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.

1 comment:

Red Dragon said...

The failure of investigative journalism in Fiji over at least ten years or more has resulted to my own knowledge in at least the following:

No prosecution of those responsible for the murder of a man in Nadi Town in September 2006 Those allegedly responsible for this 'organised crime' remain free, uncharged and therefore not even bailed. They are known having already faced one High Court trial.

Corruption in a number of known areas not properly investigated either by the Fiji Police (until recently) or by the media. They have known of the location but have refrained from enquiring. Many dire results from this den of iniquity.

A continual failure to investigate sexual offences, attempted rapes on visitors and local women with an absence in the courts which speaks volumes. One or two cases of abduction (from the streets) have not even whetted their appetites to enquire.

A failure to investigate obvious areas of conflicts of interest like the Fiji Rugby Union where, for a number of years, all the signs of improper governance have held sway.

A failure to properly inform the Fiji Public about 'Conflicts of Interest' which have been the single compelling factor in the failure of decent, honest governance: nationally and in bodies like the Fiji Rugy Union/Fiji Netball etc./

Any one journalist with some 'nous' and some encouragement would have taken on at least ONE of these areas and decided to make a name for themselves. They might have co-operated with some crime prevention committees who would have ably assisted them. They chose not to and in so doing, they failed their profession, the country and themselves. How do you teach 'moral courage' to those who appear not to have it?

Would Hitler's Germany or Stalin's Russia or today's Afghanistan/Pakistan have produced similar results? Probably. But in Fiji things might have been fixed with some courageous determination from young and energetic journalists guided by older and wiser mentors. That has not occurred. And it is the political and vested interests of the owners of the Press/Media and the Fiji Media Council Members who should be held to account for this. They chose not to pay attention to the people doing the 'heavy lifting' all around them. What does that say of their conflicting interests? The confused and wishy-washy signals they put out?

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