunting figures” from the 2006 Australian Treasury Department report which said Pacific countries had squandered $US75 million since independence through poor governance.

Singh, head of the University of the South Pacific journalism programme, said there was “no shortage of material” for investigative journalists to work in the region - official corruption and abuses were widespread and there was an “ample supply of dubious politicians and businessmen”.

Fiji “does not have a strong history or culture of investigative journalism but there are some outstanding cases where research and in-depth reporting resulted in major exposes,” he said.

“A lack of training, depth and experience in newsrooms” prevented journalists from undertaking more comprehensive research.

Heavy workload
In addition, he said, “promotion and pay rise is often based on the number of stories reporters produce in a day” and journalists are encouraged to focus “on daily news rather than chase stories that might not yield anything”.

In a similar vein, Patrick Matbob, a lecturer in journalism at Divine Word University in Papua New Guinea and also in attendance at the conference, said investigative journalism was not strong in his country.

Media organisations in PNG had traditionally not encouraged a culture of strong investigative journalism due to a lack of resources, he said in his paper at the conference.

“The PNG mainstream media have always been chronically understaffed and reporters have been too busy providing daily news coverage.”

According to Matbob, the woeful state of some government agencies also limits the progress of investigative journalism in PNG as well as any potential positive effects.

He said inefficiencies within state organisations prevented journalists from easily obtaining the information and data they needed when investigating stories.

In addition, these organisations often did not “follow-up and take action after the media have revealed some illegal activity or wrong doing”, and no meaningful change occurs as a result of the little investigative work that is carried out, he said.

Punitive media law
Singh said government regulations discouraged Fijian journalists from digging deeper.

Recently decreed punitive media laws, introduced by the Banimarama government, were, he said, detrimental to investigative journalism.

“They prescribe hefty fines and jail terms for journalists who publish material that is ‘against public interest or order, or national interest’.

“Government and media can have conflicting views about what is in the national interest,” Singh said.

“Authorities have been given new search and confiscation powers. New disclosure provisions compel reporters to reveal confidential sources or face fines of up to F$10,000, or jail terms of up to two years, or both.”

However, Singh believes new media technology could be used to overcome censorship barriers.

In Fiji, access to the internet was improving and a blogging culture was emerging, he said.

New era
Matbob talked of a new era of investigative journalism in Papua New Guinea, aided by the internet and taking place outside of mainstream media.

The advancement of new media, he said, had shifted the definition of who could be a successful investigative journalist and had provided a fresh method to hold powers to account.

Internet-savvy young people, who were “well-educated and concerned about the future of their country”, were increasingly taking on the role of “citizen journalism” and, by self-publishing on the web, were forcing public officials to be more accountable.

“The new media’s ability to disseminate information instantaneously was having some impact on public opinion and causing PNG leaders to be wary of their behaviour and actions,” he said.

The United States Embassy in Fiji funded both Singh and Matbob’s participation in the conference.

Another speaker, former Fiji Daily Post publisher Thakur Ranjit Singh, delivered a research paper about the “coup culture” in Fiji and how it had impacted on investigative journalism in the country.

He called for a stronger commitment to investigative journalism in the country and better training of journalists throughout the Pacific.

Picture: UNDP

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