Saturday, October 9, 2010

Fiji without The Fiji Times is unthinkable

AS A riposte to the armchair media freedom critics from afar in Australia and New Zealand, safely beyond the regime's attention and the tentacles of the media decree, new Fiji Times editor Fred Wesley has penned this editorial. The editorial, headlined BREATH OF FRESH AIR, was published yesterday.
It is time to share with our readers where we are and where we plan to go.

Today we stand poised in an ocean of moments, reaching out for the reigns of change so that we may take hold of our own destiny.

Rich in history, we look forward with positive minds, eager to shrug off unwanted perceptions.

For some time now, we have been tagged as a newspaper hell-bent on being a pain in the b
ack of the State. It was an unwanted tag, one that brimmed with negative vibes.

To be seen as anti-government or pro-government are charges that do us no favour as a responsible media organisation.

We would rather be seen as a newspaper that takes no side; simply a newspaper of integrity.

Integrity is regarded as the quality of having an intuitive sense of honesty and truthfulness. Further, it is the opposite of hypocrisy.

We are not a newspaper hell-bent on hurting a government. Our passion is to ensure our readers know we have a sense of fairness about us.

Our charter is to strive for accuracy and balance with the intention to do justice to every story we print and picture we use. We are not anti-government and we are not pro-government.

We are very, very pro-Fiji and living proof of this is our 141-year record as recorders of history in this nation. In short, we are
The Fiji Times, neutral and striving to ensure any perception that paints us otherwise is easily washed off.

We will endeavour to make sure our readers see in us a newspaper that is easy to read, has entertaining and educational infor
mation and pictures, plus believability and authority.

For the past few months this newspaper has worked under a cloud with the possibility that the unthinkable could happen - Fiji without
The Fiji Times. We are now proudly owned in Fiji and our good people are once again doing their best with heads held high.

Together we can do good for this country and we hope to live up to the image that has etched indelible marks
on the minds of hundreds of thousands of readers over the past 141 years of our existence.

We are about people, values, honesty, commitment, perseverance and unity which is to say 'One People, One Nation'.

There comes a time when change is inevitable. It is a breath of fresh air and we are open to new ideas that will ensure we have a place in the lives of every citizen in our beautiful country.

Sleep assured we are firmly committed to helping our country move forward.
Today is the beginning of a new path for The Fiji Times. Today begins the work to be rid of any unwanted perceptions.

Today is about ensuring the slogan "Fiji without
The Fiji Times is unthinkable" is carved deeply in the hearts and minds of all our readers.

Today, we give you a newspaper that is fair, just, balanced and honest.

Today we give you a newspaper that holds true to the ideals of good journalism.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Back to the future at the Fiji Times – and it just might work

THE DOOMSDAY brigade is quickly at it again with its tenacious state gagging scenario at the Fiji Times. Media voices trot out the same tired old media freedom clichés about the fate of the ex-News Ltd newspaper that did so much to dig its own grave. Café Pacific prefers to keep an open mind and see what Motibhai’s new publisher, Dallas Swinstead, can produce. Give him time. A breath of fresh air and a strategic rethink of how to go about being an effective newspaper faced with the reality of a military-backed authoritarian regime. A real challenge.

Murdoch's previous News Ltd managers at the FT failed to get to grips with reality in Fiji. The combination of ownership by a Fiji company headed by astute businessman "Mac" Patel, who had long experience at the newspaper as a director, and a trusted publisher, who already had a track record as an innovative chief executive at the helm for four years – albeit during more relaxed times – could yet turn out to be a winner.

And if the Fiji Times succeeds in negotiating the media decree minefield and staying afloat with its long-lost integrity restored, then chalk that up as a media freedom success. If the newspaper learns from its past divisive mistakes, then even better. This outcome is vastly preferable to the News Ltd debacle that brought the newspaper to the brink of closure. Netani Rika and Margaret Wise are synonymous with that partisan era of questionable ethics. Rika "sacrificed" his job for the good of the company. But the rot had actually set in long before the George Speight attempted coup in May 2000.

The International Federation of Journalists voiced concern for the future of “critical and independent media” in Fiji, with secretary-general Aidan White saying: “The regime-imposed pressures on the Fiji Times risk silencing anyone who dares to stand up to defend independent media for the people of Fiji.” The Pacific Freedom Forum is concerned about “increasing confusion” as spin and silence reigns with a new Fiji clampdown. The regime friendly rival Fiji Sun reported the Fiji Times newsroom in a turmoil. Veteran columnist Seona Smiles says the resignation of Rika and the uncertainty over deputy editor Sophie Foster is a “great loss” to the newspaper.
For people to have to leave a job that they are both competent at, for political reasons, is always difficult. And both Netani Rika and Sophie Foster remained very staunch and true to journalistic ethics, throughout the recent period of political crisis.

However, in spite of all the hype and spin by both the regime and some media freedom opportunists, when a new broom is brought into a newspaper with change of ownership, it is normal for a change of editor and top editorial management. Café Pacific publisher David Robie flagged an editorial reshuffle in an interview with Radio NZ International’s Mediawatch programme last Sunday. Pacific Media Watch's Alex Perrottet reported the interview, quoting Dr Robie as saying that the Fiji Times was “going back to the future”:

As the dust settles, they may well look at another editor who would probably be more in tune with what Dallas Swinstead is going to try and do …

He is likely to take a more diplomatic approach to the regime than his immediate predecessors.
But I certainly don’t think he is going to be kowtowing to the regime. He has made some quite strong comments since he has been appointed.

But whether Fred Wesley is the right choice as acting editor-in-chief is another matter. Swinstead himself confirmed that he would be trying to “rebuild the relationship” with the regime in an interview with Fiji Broadcasting Corporation news director Stan Simpson:
Yes, we are changing direction. Having watched News Ltd perish in this country, there’s no sense in committing suicide – even with a local-owned replacement. There is no doubt that The Fiji Times cannot be antagonistic to the government. What on earth does it prove? But we will ask questions in a fair and balanced way because we will be helping to bring the people to the government.
Picture: How the old Fiji Times looked in 1974 - before Dallas Swinstead revamped the paper during his first stint as publisher for four years, 1976-1980. Photo: Fiji Times

Monday, October 4, 2010

Pacific 'dictatorship of the publishitariat'?

Crosbie Walsh plays Devil's Advocate with the media

SPEAKING at the 2010 Pacific Islands Media Association (PIMA) conference in Auckland on Friday, the keynote speaker, well known and respected Tongan media publisher and media freedom activist 'Eakalafi Moala said: "Press freedom in the Pacific Islands is under constant threat" while "New Zealand journalists ... took freedom of the press for granted."

He said threats to Pacific media freedom were due not only to "government blocking" (he was especially critical of Fiji's Media Decree, where, incidentally, the Fiji Broadcasting Corporation reported his speech!) but also to "the social and cultural fabric of the local community" that accepted government actions less critically than in Western countries. "Media freedom," he said, "operated more easily within a Western-educated social structure and conduct.”

Taken at face value, most would agree. But I wonder. Is it as straightforward as this? In an ideal world, would press freedom always prevail? Or, to play devil's advocate, should it ever prevail? What, exactly, is media freedom? Can a case be made that restrictions should be placed on the media in some situations? What are those situations? 'Eakalafi talked of cultural constraints in the Pacific but are there no cultural or other constraints in Western societies?

How free, really, is the New Zealand media? Does it truly provide access to information the people need to know? Who decides what we will read and hear and how it is presented? Who decides the news? I'm reluctant to write about Fiji again in this context, but when did the NZ media last report a contrary view on the situation there? How have they helped to explain what is happening, and why? How do they decide who to interview? Do they ever verify their stories?

One can also ask what is meant by information when so much of what we see is sensationalism and trivia. What real balance exists in their coverage? Even media people ask what's happened to investigative journalism. We've never before had so much access to information, but we've also never has access to so much wrong or useless information. Sometimes I ask, do I know more about any matter of consequence because of the media, or am I merely more misinformed? And then I ask myself about the supposed role of the media in a democracy and what it actually does.

Who really is this freedom for? I am not an advertiser or a shareholder in the media. I don't vote for their boards or sit on their appointment committees. I have no say whatsoever in what they choose to publish or not to publish. I am not part of the media or any other establishment. I cannot vote them out with a letter to the editor or an appeal to the Broadcasting Standards Authority.

When it comes down to the hard questions, we should ask how significantly different are the NZ and Pacific media? Different masters, different circumstances and different stories, but I suspect that whoever pays the piper still calls the tune. My only freedom is the choice to switch off the TV and radio and not read the newspapers. Sometimes, not always of course, I wonder how they dare claim a special, elevated place -- the Fourth Estate -- in a democracy when their power is more akin to a "dictatorship of the publishitariat."

Freedom of the media, by the media, for the media? An overstatement, perhaps. But by how much?

Retired University of the South Pacific professor of development studies Dr Crosbie Walsh publishes a blog - Fiji: The way it was, is and can be

Fiji Times' editor going, going ... gone?
Tipped on Radio NZ's Mediawatch
'Dumb questions' for new publisher

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Motibhai’s new broom brushes off the 'dumb questions'

DALLAS SWINSTEAD, Motibhai’s new broom as publisher of the 141-year-old Fiji Times, didn’t waste any time setting the benchmark this week at his old paper. He has returned to Fiji with an open mind. He says he remains committed to good journalism and wants to rebuild the newspaper into the fine publication it has been. But he will also be “pragmatic” about the military-backed regime.

Swinstead believes there are more subtle and strategic ways of achieving success at the newspaper than pointless confrontation that killed the paper off for News Ltd: "What’s the point in having a newspaper shut down?” he asked Geraldine Coutts in an interview with Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat this week.

Thankfully, Fiji’s oldest and most influential newspaper survived the doomsday predictions with the enforced sale. Some journalists seem to think that it is a badge of honour to be kicked out of a country or for their title to be closed down. The ultimate censure. And the price then is enforced silence or rumour mongering for the citizens. Everybody loses.

After such an important contribution to the country from humble beginnings in Levuka in 1869 and to the building of a society both before and post-independence, it would have been “unthinkable” for the Times not to continue, as Motibhai’s board chairman Mahendra “Mac” Patel put it. Patel knew Swinstead from his first term as Fiji Times publisher (when he was very innovative) for four years until 1980, long before Sitiveni Rabuka’s twin coups threw Fiji into a downward spiral. Swinstead has a diplomatic streak and he may prove to be more adept at negotiating an “open space” with the regime than his predecessors.

It is early days yet, and for the moment Swinstead is saddled with the same editor-in-chief, Netani Rika, who is very unpopular with the regime. Will he remain for the long haul? Unlikely.

The handover at The Fiji Times in Suva this week was fairly upbeat with optimistic rhetoric from both the outgoing owner, News Ltd’s chairman and chief executive John Hartigan, and the new owner, Motibhai's “Mac” Patel. Hartigan said: “Today is a very emotional day for me, for a lot of people in our country and elsewhere; we didn't want to sell the paper.” Patel said: "Fiji without the Fiji Times is unthinkable. Motibhai's acquisition is for the people of Fiji."

Swinstead gave some hints on his editorial philosophy for the challenging times ahead in the Pacific Beat interview - and he brushed off what he branded as a “dumb question” or two from Coutts.

Explaining his views, Swinstead told Coutts: “I understand the values and the responsibility enjoying the right to free speech and the cost of putting my foot in my mouth. So there are two ways to go here. One is to demand free speech and you can ask News Ltd about that. And the other is to try to work with the local ownership, with the people and with the government to get this country to where it wants to be. Now it sounds a bit precious, but that's the reality and I am a pragmatist."

Coutts responded that she wasn’t “quite sure what that actually says” and asked again whether he supported a status quo approach or a free press:
SWINSTEAD: No, what I said is that I understand free speech better than most and I understand its value, but here it is not possible under some circumstances. What you have to understand is that 95 percent of our paper - whether it is Fijians, Indians and whatever - is happening here. It's sport results, it's commerce … the whole thing. And inevitably there are going to be stories that will cause the government embarrassment and I hope to be able to find a way to negotiate with good people down there and people here who are somehow or other able to keep some conversation going. I make no promises, and if we have to close our mouths or be shut down, I have no option but to walk around it. Now that's pretty simple.

COUTTS: So if you get a directive not to do a certain story, you will abide by that?

SWINSTEAD: I beg your pardon?

COUTTS: If you get a directive from the government or the censors not to do a story that you think is important and in the public interest, you'll sit it on it yourself? You'll choose to do that? You'll censor yourself?

SWINSTEAD: Well, with respect to you, that is a pretty dumb question. Of course, I will. What's the point in having a newspaper shut down?

COUTTS: Well then going back to the original question, what is freedom of speech?

SWINSTEAD: Freedom of speech - my original answer was my parents gave me a pretty fair idea of what you can say and get away with, and when you stepped out of line and they ran the show they knocked you over. So, I mean, I don't like that happening. I am tenacious, but I am a good mediator and a facilitator, and I will be trying to talk to people in government to lead them to understand how valuable a free and open press is. But look, it is a developing country with lots of problems and I am sympathetic to them and I am not angry about censorship or anything else. That's life.

Fiji picked up on this interview and presented it as Swinstead “clearing the air” on Fiji. The radio station’s website said he would “keep the channels of communication open” with the regime. Fiji Village is part of the Communications Fiji group, which is another key media group with a powerful Gujerati business stake (Hari Punja) along with The Fiji Times (Motibhai) and the Fiji Sun (C. J. Patel).

Good luck to the new team at The Fiji Times. They’ll need it. At least Fiji will still be blessed with a choice of daily newspapers. The third daily – the Daily Post, with a substantial indigenous Fijian shareholding, is already a casualty of the censorship climate and struggling economy.

Pictured: Dallas Swinstead (Photo: Fiji Times)

Returning Fiji Times publisher to negotiate a different Fiji
New Fiji Times publisher clears the air
How the Pacific Murdoch times are changing
Ex-Fiji Times publisher named as Motibhai's new man at helm
Motibhai wins race for the Fiji Times
Fiji: The best of the Times - Vijendra Kumar

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

>>> Café Pacific on YouTube


>>> Popular Café Pacific Posts