Opinion – By Thakur Ranjit Singh.
As we approach World Media Freedom Day and the academics, media-wallahs, the saviours of a free press and a coterie of Bainimarama–bashing brigade head for the University of Queensland to mark UNESCO’s WPFD on 2 and 3 May 2010, we hope more light than heat comes out of this gathering. Focusing on Fiji’s controversial media decree in isolation is a sin many are expected to commit; hence this article attempts to provide some remote salvation.
Except for a period of time under Rabuka’s 1987 coups, Fiji media since independence in 1970 have been relatively free until the latest restrictions being brought about by Voreqe Bainimarama.
It would, though be wrong to say that there were no subtle controls under the democratic governments. As somebody who was “punished’ and removed from media by two diametrically opposed former Prime Ministers, perhaps I am well qualified to claim that I must have said or done something right. I was booted by the Mahendra Chaudhry and Lekh Ram Vayeshnoi brigade in 1999 from government-owned Radio Fiji for criticising Labour government for tinkering with the constitution and showing “disrespect” to Fijian chiefs and institutions.
Then in 2001, when Laisenia Qarase inherited political power through Speight’s ethno-nationalism, I was removed from the partly government-owned Daily Post as its publisher under the guise of “strategic improvement”. The real reason was that I as an Indo-Fijian who was an obstacle in the nationalists “befriending” the paper and also my refusal to apologise to the then Lauan Chief Justice Timoci Tuivaga for calling the Savua (Commissioner of Police during the 2000 coup) enquiry a kangaroo court and fraud on the nation.
Tuivaga had headed the enquiry held under camera, which cleared Savua of any wrongdoing. It looks ironical that when Anglo-Saxon and “foreign” media people get removed, it becomes an international media frenzy, yet while a local Indo-Fijian publisher gets removed in the process of ethnic cleansing from control of Fiji media, nobody gets to hear about it.
This brings us to a related, important and perhaps a sensitive issue that has escaped the radar of academics and the international media. That is the racial composition of Fiji newsrooms, and in particular those who are its gatekeepers, those who control the news content and discourse.
After the unceremonious departure of Vijendra Kumar at the Fiji Times and me from the Daily Post, no Indo-Fijian has been allowed to take charge of any news media in Fiji until after Bainimarama’s 2006 takeover.
For a country which has been racially segregated from British days and has been racially split through divisive racial politics, the effects of the “race card” on the news content and discourse escaped scrutiny. Nevertheless, a number of studies have found sections of Fiji media wanting in balance, fairness and lacking proper journalistic principles.
Research after the Speight’s coup showed that large sections of Fiji media, under the control of indigenous Fijian gatekeepers, abandoned the principles of democracy in favour of ethno-nationalism, chiefly controls and indigenous superiority.
The problem with the western media – like its parachute journalists – is that they tend to view news as an event instead of viewing it as a process of development. Without doubt, the real appreciation of the Fiji situation has to come from those who are rooted in it.
In all the frenzy about the latest media decree, the best sense and appreciation came from a Fijian senior lecturer in Pacific Studies at Auckland University, Dr Steven Ratuva, who saw the happenings in Fiji as a form of revolution. He observed that in the recent past, major changes have been introduced, doing away with almost all the previous governing structures. He saw things taking place in Fiji as a development process over an extended period of time. He spoke about all the old institutions like the Great Council of Chiefs, the Parliament, the Cabinet, the President’s position, the judiciary and the civil service having been “reconfigured.”
Unlike most other academics, Dr Ratuva observed that despite international opposition, there was also support for the administration as in some areas it had done things, made improvements and brought changes that the previous elected governments failed to implement or deliver.
The problem with many speaking about media freedom is their lack of understanding, and perhaps also lack of appreciation about the cultural and environmental factors and the stage of country’s development.
As Dr Ganesh Chand, a former minister in Chaudhry’s deposed government and now the probable head of the Fiji National University observed, the smallness of the Pacific where everybody knows everybody hinders operations of a free press. This is coupled with the intricate set of communal relationships. These relationships of blood, custom and language can re-inforce the pressures that can make the very free press that in the west would champion democracy and development, champion anti-democratic forces in the Pacific
The suggested solution to overcome these constraints rests with a conscious press and well-trained journalists. While the Media Decree tries to push for a conscious press through inculcation of social responsibility, the major problem, as identified by the veteran media academic and the specialist in Pacific media, Dr David Robie, is the lack of priority on journalism education.
National development news and the attitude of journalists and media cannot be changed by decrees or laws but are best moulded in classrooms of journalism schools so that there is better engagement by media on national development issues and appreciation of cross-cultural sensitivities in a multiracial country. He called for more support for the country’s journalism schools and training institutions, such as the University of the South Pacific (USP).
What would intrigue many is that NZ and Australian funding agencies are apparently trying to sabotage and frustrate USP’s well established and equipped journalism training facilities by supporting other lesser equipped parallel institutions.
One conference at Victoria University in Melbourne the other week on ‘Oceanic Transformation” observed that Fiji media has failed to educate and inform Fiji people Fiji about democracy, which has resulted in its malfunction.
As that conference did in Melbourne, it is hoped the one in Brisbane also seeks to address the lack of understanding about the Pacific by Australians (and I add New Zealanders) who seem to learn less and less from their educational institutions and media about the Pacific.
In reporting on a coup in Thailand, one academic, Kalinga Seneviratne told how Thaksin, the then Prime Minister and the richest man in Thailand, manipulated democracy to create a one man rule.
A similar story about Fiji failed to reach its own mainstream media as well as those in New Zealand and Australia when Bainimarama carried the overthrow of Qarase in a similar fashion where the powerful chiefs, the dominant Methodist Church, rich Gujarati Indian business community and the government machinery manipulated and marginalised half Fiji’s population under the guise of democracy through divisive race-based policies.
This author has been critical of so-called veteran journalists on Pacific who, with enormous power of their mainstream media monopoly organisations, failed to report on the other side of Fiji that would have reflected on development journalism with some principles of social responsibility spiced in.
Those journalists who today stand banned from Fiji for one reason or another need to reflect whether they have let their profession down by not telling the real or the other side of the “ Oceania” story that may have enlightened their governments to require and call for genuine democracy and governance rather than letting it operate as a sham of democracy.
Instead of emitting vindictive venom against what is happening in Fiji and making things worse for democracy and the people of Fiji, they need to appreciate historical perspectives and view things grounded in proper background information. And more often than not, such stories are best told by those who are grounded in Fiji.
Indeed, when journalists and academics meet in Brisbane to mark World Press Freedom Day, I hope there is greater debate on some form of development journalism with social responsibility of media in developing economies, rife with intercultural and racial issues with journalists lacking in proper media training.
Indeed, Bainimarama told local radio station Tarana that he recognised the ability of the media to shape public perception. What his government was asking through the media decree was for the media to take greater responsibility and ownership in shaping the new modern Fiji and to help lay a foundation that promoted equality and fairness and a higher degree of ethics and moral principles.
What is wrong with seeking for social responsibility? While I agree that this cause is justified, the means, though are warped but I feel open to diplomatic and genuine negotiations, as the decree is still in its draft form.
Shooting pellets and stink-bombs of academic and first world media rhetoric at Bainimarama would be ineffective, as he appears to have developed a thick skin, impervious to international grandstanding.
Who knows, as with most other happenings on ground and with its lack of analytical reasoning and investigation on Fiji, international media may even be unaware of that as well!
Thakur Ranjit Singh is a postgraduate media student at Auckland University of Technology, a political commentator and a former “deposed” publisher of Fiji’s Daily Post newspaper.