National media associations in the Pacific have been reported as “dysfunctional and fractured” and are seen by some as irrelevant. However, a proposed new scheme may help provide a solution to some of these issues.
Asia-Pacific Journalism Report – By Holly Ryan
When asked to think about the Pacific, sandy beaches and remarkable underwater caves with a myriad of tropical fish are often the first thing to come to mind for New Zealand audiences
A history steeped in financial and political pressures, civil wars and fighting, however, is sometimes more accurate.
This “darker side” to the Pacific is often overlooked or only briefly brushed over in the news. So how can an area that has been so fraught be so largely overlooked in the media? According to a recent aid agency report, it comes down to a lack of media unity in the Pacific.
Almost every country in the Pacific over the last century has undergone some form of internal struggle. The current ongoing struggle in Fiji paints a clear picture of this.
In situations such as this, the media plays a vital role in informing not only the world of the issues facing a country, but also in informing local people of issues occurring in their backyard.
With the UNESCO World Press Freedom Day coming up next month on May 3, the issues around freedom and unity of the media in the Pacific are increasingly important to address.
Investigations into these issues have painted a bleak picture of media in the Pacific.
Breakdown of associations
A recent report, “Strengthening National Media Associations in the Pacific”, was written by Pesi Fonua (Matangi Tonga publisher and president of the Tongan Media Council) and Jean-Gabriel Manguy (former head of Radio Australia), looking into the effectiveness of national media associations in the Pacific.
They found that in every country, national media organisations are either disassociated and weakened, absent altogether or exist only in name.
Kalafi Moala, owner and publisher of the Taimi ‘o Tonga, believes the problem with these organisations and with media councils is that they do not have a clear objective.
“There is no clear reason why media councils exist, they are seen as irrelevant by the public. At the moment, if no media council existed for example in Tonga, it wouldn’t really affect anyone because at the moment they are not able to do very much.”
According to the report commissioned by the Pacific Media Assistance Scheme (PACMAS), national media associations in the Pacific face numerous issues which have pulled these organisations apart or have forced them to take sides to survive.
Media freedom and independence are either openly restricted, such as in Fiji, or exist in a climate of intense media pressure such as Vanuatu.
Despite the magnitude of these issues, Pesi Fonua is confident that the report will make a difference in the Pacific.
“There is a good chance now to sort things out. At the moment there is nothing in place. We are starting small but once you start something it can snowball,” he told Pacific Scoop.
“This plan has a good foundation, good reason, good ideas and realistic timeline. I think this could work.”
The report outlines three key objectives to try to strengthen national media associations in the Pacific, and highlights the importance of having a “professional, diverse and independent media”.
The report firstly discusses the need to have active media associations. This would involve the media and its supporters becoming more involved in their communities and working together to focus on key issues.
Secondly, these media groups must be committed to being professional and ethical, as well as being advocates for free media.
Finally, these organisations must be simple, flexible, and able to adapt to the needs of its members. Improved training and education for the media is also covered in this report.
Professor Mark Pearson of Griffith University in Australia believes that while the report is well-written and planned, the execution of this plan might prove a little more difficult.
“The problem with national media associations are that they attempt to bring together quite different interests. You have journalists who are working in often quite competitive environments being asked to put aside their differences and come together on these issues.”
Despite the issues so clearly outlined and the subsequent importance of this, the report has been largely ignored by the wider media.
This is not surprising, however, when the number of previous attempts at media unity are considered. It has been a long and uphill battle for media associations in the Pacific, and not all who have read the report are so enthusiastic about it.
According to Bob Howarth, former general manager of the PNG Post-Courier, the scheme, while a good idea, will take a lot of money and time.
He is sceptical that without strong leaders and key figures in every country to support the scheme, that this could end up as so many other plans have been in previous years, a media “flavour of the month” which fades as quickly as it began.
Veteran New Zealand broadcaster Pat Craddock, who has more than six years experience in Fiji and has worked all over the Pacific, agrees saying that, “there is nothing negative in this report, but there is nothing new either.”
Craddock also highlighted the financial issues in the Pacific as playing a major role in the breakdown of the media, and said that you often find journalists are very poorly paid in the Pacific.
According to Craddock, in most Pacific Island countries, more than four out of five journalists are paid under $15,000, which is less than a secondary teacher earns straight out of college.
Pearson also discussed this point.
“What ends up happening is that journalism becomes a calling or a career of conscience, and these journalists end up paying a huge price to do this compared to their peers and others in their age group.”
The scant resources available and low wages mean that many journalists end up working for the government or in public relations where there is more money and better working conditions.
According to Pesi Fonua, this can lead to diminished reporting capabilities and can result in the media being disregarded.
“If media is not done properly, then people tend to disregard it, they see it as a joke and they do not take it seriously.”
Fonua highlighted a few cases in Samoa and Tonga where this had happened, including an anti-littering campaign in the Tongan media which had been running for years but had made no real difference. Something he attributes to the media being disregarded and not taken seriously.
Lack of training
Howarth believes the main issues for media in the Pacific are financial and political pressures, but more importantly, the lack of resources and training for journalists in the region.
“Journalists in the Pacific need better training and assistance. In Papua New Guinea, hardly any of the media are using the internet, there needs to be a better level of training.”
The problem with this, as outlined in the report, is the lack of resources and funding available to these national media organisations. There are limited media bodies or advocacy agencies, and those that do exist have few resources and limited lobbying power.
This is particularly true in smaller countries such as Nauru and Tuvalu where the media is entirely government controlled.
Internet usage also varies hugely between countries; Vanuatu has a population of around 225,000 and has 7.6 percent internet usage, compared with French Polynesia which has a population of around 260,000 and 40.7 percent internet usage.
The extreme variation between these countries mean it is difficult to apply a model which will work for the Pacific region as a whole.
Will this work?
To achieve the three key goals, the report outlines plans for yearly seminars in each country to discuss key issues, having better journalism training in each country and supporting national media associations that are present already, or helping those that are being set up.
According to Pearson, the question is really the extent to which these organisations can achieve this goal in such a diverse and changing environment.
“I guess the short message is that this report is to be congratulated on its professional and thoughtful approach, and while it is optimistic, we need to be optimistic that these national media associations can work.”
It remains to be seen, however, whether the two-year plan will make a difference for media in the Pacific.
Holly Ryan is a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies student journalist on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University.