Sunday, January 16, 2011

Dodging the censors – an ungagged recipe to rescue Fiji’s national pension fund


HOW BIZARRE. The Fiji censors have gagged a perfectly reasonable and well-argued article about how ordinary Fijians can help their much-maligned national pension fund. Almost two years ago, the University of the South Pacific economist and former MP Professor Wadan Narsey penned an article in The Fiji Times about the “circling coup wolves”, which were putting the Fiji National Provident Fund at risk. His accompanying cartoon depicted the FNPF as a cash cow laden with pensions with a bunch of wolves snapping at its hooves. (By law, some 16 percent of Fijians wages and salaries must be paid into the fund - savings amounting to F$2.5 billion and with assets on paper worth $3 billion). The introduction said:
contributors and pensioners should be concerned. Perhaps worried. Perhaps frightened. Because our FNPF life savings are under threat.

While outlining the threatening wolves and the potential harm they could cause the FNPF, he also pointed out the lack of representation for the country’s contributors and pensioners:
We the FNPF contributors who own the savings do not have a single direct representative on the FNPF board who can be accountable to us. Why don't we?

We remain quiet at our peril.

But this fresh article on Pacific Media Centre Online today has a far more positive tone, more in the vein of what Fijians can do for the country’s fund (to rescue it) rather than what the fund can do for them. A visionary recipe for development. Yet the regime’s censors gagged the article from a Fiji Times edition last week – they “took it away and didn’t return it”. Narsey says:
Can Fiji National Provident Fund contributors and pensioners assist it become more viable?

With a stagnating economy, FNPF revenues have been severely constrained. Few new jobs have been created and existing incomes have not grown; many loans are non-performing; returns on FNPF investments have been declining; and large amounts of capital values have been written off because of mismanagement.


But collectively, FNPF contributors and pensioners remain the largest group of spenders in the Fiji economy.


Here is the challenge: can FNPF contributors and pensioners direct their consumption expenditure towards FNPF investments, and change FNPF policies for the better?

And Narsey made a number of suggestions about how the fund can be restructured, provide fairer representation and also about strategic help. This was a very positive and constructive article. As the author notes:
Why would the Bainimarama regime ban this article from a daily newspaper? What greater damage is being done to our people’s welfare which the papers are stopped from reporting, every day? Why do we Fiji citizens continue to suffer this daily loss of our basic human right to freedom of expression, without even a whimper?
Fiji’s draconian media censorship has to stop.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Fiji rugby scandal and a stake in French Euro club dominance

IN AN extraordinary development, the Fiji Rugby Union’s entire board is resigning next month in a funding scandal to clear the way for the military-backed regime to hand over threatened funding for the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand later this year.

The regime had threatened to withhold F$3 million in pledged grants for World Cup unless the board quit following an official probe by the consumer watchdog Commerce Commission had found the union had mismanaged a fundraising lottery.

Sport Minister Filip Bole said the RFU would elect new officials at a special general meeting before the end of February.

Meanwhile, a host of Fiji rugby players plying their trade in France have made a key contribution to the French clubs’ domination of the European competitions. At the start of this weekend, French clubs topped three of the six pools in the top-tier Heineken Cup while French clubs also headed all five pools in the second-tier Challenge Cup pools.

The article below from the Wall Street Journal sums up how “big money, star players and English tactics” have given French rugby unprecedented domination of global club rugby.

Pictured is Toulon's Gabriele Lovobalavu playing against Stade de France (taking on the opponent in pink). He was voted seventh on Rankopedia out of the top 11 Fiji players in France in the 2009 Top 14 competition. (Clermont Auvergne's Napolioni Nalaga was voted top Fiji player.)

FRENCH RUGBY RULES EUROPE

By Jonathan Clegg

Not so long ago, European rugby union was dominated by English teams whose gameplans involved kicking for field position and tackling anything that moved. But not anymore.

In today's club game, the best teams have three things in common: star-studded rosters, a swarming defense, and they all play in France.

Between them, French clubs provided four of the eight quarterfinalists in the Heineken Cup last season—a record—as Toulouse won its fourth title. Nobody else has more than two.

This week, as club rugby's biggest tournament resumes, French teams top three of the six pools in the Heineken Cup and five out of five in the Challenge Cup. In European competition this season, clubs from the country's Top 14, the top division, have a combined winning percentage of .707 and a record of 41 wins, one draw and just 16 defeats.

It's a period of unprecedented dominance, but will it last? The French say the commercial clout of their clubs and the passion for the game will sustain it. But spiralling salaries and a new homegrown player quota instituted by the Ligue Nationale de Rugby, which governs the professional game, could pull the country's soaring teams back down to earth.

Nevertheless, for the moment, France has stolen the game of club rugby from the rest of Europe and it doesn't look likely to give it back anytime soon.

"I don't know if it will right itself," said Jim Mallinder, the Northampton Saints director of rugby. "The gap is certainly there and it's quite evident. It has become increasingly difficult [to compete]."

It wasn't always like this. Though France supplied the Heineken Cup's first two winners—Toulouse and Brive—it couldn't maintain that dominance. Toulouse has won a further three titles, but no other French club has triumphed since 1997—a period in which four English clubs and all three participating Irish provinces lifted the trophy. In the 2008-09 season, France has just one representative in the Heineken Cup quarterfinals.

The chief reason for the turnaround is that French teams once famed for their flair have developed a reputation for discipline and punishing defense.

France has always produced players with the capacity to dazzle on a rugby field, but that style was rarely accompanied by steel. These days, that's changing. When London Saracens played Clermont Auvergne in a Heineken Cup game last October, for example, Clermont recorded 121 tackles to Saracens' 50 as the French team prevailed.

Indeed, there have been more tries on offer in the Aviva Premiership and the Magners League, with an average of 3.61 and 3.72 per game respectively, compared with 3.46 scored in the Top 14 so far this season. "The French teams have become more English in their approach," said Serge Blanco, the former France national team player and now president of Biarritz. "The Top 14 clubs now play a game that combines running rugby with disciplined defense. They've learned to be streetwise."

But for all their physical strength, French clubs owe much of their success to financial muscle. Armed with a rich domestic television deal and booming attendances, the Top 14 teams operate on an entirely different economic level to their cross-channel counterparts.

France introduced a salary cap of €8 million ($10.4 million) per club this year, a figure which dwarfs the wage ceiling of £4.2 million ($6.6 million) in the Premiership. In addition, salaries in French rugby have risen tenfold in the past 15 years. The average wage in the Top 14 is now €132,000—almost 60% higher than the Premiership average of roughly £75,000.

Combined with the strength of the euro against the pound, that purchasing power has made French clubs hugely competitive in the international transfer market. In the past two years, superstars like Francois Steyn, Carl Hayman and Jonny Wilkinson have all been recruited from overseas clubs.

The influx of big-name players has produced other advantages: In France, the average crowd for Top 14 matches this season is 13,493, an increase of 2.5% on last season. By contrast, figures released by Premier Rugby this week show that Magners League and Aviva Premiership attendances are down 7% and 4% respectively compared with the same stage last season.

"There are more people watching and more interest in the newspapers," said Philipe Saint-André, the Toulon coach. "It looks a little bit like the English Premier League."

French teams have also developed deeper reserves of talent. While Leicester Tigers, the English title-holder, named a squad of 33 players this season, clubs in the Top 14 can have as many as 45 players at their disposal. Clermont, the reigning Top 14 champion, included 30 international players in its nominated squad list of 38 for the current campaign.

All of which helps to explain how the French championship came to replace England's Premiership at the pinnacle of club rugby: Since Premiership clubs first participated in the Heineken Cup in 1997, England had always been represented in at least one European final. Last year, that sequence was broken during a dismal campaign as England provided just one quarterfinalist—its worst record in 13 years of continental competition.

Yet some people are starting to wonder whether French rugby's reign is built to last. Salaries in France have risen by roughly a third since 2007 and Mark McCafferty, the chief executive of England's Premier Rugby, warns that the level of spending is unsustainable.

"I don't think it's sustainable position, but it will take three, four more years to work its way through," McCafferty said.

The spiralling cost of competing has already claimed some casualties: Montauban was thrown out of the Top 14 last year and relegated to the amateur leagues after failing to provide evidence that it could clear a €1.7 million financial shortfall in its season budget.

If heavy spending doesn't tackle French dominance in Europe, new player quotas might. Starting this year, Top 14 clubs will have to increase the number of homegrown players in their squads to 50%, rising to 70% next season in an effort to safeguard the future of the national team. In addition, many clubs French clubs see the domestic championship—which dates back to 1892—as more important than the quest for European glory.

"For me, the Heineken Cup is not the priority," said Mourad Boudjellal, the Toulon president, ahead of his club's game against Munster on Sunday. "I am first a child of the [Top 14] championship."

But whatever the future holds for the rugby teams in France, the era of French superiority in Europe shows no sign of coming to an end just yet.

"The French teams are still the ones to beat," said Will Greenwood, a former England player and now a rugby analyst. "It's almost impossible to pick anyone else."

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Don't let the numbers get in the way of a good story, Fiji Sun

MORE from Croz Walsh, this time a scolding for the Fiji Sun for doing a hack job on an "exodus" of doctors. And more evidence on how many Pacific journalists - all over the globe, for that matter - are challenged when it comes to numeracy. Walsh writes the "botched figures" items:
You can't altogether blame the moderate anti-government blog Fiji Today for getting its facts wrong when it reported: "Recent statistics released by the Ministry of Health shows that out of the 850 trained doctors in the country 400 have left for greener pastures last year." They were merely quoting the Fiji Sun. But they said this equated to more than one doctor per day and really rubbed it in by adding "Good one, Frank. You are building a better Fiji." Click on both hyperlinks above to check that I've got this right, and then read on...

The figures they cite are completely wrong, and the journalists responsible have no good excuse because they should immediately have queried obviously suspicious figures and because there were quick ways to do so. I looked at the figures and thought 850 trained doctors? Fiji only has 8000 teachers and they can't possibly outnumber doctors by only 10:1.

So I checked the Bureau of Statistics website that showed there were only 416 doctors in 2009, and as a further check I consulted the Ministry of Health's website. Their Strategic Plan for 2011 states that it aims to maintain the number of doctors at 54 per 100,000 population. This would give 480 (not 850) doctors in an estimated 2010 population of 888,000. So the Fiji Sun and Fiji Today are way off the mark.

And then, incredibly, they made a second error by saying the loss of 400 doctors occurred in one year, when the figure is for the past 10 to 15 years, that gives a loss of between 40 to 27 doctors a year. Still a large number but locally graduating doctors and overseas recruitment should make up much of the loss.

I hope the Fiji Sun and Fiji Today editors blush with shame.
And give their reporters and subs an in-house statistics workshop.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Unmasking the Fiji blogger facade


CROSBIE WALSH has speculated on his upfront Fiji blog this week about the identity of an unnamed CoupFourPointFive spokesperson in an interview with Bruce Hill of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Hill also spoke to Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum on the topic of New Zealand media reports last November suggesting that PM Voreqe Bainimarama had "died". Of course, Bainimarama had the last laugh. The latest issue was about a planned complaint to the NZ Press Council about the false reports – a worrying trend considering that this could be the fourth time in two years that Pacific governments are exploiting the New Zealand media standards bodies to “chill” current affairs reporting. Also, the "action" item has been apparently ignored by NZ media. But Walsh also raised an ethical issue over why shield the identity of a blogsite commentator, a journalist who is clearly not at risk?

Walsh’s blog drew an interesting response from the “The ABC of getting it wrong” on the dubious granting of anonymity in these circumstances. The correspondent wrote:

Conventional practice in news and current affairs has it that interviewees should only have their identities concealed when there is a clear threat to their positions and the information being imparted is of such importance that there is a clear public interest in granting them anonymity.

The ABC would undoubtedly argue that one of the principals of Coup 4.5 deserves the cloak of anonymity because of the possibility of government retribution. But that's where any justification ends and even this depends on whether the person being interviewed was actually in Fiji and within striking distance of the alleged bully boys of the military.


Is he in danger on the streets of Auckland or Sydney? Not on the evidence thus far. Not only do regime critics thrive there but there's no indication whatsoever that Frank Bainimarama is a Saddam Hussein who orders death squads to pursue his opponents abroad. So how hazardous is this individual's position beyond being unmasked as a regime critic? Would he be captured, tortured and forced to reveal the secrets of 4.5? Maybe in Fiji in more fevered minds but nowhere else.

Where the ABC is really vulnerable to criticism and complaint is that this person's contribution to the debate was so pedestrian. Merely parroting the usual anti-regime line meant that nothing of what he said met the public interest test. There was no new information of such pressing urgency that the public benefited from hearing from the man with the mask.

Now, one might argue that I am anonymous in these columns. But this is comment, not news, an important distinction. And in any event, the whole world accepts that an entirely different set of conventions applies to the Bloggersphere. When it comes to news and information programs on a mainstream public broadcaster like the ABC, the audience clearly deserves better.

Yes, there are times when whistle-blowers deserve anonymity in the public interest, as well as their own, but this wasn't one of them. The whistle wasn't being blown on anything. Bruce Hill and his editors allowed a run-of-the-mill regime critic to sprout run-of-the-mill anti-regime criticism and in doing so, debased not just an importance convention but the credibility of the ABC.

Although Walsh - a retired professor who founded the development studies programme at both Massey University and the University of the South Pacific - does not have a media background himself, he manages to pose some searching questions about the contemporary nature of news and current affairs reporting in the Pacific region. And Café Pacific believes these questions are ignored at our peril. A day after the “masked interview” comment, another correspondent raised the issue of youth and absence of social-political memory and context among many journalists reporting today:

A recent editorial by Fred Wesley in The Fiji Times reminded me of how little collective memory is brought to bear on current events. In a piece on someone who'd managed to reach the ripe old age on 101, Wesley wrote in apparent awe that there were still people in Fiji who could remember the assassination of John F, Kennedy, the British colonial era and Fiji's independence. I've yet to reach three score years and can remember all three! You go back a lot longer and have accumulated much more knowledge. As the old saying goes, those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.

But in the case of Fiji, it's the appalling general ignorance of the past that produces the same mistakes again and again. You've now got to be 23 years old to have even been born at the time of Rabuka's 1987 coup. And you've got to be 40 to have been born at Independence. Is it any wonder that these events are now regarded as ancient history and irrelevant to peoples' lives?


Touché.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Café Pacific's New Year Honours list 2010

NEWSPAPER of the Year – The Fiji Times: This is the second year running it has won the Café Pacific newspaper prize. Although The Fiji Times went off the boil under Netani Rika’s leadership and headed for a disastrous demise with it uncomprising but unrealistic stance when dealing with a military regime, the newspaper wins the award again - this time for its change of ownership, change of tactics and a realistic overhaul of its strategic direction. Under the naïve management in the last stages of the News Ltd era, the 141-year-old newspaper was heading for closure under the 10 percent local ownership ultimatum under the regime’s Media Industry Development Decree. This fate would have sealed the end of any credible fightback for an independent media in Fiji.

However, under the new ownership of the Motibhai group (“Mac” Motibhai Patel was a Fiji Times director for about four decades) and with the recall of a previous outstanding Australian publisher, Dallas Swinstead, to the hotseat, the paper now has the chance to fight another day. Neogotiation rather than confrontation seems to be the new approach under editor Fred Wesley. Time will tell whether this succeeds.

But paradoxically The Fiji Times also blots its copy book with the Most Toadying Story of the Year – a front page story on Fiji Water that ran as a sort of advertising wrap around given the marketing image displayed. When the US-based company Fiji Water announced its closure this was a petulant response to a massive tax clampdown on the company, many breathed an “about time” sigh – they regarded the company as having exploiting Fiji for years. While some in the media fraternity expected the regime to cave in – as it had done on a previous attempt to boost the state tax returns - this time it was the company that surrendered with a reversal of its close down edict and a vow of business as usual. The Fiji Times needed to have published a more exhaustive inquiry into the economics of Fiji Water and also ought to have a higher level of scrutiny of other foreign-owned companies operating in the country. This is revelatory about the level of business journalism on the paper at the moment.

Media film – There Once Was an Island: Te Henua e Noho: Strictly speaking, this isn’t a media film at all, but a powerful and heart-rending documentary about the realities of climate change in the Pacific, a film that every journalist working on environmental issues should watch. It is extremely educational about the power relationships between politicians in far-away Pacific capitals and their incompetent functionaries and island communities struggling for survival on remote islands with the political odds stacked against them. Filmmaker Briar March lived with the community on the Polynesian atoll of Takuu (also known as the Mortlock islands) as they wrestled with their life-and-death decisions over a move to the Bougainville autonomous region mainland some 250 km to the south-west.

This film had its premier in the New Zealand International Film Festival in July and was also screened at the Oceans, Islands and Skies creativity and climate change conference at the University of the South Pacific in September. Sadly, not one local Fiji journalist took the trouble of seeing it, let alone write about it. It has already won four awards in 2010 and was the runner-up as the best political film for the AOF Festival 2010.

Media monitoring agency – Reporters sans frontières (RSF): Again, this award is well-deserved globally for 2010, but the agency is also now boosting its Asia-Pacific coverage with several new nations now being included in its Pacific section of the annual media freedom survey. Its coverage of East Timor and Papua New Guinea is particularly welcome. According to RSF's 2010 end-of-year report:

57 journalists killed (25 percent fewer than in 2009)
51 journalists kidnapped
535 journalists arrested
1374 physically attacked or threatened
504 media censored
127 journalists fled their country
152 bloggers and netizens arrested
52 physically attacked
62 countries affected by internet censorship
Check out the full report.

Independent new website - Taimi Media Network Online: This new website is a hybrid offering from both the feisty independent newspaper Taimi ‘o Tonga and the government-owned Tonga Chronicle and TMN-Television 2. Congratulations Kalafi Moala and his team. This could not be better timed as the momentous post-election changes are settling down in Tonga. Scrutiny is needed now more than ever.

Also, a special mention of the Pacific Media Centre’s new revamped regional website: www.pmc.aut.ac.nz – unlike some of the regional media websites, this is genuinely independent and carries no vested interests baggage.

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