Fiji Times - Newspaper or Activist?

A media decree that forced Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd to sell The Fiji Times to a local company has bitterly divided media commentators.

Pacific Scoop: Report – By Siobhan Keogh

Fiji Times
Mahendra Motibhai Patel: New owner of Murdoch's News Ltd Photo: David Robie/PMC
The headlines in New Zealand were sensational. Several newspapers called it a “crackdown on media freedom” in Fiji.  News Ltd, a company owned by the biggest media mogul the world has ever seen, was being forced by a Fiji government decree to sell at least 90 percent of the newspaper to locals.
The message was clear – foreign interests were to get out of the Fiji media.

The military-backed government, led by self-appointed Prime Minister Commodore Frank Bainimarama, who took over with a military coup in December 2006 in response to what he believed were racist policies being pursued by the elected Laisenia Qarase government, had many reasons for imposing its sell-up edict on the Times. But it was more upfront with some reasons than others.

Why sell?
In June, when the Media Industry Development Decree gave News Ltd (and other foreign interests) three months to find a local buyer or close down, Fiji’s then Secretary for Information said it was necessary because local people better understood what was in the best interests of the country than foreigners.
Pacific affairs academic Professor Crosbie Walsh calls this the “patriotic reason” for the enforced sale, although he says there are several others.

Dr Walsh, retired director of development studies at the University of the South Pacific, believes the Fiji government meant to make the paper more responsive to and supportive of the political situation, and to send the message to other media outlets.

He says the government also intended to exert greater control over the media and to crush the Fiji Times – which has the largest circulation of an English-language newspaper in the Pacific island countries – for being “unsympathetic” and “disrespectful”.

For some time, the fate of the Fiji Times hung in the balance. There was uncertainty over whether local buyers would be interested in the paper at all, but the sale to Fijian businessman Mahendra Motibhai Patel was announced on September 15.

Motibhai, who was for many years on the board of directors for the paper, hired Australian Dallas Swinstead as publisher. Swinstead had previously been publisher at the Fiji Times between 1976 and 1980 and, Dr Walsh says, has a good understanding of Fiji politics.

Politically active
What had the Fiji Times done to force the government’s hand? The New Zealand media seemed to believe the paper should be able to report whatever it wanted to.

However, some commentators argue that the Fiji Times was not just critical of the Fijian government, but actively anti-government.

“A typical political story would see the views of four anti-government people reported with one government response, or vice-versa, a government statement and four anti responses,” says Dr Walsh.
He says many reports were also based on hearsay and assumptions.

“For example, an arson attack on unionist Attar Singh’s house was assumed to have been military-inspired because a military-looking cap – that many young people wear – was found at the scene,” Dr Walsh says.
“The possibility that its presence was not linked to the attack or, indeed, that it could have been planted to make it look as if the military were responsible, was not considered. The military, and hence government, were ‘guilty’ of arson.”

Some critics blame the anti-government stance and subsequent restrictions imposed on the paper on former publisher Evan Hannah – who was deported from Fiji in 2008 – and former editor Netani Rika, who resigned from his post last week “for the good of the company”.

‘Antagonistic’ stance
New publisher Dallas Swinstead says the paper was “antagonistic” toward the government.
“It made a very strong reaction and severely damaged free speech here,” he says. “But you have to understand that we cannot have free speech here the way it works in New Zealand.”

Swinstead says the Fiji Times will not be “anti-government”. “We will not be instinctively critical of the government,” he says. “We will work with them cheerfully unless we are in a position to criticise them positively.”

He says both the Fiji government and readers will expect this more positive approach. Newly appointed acting editor-in-chief Fred Wesley has said the paper will be as “mutual” as possible when covering political issues. Wesley denies suggestions he is pro-government.

Dr Walsh says many Fijian people see the need for some censorship while there is an unstable political situation, and many of Bainimarama’s supporters argue that the bringing together of all people requires responsible journalism.

Enforced sale
A senior lecturer in Pacific studies at Auckland University, Dr Steven Ratuva, disagrees that a forced sale was the right thing for the Fiji government to do.

While he does not agree with Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd’s “right-wing, conservative political discourse”, he sees the decree as an infringement on media freedoms. “The point here is to do with the principle behind forced political displacement of the media and the right to free speech,” he says.

And Dr Ratuva believes the political stance of the Fiji Times is not the only thing that will change.
“The working conditions in terms of pay are going to get worse [for the paper's employees],” he says.
The selling of the Fiji Times also did nothing to endear the country’s government to the rest of the world, Dr Ratuva says.
“The me
dia nowadays is global and one has to accept that, and any attempt by any government to enforce local ownership of media for political reasons does very little to enhance democracy and free expression,” he says.

Wrath of the media
“It will be detrimental to Fiji in the long run because it will attract the wrath of the media.” He says the forced sale will only serve to amplify criticism of the current administration.

However, Dr Walsh believes the seriousness of the political situation dividing Fiji meant that some government-sanctioned restrictions were acceptable. He says government opponents were being deliberately provocative and the prospect of a nationalist uprising was very real. Bomb threats had been made and tourists deterred.

However, he says the restrictions should have been more flexibly applied, and believes they may now be relaxed now that direct threats have diminished.
Sophie Foster 

The Fiji Times’ deputy editor, Sophie Foster, said at a global UNESCO media freedom conference in Brisbane in May that journalists at the Suva newspaper were just trying to be a “watchdog” for the average citizen.

No threat
She said that in a survey of Fiji journalists conducted by her, “100 percent” did not believe their work was a threat to national security.

“Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to freedom of expression, through any media, regardless,” Foster said. “In Fiji, we live in hope that one day soon we will achieve this.”

Siobhan Keogh is a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University.


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