Weekend Reading

Fiji bloggers fail to offer ‘credible alternatives’ for country’s future, says academic

Fiji torn flag

Although blogs provide a space for political dissent in Fiji, they are failing to generate a “positive dialogue” about the nation’s future, says a prominent political commentator.
Blogging has long been a way of publishing anti-government material in Fiji and of bypassing the self-censorship of the mainstream media which are often unwilling to rock the boat.
More recently, it has become political weapon in defying Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama’s media decree and his efforts stamp out criticism to his rule.

However, emeritus professor formerly at the University of the South Pacific and political observer Crosbie Walsh says that instead of offering solutions to the nation’s political turmoil, the majority of these blogs are polemical, divisive and offer no credible alternatives to the current regime.

As such, blogs are failing to fulfil their capacity as a forum of free and constructive discussion and a place where a path through Fiji’s current political instability can be found.

For although some online censorship and monitoring exists in Fiji, blogs have largely escaped the grasp of the iron fist controlling the rest of the country’s media. Dr Walsh, who also publishes his own blog on Fiji, says this could be because the government lacks the technology to effectively filter and restrict internet access.

Sporadic blocking
Although there have been instances of the military blocking websites or blogs, he says these have been sporadic and ultimately failed to stop bloggers getting their message out. “People can still go onto Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube and there’s no way the government can close all them down,” he says.

Moreover, Dr Walsh says overseas servers host most blogs and they are out of the regime’s reach.
This relative freedom of the blogosphere does not mean the government did not attempt to control and monitor what Fiji internet users access.

An American IT professional who worked in post-coup Fiji, Chris Hammond-Thrasher, says once they took power, the military contacted Fiji telecommunications company FINTEL to see what their options were.

“I have it on good authority from people who worked for FINTEL that in the months following the coup the military looked into what would be involved in filtering internet content,” Hammond-Thrasher says.
However, according to FINTEL chief executive Sakaraia Tuilakepa, his company played no part in the military’s attempt to control the internet. “FINTEL has never blocked any websites or anyone’s access to the internet,” he says.

Scary tactics
Although the government attempted to block and filter content, Hammond-Thrasher says the main way in which the military attempts to silence bloggers is by scaring them into submission. While there have never been any formal arrests made, he says there is no shortage of bloggers claiming to have experienced military intimidation.

“There are so many similar stories of people brought in [for questioning]  that there has to be some truth to them. You hear of people being stripped down to their underpants and having to run around a field and things like that,” Hammond-Thrasher says.

Dr Walsh had also heard reports of the military attempting to scare bloggers off. “There’s been some intimidation, probably a few detentions. They’re scare tactics, but there have been no long-term arrests. The worst thing that would happen to [detainees] in my estimation is they’d be beaten up by police. Now they’d be very badly beaten up, but that’s nothing new in Fiji,” Walsh says.

Some bloggers, however, do see the need to exercise caution. Members from the blog Fiji Democracy Now refused to go on record from fear of retribution from the military. “We have a blanket policy of protecting our identities.  Sadly, there are a few family members who would be at real risk in Fiji from this regime if any links to us were known,” a spokesperson says.

Volatile mix
However, while Dr Walsh does not support the military’s response to bloggers, he says the military is not going to stand back and watch these blogs stir instability into an already volatile political mix. “Being a military government, what they are very likely to do is be heavy handed. This is what you expect from a military regime,” he says. Moreover, Dr Walsh said it is too simplistic to draw a line in the sand, labelling bloggers as good and the military as bad.

In fact, while many recognise the merits of blogging as vehicle for free expression, a good deal has been written on problems within the Fijian blogosphere. The printing of unverified fact or deliberately false information is one downside to online posts. When evaluating Fijian media freedom in Pacific Journalism Review in 2007, Fiji Times news editor Sophie Foster argued that accuracy is often missing from blogs as there is no fact checking. As well as this, many anonymous posters do not take responsibility for the information they release. Foster says this causes problems when news outlets use material found on blogs. She gives examples of the mainstream media being caught out by reporting false information taken straight from blogs.

Hammond-Thrasher also remembers times when bloggers posted erroneous material. “The fact that blog free and unregulated is precisely what is good about them, but that freedom can be a curse as there is no mechanism for fact checking,” he said.

Blogosphere rumours
This spread of misinformation in the post-coup blogosphere continues to be a problem. Walsh explained that the latest round of rumours to come from blogs claim that the military had arrested Bainimarama and the Fiji Attorney-General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum.

“Every day for the last week or so, we’ve been bombarded by these de-stabalising and fallacious rumours. The mainstream media is not reporting this. Why? Because no responsible paper would report a rumour without checking it out.”

As well as spreading false information, blogs in Fiji can be dangerous as they can fuel racial tensions.
Head of journalism at the University of the South Pacific Shailendra Singh says this a problem, and that “inflammatory statements, racial hatred, vindictiveness” can be found readily on Fijian blog sites.
Foster agrees and says the fact that blog content can be “racist, defamatory, provocative and irresponsible” is a strong argument in the need for a responsible press in Fiji.

Because of this unbridled and irresponsible polemicism, Dr Walsh argues that the blogs do little to advance constructive debate around the Fiji political question. “If they could say, ‘look this is the reality we’ve got to deal with it, how can we take it forward?’ then they would be playing a very positive role, but at the moment they’re not.”

Furthermore, he says that if Fijians heed the bloggers’ calls for mutiny and assassinations, the nation would not be any better off.

Positive change?
“Where would have leave Fiji? Here we are in 2010, four years after a coup, are they going to go back and install the old government which caused the coup in the first place? Are they going to leave the corruption which was there before? Are they going to hold democratic elections where the parties are race-based?” he asks.

Given the ability to get around media restrictions, these blogs certainly have the potential to make positive change in Fiji. But for Dr Walsh, most bloggers are not seizing this opportunity. “In terms of trying to bring a satisfactory resolution, trying to avoid bloodshed, trying to avoid open dissent, trying to get greater civilian participation in government, and holding a relatively free democratic election, I don’t think these blogs are playing any role at all.”

Hamish Fletcher is a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies student on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University.Click here.

MICRO-FINANCE PITFALLS. These words of warning from a reader:  "Thought you might be interested in some data on so-called micro-finance provided recently by an acquaintance who works in PNG. The Fiji gvt shld be very wary about seeing micro-finance as a solution to anything -- even if the direction is pushed by a Nobel prize winner.

"In a review of suppliers of micro-finance (loan sharks) to staff of the PNG National Department of Health, I documented the following findings: 1.No clear regulation on micro finance or micro finance companies in PNG; 2.23 micro finance lenders were identified as providers of loans to staff of the NDoH; 3. Over PGK500,000 loans were written by these lenders to NDoH staff; 4. Most of the loans were taken out to pay children schools fees; 5. NDoH staff had multiple loans with multiple lenders; 6. Different loan schemes were negotiated by lenders with interest charges in excess of 100% per annum; 7.NDoH staff had little to no knowledge of how the loans worked and what the interest charges meant; 8.     Lenders were managed by local or foreign (Asian) managers with little to no regard for the customer; 9.Lenders put pressure on accounts and payroll sections to make payments to lenders first and deduct money from staff; 10.Many of the staff at payday had negative pays or minimal amounts (50t) per fortnight; and 11. This in turn lead to pressure placed on accounts and payroll through the wantok system to basically steal money from NDoH through the creation of fictitious employees, increase salary threshold or increase benefits."

RESOLVING RESOURCE-BASED CONFLICTS
, a top priority for Fiji.  Click here.

SAVING OR CREMATING THE SUGAR INDUSTRY.  A well argued article written by Jagannath Sami, the deposed SCGC CEO, published by the Fiji Times on 7 March last year. With sugar for ever in the news, and the news getting no better, it may be timely to revisit Jagannath's argument. Click here.  

ITAUKEI SPEAK HINDI
. From a website. "The Hindustani language has also influenced other Indian descents that are situated in Fiji. Specific areas like Northern Vanua and Western Viti Levu have served as avenues wherein Fijians of Indian heritage and  native Fijians connect together and surpass languages barriers via a common spoken language. With this, Fijians are now regarded as having the only ethnic group across the globe that are Hindi speakers but are not of Indian background." [I am still waiting to hear from the Ministry of Education about the progress of their Citizen Education programme in schools, which I think includes basic language components.]

Scroll down to Friday's posting.

Comments

FijiDave said…
Croz

While this may be true:

“FINTEL has never blocked any websites or anyone’s access to the internet,”

Connect (one our ISP's) take it upon themselves to block sites such as this:

http://wattsupwiththat.com/

and other sites like it, which in my view is worse than any muzzling by the military.
Microfinance said…
Microfinance is a good thing because in the last 4 years we have rapidly been moving to a microeconomy.
Imprimatur said…
@ Geraldine Coutts and Dallas Swinstead : On Asking Dumb Questions

What a turn up that interview was! And how demonstrative of where so much of the ongoing conversation regarding Free Speech vs Censorship has led us to date. A smart response from Mr Swinstead and an outing of an unsmart interviewer. But the exchange was utterly worthwhile: did any parent worth their salt allow unfettered freedom of speech or action from their children when Swinstead or many of us were raised? The fact that parents today often appear neither to care nor to invest sufficient quality time or attention in their children's formation and education is part of our problem. Unfettered, unthinking, unreflecting freedom of speech may often do more harm than good. President Barack Obama yesterday referred to the lack of reflection evident in the President of Iran's statement at the United Nations when he boldly declared that the USA might have orchestrated the attack upon itself on 9/11. "Hateful and harmful" were the words used to describe Ahmadinejad's bold assertion. There is immense value often in curtailing unfettered freedom of speech voluntarily to achieve a desired end. Or, reflecting with considerable restraint upon a better form of words. Many of us - including Geraldine Coutts - still need to absorb this truth. For if we do not, we simply appear 'dumb'. It has taken Dallas Swinstead in Fiji and President Barack Obama at the UN to remind us of this.
SOE said…
@ Dr Walsh's conclusion that "these blogs are playing no role at all....."

One must deeply disagree with the Professor's conclusion that the blogs - particularly his blog - are playing no role at all in evolving a more moderate, a more considered and reflective approach to the solution of long-standing problems within Fiji. It is understandable that Dr Walsh may feel frustrated, as many of us on the ground do from time to time, without any obvious "way out" which offers an immediate alleviation of conflicting ideas and tensions. But, as is mentioned earlier on, dialogue must take place within a framework which is ideologically flexible and open to rational discussion. Can this be the field of which the Persian Poet Rumi speaks: "Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there"?

This mystical field exists - one has been there. Others, whose ideas must be respected, have been there before also. In approaching 'this field' one must prepare oneself in a particular way: a parity of esteem must be afforded each and every participant to dialogue. It is not unlike the dialogue now being watched over between Israel and Palestine. Accommodation may be arrived at only with a profound measure of understanding and certain ground rules must be set to allow for this. There is a 'field' out there. There is a manner in which opposing ideologies may be broached with respect, a profound attempt at understanding in a parity of esteem. This is the term used in the approaches that were made towards a settlement of the Irish Troubles. Archbishop Desmond Tutu knows about this. He and other members of the Group of Elders know of this elsewhere. There are those who may assist once the ground is prepared by reaching 'to the good that is within' : President Obama asked for this at the United Nations two days ago.

Those who insist upon hurling
insults which objectively may be judged as 'harmful and hateful' (Obama's words again) may be deemed to be beyond the pale of this 'field'. Remaining without, it is profoundly to be hoped that eventually they may seek a way in. But the process itself cannot wait for them.
junta jaunts said…
Croz
The self appointed leaders of the junta seem to be everywhere but in Fiji. You seem to be close to the censorship secretary - can you ask her please how all these junkets are helping the poor and increasing number of unemployed in Fiji?
sara'ssista said…
There is a credible alternative which has been tired and tested in many other countries in very similar circumstances. A government of national unity with mandate from the country for constitutional reform, arrest of military coup plotters and their cronies for taking illegal oaths (heaps of precedent for this), auditor general investigation into ALL government contracts and processes, arrest of former president and current illegal president, abolish illegal decrees, sacking of any illegal appointee to government boards,downsizing of this military machine, Then we start from the beginning , we seek overseas expertise, funds or constitutional reform and the minds of former VP and other well respected leaders.You have not even begun to canvas these ideas for fear of upsetting the military , this current appeasement strategy is a weak and cowardly approach which will never serve the people of fiji, and will continue this cycle of coups and splitting the nation as this regime has no mandate whatsoever for any change. They can't even change their own house and brutal tactics.
John Sabeto said…
Fiji watcher

The reality of the Rika/Forster show at The Fiji Times is this:

1.Slow but sure decline in standards
2.Grammatical and spelling errors (including in headlines and captions) becoming commonplace
3.No understanding of basic subjudice/ contempt/defamation across Times newsroom (Breach of subjudice cost News Ltd $100k last year. When found to be abysmally lacking in professionalism, Fiji Times made pathetic attempts to turn this into a freedom of speech issue).
4.During Rika and Forster watch, Fiji Sun overtook Fiji Times as the biggest Saturday newspaper in Fiji (Fiji Sun had less resources but better leadership).
5.During Rika and Forster watch, Fiji Times nearly closed
6.During Rika/Forster News Limited lost ownership of Fiji Times.

How can people expect the new owners of the Times to continue employing these two?

It is NOT about media freedom.
It is about competency and ability.
But it suits PFF to twist this around.
PFF has to justify it existence, after all.
A classic case of riding the NGO gravy train
Much of the time PFF does not know what it is talking about and through its half-baked press releases, is propagating misleading information and giving people a status that they do not deserve, which my journalist friends tell me is a cardinal sin in journalism.

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