Sunday, April 18, 2010

Whale Oil highlights NZ hypocrisy over Fiji

WHILE the New Zealand Herald has published an editorial declaring the "emasculating" media and amnesty decrees in Fiji mean that NZ must "stand firm", Fiji-born blogger Whale Oil has reminded the country about government hypocrisy over press freedom and human rights. His blog points out while NZ "waves the finger" at the military-backed Fiji regime in the Pacific, it quite happily engages in treaties with other authoritarian countries and those that have a repressive track record in media freedoms and human rights. When New Zealand has much to gain from trade, it remains curiously silent and pragmatic. Whale Oil writes:
There has been a great deal of angst over Com­modore Bainimarama’s draft Media Indus­try Devel­op­ment Decree 2010 which fea­tures harsh penal­ties for jour­nal­ists and news organ­i­sa­tions which breach vaguely worded con­tent reg­u­la­tions. Being a free­dom of speech kind a guy, I can see too why this isn’t a good thing. How­ever, Fiji isn’t New Zealand and each coun­try has its own solu­tions to par­tic­u­lar issues of the time.

It is extremely hyp­o­crit­i­cal of us to wave the fin­ger at Fiji over press free­doms while at the same time hav­ing free trade agree­ments with other, far more author­i­tar­ian regimes. Cur­rently we have:

New Zealand-Hong Kong, China Closer Eco­nomic Part­ner­ship (NZ-HK CEP was signed on 29 March 2010 but not yet entered into force)

New Zealand-Malaysia Free Trade Agree­ment (MNZFTA was signed on 26 Octo­ber 2009 but not yet entered into force)

ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agree­ment (AANZFTA) – 2010
New Zealand-China Free Trade Agree­ment (NZ-China FTA) – 2008 Trans-Pacific Strate­gic Eco­nomic Part­ner­ship (TransPac) – 2005
New Zealand-Thailand Closer Eco­nomic Part­ner­ship (NZTCEP) – 2005

New Zealand-Singapore Closer Eco­nomic Part­ner­ship (NZSCEP) – 2001
Australia-New Zealand Closer Eco­nomic Rela­tion­ship (CER) – 1983

Of those, only Aus­tralia has true free­dom of the press. The Asean Nations (Indone­sia, Malaysia, the Philip­pines, Sin­ga­pore and Thai­land, Brunei, Burma, Cam­bo­dia, Laos, and Viet­nam) with the sole excep­tion of the Philip­pines, and even that is mar­ginal, re true demo­c­ra­tic coun­tries, the rest, includ­ing Sin­ga­pore, Malaysia and Thai­land are author­i­tar­ian.

If you don’t think Thai­land is, then try and write some­thing in the press against the King of Thai­land and see where that gets you. There are no free­doms that we take for granted in Hong Kong and China yet we have deemed it desir­able to have a FTA and also to not com­ment on their inter­nal politics.

So why is Fiji dif­fer­ent. is it because gov­ern­ment was formed at the point of a gun? Yes? Then what about China? Their gov­ern­ment was formed at the point of a gun when the Com­mu­nists over­threw the legit­i­mate Kuom­intang gov­ern­ment in 1949.

At the moment we are also busily nego­ti­at­ing anti free­dom treaties like the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agree­ment (ACTA), a law and treaty at the behest of big busi­ness, but I don’t notice Keith Locke or Labour rail­ing against that. We are also nego­ti­at­ing an FTA with coun­tries from the Gulf States, (Bahrain, Saudi Ara­bia, the sul­tanate of Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emi­rates.). Autoc­ra­cies the lot of them with­out exception.

And so I come to Fiji again. For some rea­son New Zealand has a fix­a­tion, mostly for the neg­a­tive for Fiji. As I have demon­strated we want and have FTA’s with coun­tries with far worse polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tions, far worse human right records, and yet we impose sanc­tions upon Fiji and travel bans. The lat­est out­cry has been over press free­doms yet in our own coun­try of New Zealand we have gov­ern­ment organ­i­sa­tions cur­tail­ing free­doms with a self imposed censorship.

These are media organ­i­sa­tions that con­tinue to spread rumour, innu­endo and straight out lies about the sit­u­a­tion in Fiji and Radio New Zealand, in par­tic­u­lar, has taken a line of shut­ting down any dis­sent­ing voice from the polit­i­cal group think about how “we” are sup­posed to think about Fiji.
The other half of Whale Oil's column picks up on Café Pacific's recent posting about Radio NZ's Nights programme host Bryan Crump "dumping" one of the better informed Fiji analysts, Crosbie Walsh, formerly director of development studies at the University of the South Pacific. A case of silencing one of the dissenting voices that don't fit the politically correct view of Fiji?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Media7 spotlight on reporting of Pacific issues

turned to the Pacific for a change this week and profiled coverage of the region in the wake of the unveiling of the draft media freedom decree in Fiji. The controversial Barbara Dreaver report on Samoa's "gangs, guns and drugs" also got an airing - with some tart criticisms of the Broadcasting Standards Authority from the panel. Here is Media7's blurb on the programme (running four times over this weekend on digital TVNZ7). Watch it on YouTube - Part 1 and Part 2 - or on TVNZ on demand:
New Zealand television viewers were this week served up the first instalment of the $200-million dollar drama series, The Pacific.

But what about the real life dramas that are being played out in the Oceanic region and the millions of New Zealand dollars and other nations' foreign aid money that is spent to prop up various Pacific nations?

The reporting is patchy at best, given the shrinking budgets of mainstream media and the difficulties inherent in reporting from this sensitive region.

News organisations are finding it hard to report Pacific issues and hold regional governments to account in the face of increasing media censorship and repression.

Some of the problems can be put down to a clash of cultures.
But journalists and editors face a daunting task when reporting on the actions of a military dictatorship, a semi-feudal monarchy and a group of emerging nations where tribal and clan loyalties are often at odds with basic democratic rights.

The Royal Commission into the sinking of the Tongan ferry, Princess Ashika, has opened up an unsavoury can of worms and the latest "media rules" about to be imposed by the Fijian regime will further stifle debate in that country.

Media7 this week surveys the media landscape in the Pacific with David Robie, Barbara Dreaver and Tim Pankhurst joining Russell Brown in the studio.

Dr Robie is director of the Pacific Media Centre and convenor of Pacific Media Watch. Dreaver is a seasoned Pacific affairs reporter who has experienced the heavy hand of a Pacific Island politician on many occasions.

Pankhurst, former
Dominion Post editor and now chief executive of the Newspaper Publishers' Association, is a fierce advocate of media freedom in the face of threats and intimidation, such as we are seeing in Fiji.
  • Media7 is recorded in front of a live audience in the TVNZ Auckland Television Centre on Wednesday evenings at 6pm.

  • Also, hear David Robie commenting on the Fiji media and the proposed draft decree on Radio NZ's Mediawatch, hosted by Colin Peacock and Jeremy Rose.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Reflections of a Fiji Times old hand

WITH all the kudos being handed out to The Fiji Times in the context of the Great FT Firesale being heralded in regime circles due to the foreign ownership cutback to 10 percent in the controversial media decree, it is important to reflect on the other side of the ledger. What has the newspaper actually done in terms of future development of the country and training of the media? Café Pacific has received a bagful of off-the-record comments about the Fiji Times. While it is a very mixed bag, a general theme comes through about the Media Industry Development Decree 2010: The chickens have finally come to roost for the Murdoch newspaper group - owned through an Australian subsidiary, News Ltd. The reflections here of a former staff person are worth sharing:
During my time I do not recall anyone going on any kind of training. There was no such thing as an in-house training programme. We were thrown in the deep end, which was at the time traumatising.

The paper has not invested much in training and staff development. While it claims it has invested in training, it never discloses any figures.

Unlike other News Limited publications, in Australia, there is no such thing as a transparent salary structure at the
Fiji Times. You couldn't move up the salary scale on an annual basis (since there was/is no such thing as a salary scale).

Pay increases were made at the editor’s/publisher’s whim. Because there was no salary scale, two, three or more years could pass before one received a salary increases. You had to ask/argue for a salary increase. Rarely, if ever, was it automatically granted.

Management wilfully used this tactic to keep salaries low since it is not easy to go up to the editor to ask for an increase. When salary increases were granted, they were marginal; sometimes not even enough to cover the rate of inflation. It was worse than the civil service where the salaries were annually adjusted to the inflation rate.

Does News Ltd operate in this manner in Australia?
The Fiji Times was never keen to retain experienced staff. Instead, it let them go so younger inexperienced people could be hired at a cheaper rate. The Fiji Times thought it was clever but this penny-pinching has caught up with it and bitten it in the backside.

Despite claims by Ann Fussell that they are 100 per cent pro-Fiji, the company has used lack of legislation etc in this county to exploit its employees.
It has done little to uplift standards.

Foreign publishers tried to outdo their predecessors in increasing annual profits in order to better their prospects at News Ltd. Their own career prospects were the driving force for foreign publishers — lifting journalistic standards or treating staff decently was not a priority as this lessened profits.

The Fiji Times became so mean that it [frequently] stopped sending its sports reporters to places like Hong Kong Sevens, South Pacific Games and on national soccer team tours. The Fiji Times has not had a decent editor since Vijendra Kumar left [who was in the editor's chair at the time of the first coups in 1987 - he retired to Australia].

Editors have blatantly used their positions to further personal agendas and to support political parties they favour.
This took a dangerous and sinister turn during [first Indo-Fijian Prime Minister] Chaudhry’s term in government in 1999/2000. I am no fan of Chaudhry, but the then editor-and-chief and a certain reporter were clearly out to topple the Coalition government.

At such times, the Australian company headquarters should have intervened, given that the reporter concerned was having an affair with the prime minister who had been ousted by the Labor Coalition, and she clearly had a vendetta.

Nevertheless, The Fiji Times [founded in 1869] is still a Fiji icon and it should not close. All these problems outlined above can be resolved with the right goodwill. Sustainable local ownership of The Fiji Times is a pipedream and it will be a disaster for both Fiji and the Pacific region if the current owners are forced to bail out.

Media independence and the Fiji PC brigade

WHAT ON earth has happened to Radio New Zealand? Or rather, Nights host Bryan Crump? He has apparently dumped professor adjunct Crosbie Walsh, the most informed New Zealand-based blogger and commentator on Fiji affairs (naturally you would expect this calibre as former and founding director of the development studies programme at the University of the South Pacific). Walsh is such a tonic after the plethora of one-eyed and sensationalist anti-Fiji blogs that clutter cyberspace.

According to Walsh, Crump rang him last night, saying he didn't want the blogger/commentator on any more on Nights programmes. Why? Apparently because Walsh "feels too strongly" on Fiji issues (why not? ... he lived there for more than eight years) and he "borders on the emotional" for this programme.

Crump added: "It's not what a lot of my colleagues want to hear." Take this as you wish. Three more planned programmes on nights for Walsh for June, September and November have been canned.

Crump (pictured right - Radio NZ image) reckons the Nights spot works best with "commentators" and Crosbie is seen as an "advocate". In fact, Walsh goes to great lengths to get some sort of balance in his blog commentaries, something sorely missing with many media commentators on Fiji. To be fair to Crump, he did invite Walsh to a symposium on Fiji later this year and, according to Walsh, was keen to interview him early next year.

From all reports, Walsh had an enthusiastic response to previous Nights programmes. This has got Café Pacific wondering, especially when it is considered how unbalanced both Radio New Zealand and Radio Australia frequently are on Fiji commentaries. Opponents of the regime regularly have a field day, but many commentators who try to provide a bit more depth into explaining the Fiji "revolution", as Auckland University's Centre for Pacific Studies political sociologist Dr Steven Ratuva described it last week, or are not sufficiently PC or are too "soft" on the regime, are sidelined.

A good example of this was a "stacked" Radio Australia feature by Bruce Hill marking the anniversary of the abrogation of the Fiji constitution one year on - four interviewees with a vested interest against the regime: Deported Fiji Sun publisher Russell Hunter - an Australian now living in Apia and is currently development editor of the Samoa Observer; an Australian judge, Ian Lloyd, who ruled against the regime; Australian National University professor Brij Lal - one of the three architects of the abrogated 1997 constitution; and Fiji Law Society president Dorsami Naidu versus Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum. Where was the independent commentator to balance this line-up?

[Fast forward: Since this item was posted, Café Pacific has been challenged by Bruce Hill. In fairness, Bruce is one of the best public affairs broadcasters on Pacific issues in the region and this item was not meant to malign him in any way. The posting objective was to question a general unbalanced trend with public broadcasters in both countries over Fiji. While the comments specifically addressed an online ABC feature, they should also have pointed out the wider retrospective historical basis for the on-air version of the feature. Read Bruce Hill's comments here. And more on the PC brigade here.]

Incidentally, this piece challenging "media freedom" in Fiji as peddled by the Suva media old guard, is likely to ruffle a few feathers. Highlighted on ABC's In The Loop is the University of the South Pacific's Shailendra Singh talking sense about the Fiji media. And tonight's Media 7 on digital TVNZ7 also features the media and the Pacific - from the blurb:
New Zealand television viewers were this week served up the first installment of the $200-million dollar drama series, The Pacific. But what about the real life dramas that are being played out in the Oceanic region and the millions of New Zealand dollars and other nations' foreign aid money that is spent to prop up various Pacific nations?

The reporting is patchy at best, given the shrinking budgets of mainstream media and the difficulties inherent in reporting from this sensitive region. News organisations are finding it hard to report Pacific issues and hold regional governments to account in the face of increasing media censorship and repression.

Some of the problems can be put down to a clash of cultures. But journalists and editors face a daunting task when reporting on the actions of a military dictatorship, a semi-feudal monarchy and a group of emerging nations where tribal and clan loyalties are often at odds with basic democratic rights.

Media 7 this week surveys the "media landscape" in the Pacific, featuring AUT's Dr David Robie, TVNZ Pacific affairs reporter Barbara Dreaver and former Dominion Post editor Tim Pankhurst, now chief executive of the Newspaper Publishers Association and a "fierce advocate" of media freedom in Fiji and the Pacific. Watch for the Media 7 programme here.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Draft Fiji media decree in profile on 95bFM

LINK to Pacific Scoop to hear Café Pacific's David Robie, director of the Pacific Media Centre, talking about the controversial Media Industry Development Decree being ushered in by the military-backed regime. 95bFM’s Will Pollard interviews Dr Robie on the implications for the future in Fiji - and also around the Pacific region.

Coup 4.5 reports on what it says are casualties of the decree climate:
Two senior journalists at Fiji TV have been moved to lesser roles under claims they were biased against the Frank Bainimarama government.

It is believed Merana Kitione and Anish Chand were sidelined because of their links to the National Federation Party. Kitione, Fiji TV's manager news current affairs and sport, is married to former
Fiji Times journalist and administrative officer for the National Federation Party, Kamal Iyer.

She is now acting training and development manager.
Another senior journalist, and close colleague, has been moved with her - desk editor and team leader news, Anish Chand, who is now in production.

Chand has friends in the National Federation Party.
Kitione's old job has been filled by Tukaha Mua, who used to manage the programmes and distribution section, while Chand's position has been filled by Emily Moli.
The Australian's Asia-Pacific editor Rowan Callick has filed a comprehensive article about the decree and the implications for the The Fiji Times, a subsidiary of the News Ltd media stable.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Wise counsel and fresh view of Fiji media role needed

FIJI WATCHER Crosbie Walsh has come up with his own assessment of the draft Fiji Media Industry Development Decree and concludes "wide counsel" is needed to address the plethora of issues raised in this proposed law. Among the many considered points he makes is how sections of the Fiji media - particularly the Fiji Times - have in his view failed to report fairly the changes taking place in the country. Excerpt:
The [Fiji regime's] Roadmap aims to develop the institutional and economic infrastructure to benefit Fijians irrespective of race; it has taken a number of measures to reduce poverty and promote rural development; expose and punish rampant corruption and abuse of office; produce more harmonious relations between the major races; and in the 2014 elections all votes will be of equal value.

In pursuit of these objectives, those who used their office or status to gain preferential advantage for sections of the ethnic Fijian elite (not all ethnic Fijians as they claimed), such as the SDL [
Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua] party, the Great Council of Chiefs and the upper echelons of the Methodist Church, and their counterparts in the civil service have been effectively sidelined.

How was all this reported by the Fourth Estate? Between 2006 and the the Abrogation of the Constitution and the imposition of the Public Emergency Regulations (PERS) in 2009, the media - but most especially the
Fiji Times - was totally hostile.

On any reported issue, my count was that about four anti-government people to one government spokesman would be cited. On no controversial issue was the government position fairly reported.

Fiji Times position was that this was an illegal government, and by definition, nothing it did could be "good." Following the imposition of PERS, the Fiji Times published almost nothing (positive or negative) about what the government was doing.

The de facto government had ceased to exist. But when, on the rare occasion, mention had to be made, the PM and other government people were referred to without their proper titles. This, however justifiable, was a deliberate insult that unwisely invited government retaliation.
Walsh makes a wide-ranging assessment in his analysis and also critiques Western assumptions about the role of the media in a developing country such as Fiji, espousing the need for a development communication model rather than the more familiar Pacific "watchdog" approach. In this context, the Singaporean-inspired model for Fiji isn't quite as extreme as it has been portrayed in Australia and New Zealand:
A third assumption is that western notions of media freedom usually provides the public with access to all information, presented in a fair and balanced manner.

This is only partly true. Most media organisations are run as businesses, owned by businessmen and big business shareholders, and directed by people appointed by these same businessmen and shareholders.

Rarely do we see the media speaking up for the poor, the underprivileged, consumers, the trade unions, workers on strike, or left-leaning governments.
The Fiji Times most certainly did not when Fiji Labour Party-led government was in power. Media ownership and the extent of media freedom are linked.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

'Camouflaged censorship' in Fiji and PINA's silence

THE SILENCE is deafening from the Suva-based Pacific Islands News Association - once the undisputed champion of media freedom in the region. Not a beep over the implications of the draconian Media Industry Development Decree in Fiji. Behind the scenes, there are many disgruntled Pacific journalists who are bitterly disappointed at the donor-funded body's failure to show leadership. For many, the refusal of the PINA to relocate from Suva to another Pacific capital has seriously compromised the regional organisation.

While Global Voices Online has compiled another good overview of cyberspace responses and the Pacific Media Centre condemned the 'draconian and punitive' draft decree, media report that PINA is still adopting a wait-and-see approach. The decree will impose tight restrictions on foreign media ownership which will hit the Rupert Murdoch News Ltd-owned Fiji Times hard - and perhaps even lead to the demise of the country's oldest and most influential newspaper. But it will also impact on the Fiji Sun (expatriate directors) and the Daily Post (majority Australian shareholding). Ten percent foreign ownership of "beneficial" shares is the limit.

But it is also not clear what will happen to the PINA whose Suva-based news service Pacnews is not Fiji-owned. Suva-based manager Matai Akauola, who recently admitted being hampered by censorship, says it is too early to adopt a strong position. He told Radio New Zealand International:
PINA would like to try to meet with its members, like Fiji TV, Fiji Times, Fiji Sun before we could come to a conclusion on how we see this media decree. You could just gather from the meeting that they have their own point of view, so it would be good to sit down one-on-one with the various organisations.
Last week, PINA vice-president, John Woods, broke ranks and called for the organisation to relocate. He also strongly criticised PINA for "kowtowing to the Fiji censors", saying this was contrary to what the organisation stood for - freedom of expression.

A SWOT analysis of PINA staying in Suva, compiled by by outspoken Avaiki Nius editor Jason Brown, reads:
Strengths: strong familiarity with regional centre and diplomatic community in Suva

Weaknesses: extensive evidence of regional positions going mainly to Fiji residents, leading to a failure in transparency and accountability to those members outside Fiji

Opportunities: playing a significant and enduring role in helping Fiji return to normalcy, facilitating effective regionalism

Threats: continued censorship and Fiji-centric approach to regionalism, possible ouster due to law changes
But the most insightful comments come from a colleague on the ground in Suva:
The draft Fiji Media Decree adds further fuel, I believe, to the PINA debate. While PINA is a professional organisation, the Pacnews service is a news (media) service which admittedly, is regional in focus and regional in ownership (through PINA). It is, nevertheless, a media service.

How will Pacnews be viewed by the interim regime - as a "foreign-owned" entity? Given the decree's requirement that Fiji-based media organisations/entities be 90 percent Fiji-owned and that all directors be resident Fiji nationals there are indeed questions PINA will, sadly, now have to address with regards to Pacnews' future.

If, the interim regime makes an exception for PINA/Pacnews - again, sadly, this will only further fuel the accusations that PINA is "accommodating" towards the interim government. Some interesting times ahead with some difficult decisions to be made!!!

It will definitely be interesting to see which way the Fiji Times goes - toe the line and accept the 10 percent shareholding; sell their Fiji flagship (maybe to Fiji Sun?); or close down and have all their equipment shipped abroad to expand/improve one of News Corp's other newspapers? (What are the chances that the interim-regime will back down and accept a 49 percent foreign ownership?? Any one for bets??)

It's also interesting to see Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum arguing the Fourth Estate debate in favour of media organistaions when his own interim regime and most other governments tend to dismiss the media's "fourth estate" role. It is also a great pity that most of his arguments about the Fiji Times ownership is to do with the fact that the newspaper has not given the interim regime the recognition/legitimacy it feels it deserves. Media organisations are business entities - just like other commercial organisations.

If you are going to argue loyalty to a country (more so to an unelected government in this case) where do you draw the line? What about other foreign owned companies in Fiji? Already, we have the Reserve Bank of Fiji leaning on Fiji-based but mostly foreign-owned banks to be "culturally conscious" of the needs of Fiji's people. What next, - demand that Fiji-based but foreign-owned companies declare their loyalty to the government of the day?

Interesting that mention is made of plagiarism but there is no acknowledgement in the draft that the Code of Ethics is an almost complete "lift-out" from the Fiji Media Council!! In all this, there are some good aspects to the decree but by and large, it simply continues (although in camouflaged form) the censorship the interim regime has put in place.

To media freedom.....

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Ruthlessly chilling decree no way to improve Fiji media

SO Jim Anthony has had the last laugh. And at least two critical components from his discredited 2007 "Freedom and independence of the media in Fiji" report have found their way into the draft Media Industry Development Decree 2010. No surprise, of course. All the signs have been there for the past couple of years. It was a sure bet that the regime would adopt a Singapore-inspired Media Development Authority and a Media Tribunal with draconian powers (see p. 6 of Anthony's executive summary). But at least his crazy idea of a 7 percent development tax was ditched.

The tragedy of the Anthony report and the public slanging match with the media that ensued is that neither should have never taken place. Had the Fiji news media got their act together and improved things on their own accord, rather that persevering with the "toothless tiger" Fiji Media Council with all its overdue faults, this draconian draft might have been headed off. The independent Media Council review in February 2009 was a job well done - but it was more than three years too late to have any impact.

Now we have a ruthlessly chilling climate of self-censorship being imposed in post-coup Fiji. A year of censorship since the 1997 constitution was abrogated on April 10 is taking its toll. Soon we will have a generation of journalists (average age in Fiji is less than 25)that will barely know what it was like to work in a genuinely free press.

The regime is systematically destroying what had been traditionally one of the strongest media industries in the Pacific.

Media improvements were needed, true. Especially over "fairness and balance". But government authorities have ignored the commonsense independent Media Council review recommendations last year and instead been influenced too heavily by the harsh proposals of the discredited 2007 Anthony report.

Ironically, one "success" of the council is to have its code of ethics adopted in the decree - "lifted word for word", as Fiji Broadcasting Corporation's news director Stanley Simpson points out. Summing up today's media "consultation", he said:
Among the major sticking points during today's discussions was the make up and independence of the Media Development Authority, the imposition of fines for breaching certain provisions under the decree, and the ability of the media to appeal or seek redress from the courts if the Media Tribunal ruled and imposed fines against them.

Limits on foreign ownership of media organisations in Fiji also featured, with the proposed decree set to take out Australia’s News Ltd’s ownership of the
Fiji Times.
Actually, the foreign ownership limitation would gain widespread sympathy. Many believe that Rupert Murdoch's News Ltd and the Fiji Times have not been "in tune" with Fiji for many years. Nevertheless, a 10 percent limit is to punitive. Perhaps 49 percent and a reasonable adjustment window to divest shares would have been more realistic - and fairer.

Café Pacific's colleagues at the media consultation provided this feedback:

S4(1): The Authority shall consist of a director appointed by the Minister.

Response: This is putting too much power in the hands of the minister. It could open the door to political appointments, and jeopardise the independence of the authority. The person appointed as director should be one who enjoys the confidence of all the stakeholders, not just that of the minister or the government of the day. There needs be more consultation; it's too risky to leave such a crucial appointment in the hands of one person or one party.

4(3): Director must be remunerated in a manner and at rates subject to terms and conditions determined by the Minister.

The civil service and statutory bodies have clear and transparent salary structures based on academic qualifications and experience. These guidelines should be used to determine the salary of the director, which should be made public. This will instill confidence in the process and the
authority, and it will protect the integrity of the minister also.

5(1) & (2): The authority appoints its own officers and servants and will determine its own salaries and conditions with the Minister as the approving authority.
Appointments and salaries and conditions should be determined independently and in accordance with clearly stipulated procedures to avoid compromising the process, and to instill confidence in the authority.

Terms of office (p. 7)
6(2): The Minister may remove the Director of the Authority at any time from office if the Minister considers it appropriate in the public interest.

The sole authority to remove the Director (coupled with the sole authority to appoint and remunerate) gives the Minister almost sweeping powers over this body which is cause for unease.

Part 4: Content regulation (p. 12)
Offences relating to content regulation

23. The fines and jail terms stipulated (F$100,000 to $500,000; or imprisonment for five years or both) for breaches of content regulation are too draconian. It will have a chilling effect and stop the media from reporting issues of national interest. It is a disincentive for new entrepreneurs wanting to enter the sector. It will also scare away people who may want to join the profession.

Part 5: Enforcement of media standards (p. 12)
25. Power to require documents for information

This is the authority duplicating what the courts are already empowered to carry out. This is outdated, and contrary to whistleblower protection legislation being mooted nowadays as a safeguard against corruption. This is not something that will encourage investigative reporting, which is something this government claims it is keen to promote.

26. Power to enter premises and search, seize under warrant

This is the authority duplicating police work.

27. Offences relating to enforcement (p. 15)
Any person who fails to disclose documents faces maximum fines of $100,000 and jail terms of up to five years, which are quite harsh. This will put an end not only to the whistleblowing culture, but media disclosure of confidential documents in the public interest.

63. Power of the Tribunal on hearing of complaint (p. 28)

The tribunal can order the media organisation or any employee to pay monetary compensation to aggrieved complainants. We already have defamation and other laws for compensatory damages. Why duplicate this function and waste resources? This is something best left to the courts.

Summing up: The decree gives too many sweeping powers to the minister which can be dangerous. There is duplication of the work that courts have been set up to do, which is an unnecessary waste of resources.

The fines and jail terms stipulated are extremely harsh. The media has been denied the freedom it needs to inform the public and to act in its interest.

Pictured: Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum and ministry officials at the media consultation. Photo: FBC

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

WikiLeaks exposes US troops' murder of journalists

THE whistleblowing website WikiLeaks' tape apparently showing the cold-blooded murder of civilians - including two Reuters journalists - by US troops in Iraq in 2007 has shocked the world. It will undoubtedly form the basis for an ongoing investigation by the global news agency - one it had sought in vain nearly three years ago. The video, shot from an Apache helicopter gunship, clearly shows the unprovoked slaying of a wounded Reuters photojournalist, Namir Noor-Eldeen, his assistant, Saeed Chamagh, and his rescuers. Two young children involved in the rescue were also seriously wounded.

The video captures an incident on 12 July 2007 in a Baghdad suburb. This event has been a matter of controversy since the killing of the two journalists. This chilling footage will renew pressure for a full investigation, and asks a Pacific journalist: "Is WikiLeaks the future of investigative journalism?"

According to Michael Collins on Scoop:
WikiLeaks has produced more scoops than the Washington Post has in the past thirty years, according to a report by The Guardian. The web-based service was “founded by Chinese dissidents, journalists, mathematicians and start-up company technologists, from the US, Taiwan, Europe, Australia and South Africa”, according to their “About” page.

WikiLeaks targets oppressive regimes throughout the world, as well as regimes seeking to repress information on illegal and unethical government actions and policies.
The website's organisers say they were leaked the footage, which they say comes from cameras on US Apache helicopters. Accoirding to the BBC, they say they decrypted it, but would not reveal their source.

The WikiLeaks site campaigns for freedom of information and posts leaked documents online. So far there has been no official Pentagon response.

However, Reuters and the Associated Press have been widely quoted unnamed US military officials as confirming the video was genuine.

The Baghdad video is the latest in a long list of "leaks" published by the secretive site, which has established a reputation for publishing sensitive material from governments and other high-profile organisations.

In October 2009, for example, it posted a list of names and addresses of people it claimed belonged to the British National Party (BNP). The BNP described the list as a "malicious forgery".

WikiLeaks posts video of 'US military killings' in Iraq
  • Profile: Who are WikiLeaks?
  • WikiLeaks - the website
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  • Part 1 of the "collateral damage" video | Part 2 (the killing of the wounded journalist by "Crazy Horse")

  • Saturday, April 3, 2010

    'Rust bucket' Ashika disaster findings rock Tonga

    REPERCUSSIONS from Tonga's "rust bucket" disaster that killed 74 people - mainly women and children - at sea in the kingdom last August are finally rocking the royal and noble establishment to its very core. And while several layers of maritime and government authorities have been exposed, some senior expatriates look set for paying a heavy price for the tragedy.

    Comical efforts by Information Minister 'Eseta Fusitu'a to effectively gag the local Tongan media over the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Princess Ashika ferry disaster last August 5 were in vain as Matangi Tonga reported on the here-is-the-report-but-you-can't-have-it farce. Barbara Dreaver, writing on her TVNZ blog, also took a potshot at the Tongan government for "hiding behind procedures". As well as extensive coverage, the online news portal Matangi Tonga published a leaked copy of the inquiry report. It was also published by Pacific Media Watch.

    The leaked report has been highlighted by the Scotsman for describing Lord Ramsay Dalgety QC, secretary of the Shipping Corporation of Polynesia, which operated the government-owned ferry, as "unfit to hold such an important position", "lacking credibility" and accused of being "evasive when giving evidence".

    The commission also said the former director of Scottish Opera was "dishonest and lacked integrity in his role".

    Lord Dalgety, 64, was arrested, charged with perjury, and put under house arrest for 24 hours on his last day of giving evidence to the committee in February.

    Tonga imposed a blackout on reporting the case. Two others had been arrested earlier.

    Radio NZ International reports that the New Zealand businessman who formerly headed the Shipping Corp, John Jonesse, is one of three people charged with manslaughter by negligence over the sinking of the Ashika.

    Court officials named the other accused as the former skipper of the Princess Ashika, Makahokovalu Tuputupu, and the acting director of Tonga’s marine division, Viliami Tuipulotu.

    The Shipping Corp itself is also facing a charge of manslaughter.

    According to the Scotsman's Shan Ross, the final report details "unimaginable and careless errors by people in positions of responsibility":
    It also says the sinking was the result of systemic and individual failures and that the deaths were both "preventable and senseless".

    [Lord Dalgety] has been strongly criticised in the report for failing to order an independent survey before the purchase of the ferry, which he admitted to the commission in January had been a "rust bucket".

    The report criticised Lord Dalgety's lack of competence in admiralty law, in which he said he was a specialist. It described as "disturbing" the fact that he did not have an up-to-date copy of the Shipping Act and admitted he had not "checked it for years".

    A claim by officials that the vessel was in good condition or well maintained "is not only patently absurd, but dishonest", the report said. It notes the ferry was "grossly overloaded" the day it sank.

    Lord Dalgety, a former Conservative councillor on Edinburgh District Council, moved to Tonga in 1991.

    In 2008, King George Tupou V made him a law lord and privy counsellor with the title Lord Dalgety of Sikotilani Tonga – Lord Dalgety of Scotland.

    Lord Dalgety holds a number of powerful and well-paid posts in Tonga, including chairman of the electricity commission.

    The royal commission said it considered evidence regarding civil responsibility, but that determining criminal responsibility was up to other authorities. Police have said their investigations are continuing.

    Meanwhile, the Tongan king is under pressure to sack members of government amid allegations they were in part to blame for the failures that led to the tragedy.
    Pacific Media Watch's Josephine Latu has filed some excellent reports on the leaked inquiry, including a comprehensive backgrounder, on Pacific Scoop. The full inquiry report is on the Pacific Media Watch database.

    Pictured: Top: Tongan Information Minister 'Eseta Fusitu'a tells local media they can't have the Ashika inquiry report she is holding. Photo: Matangi Tonga. Above: The Princess Ashika at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Photo: Royal NZ Navy.

    Monday, March 29, 2010

    Chan blasts PNG's 'filthy rich' government

    NEW Ireland Governor Sir Julius Chan accuses the Papua New Guinea government of being "filthy rich" while many of the country's people still "live in saksak houses [with] no medicine, dilapidated schools and [are] totally forlorn".

    “The Parliament is no longer the People’s House, but a rubber stamp for the multi-billionaires who can influence our leaders to introduce laws and agreements we know very little about, yet the long term impact is unpredictable," he is quoted as saying in today's front page splash story in The National.

    Chan, a former prime minister who resigned in the wake of the Sandline mercenary crisis in 1997 after defeating a motion for him to step down, was reported as saying at a gathering of women in Faniufa village outside Goroka:
    “The Speaker is totally biased, the courts are tired, law enforcement agencies can no longer cope with computerised white collar crimes, whilst our jails have become transit picnic grounds for criminals.

    “The people of this country are tired of sitting on the outside and begging for what is properly theirs,” he said.

    “For too long, Papua New Guineans have been spectators of resource developments on their traditional lands which do not equate with the wealth and benefits derived from their rich resources.

    “It is time for the Government to transfer wealth from the State to the people,” Sir Julius said.
    “The people are tired of others telling them what they can and cannot do with papagraun.

    “The people are tired of seeing pay raises and allowance raises in Waigani, when the State does not even consider it necessary to provide them with the pittance the State has promised to provide.

    “Under the current and previous governments, New Ireland has not improved after 15 years of Lihir gold and three years of Simberi mining, and this would be the same scenario in all mining provinces across the country,” he said.

    Sir Julius said mothers in Bougainville, after the 16 years of the crises, had shown determination and resilience to sustain a society built out of nothing, making the best use of them to rehabilitate and rebuild families and communities.

    “This is the reason we need strong representation of the women in all spheres of endeavour, a step that we, in New Ireland, have accepted and submitted to the autonomy committee to have nine seats of deputy presidents of LLG to be contested only by women and give them free choice to contest all other seats in the provincial elections.

    “We need to re-look and reassess our policies and strategies and exercise fairness and justice that will position our people to access more benefits from what they already inherit and own as citizens of our country,” he added.

    Sir Julius said women must start exerting their influence as equal stakeholders of the wealth of the land to attain balanced social-economic development for the country.

    “In the wake of the mineral, oil and gas boom, they must seize the opportunities to benefit as equal stakeholders of the land,” he said at a gathering of women in Faniufa village outside Goroka yesterday.

    He said the role of women needed to be redefined and strengthened to uphold their status.

    “They have been taken for granted as participants in the various levels of landowner agreements and investment undertakings with developers and the State irrespective of their special status and role in the communities.

    “You have to move on from housemaids to housekeeping and stop the men from squandering and signing agreements that cannot be fulfilled,” he added.

    Tuesday, March 23, 2010

    How the Fiji regime's censorship contradicts the People's Charter

    Analysis – By Professor Wadan Narsey

    For more than three years, the Bainimarama regime has been in effective control of the governance of Fiji, and even recognised as such by international organisations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and Asian Development Band.

    Bainimarama says he will not hold elections until 2014, by which time he thinks the principles of his “People’s Charter” will have been fully entrenched in all processes of government.

    But the current media censorship not only takes away our citizens’ basic human right to freedom of expression, it totally undermines the values, commitments and pledges made in the military government’s own Charter.

    Since this military regime will, by 2014, have been the effective government for eight years (longer than any elected government), why does it not follow the good governance principles laid down in its own Charter- the need for every government to be open, transparent and accountable to the public, which, in the absence of a democratically elected Parliament, can only be through full media freedom.

    Full media freedom is even more vital for public service efficiency, given that the civil service is being gradually militarised in key positions, posing serious problems for the Public Service Commission and the use of tax-payers funds: how ensure that these military personnel behave as fully professional civil servants and not as army personnel, uncritically taking orders from their superiors?

    How will the military government be judged by history, if the public service and the economy fail to perform, cocooned by the media censorship?

    Surely, both the military government (however long it stays in power) and Fiji have everything to gain and little to lose, if the Public Emergency Decree and the media censorship are removed.

    The continuing media censorship
    For several months now, the military government has totally censored the media - television, newspapers and radio, removing any news item deemed to be critical of government, their policies and their performance.

    At a personal level, Fiji TV or the radio stations no longer bother to interview me for comments on economic issues; while most of my newspaper articles are censored.

    Most recently, the military’s censors stopped the publication of an article pointing out the pervasive economic implications of Fiji’s long term demographic changes relating to our ethnic mix: the effects on our education system, the composition of our labour force,
    future entrepreneurship, dependency ratios (a key demographic factor in wealth accumulation), and ethnic patterns of consumption, of great relevance to the businesses world. There was nothing overtly political in this article.)

    But this military government’s censors decided that the Fiji public will not be allowed to read this article.

    The irony is that while they keep repeating that their Charter will guide this country for the foreseeable future, their media censorship contradicts their Charter at every turn.

    Do not forget that the Charter started off (page 2) that “We the People of Fiji affirm that our Constitution represents the supreme law of our country, that it provides the framework for the conduct of government and the people”.

    But any protection that the 1997 Constitution may have provided against unfair media censorship, went out the window, when Bainimarama abrogated the Constitution in 2009.

    But the rest of the military government’s Charter is still a great supporter of our fundamental right to freedom of expression, even if the Military Censors are not.

    The Charter Values
    Among the values that the Charter espouses (page 4) is “respect for the diverse cultural, religious and philosophical beliefs”. The section on “Moving Forward Together” says “our nation is in urgent need of genuine, trust-based dialogue and peace building for which qualities of humility, compassion, honesty and openness to other views and interests are essential”.

    But some people’s views and philosophical beliefs are not respected by the military censors, and will not be allowed to be aired in public, however genuine, constructive and peace building.

    Then the Charter states (page 6) “our nation must have a freely and fairly elected Parliament...” and “we believe in an executive government answerable to the Parliament, an independent judiciary, and Security Forces that ... are answerable to the government and Parliament in accordance with our Constitution”. But given that Bainimarama will not give the people of Fiji an elected Parliament until 2014, only media freedom can ensure accountability to the public.

    The Charter states (page 7) “we believe in a strong and free civil society as vital to democracy, good and just governance....”. But for the military government refuses freedom of speech or assembly.

    Then again that Charter states “we aspire for Fiji to be an educated, knowledge-based society where all our people have access to education and continuous learning...”. But
    the military government decides what knowledge the people have access to, through their censorship of the media.

    While the Charter says “we must use our individual and collective knowledge and skills to develop our country”, the military censors are deciding that the skills and knowledge of some individuals (anyone who disagrees with the military government) will not be made available to the public.

    The Charter goes on (page 8) “We reaffirm our recognition of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all individuals and groups, safeguarded by adherence to the rule of law”.

    But Military Decrees, including the Public Emergency Decree which implements the media censorship, now define the law - when there is no emergency at all in the country.

    The Charter’s key pillars
    Pillar 1 of the Charter talks about “sustainable democracy and good and just governance”. It states (page 11) “The government must be fully accountable to the people of Fiji through Parliament and its procedures”.

    The Charter says that to oversee governments, there must be independent and well resourced offices of the Ombudsman, Human Rights Commission, Auditor-General, and FICAC. And “The government must publish timely public reports with adequate details so that the people of Fiji are aware of what is being done in their name and with their taxes”.

    But the current military government does not abide by this Pillar: it will not make public the Auditor-General’s Reports for 2007 or 2008. And it is unlikely that there will be any Auditor-General’s Report on government expenditure and revenues for 2009.

    The Charter’s Pillar 3 on “ensuring effective, enlightened and accountable leadership” points out that a critical problem in the past has been that “our leaders in most cases have failed to involve us in making the major decisions that affect our well-being and our daily lives”. But this criticism applies equally to our current leaders.

    The military government does not consult any of our people’s chosen leaders on major decisions on taxation, government expenditure, sales of government assets, control of public companies and assets through board appointments, and hiring and firing of civil servants. Even the workers’ pension fund is in the control of the current military government, without any accountability to the workers or the pensioners, or the public.

    While the Pillar identifies amongst the ideal qualities necessary for any future leaders of Fiji to include “openness” and “accountability”, the media censorship will not allow it.

    Militarisation of the civil service
    It is clear that the military government is steadily appointing military personnel to key civil service positions, perhaps in the hope that there will be increased efficiency.

    But this poses a major problem for the Public Service Commission. Civil servants are required to give their professional advice to their superiors, disagreeing if necessary with their superiors, a vital mechanism to protect tax-payers’ interests from wrong political decisions.

    But professional military personnel have been drilled all their lives to blindly obey orders coming from their superiors, without question, even if they think that the orders or decisions are wrong. So how can the PSC and Jo Serulagilagi convert these military appointees into professional civil servants?

    The PSC has another problem. Military personnel are trained for military duties, not complex public service. Some may be good, some may be unsuitable. How can the PSC, which has little role in the appointment of these military civil servants, remove any for non-performance?

    Pillar 4 of the Charter on “enhancing public sector efficiency” wants a public service which is “accountable”. But how can the public sector be accountable to the Fiji public, when the media is not allowed to publish many stories highlighting problems in the public sector?

    While the Charter aims (page 21) to “remove political interference in the public sector”, what the public continues to see is the military government’s frequent hiring and firing of civil servants and board members.

    It is well known that most civil servants and board members, for fear of losing their positions, are afraid to disagree with the decisions made by the military government.

    Over the last three years, some of this military government’s policy mistakes which have wasted taxpayers’ valuable funds (remember the initial school bus-fares fiasco?), may not have occurred if civil servants’ advice had been followed from the beginning, and the public had been freely allowed to express their views through the media.

    With the pervasive media censorship, the public currently has little knowledge of any other bad policy decisions which might also be wasting tax-payers’ funds. But by the time the public finds out the facts, it will be too late- like the National Bank of Fiji (NBF) disaster or all our agricultural scams which have cost tax-payers hundreds of millions of dollars.

    It should be obvious to the public that Bainimarama is now performing like all the previous elected or unelected prime ministers we have had (Mara, Rabuka, Chaudhry, and Qarase): regularly getting in touch with people throughout the country, promising tax-payers’ funds for roads, bridges, water, disaster assistance and advocating development initiatives in general. He is also (unilaterally) tackling long-standing problems like the reform of land tenure and national identity.

    But if he ever stands for elections down the line (he would only be following in the footsteps of Rabuka and Qarase!) he will be judged not just on the goodies he hands out today, but also by his performance in managing the economy and taxpayers’ funds.

    Note that despite Rabuka’s absolute and populist rule in his first few years in power after 1987 (Fiji oldies, remember that period?), eventually he was voted out. And just read today what indigenous Fijians themselves are writing (albeit anonymously) about Rabuka on the blog sites.

    It will be in Bainimarama’s long term political interest or his personal historical record, that his military government does not waste taxpayers’ funds.

    For that, an important safety mechanism is accountability to the public through full media freedom, especially when there is no elected parliament which can hold government to account as is so powerfully advocated by the Charter.

    The Charter’s commitments and pledges
    On pages 37 and 38 of the Charter document, there is a long list of what we, the people of Fiji agree to “Commit to”.

    We can agree with every single one of them- even where it says we “support the Constitution and the People’s Charter” as the foundation for building a better Fiji.

    We can also agree with the Charter where it requires that “we hereby pledge, as citizens of Fiji”, to uphold and be guided by all these commitments through “our own individual conduct and conscience” while “holding responsible and accountable those who hold positions of leadership and responsibility” (i.e. including the current military government).

    I believe that my media contributions are fully in keeping with what the Charter requires us to commit to and pledge as responsible Fiji citizens.

    So why do the military censors ban my articles from the Fiji media, even the recent innocuous one on the economic implications of Fiji’s long term demographic changes?

    Drawing the line
    Where do we draw the line?

    Friends tell me: “Why get distressed over this little issue. Accept that you are living under a military dictatorship. Just do your work and enjoy your life."

    But, a decent life, even according to this military government’s Charter, requires freedom of expression and freedom of the media.

    And it distresses me deeply and daily, that these basic human rights have been removed from my life, while there are other erosions of freedoms, some subtly, some openly.

    At my workplace, where we should expect an uncompromising defence of academic freedom, one can find oneself unreasonably excluded from politically sensitive situations, such as a university meeting with an international mediator on Fiji’s political crisis, or the university’s participation in an international meeting (where the Fiji government representatives may be present) to discuss the impact of the global financial crisis on the Pacific.

    A few weeks ago, an anonymous telephone caller from the army (“Jack”- no surname) warned me that somewhere (he mentioned the Fiji Golf Club) I had been overheard saying negative things against the “government of the day”.

    Jack told me to remember what had happened to relatives of mine who had been deported back to Australia. I said, “sorry, I am a Fiji citizen, without any PR elsewhere. And in any case, if I disagree with the government of the day, it is on policies and principles”. But Jack called again the next day and repeated the same message.

    It is distressing that we do not even have the freedom to speak among friends at public places, in case someone overhears and conveys some garbled version to the military intelligence who can then threaten you, for no reason at all.

    What does this powerful military government have to fear from elderly academics like me?

    And why are military personnel being encouraged by their superiors into this kind of unethical and unprofessional behavior? Once entrenched, such disregard for basic human rights will be difficult to eradicate. Who doubts today that had it not been for the successful 1987 coup by Rabuka, those of 2000 and 2006 would have been far less likely.

    The Fiji public placidly accepts the media censorship’s erosion of our freedom of speech- a fundamental human right. Surely this is not some “minor issue”.

    We forget that just as small waves can slowly erode a solid shore, grain by grain, until the mighty coconut tree falls over, so also can a good society deteriorate into misery and a climate of fear, if we fail to defend every single one of our precious basic human rights.

    I am happy to follow this military government’s Charter, but all of it, not just the bits that this military government chooses to follow.

    It is a sad indictment of all those people who formulated and supported the Charter, that they remain totally uncritical of this military government’s media censorship, which contradicts their Charter at every turn.

    Surely this Military Government (and the FTIB) know that investors cannot have full confidence about investing in an economy where there is pervasive media censorship?

    And without this investment, our economy will stagnate (as currently), leaving this military government with an uphill task of dealing with our increasing problems of unemployment and poverty, while undermining the military government’s record as an efficient manager of the economy.

    Surely, both this military government (however long it stays in power) and Fiji, have everything to gain and little to lose, if the Public Emergency Decree and the media censorship are removed. And there is an end to personal intimidation.

    Dr Wadan Narsey is professor of economics at the University of the South Pacific and an independent media commentator. Pictures: Top: Censorship of the Fiji Times after martial law was imposed on 10 April 2009. Middle: Regime strongman Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama. Bottom: Dr Narsey. Photos: Radio Fiji.

    Monday, March 22, 2010

    The unapproved Fiji military dictionary

    Frank: Openness; frankness; a desire for clarity.

    Example: To be frank, I do what I want, when I want and for how long I want.”

    Driti: A person who abuses human rights and wants to go to the Middle East to forget about it.

    Example: “I could be more frank with you at the Queen Elizabeth Barracks.”

    Leweni: An army expression about freedom of speech in the media.

    Example: That reporter deserves a Leweni around the ears.

    CCF: Usually said under the breath and sometimes with a religious tone.

    Example: (sotto voce): If you don’t like it, you can CCF it up your …

    SDL: Hopeful; former political party.

    Example: “Do you live in hope? All I hope do so.”

    Labour: To labour on

    Example: “I was far too frank with him, for my own good.”

    Jalal: Another word for $20; a restaurant licence.

    Example: “There is no such thing as a free meal in politics."

    Rika: An editor who gets headaches every time he reads the newspaper.

    Example: “I should have stayed in television.”

    Constitution: A vessel to break

    Example: “Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.”

    Judge: An educated person who can’t.

    Example: “I make bad judgments but not about my power and my money.”

    2014: A mythical year; a golden future; peace and goodwill to all men except previous politicians.

    Example: “To be frank, I might make it 2041.”

    Poverty: To be poor either in understanding or wealth.

    Example: “Frankly, I enjoyed taking away Rabuka’s pension.”

    Contributed by a regular Café Pacific reader. Cartoon: Malcolm Evans and Pacific Journalism Review.

    Sunday, March 21, 2010

    The devastating risks for journalists covering conflict

    By Cynthia Balana of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

    JAKARTA: How far can a journalist go in pursuing a story in times of conflict without becoming the story?

    Rahim Ullah Yusufzai, a veteran of war, terrorism, insurrection and civil unrest reporting in Pakistan, thinks that no story is really worth dying for, no matter how important it is.

    “Journalists are always hungry for news. We do take risks as journalists, but we keep telling our colleagues and I with myself, you know, nothing is more important than your life,” said Yusufzai, of TV channel Geo and News International of Peshawar, Pakistan.

    “You can’t really put your life at risk for a story because the story will always be covered even if you don’t go.”

    Yusufzai spoke before 52 senior journalists from 16 member-countries of the East Asia Summit in a meeting in Jakarta on March 8-11 to examine reporting on complex issues at the intersection of politics, religion and culture.

    The forum was organised by New Zealand and the European Union, with support from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Indonesian government and Press Council.

    Yusufzai, who interviewed al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden twice in 1998 and Taliban head Mullah Omar 13 times, stressed that a journalist should never cross the limit, and should always trust survival instincts.

    “You expose yourself, you can actually be a burden on your organisation. They have to pay the ransom or your family, or in some cases, your country has to face the burden because your government is forced to release Taliban commanders,” he said.

    “The media organisations - they are happy if you go to the front lines and you report the story but they don’t want to spend money on you. We always say that the camera is insured, but the cameraman is not insured,” Yusufzai said.

    “The camera is very expensive and they insure it,” he said.

    The kidnapping of journalists—local or foreign—for ransom has become a big business in conflict areas, Yusufzai said. Eventually, it all comes to ransom, he noted, as the US, the French and British governments do not normally agree to the release of prisoners.

    Two French journalists remain in captivity since they were abducted in Afghanistan on Dec. 30 last year. In exchange for their freedom, the kidnappers have demanded the release of Taliban prisoners and the payment of ransom.

    Yusufzai said the two journalists first came to Afghanistan embedded with the French troops. The second time, they decided to go on their own by seeking local contacts to get to a Taliban commander. They ended up being kidnapped by the commander.

    “This is a difficult situation,” Yusufzai mused. “You go with the troops, you are accused of being on the side of your troops you are embedded. But if you want to be independent, then you are actually exposing yourselves to many risks.”

    In 2007, he said, an Italian journalist was kidnapped in Pakistan and was released only after a deal under which five Taliban commanders were released.

    “You have to be careful in dealing with young people you know. We’ve met a few suicide bombers and they were teenagers and they can be very emotional. You can’t really negotiate with a young man. They are so rigid and so inflexible,” he said.

    Maguindanao massacre
    During the forum, participants cited the November 23, 2009, massacre of 57 people, including 32 journalists, in Maguindanao as an example of the risks journalists faced.

    Participants signed an open letter to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo expressing their sympathies to the families of the victims and urging the government to stop the senseless killings of journalists.

    ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said that journalists had a big responsibility as communicators to bring out the truth to the world.

    Orlando Mercado, Philippine permanent representative to the ASEAN, said that the newsroom had been marginalised by so-called new media—websites, blogs, YouTube, Facebook and the citizen journalists.

    Pictured: Top: A candlelight protest against the Maguindanao massacre in the southern Philippines (Photo: Arnold Padilla). Middle: the author, Cynthia Balana, and Rahim Ullah Yusufzai at the Jakarta media conference. Bottom: The Maguindanao massacre.

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