National media associations in many Pacific Island nations are “disconnected from the new reality”, says a recent report. But critics say that in spite of problems there is optimism for the future.
Asia-Pacific Journalism Report – By Finian Scott
Media commentators believe a recent report has highlighted the slowness of national media associations in the Pacific to address the “new reality” in the digital age and conflicts between stakeholders over future development.
Bob Howarth, media communications fellow at the Institute for Peace and Democracy in Bali, Indonesia, and a former general manager of the PNG Post-Courier, regards the “conflicting dialogue” between key stakeholders as a concern for the Pacific.
This is reflected in a contrast between editors and journalists and government officials over where they see the media industry heading.
“Currently Timor-Leste is conducting dialogue between local journalists and the government on setting up a press council rather than legislating for draconian media law as some MPs would desire,” says Howarth.
This highlights a potential hole in the effectiveness of the PacMAS as association stakeholders have yet to see eye to eye in many instances and establish a common media approach.
Differences in media vision across the various stakeholders certainly has the potential to slow progress and will require a fair amount of discussion and compromise by all sides, say critics.
The report, Strengthening National Media Associations in the Pacific, points out the programme seeks to deal primarily with the bureaucracy and the top end of news agencies. It pays little attention to consumers and one of the subjects of news – the public.
The report was commissioned by the Pacific Media Assistance Scheme (PacMAS) and released in December 2012 but only became public recently with a report by Pacific Media Watch.
Jason Brown, one of the founding members of the Journalism in Crisis coalition, and editor of the Avaiki News Agency, says many national media associations are “not consultative enough with their members”.
Brown, who lived in Rarotonga, Cook Islands, until 2006, says “not a lot of info comes out” about the scheme – and adds there is no real excuse in this “new digital age”.
The term “strengthening” is referred to in objectives two and three of the report, however only in relation to the relationships and interaction between media practitioners, associations and agencies, and at a leadership level.
No reference is made to consultation with or strengthening of the relationship between the organisations and its members.
Pacific Media Watch editor Daniel Drageset wrote in his report that the low membership of many Pacific media associations coupled with financial struggles meant that many national media associations were out of touch with the public.
PacMAS is an initiative that was first introduced in 2008 with financial support from the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID).
According to the PacMAS official website, the intention of the scheme is to promote “diverse, independent and professional Pacific media systems” by funding national media associations (NMAs) over a two-year period.
It intends to initiate positive change and lead to stronger, more independent media organisations.
Report authors Tongan journalist Pesi Fonua and Jean-Gabriel Manguy, a former head of Radio Australia, cite three key objectives of the scheme – engaged media coalitions, respected and vocal partners in development, and dynamic and adaptable organisations.
Fonua is publisher and editor of Matangi Tonga News Online and can speak from personal experience about keeping up with technological change in the islands.
Matangi Tonga was ironically forced to shift to online format in 2004 following its publication in magazine format from 1986 to 2003.
The Tongan government in 2004 attempted to exert legislative control over the publication and the Tongan press.
“This forced us to go online” says Fonua. However, as the change took place we realised “this was the way to go anyhow”.
While compiling the report, both Fonua and Manguy consulted with media associations, professionals, government officials, and other communication agencies across a range of Pacific countries.
The pair reportedly did not face any hostility during this process and hence they believe there is most certainly a willingness to participate and engage with the scheme across the board.
The implementation of the scheme from an international source has also left many questioning its effectiveness in the Pacific.
Jason Brown believes attempts to bring the Pacific rapidly into the digital age have been reckless in many regards.
The international “support” and encouragement for growth is like “using sledgehammers to crack walnuts”, he says.
According to Dr Mark Pearson, journalism and social media professor at Griffith University in Australia, the digital evolution has meant that the Pacific has “end[ed] up with a two speed media situation, [where] many people have no access to internet but others have easy access.
It’s a situation of the haves and have nots”.
Brown also raised an interesting point regarding the review’s authors.
Considering it was labeled an ‘independent” review, questions arose surrounding the authors’ impartiality in terms their active roles both in reviewing the PacMAS and “their roles with the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) and Pacific Islands Broadcasting Association (PIBA),” Brown says.
Fonua, Brown and Pearson agreed, however, that such a scheme was difficult to administer in the Pacific Islands and a one size fits all, generic approach simply would not work in the area.
It is “difficult to operate in the islands because of smallness”, says Fonua.
Brown believes the PacMAS model is struggling for relevance in many instances.
In smaller Pacific nations, like Tuvalu, the template may need to be adjusted and made more flexible in order to be effective there.
According to Pearson, generally the smaller the country, the bigger the influence governments tend to have on the media.
This proves an ongoing challenge in terms of censorship and establishing truly independent media.
Ultimately however, the changes that the PacMAS is designing and attempting to initiate in the Pacific must be sustainable and driven internally from within the countries themselves.
Failing this, 10 years will pass and like previous schemes the Pacific would “see PacMAS fade away into distant memory like all the others have”, says Brown.
No amount of political pandering or externally-driven, foreign guidance could beat solid, domestically-driven initiatives.
Dr Ketut Erawan, executive director at the Institute for Peace and Democracy in Bali, emphasises through his work the need to steer clear of taking the “preacher” approach in attempting to implement change in foreign countries.
“We try to encourage the solution to come from inside,” he says.
Despite the noted flaws with the PacMAS, on the whole the report is encouraging. As Professor Pearson suggests, “we need to be optimistic that these national media associations can work as united and powerful lobbying bodies”.
Optimism and a common commitment to clearly established goals are the two key factors required for progress to be made in the Pacific.
Finian Scott is a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies student journalist on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University.