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New book questions Fiji media standards but defends free press

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By Pacific Media Watch

Fiji Islanders have a “palpable dissatisfaction” with media standards but this is overridden by a public desire to have a free press, says a new book about Fiji journalism and democracy.

The book calls for more self-reflective scrutiny of the media and its role in the nation’s development.

“Fiji is undeniably a politically, socially and economically fractured nation,” says the special edition of Fijian Studies launched in Suva last night.

“Development progress has been squandered in all areas of life. Under such circumstances, is it enough that the media remains an objective and neutral bearer of grim events?

“Given its reach and its power to influence, should not the Fiji media take a more proactive role in terms of helping the nation forge a common vision shared by its entire people.”

The questions are posed by a former Review news magazine editor Shailendra Singh, who is head of the University of the South Pacific regional journalism programme and Professor Biman Prasad, an economist at USP and media commentator.

Published by the Fiji Institute of Applied Studies, the research journal has compiled a series of articles and papers by journalists and academics.

They examine Fiji’s so-called “coup culture” and the role that the media has played in the first four decades of independence.

Watchdog issues
The authors address many issues, such as:

•    Does the media  understand its role, and is it fulfilling this?

•    Who owns and controls the media?

•    Who gave the media its watchdog mandate?

•    Who is watching the watchdog?

•    Is the media really a force for good?

•    Or is it the “handmaiden of a few powerful, vested interests”?

While the editors acknowledge that similar questions are being asked of media across the globe, they add: “There are no ready answers to these complex questions.

“ But what can be said is that the media should probe further and understand better the issues so that any criticism is well interrogated.

“It should also re-examine its ethos and its role in national development.”

The editors say Fiji’s media led a “charmed life” from independence from Britain in 1970 until the 1987 military coups against a multi-ethnic Fiji Labour Party-led  government, “which changed things forever”.

“The initial media outrage against the military takeover by Sitiveni Rabuka was courageous and exemplary,” the editors say.

“Journalists took great and unprecedented risks to report the news.

“However, after the initial shock, and as the dust settled, there were accusations that the media had given in to the views of the coup perpetrators, and succumbed to the seductive powers of Rabuka.

“There were also accusations that a media based on the traditions of the Western press had been sucked into the cold war agenda of powers such as the United States and Britain, and their proxies closer to home – Australia and New Zealand.”

Watershed year
The editors argue that 1987 – the year of two coups – was a watershed year for the Fiji media.

The Fiji Sun, Fiji’s second daily newspaper, closed, never to reopen. ( A separate paper with the same title publishes today).

The Fiji Times, the nation’s oldest and most prominent news media, adopted self-censorship to survive.

Thirteen years later, in 2000, rogue businessman George Speight and renegade Fiji special forces soldiers struck in the so-called “civilian coup”.

Speight claimed he was ousting Fiji’s first Indo-Fijian prime minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, and his multi-ethnic government “to protect indigenous Fijians from political subjugation by Indians”.

By then, many of the journalists who had covered the 1987 coups had left Fiji, and “a new generation of reporters found themselves in the frontline of another history making episode”.

Again, say the editors, “there were examples of courageous reporting, along with allegations that the media had fallen for the photogenic and quotable Speight, and his nationalist message”.

However, the 2006 coup by Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama, unlike the previous coups, “did not have an overt nationalist agenda”.

“It was instead dubbed a ‘clean up’ campaign against corruption and racism that Bainimarama alleged was becoming entrenched in Fiji under the prime ministership of Laisenia Qarase.

Self-censorship
“Self-censorship again became part of life.”

A “cat-and-mouse” game between the regime and the news media led to two Fiji Times and one Fiji Sun publishers – all Australian –  in 2008 and early 2009.

Finally, martial law and censorship were imposed on 10 April 2009.

“Given Fiji’s socio-political situation and demographic make-up, it has never been easy being a journalist in the country.

“Both the major races – indigenous Fijians and Indians – feel equally aggrieved.

“Fijians believe they are marginalised in business and the professions, and fear losing political control.

“Indians, on the other hand , believe they have been denied their fair share of political power, and that they are discriminated against in government jobs.”

The special “Media and Development” edition says journalists often believe they are “blamed for all manner of ills” and their good work goes unappreciated.

“Fiji’s society is undeniably fractured,” say the editors.

“Should journalists then be made the scapegoats if society does not like what it sees in the mirror?”

Contributors to the edition include University of the South Pacific academics Susan Naisara, Graham Hassall and politics lecturer Dr Rae Nichol, a former journalist;  Fiji Times associate editor Sophie Foster; AUT University’s Pacific Media Centre director Associate Professor David Robie, a former coordinator of the USP journalism programme; United Nations Development Programme human rights advocate Hannah Harborow; Daryl Tarte, who resigned last week after being chairman of the Fiji Media Council for 13 years; constitutional lawyer and former journalist Richard Naidu and journalist  Verenaisi Raicola.

Source: Pacific Media Watch