Tuesday, May 28, 2013

How media ownership in Fiji chokes the watchdog

Journalists in Suva interviewing Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr
during his Forum Ministerial Contact Group meeting in Fiji.
Photo: Ministry of Information


SINCE 2009, the Fiji regime’s decrees, public stance and prosecutions of media owners, publishers and editors, have effectively prevented the media from being a “watchdog” on government. Some media organisations are now largely propaganda arms for the regime.

[Read the first part of this article at this link for my take on the current performance of the media.]

But it is unfortunate that some critics are targeting journalists, who are minor cogs in the media machine.

The reality is that journalists are totally under the control of editors and publishers, who in turn are ultimately controlled by the media owners.

The real weakness in Fiji’s media industry currently is that Fiji’s media owners are not “dedicated independent media companies”, but corporate entities with much wider business interests which are far more valuable to the media owners than their profits from their media assets.

This is exacerbated by the reality that the media owners’ other investments are extremely vulnerable to discretionary government policies, which can cause greater financial harm than the media profits are worth.

There is therefore every financial incentive for Fiji’s media owners to ensure that their media organisations do not get on the wrong side of the regime by being independent and critical as a “watchdog” function requires.

To ensure a strong and independent media, Fiji’s media ownership must be divested to dedicated media operators, and not held by Fiji’s corporate giants.

THE PRINT MEDIA: The Fiji Times and the Fiji Sun
The two major print outlets are The Fiji Times and the Fiji Sun.

The latter is a blatant propaganda arm of the military regime, while the former now practices self-censorship.

The Fiji Times
The Fiji Times, once owned by the Murdoch empire, was recently acquired by the Motibhai Group of Companies, because of a regime decree requiring local ownership.

The regime has been penalising The Fiji Times by denying it advertising revenue amounting to more than a million dollars a year, all now diverted to the Fiji Sun.

A Fiji Times editor and publisher have been hauled into court and faced heavy penalties over what many would see as minor infringements.

Since 2009, its senior writers have been reluctant to take articles from me, or even reply to emails.

The leading director of Fiji Times Limited, multi-millionaire Motibhai Patel, was recently found guilty of corruption and jailed over a relatively minor matter involving a government corporation of which he was board chairman.

Motibhai Patel is currently in Australia for medical treatment and a bench warrant has been issued for him to return to Fiji to face additional charges of abuse of office arising out of the same chairmanship of the government corporation, Post Fiji Limited.

Motibhai Patel also has a much larger financial interest in the form of duty-free outlets at Nadi Airport, leased from Airports Fiji Limited (AFL) which is under the direct control of the regime.

Once enjoying a complete monopoly, Motibhai recently began to face competition through the entry of another local company (Tappoo) which also happens to have large business deals with the Fiji National Provident Fund, the largest financial institution in Fiji and also under the direct control of the regime.

All airport leases were recently dissolved by decree (not challengeable in court) and reallocations of airport retail outlet space are pending.

Any further reduction of space for Motibhai Patel (which may occur purely with the commercial objective of increasing government revenue) has the potential to significantly reduce Motibhai’s profits by amounts which are far greater than the profits from The Fiji Times.

There is therefore every financial incentive for the current owners, publisher and editor of The Fiji Times to minimise newspaper content critical of the regime.

The Fiji Sun
The Fiji Sun is owned by the CJ Patel family, a large corporate player in the Fiji economy with major importing and franchising interests involving many international brands.

CJ Patel recently purchased the monopoly Rewa Dairy company, concurrently with the receipt of substantial discriminatory tariff assistance from the regime, thereby raising the price of milk and milk products.

CJ Patel’s financial controller (a Sri Lankan) serves the regime on a wide range of influential government boards (often as the chair), as for instance the Fiji National Provident Fund (FNPF).

The FNPF, with the support of regime decrees, has rammed through massive reductions to existing pensions, with an already existing legal challenge being thrown out of court (although under the ill-fated Ghai draft constitution, such challenges would have been re-allowed).

The Fiji Sun owners have many financial incentives (including a monopoly on government advertising) to be totally supportive of the regime while censoring opposite views, as it has blatantly done for the last four years.

The Fiji Sun will not print most articles by me questioning regime policies while freely printing pro-regime articles, some of which have attacked me, without my being given the right of reply.

There are three television stations of which the larger two will be discussed here – Fiji Television Ltd, and the government-owned Fiji Broadcasting Corporation, which started off as a radio station, recently also acquiring a television license.

Fiji Television Limited
The historically dominant Fiji Television was originally owned by Fijian provincial councils (Yasana Holdings) and other private shareholders including the local business mogul Hari Punja.

Punja has a wide variety of business interests in Fiji (and the wider Pacific), many vulnerable to discretionary government policies or tariffs and other measures, with potential costs far outweighing any profits from Fiji TV.

Once negatively perceived by the regime, Fiji TV faces the trauma of having its license currently renewed on a six-monthly basis, arguably a blatant policy of intimidation.

Its management and senior staff have felt intimidated by the regime and it now practices self-censorship on many programs which previously would have been called good “investigative journalism”.

Fiji TV management has told me that to protect their employees’ jobs, I was persona non-grata on many programmes which used to previously seek my contribution as an economist.

For instance, they will not run special programmes which previously performed the valuable task of publicising the results and policy implications of several Fiji Bureau of Statistics reports which I have authored over the last three years.

Fiji TV has now been purchased by Fijian Holdings Limited (FHL), a Fiji conglomerate also controlled by the regime.

FHL also has wide commercial interests which are far more valuable than profits from Fiji TV, and many of which also depend on government’s discretionary policy such as duty protection (for example cement).

Fijian Holdings Limited also will not want to jeopardise any of its substantial commercial interests in the Fiji economy, by taking the risk of annoying the Fiji government through any kind of genuine watchdog role.

Fiji Broadcasting Corporation
The FBC, which has trilingual radio stations (Fijian, Hindi, English), has recently ventured into television, and is totally under the control of the military regime.

The CEO is the brother of the regime’s Attorney-General, and was appointed after the regime sacked the previous CEO for no apparent reason.

In the absence of publicly available financial statements, it may be surmised that FBC only survives because of large subsidies from government advertising, ultimately paid for by tax-payers.

The FBC TV and radio stations are totally pro-regime and give very little prominence to opposition views.

Neither the FBC radio stations nor the FBC television station have over the last three years sought my views on any economic matter, which they used to do routinely before media censorship began in 2009.

All these media organisations have virtually stopped the kinds of critical analysis of the military regime or news items, they regularly and responsibly carried before the 2009 abrogation of the 1997 Constitution.

This is a problem not just for Fiji but internationally.

An excellent study by Michelle Foster, Calling the Shots: how media ownership affects the independence of the news media: A Report to the Center for International Media Assistance, November 27, 2012, covers similar issues and is available.

Following a study of four diverse countries (US, China, Serbia and Honduras), Foster concluded that, “Who owns the media and its infrastructure and who controls its sources of capital and revenue are crucial for any media system” with possibly “adverse consequences for the ability of citizens and communities to hold their governments accountable”.

Foster concluded that while governments’ control of media markets can bring about greater transparency and diversity (quoting directly):

“Yet the entire system can also be designed to limit independent reporting:
  •     Regulators can allocate the broadcast spectrum in ways that lack transparency.
  •     Government agencies can use political criteria for issuing media licenses.
  •     Cross-ownership restrictions can prevent independent voices from gaining traction.
  •     Government agencies can direct advertising budgets as rewards and punishments.
  •     State organs can transform public service media into ruling-party mouthpieces.
  •     State news agencies can simultaneously access tax-free government funding while competing against independent media for advertising revenue.”
These findings are extremely relevant for the current state of affairs in the Fiji media industry.

In addition, Fiji editors and journalists also face all kinds of intimidation by the military regime, resulting in many resignations and even deportation from the country.

Fiji is in the throes of developing codes of ethics for non-existent parliamentarians, political parties and leaders.

The Fiji media situation cries out for the Media Authority of Fiji (chairman Professor Subramani) to develop a code of ethics for media owners and publishers.

Yet, despite three years of controversy over media censorship, Professor Subramani is not to be seen or heard.

Subramani certainly has not come to the defence of the vulnerable journalists and editors who have been at the mercy of the regime, and who are being made scapegoats for the failings of the media owners.

Media ownership should be a central item on the agenda, with media owners restricted from other substantial business interests in the economy.

There are also other crucial policy matters which need to be clarified and guidelines established.

Another issue is whether government-owned media organisations should have an automatic monopoly over the delivery of public services which private media companies could also deliver.

There is a clear need for competitive bidding for the delivery of “not-for-profit” services to the public.

Professor Subramani shows no signs that he takes his responsibilities seriously.

In the frequent calls for the journalists to be more critical and proactive, it is completely forgotten that the media serves the public, which should also be held accountable.

If the media is good as a watchdog and is fair and objective, the major beneficiaries are the public whose interests are safeguarded, leading to an improvement in public interests all round.

If the media fails to be honest, fair and critical of government and other dominant players in the economy and society, then the result can be gross misuse of tax-payers funds, destruction of the environment, miscarriage of justice against vulnerable and weak citizens of society and a host of other social ills, such as excessive pre-occupation with social trivia such as entertainment and sports. These are indeed some of the sad results we are seeing in Fiji today.

So the $64,000 question is: what are the public doing about their loss of human right to media freedom?

Do the Fiji public deserve what they get?

There is little point in blaming the poor journalists.

Journalists are in no position to insist that their stories be published as is.

Editors will change them, or even reject them totally.

What journalists need to do therefore is to keep a record of all the stories they write, the dates they submit to the editors, and the story that appears or does not appear.

Some day media censorship will end and our society will return to practising their human right to freedom of expression.

As part of our attempt to understand this period in Fiji’s sad history, there will also be studies of the nature and frequency of media censorship during this time.

The records maintained by journalists and principled editors will be an invaluable part of the history from which our future generations can learn.

Journalism has as much a part to play in the history of our people as any other academic discipline such as history, politics or economics.

Journalism may be the most important given its centrality in informing public opinion, which is the cornerstone of any true democracy.

This article was first prepared as Dr Narsey's speech as chief guest of the USP Journalism Students Association to celebrate UNESCO World Press Freedom Day. He was removed from the program under instruction from USP management.

No comments:

>>> Popular Café Pacific Posts