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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.