Monday, March 3, 2014

Struggle for editorial independence at Noumea daily as Kanaks await promised referendum

Protesters supporting editorial independence for Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes say:
"Yes to information - No to propaganda!" Photo: NC Journalists Facebook
FEARS last year that drove journalists working for New Caledonia's only daily newspaper to go on strike have been borne out. At the time, journalists were worried about what would happen when Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes faced resale last April with a loss of journalistic independence.

According to Economist and Pacific Scoop reports, they wanted any new owners to sign an agreement guaranteeing their freedom.

The paper was being bought by New Caledonian business interests with reportedly close links to the territory's pro-French, anti-independence political forces. 

This followed the sale of the paper in December 2012 by its owners, Groupe Hersant Media, to a group including French businessman Bernard Taipe, which snapped up several newspapers across France and its overseas territories.

Since last May 17, when the assets were finally transferred to New Caledonian ownership,  Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes has been controlled by three local business interests.


Jacques Jeandot, a French automobile importer and printing press and media owner, and his family hold 59 percent of the shareholding; the Montagnat mining family 21 percent; and former supermarket chain owner Charles Lavoix has 20 percent.

Who has the most editorial power? Supposedly Jeandot, but according to staff on the newspaper,  he refuses to talk with journalists and has never made his plans clear to the editorial board.

"My boss thinks I don't offer anything - I am a journalist". A
protest slogan from Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes.
But Café Pacific brings you today this Pacific Media Watch dispatch by Anna Majavu that reveals a long, drawn out struggle for editorial independence at the daily as the pledged timetable for a referendum on self-determination looms for New Caledonia.

Under the Noumea Accord, the poll is supposed to be held between 2014 and 2019:
A Noumea street scene around the corner
from the newspaper office. Photo: David Robie
Journalists from the daily newspaper Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes have accused their editorial board of buckling under political pressure from the French High Commissioner, who they claim had interfered with editorial independence.

A statement by
Nouvelles Calédoniennes Journalists’ Association said that journalists were "at the end of their tether and their energy" after High Commissioner Jean-Jacques Brot had allegedly insisted that the newspaper's editorial board publish an article he wrote attacking the newspaper's journalists.

Translated from the French, the association statement said the newspaper directors were "buckling under repeated pressure from Brot".

It also lashed out at the company director, Philippe Demazel, for failing to explain the incident to journalists when asked.

The journalists have gone on strike regularly over the past eight months over instability on the newspaper which allegedly began after the newspaper's former editor, Xavier Serre, left in July 2013.

According to the association, Serre was replaced by two people who resigned in rapid succession.

The association claimed the first replacement editor, Veronique Palomar, had more business than journalism experience while the second, Fabrice Rouard, was more qualified as a "clairvoyant" than a journalist.

Kanak flag banned
Rouard had only stayed in the job for two months, during which time he took a position against printing the flag of the indigenous Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) on the front page of the newspaper, even though it is one of the territory's two official flags.

This restriction was very unpopular with the journalists who believed that equitable political coverage should be given to all sides in New Caledonia.

Although Rouard had left on 14 February 2014, journalists had not been officially informed of this.

The paper had been without an editor for the past three weeks and journalists were taking it in turns to do the job, the association said.

Almost half of the paper's journalists - 19 out of 44 - had quit during this period of uncertainty.
Virginie Grizon, a former journalist on the newspaper who resigned along with 18 others after a 15 day strike, told Pacific Media Watch that there were just two journalists left to cover all the news in the capital city.

Bureau chiefs had not been replaced when they resigned and there was no proper plan to cover the election.

'Days of reckoning'
"We don't understand the choice of the shareholders and they didn't answer our questions. This daily newspaper is the only one here, so this is very disturbing for the country," said Grizon.

"One month out from the municipal elections and less than three months from the provincials - major days of reckoning for the country -  the only daily newspaper in New Caledonia now finds itself without an editor in chief, soon without an assistant editor in chief, and without a Noumea bureau head.

"Journalists are finding it necessary to work with these constraints, having to sacrifice quality, something which they deplore" said the association.

Although they had asked the directors of the newspaper to explain the situation, they had maintained a "stony silence", the association said.

New Zealand filmmaker Jim Marbrook has been working in New Caledonia for the last six years shooting a feature documentary project.

Political will
He told
Pacific Media Watch he was "shocked that journalists at the local daily now seem to be bound by the political will of the major shareholders of the paper".

Marbrook said this would impact on balanced coverage of politics.

"There are moves to reframe the terms of the Noumea Accord, expanding an electorate and diminishing the Kanak vote. With shareholders in the company directly linked to major mining concerns these debates risk being glossed over or forgotten altogether," Marbrook said.

The Noumea Accord was supposed to give New Caledonia and the indigenous people there, the Kanaks, political power in the lead up to this year's referendum, when citizens of New Caledonia will decide whether to become independent or remain a territory of France.

But indigenous Kanak people have voiced concern that their votes will be "drowned out" by French citizens who have moved to New Caledonia in large numbers in recent years.
Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes Facebook page
Strike over newspaper's editorial independence

A picket protesting for the "right to a free press". Photo: NC journalists Facebook

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