Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The politics of Fiji news media under scrutiny

A MAJOR question about publication of the latest edition of Fijian Studies dealing with “media and democracy” (the cover actually says, incorrectly, development) is why did it take so long to surface in public? It took a year for the November 2008 edition to be published and launched in a Suva restaurant.

Nervousness about how the authoritarian post-coup 4.5 Fiji regime might react? Where does a publication like this fit into the state censorship in Bainimarama’s Fiji?

Perhaps the publisher, Fiji Institute of Technology director and series editor of the Fiji Institute of Applied Studies, Dr Ganesh Chand, considered the political climate had stabilised sufficiently to publish this without too much reaction. Fair enough. There was barely a ripple in media – or state – circles, and hardly any newspapers engaged with this thought-provoking book.

A pity. There is a wealth of valuable information packed into the 297-page volume by more than a score of authors, mostly journalists, media academics and political scientists. Debate about some of the content would have been ideal before the Fiji Media Council independent review in February – and should have been available before the reviewers delivered their report (which unfortunately became redundant after the Easter putsch). It would have even been more useful for the regime too to have had access to this research before donning the newsroom jackboots.

However, a big bouquet for the publishers and editors in having the initiative and courage to go ahead with such an important volume at this time. It will be a very useful resource.

As well as the wide-ranging introduction by the editors themselves - head of journalism Shailendra Singh and economics professor Biman Prasad at the University of the South Pacific - most of the authors have provided important insights into the Fiji media, including the impact of digital media in a strained political environment.

Fiji Times associate editor Sophie Foster, for example, provides a study of the mainstream media and its approach to online publication and she calls for “greater emphasis on preparing journalists and their audiences to better use interactive options”. Hannah Harborow’s “Sites of resistance: Fiji’s untamed media” is an incisive examination of the post-coup blogosphere:
While the internet has the potential to empower citizens and communities in new ways that redefine governance, the susceptibility of bloggers to Fiji’s “coconut wireless” places this potential at risk. Like all media, bloggers tread specific ideological paths and are not necessarily straightforward propagators of the “truth”.
Politics lecturer Dr Rae Nicholl of USP in research on media treatment of women in the 1987, 2000 and 2006 coups found that women were “almost entirely absent from the press following the 1987 coup but their presence increased following the 2000 coup and increased still further following the 2006 coup”.

Susan Naisara Grey and professor of governance Graham Hassall, both also of USP, examined the print media’s coverage of the Office of the Auditor-General and concluded that news organisations are “not tracking issues raised in [auditor] reports, as they are considered – or not considered – by the relevant participating committees”. Only in a few instances, such as relating to the alleged misuse of funds within the Department of Agriculture, did the media provide sustained monitoring of an issue.

In a political economy review of the Fiji media and democracy, Dr Erik Larson, a visiting American academic at USP, found a model of “disengagement”. He concluded:
The dependence of news media on information from official sources also may make reporters more reliant on research and analysis from those outside the media. As a result, news items tend to be reactive and the news media does not perform its watchdog function as effectively.
Café Pacific publisher Dr David Robie contributed two articles, one a research paper around media accountability systems, or M*A*S, and he contrasted the methodologies of the controversial 2007 “review” of the Fiji’s news media industry with a genuinely independent review of the NZ Press Council undertaken during the same time frame. The editors also published his controversial “Press and the putsch” paper from a decade ago for the first time in Fiji (it had previously been published in Australia).

Daryl Tarte, who recently stepped down as chair of the Fiji Media Council after three terms, outlined the council’s role and the increasing challenges it faced. Among his concerns were deteriorating media standards and the lack of investigative journalism:
The coups from 1987 to 2006 have had a serious impact on the media in that journalists have been threatened and incarcerated by military regimes. This has led to the loss overseas of many experienced journalists. Standards have deteriorated for it takes time to train new people and give them the opportunity to gain experience.
While Tarte was given a big tick for his contribution to Pacific media freedom by both the Pacific Freedom Forum and Croz Walsh's Fiji blog, others, including Café Pacific, actually saw him as part of the problem as conflict between governments and media escalated during his term. His long reign at the Fiji Media Council coincided with cosy, self-interested cronyism in the media and a lack of proactive and visionary leadership. For example, the independent council review belatedly commissioned by the industry was more than two years too late to have any impact in derailing the regime from its censorship debacle. The council also short-changed the Fiji public on media responsibility issues. The review, headed by Australian Jack Herman, executive secretary of the Australian Press Council, noted:
[I]n the absence of regular [council] reports, and of the council being as outspoken on the occasional lapse in media responsibility as it is in defence of media freedom, the perception has emerged that the Media Council has not performed up to its own high ideals … This need to better balance the freedom and responsibility aspects of its activities was a constant theme in submissions…
Cartoon: Voreqe Bainimarama and the media, by Malcolm Evans of Pacific Journalism Review.

Friday, October 16, 2009

High points in media coverage of the Samoa tsunami

MEDIA reflections on the New Zealand media coverage of the September 29 earthquake in the two Samoas and in Tonga’s northerly Nuias have been few and sketchy. Radio New Zealand’s Mediawatch had an item while the New Zealand Herald’s John Drinnan did a quick rundown on early reports. Crikey in Australia looked at the current phenomenon of quakes, tsunamis and flooding in the Pacific, Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam, not that there was any direct connection. John Minto wrote about the country's emerging sense of Pasifika identity.

But TVNZ’s digital Media7 programme takes the Café Pacific prize for its insightful and in-depth programme on the tsunami coverage. Two of the three journalists on the panel were Pacific Islands journalists themselves, reflecting a maturing of media coverage which is finally recognising the value of reporting the Pacific region with Pasifika journalists rather than relying on a sometimes skewed palagi perspective. In this case, two of the journalists had Samoan cultural and language ties – Tagata Pasifika’s Adrian Stevanon and Radio New Zealand’s Leilani Momoisea. The third commentator was TVNZ’s Lisa Owen, who has previous experience of reporting in so-called “trauma journalism” zones – such as the London tube bombing in 2005, the Madrid terrorist bombing in 2004 and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In spite of her previous experience of reporting tragedies, Owen found herself on the first New Zealand flight to Samoa after the tsunami struck and immediately thrust into unfamiliar territory. Many grieving relatives were sharing that flight: “Journalists and victims, if you like, shoulder to shoulder.”

Stevanon, working for both TVNZ One News (as cameraman) and Tagata Pasifika weekly magazine programme (reporter), journeyed to Samoa not sure at that stage on the fate of many of his own relatives. (As it turned out, all his extended family were okay, even in the most devastated areas of southern Upolu). What about the challenges of his contrasting roles for his network?
Working for news, then it’s standard news. What is happening right here and right now? But for our audience [at Tagata Pasifika], they’ve already seen all that. So, in my mind, I couldn’t just show death and destruction, I needed to offer something else. I needed to do a Phoenix-from-the-ashes and that’s what people were trying to tell me anyway.
Tonga, unfortunately, was shunted aside in the media priority stakes – even though nine lives were lost on the remote island of Niuatoputapu. Some of the better distance reporting to make sense of events there came from Pacific Scoop and Pacific Media Watch’s Josephine Latu, herself Tongan.

Crikey tried to make sense of the Pacific-wide crises:
Over the past few weeks, the Asia-Pacific region has seen natural disasters of epic proportions. There have been typhoons, tsunamis and earthquakes; the death toll climbing higher each day. Entire villages have seemingly been wiped out. The media coverage of the unfolding events has, however, been overwhelming. The Australian media predictably focused on the local angle, but which earthquake or tsunami happened first, where and why? And are they all connected?
Crikey pulled together a timeline to give an overview.

While generally complimentary about Radio NZs coverage – which has a key role in emergencies, John Drinnan, writing in his weekly Media column for the Herald, was less flattering about TVNZ in his “Not a good morning for advertorials” piece:
RNZ's counterpart - Television New Zealand - made some surprising decisions on the morning amid warnings a tsunami may be racing toward New Zealand and was due to hit Auckland at about 11.12am.
Breakfast, Paul Henry provided a sense of urgency and concern. Yet when Henry was finished, and with the tsunami potentially about to hit the East Cape within the hour, state television went live with its advertorial show Good Morning, albeit with newsbreaks on the half hour.
TVNZ rejected a suggestion it had underestimated the gravity of the situation and even rang the NZ government to offer a camera for the Beehive bunker used during emergencies.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Fiji Times (the creative satire) offers an optimistic message

INTRIGUING to have a slightly satirical local edition of the "Fiji Times" on hand at this month's week-long exhibition featuring inspiration and oppression in the Salon in Auckland's funky K Road zone. Nothing like the real rag (fortunately), apart from a fleeting typographical resemblance to a masthead of yesteryear. Café Pacific dropped in to the launch and was pleased to see friends and colleagues from the old USP days, Luisa Tora and Sangeeta Singh. And to savour their creativity.

However, most inspirational was Torika Bolatagici Vetuna's "Protect Me" digital chromgenic print of a Fiji gag. (A tame poster version of this is pictured above). She has now donated the work to Tautai Trust Tsunami Relief Auction. Sangeeta's faceless and sombre "Resilience" was also appealing. And Luisa Tora's stark poster "Faith" (first instalment of a trilogy) featuring Police Commissioner Esala Teleni is now off to a new home in Christchurch.

All five Fiji women artists plus curator Ema Tavola essentially had an optimistic message in their creations. But it struck me what a sign of the times when a mood of censorship and vindictiveness abounds in Fiji leads mean-spirited countrymen back home to quickly bully their way onto the blogosphere.

Jone Kvie completely missed the point when he posted this on Pacific Scoop:
Debating and worrying about issues such as democracy, human rights and militarism are wonderful in the abstract, but actually mean very little to people in Fiji. I am quite sure an exhibition such as this held in Fiji would get the short-shrift it deserved from the majority of the population because it is speaking with an [un]authentic voice. It is not their voice, it is the voice of ex-residents who pride themselves in running Fiji down. Far from being part of the solution, these "so-called artists" are the problem.
But pleasing to see Ema Tavola bring him back to earth:

Thanks Jone for sharing your opinions. It’s a common perception that the modern arts are a frivolous waste of time, I agree in many cases. But in this case, I beg to differ.

Our website is – the "so-called-artists" are largely qualified, respected, academic, loyal Fiji Islanders who use their visual arts practices not to run down Fiji but to understand, question and explore their personal relationships with Fiji and our political realities, from their positions of living in diaspora.

Since she joined Manukau City in New Zealand, Ema has been a cultural breath of fresh air. Vinaka vakalevu.

Fiji Times - the creative collective website

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