Saturday, September 25, 2010

Motibhai’s new broom brushes off the 'dumb questions'

DALLAS SWINSTEAD, Motibhai’s new broom as publisher of the 141-year-old Fiji Times, didn’t waste any time setting the benchmark this week at his old paper. He has returned to Fiji with an open mind. He says he remains committed to good journalism and wants to rebuild the newspaper into the fine publication it has been. But he will also be “pragmatic” about the military-backed regime.

Swinstead believes there are more subtle and strategic ways of achieving success at the newspaper than pointless confrontation that killed the paper off for News Ltd: "What’s the point in having a newspaper shut down?” he asked Geraldine Coutts in an interview with Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat this week.

Thankfully, Fiji’s oldest and most influential newspaper survived the doomsday predictions with the enforced sale. Some journalists seem to think that it is a badge of honour to be kicked out of a country or for their title to be closed down. The ultimate censure. And the price then is enforced silence or rumour mongering for the citizens. Everybody loses.

After such an important contribution to the country from humble beginnings in Levuka in 1869 and to the building of a society both before and post-independence, it would have been “unthinkable” for the Times not to continue, as Motibhai’s board chairman Mahendra “Mac” Patel put it. Patel knew Swinstead from his first term as Fiji Times publisher (when he was very innovative) for four years until 1980, long before Sitiveni Rabuka’s twin coups threw Fiji into a downward spiral. Swinstead has a diplomatic streak and he may prove to be more adept at negotiating an “open space” with the regime than his predecessors.

It is early days yet, and for the moment Swinstead is saddled with the same editor-in-chief, Netani Rika, who is very unpopular with the regime. Will he remain for the long haul? Unlikely.

The handover at The Fiji Times in Suva this week was fairly upbeat with optimistic rhetoric from both the outgoing owner, News Ltd’s chairman and chief executive John Hartigan, and the new owner, Motibhai's “Mac” Patel. Hartigan said: “Today is a very emotional day for me, for a lot of people in our country and elsewhere; we didn't want to sell the paper.” Patel said: "Fiji without the Fiji Times is unthinkable. Motibhai's acquisition is for the people of Fiji."

Swinstead gave some hints on his editorial philosophy for the challenging times ahead in the Pacific Beat interview - and he brushed off what he branded as a “dumb question” or two from Coutts.

Explaining his views, Swinstead told Coutts: “I understand the values and the responsibility enjoying the right to free speech and the cost of putting my foot in my mouth. So there are two ways to go here. One is to demand free speech and you can ask News Ltd about that. And the other is to try to work with the local ownership, with the people and with the government to get this country to where it wants to be. Now it sounds a bit precious, but that's the reality and I am a pragmatist."

Coutts responded that she wasn’t “quite sure what that actually says” and asked again whether he supported a status quo approach or a free press:
SWINSTEAD: No, what I said is that I understand free speech better than most and I understand its value, but here it is not possible under some circumstances. What you have to understand is that 95 percent of our paper - whether it is Fijians, Indians and whatever - is happening here. It's sport results, it's commerce … the whole thing. And inevitably there are going to be stories that will cause the government embarrassment and I hope to be able to find a way to negotiate with good people down there and people here who are somehow or other able to keep some conversation going. I make no promises, and if we have to close our mouths or be shut down, I have no option but to walk around it. Now that's pretty simple.

COUTTS: So if you get a directive not to do a certain story, you will abide by that?

SWINSTEAD: I beg your pardon?

COUTTS: If you get a directive from the government or the censors not to do a story that you think is important and in the public interest, you'll sit it on it yourself? You'll choose to do that? You'll censor yourself?

SWINSTEAD: Well, with respect to you, that is a pretty dumb question. Of course, I will. What's the point in having a newspaper shut down?

COUTTS: Well then going back to the original question, what is freedom of speech?

SWINSTEAD: Freedom of speech - my original answer was my parents gave me a pretty fair idea of what you can say and get away with, and when you stepped out of line and they ran the show they knocked you over. So, I mean, I don't like that happening. I am tenacious, but I am a good mediator and a facilitator, and I will be trying to talk to people in government to lead them to understand how valuable a free and open press is. But look, it is a developing country with lots of problems and I am sympathetic to them and I am not angry about censorship or anything else. That's life.

Fiji picked up on this interview and presented it as Swinstead “clearing the air” on Fiji. The radio station’s website said he would “keep the channels of communication open” with the regime. Fiji Village is part of the Communications Fiji group, which is another key media group with a powerful Gujerati business stake (Hari Punja) along with The Fiji Times (Motibhai) and the Fiji Sun (C. J. Patel).

Good luck to the new team at The Fiji Times. They’ll need it. At least Fiji will still be blessed with a choice of daily newspapers. The third daily – the Daily Post, with a substantial indigenous Fijian shareholding, is already a casualty of the censorship climate and struggling economy.

Pictured: Dallas Swinstead (Photo: Fiji Times)

Returning Fiji Times publisher to negotiate a different Fiji
New Fiji Times publisher clears the air
How the Pacific Murdoch times are changing
Ex-Fiji Times publisher named as Motibhai's new man at helm
Motibhai wins race for the Fiji Times
Fiji: The best of the Times - Vijendra Kumar

Sunday, September 19, 2010

How the Pacific Murdoch times are changing

APART from a banner headline in The Fiji Times, “Motibhai buys Times,” on a front page story bylined by a local reporter but based on a News Ltd handout, the enforced sale of the country’s oldest newspaper has been remarkably under reported.

No serious analysis, no editorials and certainly no backgrounder. Another sign of the times post-censorship. Even the Fiji Times itself did not remark editorially about the sale of the 141-year-old paper.

Australia-based News Ltd is bailing out completely. Once the regulatory niceties have been done by September 22, it will be goodbye Rupert Murdoch in Fiji. Speculation by the Fiji Sun that the company’s valuable downtown Suva real estate holdings had not been sold has proved wrong.

Fiji Times managing editor Anne Fussell had a letter published in the Sun at the weekend saying a statement by the newspaper that Fussell had told senior Times staff that “real estate is not included in the sale” was a “complete fabrication”.

“The inevitable result of writing a story which has written this untruth is that the headline is also a misleading untruth,” Fussell wrote.

“In fact, the real estate is included in the sale.”

The Fiji Sun replied with an editor’s note saying the report (not published in the online edition) was “based on information provided by Fiji Times staff following a meeting there”. The paper also pointed out that it had since reported that Motibhai had bought all the property, “including the executive house occupied by Ms Fussell”.

Stack of letters
The Fiji Times
ran a stack of letters congratulating the Motibhai group for “keeping it in the family” and buying out the FT. (All media companies were forced by the regime to divest at least 90 percent of the shareholding to local owners by September 28, or face being deregistered under the new Media Industry Development Decree. The Fiji Times group, the only completely foreign owned media company in Fiji, is selling up completely).

One letter praised Motibhai’s “courageous step” and saving “a couple of thousand jobs”.

“With modern technology, a lot of print news companies in the USA are on the brink of closing down and becoming history.

“To name a few newspapers that are fighting for their survival – The New York Times, Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.

“The newspapers have been around for ages and during their peak were read not only in the US, but also abroad.”

Another letter said: “The Motibhai Group [has] a proven track record of how they’re able to transform businesses they acquire into household brand names and I know they will do the same with our oldest daily, The Fiji Times.”

But there was no debate – amid the censorship climate – of the implications of both Fiji’s two national daily newspapers being owned by rival Gujerati business chains. Or any discussion about the future of the editor, outspoken regime critic Netani Rika and senior editorial staff. For 141 years until now, The Fiji Times, for all its flaws, has been owned by dedicated newspaper publishing interests. News Ltd bought the Fiji Times and the (now closed) Pacific Islands Monthly from the Herald and Weekly Times group, which had in turn bought the publications from the Wilke Group.

Market slump
It is easy to see how the Fiji Times has slumped from its once totally dominant market share: Starved of Fiji government advertising, the weekend Fiji Times only totaled 80 pages. But its regime-fawning competitor, Fiji Sun, had 128 pages plus a 30-page glossy Showtime/Garam Masala magazine liftout.

Already, the Malaysian-owned National in Papua New Guinea had long ago taken over from the mostly Australian-owned newspaper Post-Courier - now the only Murdoch outpost in the islands - as the leading circulation daily.

Australian newspaper publishers have been knocked off their perch in the Pacific. How times are changing.

Pictured: The Fiji Times publishing stable; editor-in-chief Netani Rika; and staff celebrating at the 140th birthday party in Suva. Photo: Brisbane Times.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Motibhai wins race for the Fiji Times

SO the word is out after the smokescreen for the past few days has finally lifted: Motibhai is buying out the Fiji Times group.

This is an astute business coup by Mahendra Motibhai Patel, who heads the Motibhai and Company Ltd group. It will give him a powerful weapon to fight arch rival C. J. Patel, who owns the controlling interest in the Fiji Sun.

But in spite of the positive spin put on the deal by both the Rupert Murdoch camp’s News Ltd and Motibhai, it isn’t a good thing for Fiji journalism.

Both the C. J. Patel-owned Fiji Sun, which already cosies up to the military backed regime, and the Motibhai-dominated “new order” Fiji Times will too busy concentrating on getting a good business edge than worrying about quality journalism in an ailing post-coup economy.

A free press in Fiji is still at the end of a long dark tunnel.

Since censorship was imposed after the April 2009 abrogation of the Fiji constitution and then the imposition of the Fiji Media Industry Development Decree, Fiji Times advertising revenue has slumped.

But from the News Ltd perspective, at least Motibhai has a good understanding of the ethos of the 141-year-old Fiji Times. He has previously served on the board of the Fiji Times as a non-executive director.

It is a mystery why the Fiji Times did not divest a significant slice of its shareholding to local ownership some years ago, as News Ltd did with its Papua New Guinea newspaper company, South Pacific Post Ltd. It might have headed off this crunch time with the Bainimarama regime had it done so.

Instead it is now forced to sell up 90 percent of its shareholding to the Motibhai group to ensure that it complies with the 10 percent foreign shareholding limit under the terms of the decree.

News Ltd confirmed it is selling Pacific Publications (Fiji) Limited, parent company of the publisher of the Fiji Times, for an undisclosed sum in a statement. The sale is subject to final regulatory approval by the Fiji Commerce Commission with the expected wrap-up date for the sale due on September 22 – six days before the final decree deadline.

News Limited's chairman and chief executive John Hartigan was quoted as saying: "The sale to Motibhai represents the best possible outcome for the staff, advertisers and readers of the Fiji Times

"Motibhai will be very good custodians of the newspaper and as shareholders they will be committed to the future of the Fiji Times.

Hartigan also thanked the directors and staff of the Fiji Times for their "hard work and loyalty" and for their "personal as well as professional commitment to the organisation".

A Motibhai Group statement said:"We understand the importance of history. The Fiji Times is 141 years old and Motibhai has been operating for 80 years.

"Together we will take the Fiji Times to new levels of success as we have done with our other major investments.

New team
Mahendra Patel told the Fiji Sun that a new management team would be named on September 22.

It is not immediately clear whether the Fiji Times real estate is part of the sale. The News Ltd statement did not give any indication but a Fiji Sun report today said it was believed the sale would “exclude the valuable property” in downtown Suva.

Fiji Times publisher Anne Fussell, who is expected to return to Australia soon, was reported to have told senior staff that “real estate is not included in the sale”.

“The sprawling Fiji Times headquarters in Suva fronts on to Victoria Pde, Butt St and Gordon St,” said the Sun. This area also includes the Fiji Times press.

But few staff had any idea about the fate of the newspaper. Just today, hours before the News Ltd announcement, popular Fiji Times columnist Seona Smiles made a plea for the survival of the newspaper at a global creativity and climate change conference at the University of the South Pacific.

And now, who will be the new Fiji Times editor?

Picture: Fiji Times vendor Salesh Chand outside the newspaper office in Suva today. Photo: David Robie

The sale news on the Fiji Times website

Friday, September 3, 2010

Has Rupert Murdoch declared war on Fiji?

By Michael Hartsell

The four-year battle between the Fiji Times and Fiji's military backed government will soon come to a head as new media laws will force the sale of the 141-year-old paper that is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Limited.

The Media Industry Development Decree, passed in late June, stipulates that 90 percent of ownership of Fiji's media companies must be made up of Fiji citizens. While Rupert Murdoch declared US citizenship in the mid-1980s to get around foreign media ownership rules in that country, there has been no talk of the Australian-born media mogul becoming a Fiji citizen.

Thursday, August 26, marked the deadline interested parties could make bids to purchase the Fiji Times. This comes at the height of a months-long war-of-words between various Australian publications — mostly owned by Murdoch's companies — and Fiji's government. “News Limited, which owns the Fiji Times, continues to wage a hostile media campaign against Fiji, this time directly targeting the nation’s tourism industry and economy,” Fiji's Permanent Secretary for information, Sharon Smith-Johns told Radio Australia's Pacific Beat programme.

Smith-Johns specifically referred to an article by former Fiji Times editor-in-chief Rory Gibson, writing in the Murdoch-owned Brisbane Courier-Mail, comparing Fiji's present government to a “military dictatorship little better than any apartheid regime operating in South Africa's dark ages.”

Smith-Johns wondered aloud if the Australian government was behind some of the bad publicity Fiji's government has received:

Questions have been asked here, is the Australian government behind it? The Australian Government has turned around and said that it will not penalise Fiji, but obviously now News Limited certainly is. It's attacking our economy and it's attacking our tourists. It's a concerted campaign. It's not just one story, it's several stories that have been run in quite a few different papers.

Bloggers who cover Fiji (and their commentors) wonder whether Fiji's military government will weather the poor public relations storm by forcing the sale of such a well-known newspaper.

A comment from FRE in the Fiji Today blog:

Imagine the adverse publicity that will occur if the dictatorship actually does force the Fiji Times to close. There would be headlines in all the newspapers in both Australia and New Zealand. The credibility of the dictatorship would be severely damaged. Can the dictatorship actually afford that damage? Is the dictatorship so blind as to be unaware of the consequences?

The battle between government and media behemoth also spurs a debate on the often inflamed coverage of Fiji in the mainstream press around the Pacific. The Fiji Democracy Now blog complains that Smith-John's words are also inflamatory:
But we cannot let the latest public pronouncement get away, which asks us to believe that, somehow, Rupert Murdoch’s vast media empire, News Ltd, has become a “tool” of the Australian government. The mouthpiece states: “It begs the question that most in Fiji are asking. Is the Australian government using News Limited as a tool to punish Fiji and cripple our economy?” Wow! Has anyone told Rupert that his multi-billion dollar company is actually the PR lackey of the Aussie government?
A commenter to the blog Fiji: The Way It Was, Is and Can Be defends Smith-Johns, but points out that objective reporting and Fiji's future is more important than the current tussle:
[Smith-Johns is] saying the articles are deeply biased and could impact negatively on tourism which employs many thousands of Fiji citizens. One looks to the mainstream media for information, balance and objectivity but with almost all News Ltd articles (and indeed most other foreign media reports) on Fiji, this has generally not been the case. Rory's piece is hyperbole, not journalism as I know it. This is not about whether you or I support or oppose the 2006; it's about trying to understand the situation and help it move forward for the benefit of all Fiji citizens.
- 7018 Pacific Media Watch

Michael Hartsell is a regular contributor on Fiji issues to Global Voices. Link to his original GV article here.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Fiji coup-within-coup rumour mill - the price of censorship

By Crosbie Walsh

PACIFIC SCOOP has a well earned reputation for solid journalism. When it publishes opinions they are invariably reasoned and supported with evidence and insight. Until two days ago. When it published a purely speculative article (supported by not a shred of evidence or any indication of the reliability of unnamed sources) about a supposedly looming Fiji coup-within-the-coup.

The article was written by Tupuola Terrence Tavita, editor of the Samoa government newspaper Savali. It is not Tupuola's first trip into virtual space and I doubt it will be his last. Stories are easy to write when you can pull them out of the air. Investigative journalism takes longer.

I draw the article to readers' attention, not for its content, but for the flood of comments it generated. I urge you to read them by clicking here. At my last count, no one agreed with him.

The article does, however, raise the possibility of a coup-within-the-coup. This is nothing new. It has always been a possibility. Support for what the Fiji government is doing and trying to do seems to be increasing (see my blog) but Fiji remains a divided nation with enough "loose cannons" to cause immeasurable harm.

The longer overseas governments, most especially Australia and New Zealand, continue to act in ways that work against Fiji's economic recovery and internal stability -- and fail to support the government's much-needed reforms -- the longer the possibility of another coup will last. This prospect should cause Australia and NZ serious reflection: if the 2006 coup is unable to establish the conditions for long-term stability, it will not be Fiji's last coup, not by a long chalk. As one reader observed:
The next coup d’etat will sink the Ship and all of those on board. Without a shadow of a doubt. It will be violent and many people will be killed. That is what the International Community’s fiddling and stand-off is bringing on.
Adjunct professor Crosbie Walsh, formerly of the University of the South Pacific, publishes his Fiji blog here.

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