Fiji Sun: From Watchdog to Lapdog
By RUSSELL HUNTER and VICTOR LAL
There are three big losers in the forced sale of the Fiji Times to Motibhai Ltd – the Fiji Sun, the people of Fiji and Fiji journalism.
In March last year the Fiji Sun executed a dramatic turnaround in policy by exchanging its duty as watchdog of the regime for that of lapdog. It became, almost overnight, a mouthpiece for the criminals who now run Fiji.
Why would the Sun do that? The answer is: money. In return for trumpeting the illegal junta as the saviour of Fiji, the Sun has been given all government and government-related advertising, which is why it is able to crow that its Saturday paper is now substantially “bigger” in terms of the number of pages it has, than its rival.
That, however, is about to change. Mahendra “Mac” Patel has already stated that his Fiji Times will work with the regime. Why wouldn’t it, he asked?
Why, indeed. In order to claw back some of that lucrative revenue, the Times will now be forced to engage in a “how low can you go” competition with the Sun and that “how low” will extend to price and journalistic standards.
It will be interesting to see, however, how this will play out post-dictatorship (which might be sooner than many imagine). Will the deal even stand, given that it was carried out coercively (at least by the seller) on the order of a criminal regime?
Meanwhile, both papers face the ravages of tumbling circulations as a result of junta control of their content. There are all kinds of accounting contortions and clever marketing going on but the underlying fact is that paid sales are falling for the simple reason that readers no longer believe they are buying reliable content – which of course they are not.
And this is where the people of Fiji lose out. The Fiji Times (Motibhai) The Fiji Sun (C.J. Patel) and Communications Fiji Ltd (Hari Punja) are now all majority controlled by Gujeratis. Mr Punja is also on the board of Fiji TV and would buy more shares if he could find sellers.
Too much is often read into the Gujerati so-called alliance. They’re as competitive as anyone else but the perception remains that they all work together.
The daily newspapers are vital to an informed public in Fiji. Radio and TV are primarily entertainment media that cover news as an extra service. The dailies are devoted to news. So it’s a serious concern that both are now owned by conglomerates that regard them as useful sidelines. These are not media people. They have no compunction about using their media properties to promote and benefit their core interests.
The result is that the people of Fiji are left without credible daily newspapers – a serious loss.
The third casualty, journalism, should come as no surprise. All illegal dictatorships fear the truth above all things and this one is no different. Yet, the region and the world are still watching. When media freedom returns to Fiji, some searching questions are going to be asked.
Editor's Note: Russell Hunter is a former editor-in-chief and publisher of the Fiji Sun and Victor Lal was the paper’s regular columnist until both fell foul of the dictator’s regime for disclosing his former interim Finance Minister Mahendra Chauhdry’s tax records.