Media Censorship and the Roadmap
The Fiji Times Deputy Editor, Sophie Foster's recent address at the World Press Freedom Day Conference held at the University of Queensland contained no surprises. Of course, a 100% of journalists or their colleagues experienced censorship last year. Of course, censorship is a crude, blunt instrument that should not be tolerated under normal conditions.
Sophie's courageous paper brought no new insights into these matters, but it was illuminating to learn what Fijian journalists thought they could (and could not) report, and it raised the all-important question of how long censorship can be maintained without seriously undermining Fiji's capacity for democracy -- and with it, Government's Roadmap intended to lead to a better, fairer Fiji for all citizens. Without media co-operation, it could be a never-ending road.
The need for censorship following the Appeals Court ruling and Abrogation of the Constitution last year is not disputed. Without it, there is little doubt The Fiji Times for one would have published articles that, used by disgruntled politicians, churchmen and extreme nationalist elements, would have stoked the fires of unrest that could so easily have destabilised the county and jeopardised effective Government. It is not censorship as such, but its extent and application that raises concerns for the future.
Thinking people enjoy reading and listening to things they can think about. Unfortunately, as a result of censorship, much of what passes for news in Fiji today is so bland, mundane and repetitive that it can only be "absorbed" -- without thought.
It's great to know that vanua are apologizing for not supporting the People's Charter; that more effort is being made to increase milk, honey and food production; and that more is being done about poverty. These things were previously under-reported by a media that preferred more sensational, adversarial news.
Reporting the "mundane," of course, must continue -- most government actions, by definition, are normally mundane -- but articles are also needed which make people ask why exactly people were opposed to the Charter; why they have now changed their minds; why primary production is so low, and why people are poor and have such difficulty pulling themselves out of poverty. People who have answers and different views on these, and other such, questions need to be interviewed by journalists or invited to write special features. But -- and here's the catch -- they will only do so in a freer media environment.
Government assures us that once the Media Decree is in place (see link to assessment of the Decree), the Public Emergency Regulations under which the censors work, will be lifted. The Decree is intended to ensure a balance between media freedom and media responsibility, and it establishes mechanisms to ensure this is so. But, with freedom and responsibility meaning different things to different people, two safeguards are essential:
First, very wise heads must be appointed to the Media Industry Development Authority and the Media Tribunal. It will not do if appointees are seen to be mere mouthpieces of this or any other Government. They must represent a credible, wide cross-section of intelligent, informed and responsible opinion. And mechanisms within the Decree must ensure the appointment of such people.
Secondly, unsatisfied appeals from the Tribunal must be heard by an independent judiciary.
Without these safeguards, there is a very real danger that the Decree could be abused by a "bad" government. It is hoped changes to the draft will take these concerns into account.
Journalists practise self-censorship in whatever country they work. They know what their employers, advertisers and public want and do not want, and, despite protests to the contrary, I have no doubt this often involves political issues. But in most Western countries the media is also a vehicle by which, within limits, journalists and ordinary citizens can comment and criticize government proposals and actions. Governments are alert to this information and it influences their judgements.
Fiji is not a Western country and it is presumptuous of Western critics to assume it needs a "fit-all" journalism. Fiji needs a media tailored to its needs, one that assumes a more moral and civic role, places more emphasis on nation-building, is not too adversarial, and actively seeks to heal the divisive wounds of the past. It also needs a media that plays a more educational role than in the West.
Government needs the support of the media so that its citizens can have access to information that will assist them to think about governance and political issues and fully participate in Government plans for the future. Because if they do not, the public will not "internalize" the changes proposed and made, and, post 2014 or a little later, all of Government's good intentions could "come tumbling down."
For any government, but especially a military-led government with relatively little civilian involvement, the media has a vital role to play. To this end, Government should think very carefully about MIDA and Media Tribunal appointments.
Meanwhile, Sharon Smith-Johns' department-based media liaison officers should help to improve the dissemination of government information. Further down the road, Government needs its own Media Agency whose sole role would be to present Government views to the local and overseas public. Then, with the privately-owned media's near monopoly on how government news should be presented at an end, the media would be free, within agreed acceptable limits, to decide its own coverage and interpretations. Media freedom of a sort suited to Fiji would be assured. The West may not like this, but it is a realistic scenario. The West is not Fiji. Photo: ugaprssa.wordpress.com
- Croz Walsh Assessment of the Media Decree: Ten Serious Concerns.
- Croz Walsh on Sophie and the Roadmap. Yesterday's posting.
- David Robie calls for stronger voice against censorship.
- David Robie Fiji Censorhip by 'Legal Camouflage.' David makes claims about Jim Anthony's contribution to the Media Decree and unfair action against the Fiji Times which I believe to be incorrect. I take up this important but relatively minor issue in "David, James and Netani", below (and David replies).
- David Robie with examples from the Speight Coup years and warnings today.
- Francis Herman warnings on Fiji Media Decree.
- John Woods on PINA and President Moses Steven criticized again for saying Pacific media should become a partner with national governments, which others took to mean it should forego its watchdog role .
- Pat Craddock's Open Letter to the PM. Scroll down to download "Pat Craddock Media Decree.pdf"
- Peter Lomas, Fiji Sun Editor, notes the one-sided selection of speakers at the UNESCO World Press Freedom Day meeting in Brisbane.
- Savea Sano Malifa. Media not free in Samoa
- Shailendra Singh. USP Journalism lecturer's negatives about the Decree.
- Thakur Ranjit Singh, a personal history of media freedom in Fiji. When did we have it last?
David, James and Netani
David Robie is probably the most honest, independent, experienced and unbiased Pacific journalist around and he has very serious concerns about the draft Media Decree as his article Fiji Censorship by 'Legal Camouflage' (see link above) indicates. I agree with most of what David has written but I think two corrections are needed to this article, if only for historical reasons.
On James Anthony
First, he attributes much of the Media Decree's provisions to the implausible Dr James Anthony, an Indo-Fijian one-time trade unionist in Fiji and now an academic in Hawai'i. I've known of Anthony's work for many years and share David's amazement that he was appointed by the Fiji Human Rights Commission to prepare a report reviewing the Fiji media. Quite frankly, I would not hire him for any work I wished to be considered credible. He is a man of fixed prejudices whose personal anger against “the White Man” too often clouds his everyday judgment. Predictably his 161-page report, Freedom and independence of the media in Fiji, contained provisions to remove White expatriate influence in Fiji media.
But David is incorrect in stating that Anthony's “recommendations were adopted as the basis of a draconian draft decree.” In fact, Antony's imput in the Decree was minimal, and mainly concerned recommendations for the training and pay for journalists. The Decree was drafted by a consultant in Hong Kong and is based on the Singapore and Australian models. It departs substantially from Anthony's report in that he recommended a far more independent structure for media accountability with complaints against the media.
David could also have mentioned that Fiji is not alone in having “radical curb(s) on foreign ownership, wide powers of search and seizure and harsh penalties for media groups and journalists.” Not too dissimilar laws exist, even if they may not be frequently used, in democratic countries such as the US and Australia.
On The Fiji Times and Netani Rika
Secondly, in discussing what some have called vindictive Decree provisions “aimed at crippling the Fiji Times,” David writes about “trumped up grounds” for the deportation of Fiji Times expatriate staff” before going on to write: “The High Court also imposed a hefty F$100,000 fine against the Fiji Times in early 2009 for publishing an online letter criticising the court for upholding the legality of the 2006 coup.”
The latter accusation refers to contempt proceedings against the Times and editor Netani Rika for publishing a letter that David said merely criticized a court judgment which should not – and would not – have been seen as contempt had that been all that was written. In fact, the letter did far more than this. It alleged that the judges who arrived at the decision were “corrupt and biased.” And this, in most countries, would be considered a clear case of contempt. David also failed to mention that the Fiji Times had for several months been conducting what call only be called a campaign against the judiciary, and that the Times and Netani pleaded guilty to the contempt charge. So, in this particular case, to suggest that the court proceedings were an attack on media freedom is also to suggest that the media should be above the law, which I'm sure was not David's intention.
There are sound reasons to express concern about the draft Decree but Anthony's supposed involvement and the court judgement are not two of them. I send David an advance copy of this posting ...
... To Which David Replied
I find this piece an example of the bias that you hold against media generally and that you accuse me of here. You make no mention of the fact that I have written extensive criticisms of some Fiji news media conduct over the years. For example, there was an extensive analysis of the Fiji media review process in the last edition of PJR "Behind the Fiji censorship", 15(2), pp.85-116, leading up to the decree. I am under no illusions about the FT and never have been.
There is little appreciation shown here of how media work. I was commissioned to write 700 words for this publication targeted for journalists whose primary concern is defence of media freedom. As it was, I wrote a longer article and parts were pruned to fit the space. In such a tight word count, there were major limitations on what I could write (common in media environments). But overall, I am satisfied with what was published.
I never suggested that Anthony was responsible for the actual draft legislation, but rather he was an inspiration for it and he played into the regime's hands. His key elements - the media Development Authority and Media Tribunal - were integral concepts. In fact, earlier forms of such a law were being toyed with by the Qarase government - and other versions have been floated in Papua New Guinea, for example (notably the Ramoi Tribunal Bill). Anthony has had the last laugh.
I believe strongly that self-regulation is the only way for a healthy media in any country resembling a democracy. The fact that some media in Fiji have failed in their responsibilities is no justification for such a draconian decree, nor is the fact that some other jurisdictions use such punitive powers. It concerns me greatly that you appear to believe that a decree such as this is "necessary", albeit with reluctance.
Go ahead with whatever you are publishing, but expect a very strong riposte from me.