Rumours Fill Fiji’s Information Void

Scroll down to two other postings for the weekend.

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.


White Frangipani said…
Good on Bruce Hill for seeing for himself what is really going on in Fiji and reporting in an unbiased way. I don't agree though that the other Fiji - the magical wonderland called rumour is the result of a vacuum caused by censorship and the lack of a free media. Gossip and the "big news" of the day and the "coconut wire" game of Chinese Whispers did not suddenly rear its head because of the December 2006 coup and when PER was enforced. The other Fiji - the magical wonderland called rumour has been there all along - gossip and rumour is a part of everyday life in Fiji and has been for years. At least Bruce Hill came to realise that not all he was hearing was the actual truth. Bruce Hill has proved the point that journalists should always check their source of information for the truth before publishing.
ABC of non-sequiturs said…
Yes, White Frangipani, it's always valuable when a visiting overseas journalist realises the extent of the coconut radio and how unfounded gossip and rumour can distort the flow of information. My problem with Mr Hill is that he uses this discovery to argue that it's the PER and censorship that's responsible for this wave of misinformation. Which places him firmly in the camp of critics of the regime and open to accusations that he's merely highlighting this to make a political point. White Frangipani is right. The rumour mill in Fiji has always worked overtime and thrives whether we're a democracy or a dictatorship. Bruce Hills gets points for recognising its pitfalls but none whatsoever for linking it to the PER and, by implication, blaming the dictatorship for creating a climate of fevered gossip. A classic non-sequitur.
Anonymous said…
Will Bruce Hill take responsibility should the PER be lifted for those who decide overnight to invade my compound or my neighbours' next door - eight-at-a-time wielding knives and masked by balaclavas wholly intent upon havoc? Does he or anyone like him fully realise the reality of the situation that is being confronted? Rumours distort the climate of prevailing uncertainty but a premature lifting of the PER would most likely be a return to opportunistic crime and rent-a-mob. So easy to advocate for the easy way out when you are not here and not prey to 'what happens next'. Not unlike democratic elections now underway in Afghanistan. More than premature one might think? Who has the right to exhort people to vote if doing so will expose them to marauding Taliban? Afghanistan is a war zone, for heavens sake. Fiji is a 'rumour-mongering zone'. The smart people work out a way to disentangle fact from fiction. The rest just sail along with the tide of the latest fantastic fallacy robed in the garb of veracity. How else is one to pass the time until 2014?
jumping at shadows said…
It seems that a number of coup supporters are still jumping at shadows? What is it that you are afraid off? The dark?

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