Sunday, September 19, 2010

How the Pacific Murdoch times are changing

APART from a banner headline in The Fiji Times, “Motibhai buys Times,” on a front page story bylined by a local reporter but based on a News Ltd handout, the enforced sale of the country’s oldest newspaper has been remarkably under reported.

No serious analysis, no editorials and certainly no backgrounder. Another sign of the times post-censorship. Even the Fiji Times itself did not remark editorially about the sale of the 141-year-old paper.

Australia-based News Ltd is bailing out completely. Once the regulatory niceties have been done by September 22, it will be goodbye Rupert Murdoch in Fiji. Speculation by the Fiji Sun that the company’s valuable downtown Suva real estate holdings had not been sold has proved wrong.

Fiji Times managing editor Anne Fussell had a letter published in the Sun at the weekend saying a statement by the newspaper that Fussell had told senior Times staff that “real estate is not included in the sale” was a “complete fabrication”.

“The inevitable result of writing a story which has written this untruth is that the headline is also a misleading untruth,” Fussell wrote.

“In fact, the real estate is included in the sale.”

The Fiji Sun replied with an editor’s note saying the report (not published in the online edition) was “based on information provided by Fiji Times staff following a meeting there”. The paper also pointed out that it had since reported that Motibhai had bought all the property, “including the executive house occupied by Ms Fussell”.

Stack of letters
The Fiji Times
ran a stack of letters congratulating the Motibhai group for “keeping it in the family” and buying out the FT. (All media companies were forced by the regime to divest at least 90 percent of the shareholding to local owners by September 28, or face being deregistered under the new Media Industry Development Decree. The Fiji Times group, the only completely foreign owned media company in Fiji, is selling up completely).

One letter praised Motibhai’s “courageous step” and saving “a couple of thousand jobs”.

“With modern technology, a lot of print news companies in the USA are on the brink of closing down and becoming history.

“To name a few newspapers that are fighting for their survival – The New York Times, Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.

“The newspapers have been around for ages and during their peak were read not only in the US, but also abroad.”

Another letter said: “The Motibhai Group [has] a proven track record of how they’re able to transform businesses they acquire into household brand names and I know they will do the same with our oldest daily, The Fiji Times.”

But there was no debate – amid the censorship climate – of the implications of both Fiji’s two national daily newspapers being owned by rival Gujerati business chains. Or any discussion about the future of the editor, outspoken regime critic Netani Rika and senior editorial staff. For 141 years until now, The Fiji Times, for all its flaws, has been owned by dedicated newspaper publishing interests. News Ltd bought the Fiji Times and the (now closed) Pacific Islands Monthly from the Herald and Weekly Times group, which had in turn bought the publications from the Wilke Group.

Market slump
It is easy to see how the Fiji Times has slumped from its once totally dominant market share: Starved of Fiji government advertising, the weekend Fiji Times only totaled 80 pages. But its regime-fawning competitor, Fiji Sun, had 128 pages plus a 30-page glossy Showtime/Garam Masala magazine liftout.

Already, the Malaysian-owned National in Papua New Guinea had long ago taken over from the mostly Australian-owned newspaper Post-Courier - now the only Murdoch outpost in the islands - as the leading circulation daily.

Australian newspaper publishers have been knocked off their perch in the Pacific. How times are changing.

Pictured: The Fiji Times publishing stable; editor-in-chief Netani Rika; and staff celebrating at the 140th birthday party in Suva. Photo: Brisbane Times.

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

Friday, September 3, 2010

Has Rupert Murdoch declared war on Fiji?

By Michael Hartsell

The four-year battle between the Fiji Times and Fiji's military backed government will soon come to a head as new media laws will force the sale of the 141-year-old paper that is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Limited.

The Media Industry Development Decree, passed in late June, stipulates that 90 percent of ownership of Fiji's media companies must be made up of Fiji citizens. While Rupert Murdoch declared US citizenship in the mid-1980s to get around foreign media ownership rules in that country, there has been no talk of the Australian-born media mogul becoming a Fiji citizen.

Thursday, August 26, marked the deadline interested parties could make bids to purchase the Fiji Times. This comes at the height of a months-long war-of-words between various Australian publications — mostly owned by Murdoch's companies — and Fiji's government. “News Limited, which owns the Fiji Times, continues to wage a hostile media campaign against Fiji, this time directly targeting the nation’s tourism industry and economy,” Fiji's Permanent Secretary for information, Sharon Smith-Johns told Radio Australia's Pacific Beat programme.

Smith-Johns specifically referred to an article by former Fiji Times editor-in-chief Rory Gibson, writing in the Murdoch-owned Brisbane Courier-Mail, comparing Fiji's present government to a “military dictatorship little better than any apartheid regime operating in South Africa's dark ages.”

Smith-Johns wondered aloud if the Australian government was behind some of the bad publicity Fiji's government has received:

Questions have been asked here, is the Australian government behind it? The Australian Government has turned around and said that it will not penalise Fiji, but obviously now News Limited certainly is. It's attacking our economy and it's attacking our tourists. It's a concerted campaign. It's not just one story, it's several stories that have been run in quite a few different papers.

Bloggers who cover Fiji (and their commentors) wonder whether Fiji's military government will weather the poor public relations storm by forcing the sale of such a well-known newspaper.

A comment from FRE in the Fiji Today blog:

Imagine the adverse publicity that will occur if the dictatorship actually does force the Fiji Times to close. There would be headlines in all the newspapers in both Australia and New Zealand. The credibility of the dictatorship would be severely damaged. Can the dictatorship actually afford that damage? Is the dictatorship so blind as to be unaware of the consequences?

The battle between government and media behemoth also spurs a debate on the often inflamed coverage of Fiji in the mainstream press around the Pacific. The Fiji Democracy Now blog complains that Smith-John's words are also inflamatory:
But we cannot let the latest public pronouncement get away, which asks us to believe that, somehow, Rupert Murdoch’s vast media empire, News Ltd, has become a “tool” of the Australian government. The mouthpiece states: “It begs the question that most in Fiji are asking. Is the Australian government using News Limited as a tool to punish Fiji and cripple our economy?” Wow! Has anyone told Rupert that his multi-billion dollar company is actually the PR lackey of the Aussie government?
A commenter to the blog Fiji: The Way It Was, Is and Can Be defends Smith-Johns, but points out that objective reporting and Fiji's future is more important than the current tussle:
[Smith-Johns is] saying the articles are deeply biased and could impact negatively on tourism which employs many thousands of Fiji citizens. One looks to the mainstream media for information, balance and objectivity but with almost all News Ltd articles (and indeed most other foreign media reports) on Fiji, this has generally not been the case. Rory's piece is hyperbole, not journalism as I know it. This is not about whether you or I support or oppose the 2006; it's about trying to understand the situation and help it move forward for the benefit of all Fiji citizens.
- 7018 Pacific Media Watch

Michael Hartsell is a regular contributor on Fiji issues to Global Voices. Link to his original GV article here.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Fiji coup-within-coup rumour mill - the price of censorship

By Crosbie Walsh

PACIFIC SCOOP has a well earned reputation for solid journalism. When it publishes opinions they are invariably reasoned and supported with evidence and insight. Until two days ago. When it published a purely speculative article (supported by not a shred of evidence or any indication of the reliability of unnamed sources) about a supposedly looming Fiji coup-within-the-coup.

The article was written by Tupuola Terrence Tavita, editor of the Samoa government newspaper Savali. It is not Tupuola's first trip into virtual space and I doubt it will be his last. Stories are easy to write when you can pull them out of the air. Investigative journalism takes longer.

I draw the article to readers' attention, not for its content, but for the flood of comments it generated. I urge you to read them by clicking here. At my last count, no one agreed with him.

The article does, however, raise the possibility of a coup-within-the-coup. This is nothing new. It has always been a possibility. Support for what the Fiji government is doing and trying to do seems to be increasing (see my blog) but Fiji remains a divided nation with enough "loose cannons" to cause immeasurable harm.

The longer overseas governments, most especially Australia and New Zealand, continue to act in ways that work against Fiji's economic recovery and internal stability -- and fail to support the government's much-needed reforms -- the longer the possibility of another coup will last. This prospect should cause Australia and NZ serious reflection: if the 2006 coup is unable to establish the conditions for long-term stability, it will not be Fiji's last coup, not by a long chalk. As one reader observed:
The next coup d’etat will sink the Ship and all of those on board. Without a shadow of a doubt. It will be violent and many people will be killed. That is what the International Community’s fiddling and stand-off is bringing on.
Adjunct professor Crosbie Walsh, formerly of the University of the South Pacific, publishes his Fiji blog here.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Bloggers and the Paris 'anti-censor shelter'

TOMORROW is International Blog Day – and already an innovative venture by Reporters Sans Frontières is more than two months old. While Café Pacific's publisher was in Paris visiting RSF, the media freedom organisation was launching a new tool to protect the identities of bloggers exposing truths unpalatable to some regimes.

The world’s first “anti-censorship shelter” was launched in mid-June in a clever new attempt to foil oppressive regimes. Take note, Fiji bloggers. The shelter tries to ensure that online journalists and bloggers can freely publish while staying anonymous.

RSF pledges "an active commitment to an internet that is unrestricted and accessible to all”. Its strategy for doing this is to offer censorship victims a way of protecting their online information.

The organisation has partnered with a security firm, XeroBank, to form what it describes as a "virtually untraceable high-speed anonymity network". Traffic is mixed with that of thousands of other internet users from country to country, making detection impossible.

RSF has also created a website for hosting “forbidden material” in order to outwit global censorship.

As many regimes have become more suspicious of bloggers and ever more oppressive, the online writers continue to publish news and information that traditional media dares not cover. Online sites, like CoupFourpointFive, have provided a key safety valve and clearing house for the Fiji opponents of dictator Voreqe Bainimarama.

Last year, RSF published a handbook offering practical advice and techniques on how to create a blog, make entries and get the blog to show up in search engine results. It gives clear explanations about blogging for all those whose online freedom of expression is subject to restrictions - and it shows how to sidestep state-imposed censorship measures. Writes editor Clothilde Le Coz:
Let's acknowledge that blogs are a fantastic tool for freedom of expression. They have loosened the tongues of ordinary citizens. People who were until now only consumers of news have become players in a new form of journalism, a "grassroots" journalism, as expressed by Dan Gillmor, that is "by the people for the people".

Blogs are more or less controllable for those who want to keep them under surveillance. Governments that are most up to do date with new technology use the most sophisticated filtering or blocking techniques, preventing them from appearing on the Web at all. But bloggers don't just sit back and let it happen. The essential question becomes how to blog in complete safety.

And that’s where the new RSF blogging tool comes in. RSF is also helping journalists in other practical ways too, like hiring out media flak jackets at a fraction of the commercial rates.

Pictured: RSF graphic; flak jackets in the RSF headquarters in Paris, near La Bourse; RSF's Asia-Pacific coordinator Vincent Brossell (centre) and colleagues with the PMC's David Robie. Photos: David Robie

Monday, August 23, 2010

Opening eyes to a Fiji 'free press' blindside

AN ITEM that popped up today on Croz Walsh's Fiji blog taking the mickey out of a "profound shame" article by a former Fiji Times editor-in-chief, Rory Gibson, in the Brisbane Courier-Mail. It ran under this heading:

Don't give me that nonsense about the media freedom in the Mickey Mouse press

Q. What does the Fiji Times, the Townsville Bulletin, the Australian and the Courier-Mail have in common?

A. They are all owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Ltd and they've all employed Rory Gibson as editor, editor-in-chief, chief subeditor or senior journalist at some time or other.

Rory has the reputation of writing humourous articles. If you're a kookaburra, you'll really laugh at his latest effort, Australian tourists turn a blind eye as Fiji's best people persecuted in the Brisbane Courier-Mail.

He writes that "it should be a source of profound shame to our country that Australians are going on holidays to Fiji in record numbers".

Why? Because they are gifting "dollars to the coffers of a nation that is run by a military dictatorship little better than any apartheid regime operating in South Africa's dark ages".

Forget that most of the dollars stay in Oz and that thousands of ordinary Fijians live on what's left. Just think back to Soweto, S. Africa, 1976. Police open fire on 10,000 protesters. Fiji today: No guns fired. Apartheid South Africa: All ANC leaders, including Nelson Mandela imprisoned, many for life. Fiji: Short-term arrests but no political prisoners; former Prime Ministers drinking coffee in Downtown Suva.

And who is the cause of the shame in Fiji? "We can all laugh," he writes unblushingly, "that our Melanesian neighbours are ruled by a bloke with a name that sounds like an '80s girl band, and assuage our consciences by believing Commodore Bainimarama's claptrap about restoring fairness to Fiji's racist electoral system." Girl band? Claptrap? Restoring? It wasn't a racist electoral system?

And what are the effects?

"This Pacific tragedy isn't about whether the Fiji Times is being edited under the baleful glare of one of Bainimarama's gun-toting thugs [Oh, No?], or that an expat gets his marching orders.[Definitely not!] It's about people like Imrana Jalal and her husband Ratu Sakiusa Tuisolia."

And the rest of his long story is about these "best people" and a court case in which Jalal was acquitted.

His conclusion? "Going on holiday there while this sort of abuse is happening would be like sitting in a cafe sipping a coffee while a mugger attacked a pregnant woman on the footpath next to you, and you ignored it."

So, that's all for the moment from Rory Gibson, former editor-in-chief of the Fiji Times, defender of media freedom. One wonders what his journalist colleagues think about this.

Rory Gibson's article

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