Media freedom in the Pacific, espeically in Fiji, continues to be a hot and widely debated issue.
Australian journalist Sean Dorney (pictured right) had something to say about it at this week's Media, Arts and Entertainment Alliance function in Brisbane to mark World Freedom Day.
Here's what he had to say:
Like most of you when I first received an invitation to this Media, Arts and Entertainment Alliance South Pacific Soiree the listed speaker was one of Australia’s most distinguished, admired and multi-award winning journalists, Laurie Oakes, from the Nine Network.
Some visitors to our shores may not be aware that the greatest sporting scandal story in decades in Australia broke very recently. It is to do with the Melbourne Storm Rugby League club which has been stripped of two Premierships and heavily penalised for paying players much more than the allowed total limit – what is known as breaching the salary cap. The Melbourne Storm may have to ditch some of the highest profile players to come back within the acceptable pay scale.
So my first reaction when the MEAA rang me the other morning to ask if I would substitute for Laurie was, “Oh, no! Not my union as well! I can’t believe the MEAA has salary cap problems and they’ve had to resort to a cheaper player!” Well, certainly, as those of you who know Laurie’s physique would appreciate, I’m a much more compact substitute.
Jokes aside, I’m delighted and honoured to step in for Laurie who as you’ve probably heard could not make it because he had to be in a media lock up down in Canberra studying the Henry Tax Review which was released today. I am also very pleased that UNESCO has honoured the University of Queensland by holding their annual World Press Freedom Day activities here in Brisbane. For six years, I ran a course at Bond University on Foreign Correspondence and each year one of the assignments I set my journalism students at this time every year was to find out who was the recipient of the annual UNESCO’s Guillermo Cano’s World Press Freedom Prize and to write about their bravery and their battle for media freedom in their particular country. We journalists in Australia seem sometimes oblivious to just how lucky we are.
One of our parallel sessions today was about “Threats to media freedom and Freedom of Information in the South Pacific”. Those attending would have heard Sophie Foster’s figures from her recent survey of Fiji’s journalists. One hundred percent felt they were not free to report and one hundred percent have had their stories censored. I know I was the only Australian journalist there reporting for radio or television and I’m not sure if there was anyone there from the newspapers or news agencies. If true that is a great pity. I do wish the media here in Australia would pay more attention to the troubles and problems facing our colleagues in this region to our immediate north and east.
The situation confronting journalists in Fiji at the moment is positively appalling. As you must know there have been military appointed censors in every newsroom for more than twelve months now. And under the Draft Media Decree which could be imposed any day, journalists like Sophie Foster who don’t please a proposed Media Authority which will have the power to decide what is or is not in “the national interest”, what does or does not threaten “public interest or public order” or what does or does not “offend good taste or decency” – those journalists could be jailed for up to five years and fined the equivalent of five or more year’s pay.
It’s a raging certainty that Sophie’s address today won’t be covered by the Fiji media and, indeed, when the Media Decree becomes law she could be jailed for having offended the so-called “national interest” which in
reality is anything that upsets the Bainimarama Government.
I was deported from Fiji at Easter last year when the military regime dumped the Constitution, sacked all the judges and had itself reappointed and given another five years to rule without the prospect of any democratic elections. At the time, the regime claimed it was implementing the wishes of the President but it could not even keep that cruel joke going at the expense of the ill and aging Ratu Josefa Iloilo and later got rid of him as well. Getting deported, though, had its lighter moments. After spending five hours in detention at the Ministry of Information in Suva, I was driven around the island to Nadi by two Fiji Immigration officers. We were in a twin cab four wheel drive - them in the front and me at the back. My mobile phone had been confiscated and was in a sealed envelope at their feet.
My mobile ring tone is the distinctive laughter of my grand-daughter, Abby. My son, Xavier, put it there when she was two. So as we drove through the night, the conversation in Fijian in the front seat of my
deportation vehicle was regularly interrupted by this peal of laughter from a two-year-old child. The first time it happened, my escorts got a bit of a shock perhaps thinking this sound was deliberately mocking them or that I might have slipped them some sort of sophisticated Australian Defence rocket missile attracting beacon. But when I explained that it was a two year old giggling and laughing they just grinned.
As we left Suva, these two Fiji Immigration officers had asked me if I wanted a coke. We pulled over and I bought three cokes – one for each of us. An hour and a half later, with some light rain spitting down and it being a pitch black night, the driver turned around and said, ‘Mr Sean! Want a piss?’ ‘I’ve just spent five hours in detention,’ I said, ‘and my coke has just been totally absorbed but if you guys want to pull over that’s fine by me.’ They did. And to my surprise they left the car running and they both jumped out and went
to the side of the road. I was terribly tempted to jump over into the front seat and take off while they were attending to business - but I don’t think it would have done me much good.
The next morning, after handing me my green deportation order, the Immigration officials took me to the airport and up to a special counter to check-in. By this time, there were not only the two burly Immigration officers either side of me but an even larger airport security guard behind me blocking out the sunlight. The woman behind the Air Pacific counter got onto the computer and said she could see the booking for Dorney on the flight to Sydney but there did not seem to be any ticket. I told her that if she looked in the system she would find that I did have a ticket for a flight much later to Brisbane. She found it and then got on the phone. After speaking to somebody she looked up at me, wedged amongst these rather large, determined Fijian officials, and said, “They want to know why you have changed your flight?”
That was not the first time I’ve been deported in the Pacific. It also happened in Papua New Guinea way back in 1984. That time it was over a rather messy dispute with the PNG Government over a “Four Corners” television interview with an Irian Jayan rebel bush commander, James Nyaro. But the PNG authorities went about throwing me out in a rather more refined way than Fiji. The then Foreign Minister,
Sir Rabbie Namaliu, was going to make a statement about the affair in Parliament and so Sir Michael Somare’s then speech writer, Mike Ekin-Smythe, rang me up and said: “Sean, I’m working on the speech
announcing your deportation – when do you want to go?”
I’ve also been placed under house arrest in PNG and Solomon Islands. Back in 1985, the late Prime Minister of the Solomons, Solomon Mamaloni, for some reason banned foreign journalists from covering his country’s elections. I managed to get in as did the then AAP journalist based in Port Moresby, Chris Pash. We were both called into the Foreign Affairs Department and told we would have to leave on the next flights back to where we came from – for Chris that was Moresby three days later and for me, Brisbane, four days later. In the meantime we were to be under house arrest at the Mendana Hotel.
Nobody stopped us from using the phones so we covered the election from the Mendana’s bar. After Chris went home to Moresby I got a call from Ashley Wickham, who is here with us. “Sean, can you play ricket?” Ashley asked. “A bit.” “Good,” Ashley said, “there’ll be a car to pick you up in half an hour. The Prime Minister’s cricket team is one man short.”
But it is easy for me to joke about these things. I can get out and get back to Australia. The poor journalists in Fiji at the moment have no escape. Some of you may have heard about the disquiet in the regional media body, PINA, the Pacific Islands News Association. PINA once had a well deserved and solid reputation for
defending media freedom in the island countries. I am frankly stunned that neither PINA’s President, Moses Stevens, from Vanuatu, nor PINA’s CEO, Matai Akauola, are here in Brisbane for this World Press Freedom conference. This is the first time UNESCO has allowed it to be hosted in the Pacific and some of PINA’s past Presidents, courageous journalists like Monica Miller from American Samoa, and Johnston
Honimae from Solomon Islands, would have been star performers at an event like this during their terms.
President Stevens not only has not come but he has even questioned our current definition of Media Freedom suggesting it’s a foreign concept to the Pacific. That’s an incredible insult to those Pacific Islanders who went before him who fought so valiantly for it. I must make an exception here for the Vice President of PINA, John Woods from the Cook Islands, who is here and who seems to be fighting a lone battle on the PINA Board at the moment. I should also mention that concerned Pacific journalists have established the Pacific Freedom Forum which has taken up the fight for media freedom in the Pacific.
This is supposed to be a South Pacific Soiree. I thought I knew what “soiree” meant but I still had to check in the dictionary – the Macquarie Dictionary says it’s an evening party often for a particular purpose. So, before we get on with the party let me propose a toast to a particular purpose - on behalf of the Australian journalists union, the MEAA, I would like to toast those of our Pacific colleagues of ours who are doing it tough at home at the moment and probably would like to party while they can. To the journalists in the Pacific who know what “media freedom” does mean – because those in Fiji have not got it at the moment.