Fiji moguls 2: The practice and predicament of media owners
Pacific Media Centre, Wadan Narsey
8 February, 2013
ANALYSIS: Given the problems caused by conflicts of interest in business ownership, that should be a central item on the Fiji agenda: media owners should not have any other substantial business interests in the economy. Professor Wadan Narsey considers the role of media ownership in Fiji in the second of a two-part series.
The Fiji Times predicament
The two major print outlets are The Fiji Times and the Fiji Sun.
The Fiji Times, once owned by the Murdoch empire, changed hands in 2010 because of a regime decree requiring local ownership.
The regime has been penalising The Fiji Times by arbitrarily denying it advertising revenue amounting to more than a million dollars a year, all (or probably more) diverted to the Fiji Sun.
A Fiji Times editor and publisher have been hauled into court and faced heavy penalties over what many would see as minor infringements.
Since 2009, its senior writers have been reluctant to take articles from me, or even reply to emails.
The Fiji Times new owner is a local business mogul, Motibhai and Company Limited, whose leading director and multi-millionaire Motibhai Patel was recently found guilty of corruption and jailed over a relatively minor matter involving a government corporation of which he was board chairman.
Motibhai Patel is currently in Australia for medical treatment, while a bench warrant has been issued for him to return to Fiji to face additional charges of abuse of office arising out of the same chairmanship of the government corporation. Here is stress indeed.
An additional factor is that Motibhai Patel has a considerably larger financial interest in leasing duty free outlets at the Nadi Airport from Airports Fiji Limited (AFL) which is under the direct control of the regime.
Once enjoying a complete monopoly, these lucrative duty free outlets were recently opened up to competition through the entry of another local company (Tappoos), which also happens to have large business deals with the Fiji National Provident Fund, the largest financial institution in Fiji, and also under the direct control of the regime.
All airport leases were recently dissolved by decree (not challengeable in court) and reallocations are pending.
Any further reduction of space for Motibhai Patel by AFL (which may occur purely with the commercial objective of increasing government revenue) has the potential to significantly reduce Motibhai's profits by amounts which are far greater than the profits from The Fiji Times which has already taken a beating because of the denial of government advertising.
It is totally understandable if the current publisher and editor of The Fiji Times were to take great care to minimise newspaper content critical of the regime.
This would not even require any instruction from the owner - merely human sensitivity on the part of the publisher and editor to their elderly owner's predicament.
The Fiji Sun
The Fiji Sun is owned by the CJ Patel family (key director Sandip Patel), a large corporate player in the Fiji economy with major importing and franchising interests involving many international brands.
CJ Patel recently purchased the monopoly Rewa Dairy company, concurrently with the receipt of substantial discriminatory assistance from the regime, thereby raising the price of milk and milk products.
CJ Patel's fInancial controller (a Sri Lankan) has been appointed by and serves the regime on a wide range of influential government boards, often as the chair.
On the Fiji National Provident Fund, the board with the direction and support of the regime, has rammed through massive reductions to existing pensions by decree, with an already existing legal challenge being thrown out of court (although under the ill-fated Ghai Draft Constitution, such challenges would have been re-allowed - thereby sealing its own fate).
The Fiji Sun owners therefore face the prospect of enjoying many financial incentives (including a monopoly on government advertising revenues) to be totally supportive of the regime through the newspaper, and censor opposite views, as it has blatantly done for the last four years.
I can testify that the Fiji Sun not only will not print most articles by me questioning regime policies (thereby driving me to the blogs and ultimately my own website), but freely prints pro-regime articles viciously attacking me and my views, while refusing me the right of reply in my own country.
[I acknowledge that they have allowed an article from me on electoral reform (when the Ghai Commission was still in favour) and a letter to the editor on the destruction of mangroves by developers, completely counter to established environment policy planning].
Television and radio
There are three television stations of which two will be discussed here: Fiji Television, and the government-owned Fiji Broadcasting Corporation, which started off as a radio station.
The historically dominant Fiji Television is independently owned by Fijian provincial councils (Yasana Holdings) and other private shareholders including the local business mogul and tycoon Hari Punja.
Hari Punja has a wide variety of business interests in Fiji, many vulnerable to discretionary government policies or tariffs and other measures with potential costs far outweighing any profits from Fiji TV.
Negatively perceived by the regime, Fiji TV faces the trauma of having its licence currently renewed on a six monthly basis, arguably a blatant policy of intimidation.
Its management and senior staff have been subjected to intimidation by the regime and it now practises self-censorship on many programmes which previously would have been called good "investigative journalism".
Fiji TV management has told me (and understandably they had to think about their employees' jobs) that they regretted I was persona non-grata on many programmes which used to previously seek my contribution as an economist commenting on current policy matters.
They also could not run any more special programmes which previously performed the valuable task of publicising and popularising the results and policy implications of several Fiji Bureau of Statistics Reports which I have authored over the last three years. There was nothing particularly political in these reports.
The Fiji Broadcasting Corporation
The FBC, which originally had trilingual radio stations (Fijian, Hindi, English), has recently ventured into television, and is totally under the control of the military regime.
The current CEO who is the brother of the regime's Attorney-General, was appointed after the regime sacked the previous CEO with no apparent justification.
In the absence of publicly available financial statements, it may be surmised that FBC only survives because of massive subsidies from government advertising, ultimately paid for by taxpayers.
Neither the FBC radio stations nor the FBC television station has over the last three years sought my views on any economic matter, which they used to do routinely before media censorship began in 2009.
The other independent radio company also with trilingual radio stations, and probably more popularity, is owned privately with local magnate, Hari Punja originally having substantial shares and the chairmanship until last year, when the regime's decree banned media cross-ownership.
This is a largely profit-oriented entertainment based media outlet, with little emphasis on public education programmes, hence little possibility of raising the ire of the regime, while a few clearly pro-regime staffers easily achieve the opposite.
[Punja chose to sell his shares in the radio stations in order to keep his television shares which probably offer greater financial benefits to his company throughout Fiji and Sky Pacific.]
All these media organisations have virtually stopped critical analysis of the military regime or news items, they regularly and responsibly carried before the 2009 abrogation of the 1997 Constitution.
A large part of the explanation has to be that none of the "owners" of the major media outlets are purely dedicated to the media, and instead have other far more valuable economic interests which are extremely vulnerable to discretionary policies by the regime.
This is a problem not just for Fiji, but also internationally.
Media ownership and media independence
Those interested in the Fiji media debate and journalists especially, might want to read a most recent and excellent study by Michelle Foster, Calling the Shots: how media ownership affects the independence of the news media, a report to the Center for International Media Assistance, 27 November 2012.
Following a study of four diverse countries (China, Honduras, Serbia and the US), Foster concluded that "who owns the media and its infrastructure and who controls its sources of capital and revenue are crucial for any media system" with possibly "adverse consequences for the ability of citizens and communities to hold their governments accountable".
Foster concluded that while governments' control of media markets can bring about greater transparency and diversity (and I quote directly from her study):
"Yet the entire system can also be designed to limit independent reporting:
* Regulators can allocate the broadcast spectrum in ways that lack transparency
* Government agencies can use political criteria for issuing media licenses*
* Cross-ownership restrictions can prevent independent voices from gaining traction
* Government agencies can direct advertising budgets as rewards and punishments
* State organs can transform public service media into ruling-party mouthpiece
*State news agencies can simultaneously access tax-free government funding while competing against independent media for advertising revenue. "
How applicable are these findings to Fiji?
One would have need to add real physical intimidation of editors and journalists by the military regime, resulting in eventual departure (resignations) of some of them from their jobs or deportation from the country.
[Bookmark: Another great PhD research topic in journalism: the impact of media ownership on media independence in Fiji and Pacific Islands.]
An ethics code for media owners?
This country is in the throes of developing codes of ethics for non-existent parliamentarians, political parties and leaders (although not apparently for unelected regime ministers who have totally controlled the country with an iron fist for the last six years, with no end in sight).
When, if ever, is the Media Authority of Fiji and its chair, Professor Subramani going to develop a code of ethics for media owners, publishers, editors and journalists?
Why is it that despite three years of controversy over media censorship, Professor Subramani is not to be seen or heard?
Subramani certainly has not come to the defence of the vulnerable journalists and editors who have been at the total mercy of the regime, and who are being made scapegoats for the failings of the media owners.
There are also crucial policy matters which need to be clarified and guidelines established.
Given the problems caused by conflicts of interest in business ownership, that should be a central item on the agenda: media owners should not have any other substantial business interests in the economy.
It has also been the experience elsewhere in the world, that the selection of a government-owned media organisation is not the most economically efficient mode of delivery of public services which a purely profit-oriented company would not engage in, and for which there will always be an unfilled need.
As such, there is a clear need for competitive bidding for taxpayers'/government resources to enable "not-for-profit" services to be made available to the public.
If Professor Subramani is not up to these and other responsibilities as the Head of the Media Development Authority, he needs to resign and let someone more committed do the job instead of further tarnishing his reputation.
Currently, his total silence on media censorship conveys the message that he is yet another embittered Indo-Fijian academic emigrant who has come back to Fiji to blindly assist the Bainimarama regime deny Fiji people their basic human right of freedom of speech, perhaps driven by the tired empty mantra of racial equality.
Perhaps the Fiji public one should be grateful that he has not gone the whole hog with regime propaganda, as did Dr Shaista Shameem during her charade as Director of the Human Rights Commission.
The most depressing aspect of all this is that the educated Fiji public have shown no concern whatsoever over the loss of their basic human right and liberty of freedom of expression.
Part 1 of the two-part series
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 New Zealand Licence.