Monday, September 28, 2009

Obama, a Huli warrior and the image nincompoop

By Alfredo P Hernadez

IT SIMPLY took a nincompoop to ignite the ire of many Papua New Guineans here in Port Moresby - and those living in the US, the Pacific and elsewhere across the globe. Although only those Papua New Guineans residing in the US are directly affected by the raging healthcare issues that of late have divided the American people, their global compatriots feel that their cultural pride, and as a nation rich in colorful culture, have been unfairly dragged into the US healthcare brouhaha. To them, the whole affair involving a controversial picture of US President Barack Obama has now boiled down into a simple issue of racism that insults Papua New Guineans and hurts the nation’s pride.

Over the past three weeks, their anger has been bouncing back and forth across the cyberspace through emails exchanged among overseas Papua New Guineans. The unflattering and tasteless image of Obama’s was first flashed on news television some three weeks ago during coverage of a protest-rally against the president’s healthcare scheme. The Obama-Huli wigman’s image was one of the posters that have been used by Americans protesting the Obama healthcare scheme. I did not understand it for a while why such an image of Papua New Guinean motif was used to drumbeat their protest.

Obama’s face was superimposed on an image of a PNG Huli wigman in full traditional regalia. When I first saw it, I immediately recognised it as one of PNG. The Huli wigman is a tribal warrior from PNG’s Highlands. However, just before I could consider it as something to be proud of, having considered PNG as my second home, it dawned on me that there was something sinister in superimposing the US president’s facial image on one of PNG’s popular cultural icons.

'Witch doctor'
The whole image carried the label “Witch Doctor”!, apparently to drive a point that the Obama administration’s attempt to overhaul the American healthcare system “would make the quality of medical care worse” as claimed by the program’s detractors. In many tales that I had read about witch doctors, their “patients” usually got worse instead of being healed. This may be the reason why such similarity was drawn: Obama the village witch doctor and the American people his patients whose health is fast deteriorating.

But one thing that was totally wrong here is that Obama, in the PNG Highlands’ warrior image, has been labeled as an African witch doctor, his being of African descent. And this is an insult, as far as the Papua New Guinean people are concerned. And so the “racist’ slant has become very pronounced. Wrote David Ketepa from Detroit, Michigan:
Many Papua New Guineans living in the US and around the world are angered by the picture which was used by an opponent of President Obama’s healthcare plan … the picture depicts a warrior from the Highlands who is in his traditional attire.
Another said on his blog, which was also circulated through email:
This is totally absurd and whoever did it needs to apologise to the People of Papua New Guinea for insulting us… this is our culture and we love it!” one said on his blog, which was also circulated through email.
Another said:

To the ignorant, idiot racist who distributed this picture, this is not an African witch doctor’s dress like you claim.

One knowledgeable Papua New Guinean explained to me there’s no such thing as a witch doctor in PNG as the anti-Obama protest posters would want the American people to believe.

Sorcerers abound
Well, we have sorcerers who abound in almost all tribes across PNG. But witch doctors? I really doubt it.

The unfortunate picture came about due to the sheer ignorance of the artist who concocted the image. He never realised that the person in the original picture is a Papua New Guinean tribesman and not a witch doctor which is common in Africa. The Obama’s tribal warrior’s attire clearly showed the Huli wigman seated outside a round house, holding a stone while the otherhand rested on his right side. His feathered wig clearly showed a stuffed bird of paradise in the middle and on both ends. Through his nose is a cassowary (a flightless bird) bone.

This colourful ensemble makes up the Huli wigman’s traditional attire which he wears as he goes about his business in the village. This is also his wear when fighting a tribal war. Although I had not seen a Huli wigman in the natural setting at the village, I saw many of them at a cultural show held in Sogere, which is located outside Port Moresby.

In his blog on July 23, American Zachary Roth wrote:

The election of our first black president has brought with it a strange proliferation of online racism among conservatives.

And we’ve got the latest example.

Tea Party ploy
Roth said that on July 19, Dr David McKalip forwarded to fellow members of the Google list service affiliated with the Tea Party movement the image of President Obama in the Huli wigman attire, with a note saying, "Funny stuff.”

Roth revealed that Dr McKalip is not just some random winger. He’s a Florida neurosurgeon, who serves as a member of the American Medical Association’s House of Delegates.

According to Roth, Dr McKalip is an
energetic conservative opponent of healthcare reform and founded the anti-reform group Doctors For Patient Freedom.
Last month, he (McKalip) joined the GOP congressmen Tom Price and Phil Gingrey, among others, for a virtual town hall to warn about the coming “government takeover of medicine”. And in a recent anti-reform op-ed published in the St Petersburg Times, Dr Mckalip wrote that: “Congress wants to create a larger, government-funded program for healthcare and more bureaucracy that ration care and impose cookbook medicine.”

Asked about the email in a brief interview with TPMmuckraker, Dr McKalip said he believes that by depicting the president as an African witch doctor, the “artist” who created the image “was expressing concerns that the healthcare proposals (by Obama) would make the quality of medical care in our country worse”.

However, Dr McKalip denied knowing who created the composite picture.

Livid phone call'
A blogger at Daily Kos reported about his getting a statement from the American Medical Association (AMA), which reads:
Delegates to the American Medical Association are selected through their individual state and specialty societies, and their individual views and actions do not, in any way, represent the official view of the AMA. We condemn any actions or comments that are racist, discriminatory or unprofessional.
The same blogger has also reported that he got a call from the director of corporate communications at Bayfront Medical Center in St Pete and she was livid about what Dr McKalip has done. The doctor works in the hospital.

The blogger said the director had disclosed that the issue was being “handled internally”. Although Dr McKalip works at Bayfront, he does not speak for the hospital. Dr McKalip has now apologised. But not before blaming "liberal activists" for touting the email he circulated.

President Obama’s infamous image has now taken on a new significance. And casting aside the intention of the ignorant artist of labeling him as an African witchdoctor, Obama actually assumes the posture of a PNG Highlands “warrior”. This is because the Huli wigman is a tribal warrior.

Barrier in Congress
Obama is gradually emerging as a one-man warrior fighting a great odd in his bid to push his healthcare reform agenda.

Those who oppose him – in Congress and in protest-rally grounds – are in great number and it seems he will not get his healthcare scheme through the barrier in Congress this year with the support of the Republicans in Congress - his staunch enemy. This means that should it be passed, it would be through the workings of the Democrats in Congress, his built-in allies in this hard-to-sell initiative.

Michael Hiltzik, writing in, advised the president “to get mean already”. The article is titled “It’s time for Obama to take off the kid gloves”. Hiltzik wrote that “it’s worth remembering that effective health insurance reform has five major elements: mandating individual health coverage, requiring issuance to all applicants, outlawing exclusions for preexisting conditions, regulating premium and fees, and providing subsidies for low-income buyers … all are overwhelmingly supported by Americans, and all are in the Democratic proposals.

“We’ve already seen that Obama knows how to talk sense … can he play hardball too?” Hiltzik asks.

In his September 9 healthcare speech, the president seemed to signal a new hard line, when he threatened to “call out” anyone who misrepresented his plan. He’s spoiling for a big showdown and he wants victory soon.

Could this mean that Obama, who reincarnated himself as Huli wigman of PNG’s Highlands, is now ready for a warrior’s battle?

Thanks to Freddie, this article is republished from his Letters from Port Moresby blog. He is a senior journalist on The National, but these are his personal views.

Pacific Scoop on the Obama image controversy

Friday, September 18, 2009

The commodore's Fiji from a refreshing angle

KAPAI Julian Wilcox and his team over at Māori Television’s Native Affairs for their coverage on Fiji this week. And also a big kia orana to Radio NZ’s Pacific affairs reporter Richard Pamatatau. Their refreshing coverage of the troubled republic (dictatorship) run by the region’s pariah military regime was welcome for its insights and depth – contrasting sharply with much of the mainstream media’s stereotypical and culturally shallow reporting.

And it isn’t any accident that this Pacific reporting has come from tangata whenua media personalities Wilcox, a former lecturer in Māori studies at AUT University, and reporter Carmen Parahi, and also a Cook Islander in Pamatatau. While the Native Affairs team pulled off a minor coup with an interview with Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama during their “48 hours in the Pacific military zone” when he has been reluctant since the April putsch to do an interview with other New Zealand television outfits (in contrast to Sky and SBS in Australia), Pamatatau unobtrusively got out and about in rural villages and did a series of insightful radio reports on Fiji. Both Wilcox and Pamatatau also gave a lively and interesting account of the challenges they faced in a Media 7 session with Russell Brown this week.

Some critics have sniffed that Wilcox was too “soft” on the military strongman. But Māori Television’s package of the interview, an on-the-ground report with grassroots responses and a panel discussion dissecting Bainimarama’s views gave arguably the best NZ report on Fiji in the last six months. Wilcox impressed as somebody who was genuinely listening to the regime’s side of the story - which is generally drowned out in the Pakeha-centric NZ media by the ethno-nationalist lobby and supporters - while still getting in some of the hard questions.

Still, some things need to be put into perspective. Both the MT team and Pamatatau seemed to be overly influenced by the mood of paranoia that has infected the region's media ever since the expulsion of three expatriate publishers from Australia and three journalists - one from Australia and three from New Zealand. Many had a history of hostility to the regime without the degree of impartiality expected from independent media. And it was never mentioned in the Native Affairs interview that the leading daily newspaper in Fiji, The Fiji Times, is foreign-owned (by a subsidiary of Murdoch's News Corp) and with a particular agenda. For anybody who has worked as a journalist in countries where there are undeclared internal wars and where assassins work routinely against media with state backing (as I have in the Philippines, for example), Fiji is still a relatively peaceful and secure place to report as a journalist. Also, many in Fiji do sincerely believe that life under a military, authoritarian regime is better than the crazy times after the Speight putsch and living under the shadow of a constant threat of another ethno-nationalist coup.

As for the suggestion that poverty and squatter settlements have somehow emerged since Bainimarama's 2006 coup, that is another myth. Poverty has steadily grown since the original Rabuka coups in 1987 and markedly increased since the expiry of land leases and a flood of landless Indo-Fijian cane farmer families have been forced into squatter settlements. According to University of the South Pacific economics professor Wadan Narsey, in an analysis of Fiji Bureau of Statistics data in 2007, the national incidence of poverty in Fiji for 2002-03 was then about 34 per cent. (In 1991, it had been 29 percent).

But Narsey asked which groups were living in most poverty? More so the rural people, he concluded: Rural Indo-Fijians, 47 percent; rural others, 45 percent; rural Fijians, 39 percent; urban Indo-Fijians, 26 percent; urban Fijians, 23 percent; urban others 12 percent. Narsey added:
It is not surprising that rural Fiji-Indians were the most in poverty, given the decline of the sugar industry, the collapse of the garments industry, and the expiry of land-leases ...

Fiji does not need poverty alleviation affirmative action based on race. It is, therefore, a national tragedy that our blind politicians act as if it is only "their own" ethnic group that deserves poverty alleviation, and not the others.
Julian Wilcox's interview scored a big tick from fellow Radio Waatea commentator Willie Jackson, who wrote in his Stuff column:
If you’ve been watching Native Affairs on Māori TV on a Monday night you’ll already be familiar with one of the country’s more talented interviewers, Julian Wilcox.

He is one of Māoridom’s finest talents, broadcasting in both Māori and English. I better declare that he also works at Radio Waatea, but it is on
Native Affairs that he has recently excelled, showing his courtesy and skill many times.

But he’s been put to the test a couple of times.

This week there was his interview with Commodore Frank Bainimarama, who’s been calling all the shots in Fiji since the 2006 military coup.

He can be prickly, especially since he’s had any amount of unflattering attention from self-assured overseas journalists with little grasp of Fijian society and politics.
But Wilcox had his guest speaking freely – and making sense too, except when he tried to explain press freedom these days in Fiji.

It seems as though it’s a freedom to present stories that don’t offend the military. That, you’d think, doesn’t quite amount to freedom of the press.

If Wilcox was bemused by Bainimarama’s explanation, he was courteous and sensible enough not to let it wreck the interview.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Hypocrisy over Fiji while East Timor atrocities are ignored

THE HYPOCRISY reeks. While Australia, NZ and the media went through the usual bleating about Fiji human rights violations, they remained silent about the ongoing struggle to gain justice for those Timorese who have suffered horrendous human rights violations for more than four decades. Alleged human rights violations in Fiji are a soft target - the tough target, the top Indonesian military commanders who have blood on their hands for their colonial adventure in East Timor, remain free with inpunity. Timor-Leste's Truth Commission appeals for an international tribunal and a "commission for disappeared persons" still remain an unlikely dream.

In spite of this climate of international indifference and a "bury the hatchet" approach of appeasement by the current Timorese leadership towards Jakarta, the release from jail of the notorious militia leader Martenus Bere has shocked many human rights advocacy groups. Calls have been made for the indictment of those in government who were responsible for his extra-judicial release and the buck apparently rests with the Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão.

The recent release of the Bob Connolly feature film Balibo, about the murders of the Balibo Five - Australian-based newsmen murdered in the border township of Balibo in 1975, has fuelled calls for justice. A sixth journalist, Paul East, who went to East Timor to investigate the killings was himself executed by the invading Indonesian forces.

According to ETAN, in February 2003, the United Nations-backed Serious Crimes Unit indicted Martenus Bere and other members of the pro-Jakarta Laksaur militia for crimes against humanity including murder, rape, torture, enforced disappearances and more. Bere and other Laksaur militia and Indonesian military officers were accused of carrying out the Suai Church massacre on 6 September 1999, killing more than 30 unarmed people and three priests, including Indonesian priest Dewanto.

Bere was arrested in Suai early last month by the Timor-Leste National Police. Until then, he and more than 300 others indicted by the Serious Crimes Unit had lived openly in Indonesia, which has refused to cooperate with any international justice mechanism related to crimes committed in Timor-Leste. An East Timorese judge ordered him held for trial.

However, on August 30 he was released into the custody of the Indonesian ambassador on orders of Gusmão and Justice Minister Lucia Lobato. Bere is believed to still be in Timor-Leste. This is a joint protest statement issued by 11 Indonesian and Timorese human rights groups:


Joint Statement on the Release of Martenus Bere – Indicted for Crimes Against Humanity in Timor-Leste

For the past ten years the disinterest of the international community and active efforts by Indonesia have blocked efforts to end impunity for serious crimes committed during the Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste. Ignoring the pleas of the East Timorese people, the Timor-Leste leadership continues to dismiss their calls for justice and an end to impunity.

We were deeply distressed by the 30 August speech of Timor-Leste President José Ramos-Horta and the actions of the governments of Indonesia and Timor-Leste which led to the release of indicted militia leader
Martenus Bere. His extra-judicial release violated international law and treaties and undermined the rule of law and the Constitution of Timor-Leste.

We firmly disagree with President Ramos-Horta that the pursuit of justice is “simplistic".

We disagree that it is necessary to try everyone who committed crimes between 1974 and 1999, or to try no one. Those who gave the orders must be held accountable before a credible court. We believe the pursuit of justice and accountability for crimes against humanity and war crimes
committed during the occupation of Timor-Leste will build democracy and respect for the rule of law in both countries and reconciliation between the two nations. Until there is justice, neither country can “put the past behind.” We add our voices to those in Timor-Leste and elsewhere calling for an International Tribunal for Timor-Leste.

We recognise that victims of human rights violations in Indonesia and Timor-Leste have much
in common, including a desire to see those most responsible for their suffering brought to justice. We fully support the conclusions of the recently completed victims’ congress in Dili and
will work on joint campaigns against impunity and for reparations.
  • We urge the international community and Indonesia to respond to the recommendations included in the CAVR report released by Timor-Leste’s truth commission, including its call for an international tribunal.

  • Countries should not arm or train the Indonesian military until it has been shown to be accountable for past human rights crimes.

  • We urge the Indonesian government to fully implement the recommendations directed to it by the CAVR, starting with formally acknowledging receipt of its report and discussing it in the Indonesian Parliament.

  • The Indonesian government together with Timor-Leste should fully implement the recommendations of the Commission on Truth and Friendship (CTF), especially the one calling for a Commission for Disappeared Persons to gather data and provide information.
Jakarta, 12 September 2009

Asmara Nababan – Koordinator, KKPK (Indonesian Working Group on Truth Recovery)

Galuh Wandita – ICTJ JKT (International Center for Transitional Justice)

Rafendi Djamin – HRWG (Human Rights Working Group)

Usman Hamid – KontraS (Commission on the Disappeared and Victims of Violence)

Miryam Nainggolan – KKPK

Garda Sembiring – PEC (People Empowerment Consortium)

Mugiyanto – Ikohi (Indonesian Association of the Families of the Disappeared)

Hilmar Farid – JKB (Network of Cultural Works)

Rusdi Marpaung – Imparsial (Indonesian Human Rights Monitor)

Dedi Ali Ahmad – PBHI Nasional (Indonesian Legal and Human Rights Association)

John M. Miller – ETAN (East Timor and Indonesia Action Network)

During President Ramos-Horta’s speech at the commemoration of the August 30 referendum, he said: “Let’s put the past behind. There will be no International Tribunal.” Inexplicably, he
continued that “I beg to disagree with their simplistic assertion that the absence of prosecutorial justice fosters impunity and violence.” He also said “We will not replace the Indonesians in their own fight for democracy, human rights and justice.”

Last week, President Horta took the unusual step of awarding a Timorese journalist and his newspaper a medal for "courageous journalism" following a recent similar award to Australia's SBS for its contribution to diversity broadcasting. Horta decorated José Belo and Tempo Semanal, which ironically have been a thorn in the side of the current Timorese government with persistent allegations of corruption. They are currently being sued for defamation by the Justice Minister.

Café Pacific congratulates José Belo and his team for their contribution to a free press in Timor-Leste.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Amnesty blasts the Fiji regime while Indian commentators slam 'biased' media

HOW IRONICAL that in the same week that Amnesty International unveiled its damning report on human rights violations since the Fiji post Easter putsch, a number of Indo-Fijian journalists and commentators sounded off “enough is enough” warnings on alleged biased reporting by the NZ media about Fiji. According to Pacific researcher Apolosi Bose’s report on Fiji (he himself is indigenous Fijian, which is a curious departure from AI policy seeking nationally neutral researchers for any in-country probing):
Security forces in Fiji have become increasingly menacing towards people who oppose the regime, including journalists and human rights defenders. Fiji is now caught in a downward spiral of human rights violations and repression.

Only concerted international pressure can break this cycle.
China was singled out as the most serious culprit for ignoring human rights while propping up the Bainimarama regime with aid. This was just a week after Fiji had been fully suspended from the Commonwealth.

However, while the 48-page Amnesty report, Fiji, Paradise Lost, described a litany of repression and censorship against the media (and a host of other human rights violations against the public at large) and arbitrary arrests of some 20 journalists under the notorious Public Emergency Regulations (PER) since April 10, other journalists and the media were singling out Australia and New Zealand as the main culprits for failed policies over Fiji.

According to an editorial in the upstart - but increasingly impressive - new Auckland-based Indo-Fijian newspaper Indian Weekender, the West’s attitude to Fiji “has changed the region’s geopolitics”. The isolationalist policy driven largely by “belligerent” Australia and New Zealand has created the power and influence vacuum that China is now happily filling. Wrote editor Dev Nadkarni, a longtime resident of Fiji as a former journalism school coordinator:
Fiji is too important to be trivialised with the insensitive approach that New Zealand and Australia have had toward it over the past two and a half years. It has always been the gateway to the South Pacific and will remain so.
Any attempts to shift it to a neighbouring country like Samoa – which Samoa’s leadership has repeatedly sought – is wishful thinking and well nigh impossible for reasons of its inferior infrastructure, costs and sheer logistics, which New Zealand and Australia simply cannot afford.
The Weekender added:
The geopolitics of the Pacific has been in slow ferment for about two decades now with Asian powers like China, Taiwan and Japan playing increasingly important roles in its development. It will now begin to accelerate. And the West’s handling of the Fiji situation since early 2007 has already proved to be the catalyst.
Writing in the same paper, academic and political commentator Subhash Appana attacked the “hostility, speculation and demonisation” of Fiji in the Western media, particularly Australia and New Zealand. He claimed most of the NZ reporting was being done by biased journalists who had either “run foul of the coup regime" or had a “hard done by acquaintance”. Before citing a range of alleged biased reporting examples by Television New Zealand, including by Pacific correspondent Barbara Dreaver, Appana wrote:
Their takes on Fiji have been … tainted. This article analyses blinkered reporting on Fiji in New Zealand, and attempts to place on the public platter a more dispassionate view on the Pacific’s pariah state.
He was also highly critical of how most reporters in NZ kept playing a race card in their stories.
Continued reference to Indians and how they ‘support’ this coup is not only lazy, it is unprofessional. If the Fiji Indian succumbs to the human weakness of feeling perverse pleasure at the forced education of fence-sitters and coup-supporters, should he be blamed for it? … The media [in NZ] would do well to rethink the need for balance in reporting.
The previous week, the established rival Indian Newslink editor Venkat Raman returned from a seven-day trip to Fiji and published a 24-page “special report”, including a contributed article by self-declared interim Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama. Raman was also scathing about biased reporting in the NZ media.

But the strongest comments came from former Fiji Daily Post publisher Thakur Ranjit Singh in his characteristic feisty style. In a commentary for Pacific.Scoop railing against a press that “did not understand Fiji democracy”, he claimed:
When journalists from Samoa and Tonga have a field day in either the Pacific Freedom Forum or other media outlets in shedding tears for a Fiji democracy that failed to deliver social justice, there was no Indo-Fijian journalist in sight to rebut the nonsense coming out from Polynesian countries which themselves are bereft of the democracy they want for Fiji.
Pictured: Amnesty International researcher Apolosi Bose. Photo: PMC/Del Abcede

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