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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Herman: Bravery of Fiji journalists will foil media decree

Pacific Scoop:
By Pacific Media Watch, in Brisbane.

A former head of Fiji’s public broadcaster has warned that his country’s draft media decree could be exported to other Pacific governments that would like to curb news organisations.

Speaking on World Press Freedom Day at the UNESCO global conference hosted at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Francis Herman said Fiji’s influence in the region continued “irrespective” of whether it was a member of the Pacific Islands Forum.

He said Fiji was in the grip of a military backed regime that had no respect for the rule of law.

Fiji was suspended by the Forum in May last year because it failed to meet a deadline to hold a general election during 2009. The military backed regime subsequently announced a plan for elections in 2014.

He said the Fiji decree, which proposes harsh fines and jail terms over breaches of its ill-defined national security and stability content code, could be copied in other Pacific countries if it were shown that the measure was “effective”.

“The commander [interim prime minister Voreqe Bainimarama] has effective control of the media in Fiji,” Herman said in a panel debating “The right to know in a digital age”.

A policy with the Orwellian description of “journalism of hope” meant the people of Fiji were not able to speak freely.

But Herman, formerly general manager of the Fiji Broadcasting Corporation and now an adviser to the Vanuatu Broadcasting Corporation, believed the “bravery” of Fiji journalists would mean they would find ways to circumvent the decree.

One key factor in the struggle for civil rights had been the “explosion of the cell phone” in the Pacific, he said.

While a country like Fiji had 85 to 90 percent cellphone coverage, it had been a different issue about availability because of high costs.

Greater competition in the region driven by Digicel Pacific had led to lower prices.

Premesh Chandran, co-founder of Malaysiakini.com spoke about how his website had “pushed boundaries with independent views” and had a big influence on Malaysia’s 2008 elections.

John Austin, journalist-in-residence at the University of Queensland’s school of journalism and communication, expressed his concerns about how media cutbacks in editorial staff and expertise in the digital age had meant reduced traditional “face-to-face” journalism.

“What we seem to have is the growing influence of the ‘outsourcing’ of journalism to PR outlets,” he said.

News outlets who've flagged the fight for press freedom

The following editorial in the Fiji SUN speaks volumes about certain media outlets in Fiji who seem to have forgotten their role in the fight for the restoration of democracy, press freedom and human rights in Fiji. But we must not give up hope nor must we, like the Fiji SUN, raise our hands, and clap on behalf of the illegal regime in Fiji. Viva, press freedom!

One sided, UNESCO 5/3/2010, Fiji Sun Editorial

Today is World Press Freedom Day. In Brisbane at UNESCO’s main global event marking the day there will be lots of huff, puff and one-sided noise about Fiji.

It will be one sided because the Australian organisers have loaded the programme with people who are anti.

They have featured critics of our Government, but not any of the many people who have a very different point of view.

What a difference this is to the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) conference in Port Vila last year. A panel discussion during PINA featured various viewpoints, including from our own Ministry of Information on behalf of the Government.

While The Fiji Times representatives staged a walkout when the Ministry of Information representative spoke the rest of the participants in PINA stayed put and listened.

They understood that the Australian way is not the only way.

UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation)supposedly promotes pluralism of viewpoints. It's a pity UNESCO then did not insist their Australian organisers showed similar balance to what PINA’s organisers did.

The failure to do this undermines the credibility of the events in Brisbane.

Assoc Ed of Fiji Times: We don't need a Mad Hatter to tell us we've lost ground

Threats to Media Freedom and Freedom of Information in the South Pacific
By Sophie Foster, Associate Editor, Fiji Times
Voiceless in the newsstand

“You are not the same as you were before,” said the Mad Hatter to Alice.

“You were much more muchier. You’ve lost your muchness.”

“My muchness?” Alice asks.

“In there,” the Mad Hatter says, pointing to Alice’s heart, “something’s missing”.

We don’t need a Mad Hatter to tell us that over the past year in Fiji much ground has been lost for the universal cause of freedom of expression. And with it is going freedom of the press.

For those of us for whom it is a daily reality to come face to face with just how much we have lost – how viewless or voiceless our society has become – it would be easiest to simply succumb and say that the heart has gone out of the journalism profession in Fiji.

And yet we find that journalists in Fiji continue to try as best they can, working under trying conditions, to ensure that their readers, listeners, viewers and other audience – the people of Fiji – receive as much information as possible that is relevant to their lives and essential for them to make informed decisions.

Delivering the news

In considering the various ways to approach this panel discussion, it was clearly very important that the views of journalists in Fiji are represented. So last month I conducted a survey of mainstream journalists in Fiji to gather first-hand knowledge of the impact of the past year of State censorship on freedom of the press. The survey respondents represented around 13.6 per cent of the number of journalists in the country, just over half of them were women.

Every journalist who responded said that they did not feel free to report the news as they found it.

What exactly not feeling free to do their job means is journalists in Fiji are being systematically forced into being selective with the types of stories they explore, a direct result of government censorship since last Easter.

Sub-editors and news editors – the guardians, if you like, of principled accurate journalism – have seen an obvious trend towards reporters' hands being tied - figuratively. One respondent said “... gone are the days when a reporter writes a news article and we as subeditors know that it's a balanced report and feel comfortable with it ...”

Another respondent laments that censorship of stories by State officials has made it hard for journalists to produce stories about what is really happening, or to allow for the free expression of the feelings and comments of the people of Fiji over their own situation. I quote: “These kinds of stories are not allowed... they want everything to be good and a very positive picture painted all the time. The truth is somewhat hidden by the censorship.”

The situation you will find is journalists in Fiji being steadily pushed into a position where they have to water down stories to suit censors, which in most cases, results in real stories never being told. It is an extremely frustrating situation – especially for those who know what it is like to work under free media.

Growth of self-censorship

Which brings me to my next point – the growth of self-censorship within the Fiji media industry.

With journalists now coming face to face with the fact that the “'whole truth or freedom of expression” is not being fully exercised, some are now having to consider self-censoring stories they work on - because they know that it won’t meet the censors’ approval. The fact that journalists are beginning to consider this course of action – considering going against their professional ethics and beliefs – is a telling factor and a worrying one for the future of freedom of expression in Fiji.

But the fact of the matter is that self-censorship is already occurring in mainstream media in Fiji. In the words of one journalist: “We are restricted in what we can report, especially if it is "negative" news with regard to the economy, crime, public service. We also cannot run news items on unions or on human rights advocates unless we tailor the story a certain way that would pass censor's eyes.” 

Most troublesome for the future of the media industry in Fiji is the fact that the months of hardline tactics against professional journalism seems to wearing down practitioners. One respondent summed up this new worry, suggesting that to avoid the media being “told off”:  “they should just try and just report on what the authority of the day wants them to report on. Let’s see how or what they (government) are trying to achieve. Because we have tried our media way and we’re being told it's wrong. So let’s try their way and see. Just try.”

The censorship process

Of all the journalists who responded to the survey last month, 100 per cent of them have had stories, pictures, layouts or footage that they or their colleagues worked on censored from publication.

One respondent said they had lost count of the number of stories that have been censored. QUOTE: “It's very frustrating especially when I know that a reporter has done a good job getting balanced news and the fact that it's of public interest... Stressful – the word is not even enough to describe the situation”.

Another respondent said they had a collection of censored articles, with their latest calculations putting the number of censored articles at over 2000.

An example of what journalists have to face, is the treatment provided to an article about an area in the interior of Viti Levu – Fiji’s biggest island. In that area – called Yalavou – the people produce a small amount of cash crops as the only source of income. These crops were unable to reach the market because of deteriorating road conditions and a broken bridge. Even public transportation providers stopped operations in the area. So farmers resorted to bullocks dragging makeshift sleds to cart their crops to the main road. The article began: "...Life drags by an inch at a time in Yalavou..." Because of that sentence, the respondent said, the article was censored.

Another respondent highlights the fact that censorship seems to depend on the whims of individual censors, with some stories being allowed in some media and not in others, some passing censorship after being rewritten or even after being presented to other censors.  “There is no guideline on censorship ... it seems to be on a day-to-day basis or on the whim of the censor in charge.”

Issues targeted by censorship

Journalists were asked which issues they felt confident could pass censorship. One hundred per cent felt confident that Community Issues would be allowed to run, which would mean school fundraising events, bazaars, clean up campaigns.

93.3 per cent were confident that Sports would pass censorship, followed by Business, and Industries.

Women and Infrastructure returned a 73.3 per cent confidence, while Health and Legislation Changes saw 66.7 per cent confident on passing censorship, and 53.3 per cent confident on Social Welfare issues.

Respondents were least confident that stories on Political Parties would pass censorship, as well as the Military, Police and Union Issues.

Only one in three were confident that stories on the economy, employment issues and rape would pass censorship, while only 40 per cent were confident that articles concerning crime, the cost of goods and services, and State and Public Service Issues would reach readers, viewers and listeners.

Just over half of these respondents said that because there was no criteria for censorship, every issue highlighted above could also be dropped from publication if it painted a negative picture.

“It is difficult to pinpoint which ones can pass censorship because most of the issues which I clicked on can also be dropped by the censors... the bottom line is they approve 'positive' stories, the ones that don't tarnish or provide a negative image of the regime.” The journalist goes on to say that a human interest feature can be dropped if it highlighted the high cost of living or poverty.

How journalists respond to censorship

The survey also attempted to gauge what steps were taken, if any, to ensure that stories, pictures or footage passed censorship. Somewhat surprisingly, given the past year of censorship, 73.3 per cent of journalists who responded said they continued to write as normal regardless of whether it would be censored.

Not a single respondent said that their stories always passed censorship, while 60 per cent said they always ensured there was a State comment or involvement in the piece.

One in five respondents said they did not cover issues that may be banned while 13.3 per cent said they did not quote or picture people who may be banned.

Causes for concern

Putting aside the ethics of the situation journalists in Fiji are in, in the words of one respondent it is “frustrating writing 'positive' notes about issues that have negative implications on the public.”

But what’s “even more frustrating”, according to the same respondent is “when the everyday citizen is led to believe that publishing a person's view or an issue against the higher authorities” is inciting civil unrest.

Many of the journalists, who do the work they do in Fiji, do so because they believe that they are in the midst of delivering a public service and a public good. One that involves them being the watchdog for the average citizen, keeping an eye in injustices, insufficiency, inaction, and highlighting these for the purpose of making a better Fiji. The survey found that 100 per cent of respondents did not believe that the work they did as journalists was a threat to national security.

That work is now hampered.

Where to next?

The vast majority of journalists said they needed censorship measures lifted in order to do their job better. One respondent said:  “Censorship needs to be lifted so we can get on with our jobs, which is to keep the people of Fiji as informed as possible about decisions and stories which affect their lives.”

73.3% felt that more journalism and other training as well as better work conditions were necessary. Comments in this area centred on concerns over bills, mortgages, mouths to feed, as well as finding work/life balances and handling stress better.

Two-thirds felt that access to counselling for stress and other impacts would help, as well as access to more sources of information.

In the words of another respondent: “I can't work freely now. I always have to consider the media censorship that takes place in the country now... I once saw a 60 Minutes program about a dog barking controller device that is attached to the dog’s neck. It sprays a sharp spurt of water to the dog’s throat whenever he barks. Just days later, the dog is quiet... I feel like that dog now. I can't even express how I felt for the past months.”

When the so-called “watchdog” is silenced, where to then for freedom of expression, where to for the right to know?

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to freedom of expression, through any media, regardless.

In Fiji, we live in hope that one day soon we will achieve this.

Vinaka.

Media Freedom in the Pacific: Dorney - I can always get out

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.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Region has cause to worry with the antics of Fiji and Tonga

It's no surpise the departing attorney general of Tonga has accused the government of interfering with the judiciary and meddling in a way that is unconstitutional by deciding to abolish the Judicial Services Commission and to repeal the Judicial Services Commission Act.

JohnnCauchi is right to blow the whistle on the government of Dr Feleti Sevele because Tongan citizens (in and out of the country) have been concerned about it overstepping the boundaries since the 2006 riots.

Like the illegal government of Fiji, the Tongan government used the Public Emergency Regulations to control its citizens and while there was some justification after the riots that destroyed the CBD, the PER has become a means to an end.

Cauchi has done the country and the region a service by going public with his fears the government is getting out of hand, just as Fiji's regime has done for the past three years.

He told media this week: "This to me is the final unconstitutional step required by the government to destroy the integrity and the independence of the Judiciary in Tonga. It's a very serious move and I don't believe that the government understands how serious it is. It guarantees the future selection of a judiciary, which is not independent, and I can't emphasise how serious this mistake is and there appears to be no opposition to this breach of constitutional principles. There are more than one person sitting in Cabinet and in Privy Council. They can't just sit there and allow this to happen."

Cauchi rightly pointed out that in Fiji the military regime threw out their constitution to destroy the integrity and the independence of their judiciary, "this is why Fiji was suspended from the Commonwealth. If Tonga can't see that, I can't help. I can't stay any longer and bash my head up against the wall and pretend that nothing is going wrong. It is wrong and it is serious."

The Australian has been to see that the Felecti government is following Voreqe Bainimarama's methods by undermining the judicaiy. Said Cauchi: "The first direct appointment of a judge by the executive government without the recommendation of the Attorney General or the Judicial Services Commission. This does not comply with acceptable Constitutional practice and compromises the integrity of the Judiciary in Tonga;

"The decision by the Cabinet "not to support" the appointment of independent prosecutors to prosecute matters regarding the sinking of the MV Ashika, on the spurious grounds of the lack of funding. . . .
"Anyway, the following day that decision was made we received letters from the Ministry of Finance confirming our budget, which included the cost of these special prosecutors and also an independent investigator. The cost for the special prosecutor went through the Expenditure Review Committee and met all budgetary requirements and then it went into the Ministry and it was approved and we have the letter to prove that."

Cauchi also blew the whistle on a decision by the Cabinet not to support the appointment of independent prosecutors was a terrible injustice to the people who died in Ashika. "They look for justice to be done and Tonga has turned a corner that is seriously at risk."

The neighbours of Tonga and Fiji had best wake up to the concerns that leaders like Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi and Toke Talagi of Samoa and Niue have noted. We have cause to worry.