Sunday, March 24, 2013

PACMAS media report dodges the aid elephant in the room

Members of an executive meeting of the Media Association of the
Solomon Islands (MASI) discuss issues. Photo: PACMAS
A RECENT PACMAS report is a constructive diagnosis for the ailing state of the region’s media associations, and a prescription for how things can get better. But it manages to dodge the elephant in the room – accountability.

For months, social media outlets and journalists have been asking about the fate of the Media Council of PNG, once one of the strongest in the region and an example to the rest. But it has been dogged in recent years because of allegations of fraud.

AusAID funding and the executive director, Nimo Kama, was suspended pending an inquiry. But the outcome of this has been kept very quiet. AusAID reportedly funded the PNG Media Council to the tune of $500,000 in 2010.

In a Radio Australia Correspondents' Report (the last time a sensible item was published or broadcast about the issue apart from this Pacific Scoop update), Liam Fox said in an interview with Emily Bourke:
[A] recent audit found some of the money "had not been managed in accordance with procurement guidelines" and there was "anecdotal evidence of fraud".

An AusAID spokesman declined to say how much money was involved but the ABC understands it's a few thousand dollars.

Following the audit the council's executive director Nimo Kama was suspended pending further investigations.

The council's president, Joe Kanekane, confirmed Mr Kama's suspension but says there's no element of fraud only that he was found "in a position of compromise".
If media associations cannot set a high standard of accountability and transparency themselves, then they can hardly put other sectors in Pacific countries under the microscope with any credibility.

Another issue glossed over by the report is the ongoing presence of the Suva-based Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) in Fiji, arguably compromising its role as the region’s leading independent media organisation and tarnishing the integrity of member associations in the process.

According to the new 20-page PACMAS (Pacific Media Assistance Scheme) report, Strengthening National Media Associations in the Pacific, many media associations are “struggling to represent the interests of an ever expanding industry of media practitioners”.
They are politically and financially challenged to continue to uphold their advocacy role for a plural, independent and professional media. Born out of print and broadcast media through the endeavours of a narrow group of professional journalists, national media associations in the Pacific are now increasingly required to find relevance by catering for a wider field of new practitioners in an ever expanding media environment.

A new generation of graduates and younger media practitioners issued out of universities or TVET institutions and working out of the main stream media in the development, government, non government and community sectors is challenging the ineffectiveness of media associations in several countries.  

With the roll out of mobile telephony and digital technology in the Pacific, many media associations lack a clear and united voice to make a significant contribution to the formulation of national media policies, a debate often seen as technology and commercially driven. As these policies are being developed, governments in some countries have implemented or are considering introducing a more regulated media environment.

Faced with these threats to media freedom, independence and plurality, media practitioners and their associations are struggling to represent an independent, professional and respected voice on behalf of their industry and the general public.
An interesting development with regional media researchers has been the focus on mobile telephony, but most of this has been related to community and grasruts developments. Little has focused on the use of mobile telephony in enhancing the news media contribution to communications and national development.

The report authors have a good pedigree for this research. Pesi Fonua is the publisher and editor of the Matangi Tonga News Online, “Tonga’s leading news website”. He is also co-founder of Vava’u Press Ltd back in 1979 (owners of Matangi Tonga). (Also, he is the head of one of the national associations examined in the report, the Tongan Media Council). Jean-Gabriel Manguy is a “former broadcaster” and head of Radio Australia, as the report notes, but one would argue that he is still a broadcaster. He has broad professional media experience and has been active in media development and support projects in several Pacific countries.

One-dimensional report
But in spite of their undoubted expertise and the "hopeful" signs seen by some media critics, the report seems one-dimensional on community media development in the region in spite of professing an “increasing recognition that the role of the media plays in supporting development was not solely based on journalistic reporting”. The report is also reluctant to acknowledge any other contribution to the region’s national media association development than the various incarnations of AusAID projects. For the Café Pacific publisher, who was involved in the original AUSAid-backed Pacific Media Initiative (PMI) project advisory group for six years and who became acutely aware of project gaps and seeing some of these continue down the years, the report does come across as once again tending to support vested interests.

Nevertheless, there are some useful recommendations in the report. But first, a summary of findings:
  1. National media associations are “struggling for relevance” in most Pacific Island countries.
  2. Several countries experience “confusion [about] the exact role” of the [associations] – are they a media association? Press council? Industry body? Or trade union? “Under previous donor support, a range of activities, training notably, were undertaken but were only sustainable as long as they were supported.”
  3. “In a new digital world and expanding media landscape [national media associations] appear, in the eyes of some. As structures stemming from an era gone by.”
  4. “Time pressures and constraints, leadership and governance issues plague the capacity of [national media associations] to fulfil their mandate.”
A programme of support over a period of two years can be provided to national media associations (NMAs) in the Pacific. This can be offered to existing associations as well as new groupings being formed. It will be conditional on their desire to resolve divisive
issues that have prevented them from being more active, to acknowledge the new face
of the media industry and to commit to internal reforms and to a modest but sustainable
programme of activities.

This commitment will require the endorsement of the broader media community in each country.

Proposed support will help [national media associations] (1) redefine their role and their responsibilities in the new digital media environment, (2) become active and linked organisations, (3) build their capacity to fulfil their mandate for advocacy and serve the needs of their membership, (4)  become dynamic and adaptable organisations able to sustain their own activities.

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