Fiji moguls and the suppression of media independence
Pacific Media Centre, Wadan Narsey
7 February, 2013
ANALYSIS: Since 2009, the Fiji military-backed regime's tight control and self-censorship has prevented the media from being a "watchdog" on government, while some media organisations have become largely propaganda arms for the regime. Professor Wadan Narsey considers the role of the media in Fiji in the first of a two-part series.
The Fourth Estate
The media can be so powerful in the moulding of public opinion and national events, that a special term was coined to describe it - the "Fourth Estate".
[The first three sources of social and political power were supposed to be religious leaders, nobility and elected representatives in Parliament- with some cynically thinking that lawyers should be in there as well].
Put crudely, the media can have three distinct roles in relation to the government of the day: it may protect the public interest by acting as a watchdog on both government and people; it can undermine governments in the interests of powerful lobby groups, or it can be a propaganda arm of the government itself.
Fiji's media has arguably performed all these roles over the last few decades.
Since 2009, however, the regime's tight control and media self-censorship has prevented the media from being a "watchdog" on government, while some media organisations have become largely propaganda arms for the regime.
It is unfortunate, however, that some critics are targeting the hapless journalists, who surely are minor cogs in the media machine.
The reality is that journalists are totally under the control of editors and publishers, who in turn are ultimately controlled by the media owners.
The real weak link in Fiji's media industry is that Fiji's media owners are not dedicated "independent media companies per se", but corporate entities with wider business interests, which are vulnerable to a variety of discretionary government policies.
Currently, the dominant Fiji media owners have far more to lose financially if they allowed their media organisations to get on the wrong side of the regime, by letting their publishers, editors and journalists maintain a robust independent and critical media organisation.
The public should therefore scrutinise not the journalists, but the owners of the Fiji media.
One of the most shocking revelations about Fiji society since 2009 has been the virtual lack of pubic protest about the ongoing media censorship that has taken away our basic human right of freedom of speech and media.
To encourage our people to think more deeply about how far we have departed from the wonderful benefits bestowed by a free and open media, this article first outlines the criteria by which the media and the journalists are objectively assessed internationally. I also give my personal impressionistic judgment about the recent performance of the media and journalists.
Part II of this article will then look at the role of media ownership in this sorry state of affairs.
But first, is the media really failing Fiji, as some allege?
Objectives of good public media
Pacific journalism students can get a good grounding on the objectives, principles and key issues by which public media may be judged, at any of the journalism schools in the Pacific, such as the regional University of the South Pacific.
The public can also look at freely available internet sites such as here which offer useful criteria to judge any public media, whether in the Pacific or elsewhere.
For instance, does the Fiji media enable the public to:
(a) have full and free access to public information relevant to their lives, especially in monitoring government activities with the tax-payers' funds
(b) ask questions, provide answers, share viewpoints, and extend public education
(c) ensure an informed and engaged public that enables a strong and effective democracy
(d) produce original cultural material that strengthens local communities and their culture.
There certainly have been improvements on criterion (d) in recent years, driven largely by increased competition.
But the larger Fiji media organisations score quite poorly on the more important criteria (a), (b), and (c).
These weaknesses of the media are far more damaging to Fiji currently, because the Bainimarama regime has operated unfettered for six years, without an elected Parliament and opposition parties who would normally have scrutinised the government.
Current weaknesses of the Fiji media
Some journalist educators in the region and others have recently engaged in an acrimonious but interesting debate about the Fiji media.
Pacific Island journalism students should discipline themselves to go beyond the raw personalities, emotions and largely unsubstantiated allegations that surfaced, and clarify the journalism principles involved, so that they can understand better their own profession and the current media environment.
As someone who has contributed prolifically through the media for more than 25 years (most of my writings are available on my website http://narseyonfiji.wordpress.com/) and interviews are in the Fiji TV archives) my personal view is that the Fiji media has significantly deteriorated since 2009.
Journalism students might wish to do solid empirical analysis of the content (topics, objectivity, column inches, length of time) of the Fiji media output since 2006, to examine the extent to which my impressions below are substantiated by the data.
* Since 2006, there has been a tendency to suppress information that might throw the regime in a negative light.
* Citizens have not been allowed to ask critical questions, or give their own critical views even in letters to the editor (while huge space is given to entertainment).
* Reporting is totally unbalanced with regime and pro-regime statements given multiple times the exposure given to opposing views.
* views of regime opponents or even serious academic criticisms of some specific regime policies since 2009 have been either totally blanked out or receive a bare bones coverage (I have personally been a victim of this - I elaborate below) .
- * Some media (editors and journalists) often present pro-regime opinions as facts without any critical questioning.
I suspect that there would be general agreement that the Fiji media has not been a strong opponent of media censorship or a strong supporter of democracy.
Just five important examples
Four examples of the media's failure to scrutinise and question adequately the illegal unelected regime's spending of tax-payers' funds:
* The regime has bluntly refused to release its own Auditor-General's reports on government revenues and expenditure since 2006, although it is clear from limited budget data that there has been serious over-spending and financial irregularities by the military and police, amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars (while the regime has jailed a former Prime Minister on alleged corruption amounting to a few thousand dollars some 20 years ago);.
* The regime refuses to allow the audit of the Fiji Regimental Funds which are thought to have been seriously abused by several RFMF commanders.
* The regime has refused to release the audits on the massive over-expenditures and capital write-downs at the FNPF's investments at Natadola and Momi Bay, by a regime-appointed board.
* the regime has not publicly denied that ministers' salaries were at one stage being paid through a private accounting firm owned by the aunt of the regime's Attorney-General (it may be regularised now but the evidence has yet to be presented).
* there have been several cases of nepotism involving the Bainimarama family.
Yet the media frequently articulates the regime's statements that
* it did the 2006 coup because of alleged massive corruption in the Qarase government (yet no evidence has yet been shown after six years);
- * the country must be guided by the principles in the Charter, which include accountability and transparency of government.
The regime, without practising the principles itself,
* has demanded monthly financial audits from the Yash Ghai Constitution Review Commission which received its funding not from taxpayers but international donors;
- * is now demanding total financial transparency from the political parties and leaders receiving voluntary funding from the public, while excluding its own ministers for the last six years.
Since 2009, the media has not been able to point out the regime's fundamental inconsistencies and gross hypocrisy, as it would have done in any free democratic country, whether developed or developing.
This is evident even by a cursory reading of my articles published in Fiji media just prior to 2009 and those that had to be published on blogs thereafter because of media censorship in Fiji.
How to assess Fiji journalists?
Standards by which professional journalists, whether in the Pacific or elsewhere, may be assessed are easily available on the internet and I quote extensively from this website of the Society of Professional Journalists based in US www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp. Journalists must:
* seek truth and report it
* be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information
* support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant
* give voice to the voiceless;
* recognise a special obligation to ensure that the public's business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection
* act independently and be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know;
- * as a profession, be accountable to the public: encourage the public to voice grievances against the news media, admit mistakes and correct them promptly, expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media, and abide by the same high standards to which they hold others.
By these universally desirable criteria and even a cursory study of the actual media output, Fiji journalists come up very short indeed at this point in time.
But I certainly would not hold the journalists responsible for the current status quo, whatever the appearance of their failure.
For what comes out as the media's "output", is not the copy that journalists give to their editors or would like to give.
Journalists are at the lowest rung in the media machine, the front-line workers, told by the editors what to investigate and write up, giving their output to the editors, who then edit and put their stamp on the final product, even if there is a personal byline given to an article.
Furthermore, behind the editors are the publishers who exercise control over the editors and the media organisation, on the broad nature of what ultimately goes into print or on the airwaves.
There is no public information, and not likely to be any, on the interactions between publishers and editors (Bookmark: this is a great research topic for Pacific journalism students).
But even publishers have to do what the media owners tell them to do. Again, there is no public information, and not likely to be, on the inter-reaction between media owners and publishers. (Bookmark: what a great research topic for Pacific journalism students).
The harsh reality in Fiji is that any journalist or editor or publisher, who insists on maintaining his or her media independence is soon out of a job or thrown out of the country, with no legal redress, or even total circumvention of judicial decisions. It has happened in recent years.
Journalists and editors soon get the message. Jobs are scarce in Fiji and there is no dole to look after your family if you do not have a job.
Despite these constraints, there are a few journalists, editors, publishers, and indeed, even a small media owner or two, who courageously attempt to be professional, without committing hari-kari.
Bottom line: it is totally unfair to point the finger at journalists, editors, or even publishers, for the weaknesses of the Fiji media industry.
The public must therefore demand that the hitherto silent media owners behind the scenes, come out of the shadows, and be publicly accountable for their media's output and failures outlined above.
The unfortunate reality is that these media owners have severe conflicts of business interests in Fiji, with their media interests.
I will briefly look at the dominant media payers: The Fiji Times, Fiji Sun, Fiji TV, Fiji Broadcasting Corporation (FBC), Communications Fiji Limited, all of which practise some form of self-censorship or other.
At the Media and Democracy conference at the USP not too long ago, a radio journalist strangely demanded proof that the media was practising self-censorship, while the regime's Permanent Secretary for Information simultaneously was pleading with journalists not to practise self-censorship.
Part 2 tomorrow presents my personal experience with respect to television, newspapers and radio which throws a little personal light on the matter.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 New Zealand Licence.