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Caught in the crossfire: Fiji media and the coups

A Fiji Times news vendor. Photo: Wansolwara

A Fiji Times news vendor ... watching and being watched. Photo: Wansolwara

Pacific.Scoop
By Sharishma Kumari and Richard Nath in Suva

When Fiji’s fourth coup in in two decades took place in December 2006, the country’s media again found itself in the frontline as witnesses and reporters of the event, and what followed later.

The coup leader, Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama, dubbed his takeover a “clean-up campaign”. He claimed he ousted the elected Laisenia Qarase government because it was corrupt and racist.

Bainimarama, now Fiji’s interim prime minister, said his coup was different from previous, racially motivated coups staged by etho-nationalist Fijian elements with vested interests.

wansolwara_mastheadBut the latest military takeover undeniably sealed Fiji’s reputation as a coup-prone country. For the media, the coverage of the crisis posed a major challenge.

Journalists encountered intimidation and harassment, especially in the early days of the takeover. At least one photographer was beaten up. The media was also accused of being biased and unprofessional in its reportage.

The jury is still out on the question of how free and fair the media has been in its coverage of the four Fiji coups. There is a difference of opinion on whether it presented the public with fair, balanced and accurate news.

Media freedom is enshrined in Fiji’s 1997 Constitution. But there are clear limitations and boundaries imposed on this freedom.

According to Section 30, “every person has the right to freedom of speech and expression, including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas”.

‘National security’
This right is limited in the interests of “national security, public safety, public order, public morality, public health or the orderly conduct of national or municipal elections”.

The Constitution provides protection from hate speech, and also inaccurate and offensive media reports.

The media ethics watchdog is the Fiji Media Council. Chairman Daryl Tarte says the council upholds media independence, and supports the notion of a free media.

“Once there are government restraints, the freedom and independence of the media are compromised,” says Tarte.

“At present we don’t have too many government restraints,” he adds. “But during the post-coup period, there were severe restraints.

“Not in legal terms, but restraints in terms of pressure, intimidation and harassment that made it difficult for the media to be independent, and to be as free as it should be,” says Tarte.

Not long after the interview with Tarte, The Fiji Times editor-in-chief Netani Rika’s home was attacked twice in two weeks.

On the morning of March 22, some men tossed a bottle filled with kerosene and sugar, into the Rika family’s living room. The missile had a wick, which was not lit. Just 10 days earlier, vandals smashed Rika’s car while it was parked at his house.

Tense times
Another critic of the interim government, trade unionist Attar Singh, also had his car damaged by unknown men.

The Fiji Times managing director Anne Fussell described the attacks as a “systematic campaign of harassment”.

If anything, the attacks showed how tense, and even dangerous, the situation could get, especially for journalists.

Because the media plays an important role in shaping people’s opinions and attitudes, it has always been the target of the coup leaders.

During previous coups, journalists also faced threats and intimidation. A number of them were beaten up.

On the other hand, the manner in which journalists report conflicts in a multi-racial country such as Fiji has also come under scrutiny.

A post-Speight coup analysis carried out by journalist and media academic David Robie and published in 2001 alleged that The Fiji Times, through its strong opposition to Mahendra Chaudhry (the Prime Minister of the People’s Coalition government in 1999) created an atmosphere that fueled fears contributing to the 2000 putsch.

The study went as far as to say that The Fiji Times “appeared to wage a relentless campaign against the fledgling government, both through its editorials and slanted news columns”.

The findings were rejected by The Fiji Times.

Dr Robie, who was then coordinator of the University of the South Pacific’s journalism programme, stood by his report and it was published in the Asia Pacific Media Educator. He became an associate professor in Auckland University of Technology’s School of Communication Studies in 2005.

One-sided criticisms
Other media were also criticised for the alleged one-sided and inaccurate coverage of the coups.

Ikbal Janif, then president of Transparency International Fiji, said at the time: “It seems to me that the media wants accountability, for everyone except for itself.”

So what is the role of the media in times of crisis? Is it doing justice to the public through the manner in which it covers conflicts?

There are views that the media may have done more damage than good by supposedly being biased, especially in a politically and racially tense country like Fiji. Some people support stricter media laws to ensure that the media does not incite tensions.

The alternative view is that a free media is critical, especially when there is no Parliament. In such circumstances, the media takes on the role of opposition to whatever regime that may be in power.

According to Tarte, media organisations in the post-coup period have practise self-censorship. He says journalists have not had the freedom to write a story without thinking, “how will the prime minister, or the attorney general, respond to this?”

The deportation of three expatriate newspaper publishers  has also had an impact on reportage, says Tarte.

“This forced the print media to take a backward step.”

Fiji Women’s Rights Movement executive director Virisila Buadromo says that as a human rights defender, her organisation stand up for the media when it is oppressed.

“The media is doing a good job and it is important that we advocate for a free media in Fiji,” says Buadromo, a former journalist.

Self-censorship
She believes the reporting has been good, and that the public is getting the information that they need. This is despite the fact that there is some amount of self-censorship.

The Deputy Secretary of Information, Major Neumi Leweni, is one who believes the media has not done a good job. He singled out the television station, Fiji One, for criticism.

“It has been biased,” he says bluntly.

Fiji One strongly objected to the accusations.

News manager Merana Kitione says it is not fair to make accusations without evidence. She adds that there are internal processes at Fiji One to deal with grievances people may have against a story.

“The reporting of the December 2006 crisis has not been easy,” says Kitione.

Major Leweni also complained about grammatical mistakes in the newspapers. He says he gets calls from journalists at 7pm or even 8pm. He blames the lateness for what he says are poorly edited stories that appear in the papers.

“These (late calls) never happened before because the cut off time would be four or five in the afternoon,” says Major Leweni.

Challenging task
But Tarte believes that it is very challenging for journalists to operate in a coup or post-coup situation: “It is not always easy for the journalist to get the information that they need,” he says.

“The interim regime has been very careful with what it says. They won’t answer fully and they won’t give journalists an opportunity to question them on a variety of things.”

Tarte says the media is pretty outspoken and courageous.

“They are reporting as fully as they can,” he adds.

Peceli Kinivuwai, the spokesman of the Soqosoqo Duavata Lewenivanua party (SDL), which was ousted in the 2006 coup, believes the media has done a great job.

“They have made it their business to inform the public of what’s happening in Fiji,” says Kinivuwai. “They have decided to be the eyes and ears of the people.”

Ironically, the former prime minister and leader of the SDL, Laisenia Qarase, was one of the strongest critics of the media before he was ousted from office. The Qarase government had tried to bring in new media laws but failed after fierce resistance from the media, which said the proposed legislation was undemocratic and draconian.

The interim government is currently formalising a media promulgation to look into, among other things, complaints against the media. But many believe that an unelected regime has no mandate to bring in any new legislation.

While editors remain adamant that accurate, timely and responsible journalism is being practised in their newsrooms, critics of the Fiji media feel there must be some form of legislation to safeguard the interests of other stakeholders and to provide sound checks and balances.

Ultimately, being accountable may be the best guarantee for the media to retain its freedom.

Sharishma Kumari and Richard Nath in Suva are student journalists at the University of the South Pacific regional journalism school. Additional reporting by Rachna Nath. This story was part of a special Wansolwara report on the Fiji media.

1 comment:

  1. Past In the News postings | Center for Journalism Ethics (Pingback), 7. December 2010, 15:58
     

    […] Reporting a coup is risky business PacificScoop.co.nz (09-21-2009) Two student journalists examine volatile history, urge accountability for Fiji media. […]