Rumours Fill Fiji’s Information Void
Scroll down to two other postings for the weekend.
by ABC Correspondent Bruce Hill
by ABC Correspondent Bruce Hill
Bruce Hill recently spent a week in two entirely separate countries. Granted, both of them were called Fiji, but there the similarities ended.
One of these Fijis was relatively normal, albeit with military censors in the newsrooms and TV news bulletins containing brief, almost cryptic announcements that ordinarily would have been full news items with background information.
Ah but the other Fiji, the one that exists in that magical wonderland called rumour, now that was an altogether different experience! In that Fiji the army was about to revolt, the attorney-general’s family had fled to New Zealand, the entire cabinet had resigned, millions of dollars in aid money had been stolen by senior public servants, and the prime minister had been placed under close arrest by his own soldiers.
The difference between what I was told and what I could actually see and hear was astonishing. I was in Suva to do some part time lecturing at the University of the South Pacific school of journalism, not to do any reporting.
So I was glad of the opportunity to talk to lots of different people without having to worry about whipping out a tape recorder and then making a deadline to file a news item.
And talk they did.
Freed from the need to worry about being quoted in public, many people I talked to in Fiji became quite open about what was going on there. And about what they thought might be going on, and about what their cousin’s best friend’s next door neighbour had overheard someone saying last night at a nightclub.
The thing about censorship and the lack of a free media which I discovered in my week in Suva is not that there’s a lack of information. Far from it. The lack of genuine news actually creates a vacuum which is instantly filled with rumours. Juicy, incredible, bizarre rumours.
I was gravely informed on the day I arrived by someone who assured me the information came from an impeccable source that the entire cabinet had resigned that morning. Which was news to the cabinet minister I spoke to some days later.
Later, I was confidentially assured that the attorney general was either under house arrest or had fled to New Zealand. Seeing as he isn’t allowed to go there because of the travel bans, this struck me as a pretty good trick, and made me start to wonder about the quality of the information I was being given. And as I was actually able to speak to him later in the week, in a conversation where he had a go at me over running a story about a proposed pirate radio station to be moored in Fiji waters, it seemed to me that reports of his demise had perhaps been somewhat exaggerated.
But this is what happens with censorship.
Now everyone in Fiji has reasons for doing what they do, and the interim government has its own arguments as to why they censor the media. But if it’s to calm people down and only provide a government approved view of things, it’s clearly having the reverse effect. Everyone spreads rumours in Fiji. Rumours are what replaced information when information is restricted.
I only wish as a reporter that I could report rumours, they’re usually so utterly wonderful and extravagant that our bulletins would sound like the most entertaining works of fiction every devised, Which is what they would be – fiction.
A free media can be irritating to governments, that’s certainly true. And if abused, freedom of the press can indeed have negative effects, especially at a sensitive time.But when you take it away, the gap is filled by people’s imaginations, and the effects of that can be even worse.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to make some phone calls – I’ve been warned by e-mail that a fleet of alien saucers is due to land at Savusavu tomorrow.
Ed. Note. This is precisely why this blog has constantly urged Government to lift PER. There are risks, of course. What is not a risk in life? But the risks, I think, are far less than the potential gains: more public trust and support, more dialogue, less international opposition.
Lifting PER will take much of the wind out of the sails of those who oppose Government.