Sunday, September 9, 2012

Media, democracy and self-censorship in the Pacific

Robert Hackett speaking at a recent seminar at Fairhaven College, WWU on Vimeo.
USP media and democracy video coming soon

RAMPANT SELF-CENSORSHIP in action? It was astonishing to see a Media and Democracy symposium at the University of the South Pacific – which raised the tempo of “quality” journalism debate in post-coup Fiji by quantum leaps – being ignored over substantive issues while the regime’s chief media official was splashed across both daily front pages.

Keynote speaker Professor Robert Hackett, a world-renowned Canadian authority on peace journalism and “alternative” journalism models, was not even reported. Instead, the news was Permanent Secretary for Information Sharon Smith-Johns saying “rise to the challenge” and take advantage of the lifting of censorship. But while the local media duly splashed this message, few local journalists actually engaged with the challenging ideas canvased at the conference.

Speaking to some of the young journos on hand, Café Pacific certainly had the impression that they were not experienced enough or well-equipped to cope with fundamental questions challenging the news media. Countries as diverse as Britain, Australia and New Zealand are pre-occupied with rebuilding public trust in the media – and strategies for doing this - in the wake of  the Leveson Inquiry triggered by the “hackgate” scandal that closed Murdoch’s big-selling tabloid News of the World and has led to prosecutions of several journalists and media personalities. 

But the local Fiji journalists seemed immune from this and not familiar with global debates about the future of journalism. A critical conference opening speech by USP Deputy Vice-Chancellor Esther Williams savaged the Fiji media (front page in the journalism student newspaper Wansolwara), complaining about reports “riddled with editorial mistakes”, drew defensive retorts from local scribes.

Yet the interesting research and analysis about Fiji and Pacific media presented at the symposium was covered in a very superficial manner, if reported at all. Fiji Television produced an atrocious Close-Up programme about the symposium by Myron Williams - not in the same class of the Geoffrey Smith special report about the Pacific Media Summit run by PINA earlier this year. Even Radio Australia and Radio NZ International (usually reliable) failed their audience on coverage. Readers need to go to Pacific Scoop or Pacific Media Watch for independent and informed and reportage.

The most insightful preliminary article was actually an offshore blog column on Grubsheet by Fiji-born journalist Graham Davis who wasn't actually even there (and should have been invited). While this mainly dealt with behind-the-scenes tensions leading into the conference, it at least raised some of the core philosophical issues facing the future of  regional media. Such issues included what models of journalism might be best suited for Fiji and the Pacific – an unbridled “publish and be damned” Anglo-American approach, or something more subtle but equally robust such as a range of journalism models grouped under the label “deliberative journalism”. “Deliberative” models – as deconstructed by the Pacific Media Centre’s Professor David Robie, are essentially those more suited to citizen empowerment for a better democracy – include those such as public journalism, alternative journalism, critical development journalism, peace journalism and human rights journalism. None of these models are “soft” or core journalism values, but add a wider range of skills as well.

Bob Hackett, co-editor of a recent book called Expanding Peace Journalism – comparative and critical approaches, deserved serious attention by the local media. His speech will eventually be published in Pacific Journalism Review. He spoke about what kind of journalism a democratic society needs, if it wants democratic governance to be stable and sustainable. Depending on which rationale for democracy is key – “protection or development” – there are “different models of democracy, each with different expectations of how journalism should function, what their ethical pronciples and practices should be and what legal framework best supports it”. He considered three models, in particular:

1.    Market liberalism – the “free market” model in Fiji (as it used to be) shared with Australia and NZ: “Democracy is seen not as an end in itself, but as normally the best institutional arrangement to maintain political stability and a liberal political culture characterised by individual rights and choice.” The media serves as a watchdog on government power.
2.    “Public sphere” liberalism – “prioritises the role of the media in facilitating or even constituting a public sphere so that public opinion can be formed”. The independent watchdog role continues, but a higher value is placed on popular participation.
3.    “Radical democracy” and a political economy critique – “radical democrats seek not to just reinvigorate an existing system of representative democracy, or to ensure quality of legal and political rights for everybody. They also prize direct participation by people in making the decisions that affect their lives and approximate equality in wealth and power.” The watchdog media role is endorsed, but greater emphasis is placed on social change and popular mobilisation against social injustices.

During the conference, the excellent new USP documentary on media freedom in the Pacific, made in association with the International Federation of Journalists (and directed by Don Pollock), was also screened. And there were feisty debates about media freedom and journalism education.

Stop press: Current USP head Dr Marc Edge has again misrepresented David Robie in his Fiji media wars blog. What was actually said about Pacific journalism education and standards at the USP symposium is reported here. Edge has also been blasted by the FijiVillage news team over his self-censorship claims.

The local media partially redeemed itself a week later with the Fiji Sun republishing a symposium overview by the Pacific Media Centre team on Pacific Scoop and the Fiji Times running a short (900 word) extract from David Robie's 8400 word paper about "deliberative" journalism and media models. Perhaps they read this blog? But Café Pacific wonders why no local scribes present at the conference produced a reflective overview article.

Fiji's Permanent Secretary for Information Sharon Smith-Johns (speaking) and USP Deputy Vice-Chancellor Dr Esther Williams at last week's media and democracy forum. Photo: USP

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