Russel Hunter's speech at the Pacific Freedom Forum regional workshop in Apia.
It’s almost a cliché now that truth is the first casualty in any conflict.
But it’s as true today as ever it was.
Dictators, usurpers and self appointed juntas around the world fear the truth often above all else. Our region of the planet’s surface is no different.
Today our colleagues in Fiji are working under impossible conditions. The regime has censors in each newsroom whose job it is to ensure that nothing “inciteful” is published or broadcast. There is no arguing with these people. Their decisions are final. They even banned all mention in Fiji of my appointment here at the Samoa Observer. Of course, I’m flattered by the attention but I’m even more awed by the lengths these people will go to ensure that the news that is published is the news they want published.
And from deciding what the public can’t be told, it’s a short step to deciding what it will be told. In other words the media may be told not only what cannot be published but what MUST be published. I am told it has already happened.
Why have editors?
It’s that ages old attitude among even elected governments: If we can only get the media to say everything is fine, then it will be. Absurd, isn’t it? But there won’t be a journalist in this room that hasn’t come across it at least once.
To that extent at least the Fiji junta is no different from many other governments. But there are many important – and dangerous – differences between Fiji’s illegal military regime and governments that exist under the rule of law.
The Fiji junta has the power to make all its dreams of control come true at least as far as the media is concerned. We see it happening today.
And they really do believe that media consumers in Fiji are taken in. Because it’s in the newspaper it will be read and believed, because it’s on the radio news it will have credibility and because it’s on TV it will be accepted.
For heaven’s sake don’t tell the commander, but he’d have a much better chance of being believed if he left the media alone.
But the lights are going out in Fiji. What was the region’s most vibrant media industry is now a stilled voice and it’s the people of Fiji – not just the journalists and all media workers – who are the poorer for it. They know exactly what is happening but feel powerless to resist people with guns.
But this disaster in the making has to be resisted if our region is to have lasting stability. Don’t imagine for one moment that other governments are watching without at least a tinge of envy for the Fiji junta’s absolute control of the media.
They might use something more subtle than assault rifles and boots to achieve it but they’d take control if they thought they could get away with it.
And that’s precisely why Fiji’s military cannot be allowed to get away with it.
For now at least, the people of Fiji can do little. But we in the region can continue to report and debate. More than that, we can continue to isolate this illegal regime which continues to live in denial of the fact that it is not welcome.
PINA and PACNEWS, for example, must get out of Fiji. I personally find it appalling that a body that has consistently stood up for media freedom for a quarter of a century or more should have maintained its operations in a censored environment one minute longer than it needed to.
They must pull out and by doing so tell the junta that its previous pious promises to maintain media freedom while threatening, deporting, and even assaulting journalists, are now seen for what they were – a smokescreen to hide the true intent which was to grab power and keep it.
Every pledge this junta has given to the people of Fiji and region has been broken. That is, every single one bar none. Can anybody seriously believe that a free and fair election will take place in 2014? How can there be a fair election with a censored media?
There can be no appeasing this bunch. All they understand is power and all they respect is resolve. It is shocked that the Pacific Islands Forum showed both. Again it had been living in the denial that it would never be suspended. It’s vital now that the resolve be strengthened and the power judiciously applied.
There is, most people agree, a need for electoral reform in Fiji. But the junta has the power to impose it tomorrow. Why will it not do so? Why will it not remove media censorship? These are questions the appeasement lobby has to answer if it is to retain any credibility.
And, more importantly, these are among the questions that the free media has to ask of this regime. The answers, if any, will be no more than poor attempts at platitudes and the people of the Pacific will see straight through them.
And that’s ultimately our best hope for media freedom. For the people of these island nations large and small have many times demonstrated that the more the truth is denied them the more suspicious they become.
A free media that reports without fear or favour should be their best friend - Russel Hunter