Report – By the Pacific Media Centre newsdesk
Democracy is not perfect, and media free from state control is not enough, says a world-renowned Canadian authority on comparative journalism speaking at a Fiji conference.
Professor Robert Hackett from the School of Communications at Simon Fraser University says there is a gap between the ideal and the practice of Western democracy, and there is a distinction between “true” democracy and “liberalism”.
His address set the scene for the symposium, which examined the media’s role in developing countries, and the state of education and journalism in Fiji.
Professor Hackett described the model of “market liberalism” as the dominant form of democracy in the West, and said it was “tolerated as a tool for capitalism”.
He told the Media and Democracy symposium at the University of the South Pacific last week that the model theoretically brought democracy to all – “but in practice it benefits the wealthy”.
Hackett described two other models of journalism – “public sphere liberalism” and “radical democracy” both of which involved more participation of ordinary people in public life.
The professor said no simple type of media could serve all democracies.
Filling the gap
He said public service media was essential to fill the gap left behind by the popular outlets that did not invest in proper journalism.
“But there’s a third type – community-oriented media, where ordinary people participate directly and challenge the monopoly,” he said.
“It’s probably not great quality but we need all three types and probably other types as well.”
Professor Hackett spoke about a “broader framework of communication rights”.
“The right to speak is guaranteed but what about the right to be heard?”
The symposium brought academics and media practitioners together to discuss and debate Pacific issues, as well as present their research.
Criminal libel laws
Misa Vicky Lepou from the National University of Samoa tracked the improvement of media freedom in Samoa since the 1980s, but said there was still a struggle to remove criminal libel laws.
She gave the example of the exorbitant defamation damages awarded to Tuala Ponifasio (ST$130,000) against TV3, which resulted in staff layoffs.
The claim was that a broadcast gave a derogatory impression of Tuala and portrayed him as a thief, dishonest, and fraudulent.
However, she said media freedom was also about freedom of viewers and readers to engage with the authorities.
“There’s not enough Q and A-style programmes and current affairs, and too many American Idol copycat programmes.”
Alex Perrottet and Professor David Robie from the Pacific Media Centre at AUT University gave an overview of media freedom issues across the Pacific, including the provinces of Papua and West Papua, highlighting that there are a range of problems from outright brutality in those regions, to issues of freedom of information and access to technology in other small countries.
Dr Robie gave a wide-ranging paper on deliberative and critical development journalism models, saying: “Deliberative journalism also means a tougher scrutiny of the region’s institutions and dynamics of governance. Answers are needed for the questions: Why, how and what now?
Journalists need to become part of the region’s solution rather than being part of the problem.”
Perrottet presented on his research into Pacific media and development reporting, showing a distinction in reporting approaches depending on the views and backgrounds of editors.
He said some papers were not providing development stories sourced from the Pacific, and there was a range of causes such as lack of resources and editorial policy.
A study by Lucie Macku, a media researcher at the National Centre for Research on Europe at the University of Canterbury, found that New Zealand media in general took media freedom for granted, unlike countries such as Singapore and Fiji, where media freedom was an ongoing struggle.
Media merits, drawbacks
A paper presented by Toby Ley and Talita Tu’ipulotu from the Pacific Institute of Public policy argued that “merits and drawbacks exist in all forms of media across the world”.
After interviews with several prominent journalists and editors in the Pacific, they concluded that “we must carefully consider what kind of journalism we want here in the Pacific”.
They said even while operating under forms of censorship and control, alternative methods of reporting are available, while pushing for more media freedom.
Peace journalism advocates at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at Otago University, Dr Heather Devere, also a PMC research associate, and postgraduate student Courtney Wilson, presented their study on New Zealand media’s reporting on Melanesian issues.
They found a great deal of reporting was through a “war journalism” lens and not a “peace journalism” approach.
Rukhsana Aslam, a PhD candidate at AUT University and the PMC, put media freedom issues in the Pacific in perspective with a global presentation that included examples of journalists targeted and killed in Pakistan for their investigative reporting.
Former head of journalism at USP Shailendra Singh gave an update on his research into conflict-sensitive reporting, saying Fiji was unprepared for reporting on the series of four coups in its recent history.
“We were in a false sense of security in 1987,” he said. “The Pope visited Fiji in 1987 and said ‘Fiji – the way the world should be’, and weeks after, we had the first coup.”
Professor Robie, director of the PMC, said Pacific journalists ought to make more use of a deliberative journalism paradigm, saying it “involves reporting the daily news as issues rather than as events”.
“It also requires a reflection on how high standards of objectivity might be balanced with fairness and ethical considerations.”
From his experience of reporting from conflicts such as liberation struggles in Africa, Bougainville’s civil war and the Fiji coups in 1987 and 2000, Professor Robie called for “an investigative, or critical development journalism, which focuses on the condition of developing nations and ways of improving this”.
“People are usually at the centre of these issue-based stories. And often the journalist uses compelling storytelling to come up with proposed solutions and actions.”
Not just English
In the final afternoon, two presentations by Salesh Kumar and Associate Professor Paul Geraghty from USP showed that little was being published in Fiji Hindi and the indigenous iTaukei language.
Dr Geraghty said that while more than half of the 875,000 Fijians spoke iTaukei, there was only one weekly newspaper in the language and most Fijians associated learning and education only with English.
He argued the best way was to learn in the mother-tongue but the history of education in Fiji had leant strongly towards English, resulting in a lack of published material in iTaukei.
The symposium also featured a discussion on journalism education in the Pacific, as well as a lively student debate on press freedom.
While a panel of judges (which included Permanent Secretary for Information Sharon Smith-Johns) decided to adjudicate in favour of those arguing against the motion for a fully free press, the audience strongly supported those in favour.
Alex Perrottet is contributing editor for Pacific Media Watch and was at the Media and Democracy conference in Fiji.