The Foreign Media's Coverage of Fiji: Past and Present
Graham Davis's address to the Fiji Literary Festival, Nadi, October 2 – 9, 2011
Mr Chairman, ladies and gentlemen. Ni sa bula vinaka, namaste, good morning.
Mr Chairman, ladies and gentlemen. Ni sa bula vinaka, namaste, good morning.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you at this media component of a landmark event in the cultural life of the nation- the inaugural Fiji Literary Festival.
Let me stress from the outset that unlike some of the offerings here, this is not an academic paper but a series of personal reflections – some highly subjective – that aren’t designed for peer review.
It’s also less about the Fiji media than of media coverage of Fiji, the way the country is portrayed in a myopic fashion that’s often highly damaging to the country’s interests.
Thank you, Satendra Nandan, for your invitation and overly generous introduction.
For me, your own presence here is a cause for immense satisfaction coupled with a degree of sadness as I reflect on the last time we met face to face.
It was before the cameras in a Suva hotel room in April 1987, just after you’d been appointed a minister in the short-lived government of Timoci Bavadra – the best prime minister Fiji never had.
You were full of hope for a new era, a peaceful transition from the patrician Mara years to a country that put more emphasis on social justice and charted a more independent course.
Yet barely three weeks later, you and the rest of that government were removed at gunpoint… democracy had failed its first real test in Fiji.
How tragic that the intervening years have been the lost years - the great hopes of a multiracial economic powerhouse laid waste, along with the notion of Fiji as “the way the world should be”, a beacon of success for its island neighbours.
We became not the Singapore of the South Seas but a second rate nation mired in racial conflict and wracked by self interest, petty squabbling, false piety and corruption.
Nearly a quarter of a century has passed since that dark May day and Fiji is still struggling to find its feet.
In their despair, so many members of your own community abandoned the country altogether for better lives elsewhere…those who forced them out too shortsighted to realise they were losing some of the brightest and best.
But you returned after what must have been a period of intense soul searching in Australia as you came to terms with your own life uprooted at the point of a gun.
As we gather this week in your home town, you deserve great credit for keeping the faith and for organising this event, which is a vote of confidence not just in the country’s writers but in the people of Fiji and their future.
You and your committee are providing brain food to make us think…to fire our imaginations with the notion that Fiji can get more of its stories told….and to inspire us with the idea that words – as well as deeds - are the building blocks of successful nations.
I’m acutely aware of how irritating it can be to have an outsider like me parachute into an event like this and offer a string of gratuitous observations on aspects of national life.
So before your hackles are raised – and doubtless they will be soon enough - let’s talk about something on which we can all agree …that this event is a cause for celebration.
There are precious few literary works on contemporary life in Fiji and precious few writers to do our stories justice.
We hope that this week is the spark that ignites a firestorm of local creativity, that encourages existing writers to new heights and inspires others to join their ranks.
To the writers among us today, can i simply say – you’re valued not just because of your individual talents and achievements but because you give voice to the ideals and aspirations of a nation.
You speak not just for yourselves but for all Fijians, helping to explain the nation to itself and reflecting crucial aspects of its way of life now and for all time.
Writers often have to treat poverty as a friend.
But they do have the luxury of longevity, whether it’s on the printed page or electronic innovations like the Kindle.
However hard it is to carve out a living in the present, your efforts endure into the future, your work can still have currency and meaning long after you’ve gone.
This is the real power of the written word - not just to move people and forge opinions in our own time but to convey those stories to succeeding generations, and become part of a collective history.
Most journalism – of course – isn’t great literature, though it’s often said that journalism – at its finest - is the first draft of history.
While your average journalist may not possess the literary skills of an accomplished author, he or she is nevertheless part of a vital process, making sense of the everyday and giving it context.
Good journalism -like good literature - requires good story telling skills – structure , the appropriate use of language, the ability to engage, to inform and entertain.
People often ask me – what makes a good story? And they’re startled when i say – ‘simple really – a plausible beginning, middle and end” with some twists and turns, light and shade and troughs and peaks along the way.
Good journalism requires, above all, judgment and integrity – skills that really can’t be taught , even in the finest journalism schools.
You can learn the practical skills of journalism – the mechanics of story telling - and the theory – such as why journalists are important to how any society functions.
But judgment and integrity well from the individual – are determined by a person’s character, are honed by experience – and are what ultimately distinguishes good journalism from bad.
Judgment and integrity are the qualities that make journalists respect the facts, the confidences of those who give them information, strive to be balanced and fair, give their stories context and polish and re-polish them – however tight their deadlines - to get them as close as possible to an adequate facsimile of the truth.
And I say facsimile because journalism is the most imprecise of arts, not least because one person’s truth can be another person’s falsehood.
You can, however, strive to have integrity and judgment.
So let’s just talk about this in the Fiji context, as seen by someone like myself…born here and a former citizen, having reported local events but who’s spent a lifetime in the foreign media, on the outside looking in.
And what a picture Fiji presents right now – an entire country hostage to the premise of one person’s truth being another person’s falsehood.
So much of what is said about Fiji in the international media is woefully short of integrity or judgment.
Indeed, we live in a truly parallel universe when it comes to media coverage ….alleged versions of the truth so polarised that your ordinary reader, viewer or listener can be excused for having no idea what to believe.
Never mind your average person with only a passing interest in the country. Even so-called experts have trouble working out who’s right and who’s wrong, such is the deluge of misinformation on Fiji masquerading as fact.
Of course, it’s inevitable that a country with such a high level of political turmoil in recent years has so many people with agendas to push and stories to plant.
But what disturbs me is that so many of my fellow journalists seem willing to embrace those agendas and portray the country in a way vastly at odds with reality.
By some accounts – Fiji is governed by a local version of Saddam Hussein …a brutal dictator who tortures his opponents and pays himself multiple salaries while his people drift further into poverty.
The flip side to this narrative is that Fiji is governed by a dogged reformer, who is fighting corruption and injustice, addressing decades of infrastructure and legislative neglect and creating a level playing field for all citizens leading to genuine democracy for the first time.
Which version gets told the most? Which is the prevailing orthodoxy on events in fiji? Bainimarama, the torturer or Bainimarama the reformer ?
On the evidence, demonising the dictator is the dominant narrative of much of the regional media, and especially a clique of so-called Pacific specialists in Australia and New Zealand.
It’s the story they not only believe - because their partisan sources tell them so, hand on heart – but the one they instinctively want to tell because it reflects their own values.
Yes, -they say -we know there are complicating factors in Fiji but these are beside the point.
The 2006 coup removed a legitimately elected government and democracy must be restored immediately…no ifs, buts or maybes.
Never mind that democracy – Fiji style - would be something totally unacceptable in their own countries – not one man, one vote but a bastardised version based on race
Never mind that democracy – Fiji style – was being used by the majority race to disadvantage the rest.
Never mind that democracy – Fiji style – was set to free those who’d destroyed democracy six years before.
Never mind the corruption and mismanagement that had leached into almost every corner of national life.
For much of the regional media, these are inconvenient punctuation marks that can be left out of the Fiji narrative because they get in the way of the bigger story they want to tell….the struggle between good and evil –the so-called pro-democracy movement versus the Fiji military.
I say “so called” because – in my view - this is much less about democracy for many of these people than it is about restoring the old order in Fiji – of privilege and the spoils that came with it.
Take the case of Roko Ului – Ratu Tevita Mara – who’s been embraced by much of the regional media as someone who’s seen the light, acknowledged that the 2006 coup was wrong, and now preaches “thumbs up for democracy”.
Do they ask him why his meetings abroad attract so few people ? A few dozen at most when there are 40-thousand Fijians in Australia alone?
Do they ask him what’s democratic about one of his key platforms - restoring the power and influence of his hereditary peers in the Great Council of Chiefs?
Do they ask him to explain the lurid events – professional and personal – that evidently provoked the breach with his former comrades?
Do they ask him why so much of his rhetoric is crude racial dog whistling- how a cunning and ambitious attorney general is manipulating his gullible and stupid prime minister?
There’s not nearly enough scrutiny of Roko Ului from the media or, -for that matter - the Tongans and Samoans in the Mara glee club.
The same lack of scrutiny applies to Laisenia Qarase, feted by much of the overseas media as a benevolent, bespectacled hero – the democratically elected leader sorely wronged by the strutting military chief who frog marched him from office.
Is there ever any serious examination of what really happened in 2006? Anything that’s remotely dispassionate, that owes more to reason than the howls from the dispossessed?
Is there possibly another side to this story aside from what we constantly hear from a handful of media figures with axes to grind because they were obliged, for one reason or another, to leave Fiji?
Why does the human rights lobby seem more concerned with the rights of a handful of individuals – however ill treated they may have been – than the rights of hundreds of thousands of their increasingly marginalised fellow citizens?
If any journalist bothered to dig deeper, they’d have found a much more complicated story than the one the regime’s critics are ever eager to tell.
There was little democratic about the SDL. As it’s name suggested, it stood for the advancement of one race and one race alone, contained ministers who’d played key roles in the disastrous events of 2000 and who set about in government trying to entrench indigenous rights.
All this happened under a constitution that astonishingly, people still defend, even though it failed to meet even the most basic tenet of a true democracy – a level playing field with votes of equal value.
Do foreign journalists ever bother to examine that? Or delve into the history of Fiji and its tortured progress over the past half century?
The truth – if they bothered to uncover it – is that Fiji has never been a democratic country in the accepted sense.
And we all know why… because one person, one vote wasn’t possible while Indo-Fijians outnumbered the Taukei.
What we had instead was a fragile consensus among all races that indigenous Fijians needed to feel secure in their own land. The price for stability was to forgo democracy in its purist form.
All that has changed. After the mass exodus of Indo-Fijians in the wake of the 1987 and 2000 coups, any reason for indigenous insecurity evaporated and with it, any valid justification not to have one person, one vote.
Was Fiji’s brand of democracy capable – as the critics argue - of evolving into a true democracy on its own? It’s extremely doubtful when you look at the record of the SDL.
Because far from placating the concerns of ordinary Taukei and carrying them forward, they manipulated them for their own ends, convincing them that even if many kai idia had gone, they still weren’t secure in the vanua.
This was an unforgivable lapse of leadership by the indigenous elite.
And it was compounded by a blatant attempt - through their legislative program - to use their numbers to drive other Fiji citizens further into the margins of national life.
The notion that non-indigenous Fijians should pay for the use of coastal resources when they’re already excluded from owning more than 80 per cent of the land is indefensible.
The other races might have grudgingly accepted that their votes were worth less -and the indignity of being branded vulagi or visitors – but not this….not only deprived of equal rights but treated as cash cows in their country of birth.
Compounding this provocation was the plan to free George Speight and his gang... Rewarding treason…and the threat to alter existing land title.
40 per cent of the country looked on helplessly as some of their remaining rights looked set to be trampled.
Enter the enraged military chief, who warned Qarase to back off. He didn’t and we all know the rest.
I believe that rushing back to elections under the 1997 Constitution would have just meant more of the same – the tyranny of an ethno-nationalist form of democracy, interrupted every few years by another coup and another constitution.
Fiji’s Roadmap to Democracy, like New Caledonia’s Noumea Accord, gives the country the time it needs to work things out.
This is not a paean of praise for the current prime minister or the government he leads. While I think both have done remarkably well given the odds stacked against them, I have reservations about the heavy-handed treatment of the unions and the Methodist Church and the way in which regime opponents get taken to the barracks and what might happen there.
Nevertheless, it’s infuriating to see the SDL and its foreign supporters so successfully manipulating the foreign media, casting themselves as innocent victims and urging Australia and New Zealand to step up their sanctions against Fiji.
They call themselves the Fiji Freedom and Democracy Movement, a beguiling title for your average wide-eyed Aussie or Kiwi journo.
These journalists have neither the wit nor the inclination to delve into the shady pasts of some of these individuals, to discover that the freedom they advocate is for the likes of the Qaranivalu and George Speight, the democracy they advocate is, in fact, the tyranny of the majority, the entrenchment of indigenous rights.
I sparked a cyber furor a few weeks ago by seizing on a photograph – taken at one of Roko Ului’s rallies - of Simione Kaitani – one of the principal figures of the 2000 coup – in the company of historian Brij Lal and his fellow academic Jon Fraenkel.
I’ve sought an explanation as to why these two prominent academics were in the company of one of the coup makers of 2000, who went on, of course, to be a minister in Laisenia Qarase’s government. They still haven’t responded.
Why is it important? Because Brij Lal and Jon Fraenkel have been the commentators of choice on matters pertaining to FIji in the Australian media. And are unfailingly critical of Frank Bainimarama and his government.
What motivates that criticism? Does it come from a learned, scholarly, dispassionate examination of the facts, which is the expectation of editors and program makers who seek their opinions?
Patently not. Because these two gentlemen took it upon themselves to write Tevita Mara’s ten point manifesto – that includes bringing the GCC and the Methodist church back to the centre of national life - all the while allowing themselves to be portrayed as independent commentators.
They’re not, they’re partisan players in the Fiji saga and media consumers deserve to know that.
Jon Fraenkel has been especially zealous in branding me a coup supporter or a Bainimarama supporter when I’ve made it clear that it’s the prime minister’s multiracial agenda that I support.
But he’s also tried to discredit fellow academics who disagree with him, notably Richard Herr, who many of you will know as adjunct professor at the University of Fiji.
Our crime – in Fraenkel’s eyes – is to urge Australia and New Zealand to re-engage with Fiji to assist in the return to democracy. He attacked the Lowy institute for doing the same.
Never mind that sanctions haven’t worked, never mind that Australia and New Zealand are being left behind as Fiji forges other relationships… any re-engagement would represent a defeat for Jon Fraenkel and those around him. It’s not based on good policy but personal prejudice.
So we have this unholy alliance of partisan academics, deposed politicians and their acolytes, disgruntled former soldiers, 2000 coup makers, human rights advocates and their journalist sympathisers, all trying to keep Fiji out in the cold.
In Australia, these people have the ear of the foreign policy establishment and the journalists who take their cue from Australia Inc,
They bark for the masters who feed them – whether it’s access to information – the journalistic drip - or in the case of the public broadcasters, salaries and career paths.
Occasionally, something positive gets through. But even journalists who are fiercely independent on every other subject seem consistently unwilling to say anything good about the new order in Fiji – to report the flip side of the “Commodore Nasty” story.
Of course, they were quick to report that Fiji was in dire economic straights, and that it would be only a matter of time before the country was brought to its knees.
Do an internet search and that’s still the prevailing narrative.
Those who forecast economic collapse can’t bring themselves to report that the economy has stabilised, foreign reserves are rising by the month, and Fiji’s projected growth for the coming year is the same as it was in the last year of the SDL government.
We were also incessantly informed that Fiji was a pariah nation - suspended by the Commonwealth and the Pacific Forum -and destined to stay out in the cold until it saw the light.
The smug journalistic collective can’t bring itself to report that Fiji has successfully circumvented that ostracism, not just in the region through its chairmanship of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, but beyond.
It’s organised the small island states into a formal voting bloc at the United Nations, joined the Non Aligned Movement, established formal relations with a string of countries and continues to be a global player through its valued contribution to UN peacekeeping efforts. Some pariah.
We witnessed the delicious irony last week of Fiji’s UN ambassador Peter Thomson chairing the general assembly session at which New Zealand made its formal address. Some isolation.
These, of course, are journalistic sins of omission. Those sins of commission are worse – and include blatant misrepresentation of the truth and blithe acceptance of the most outrageous claims of Fiji’s critics.
How often do we hear the Fiji government being accused of torture? It’s happened again this week from no less a figure than the head of Amnesty International, Salil Shetty, who equated torture in Fiji with torture in Syria and Yemen.
Hello? What planet does this guy live on? Hundreds of people have been killed by the authorities in Syria and Yemen in recent months and thousands tortured.
Can it be that this is happening up at the Queen Elizabeth Barracks without our knowledge?
It would be laughable if it wasn’t so tragic from a global watchdog of statue - as laughable as Shetty’s prediction of a popular uprising in Fiji like those in North Africa and the Middle East.
He obviously hasn’t seen the recent Lowy Institute poll that gives the Fiji government overwhelming public support.
Or perhaps he’s been talking to Australia’s moronic Pacific Islands minister, Richard Marles, who says people were too scared to say what they really think.
We know that even that great democracy – the United States – employs torture in the form of waterboarding, in which water is repeatedly poured over someone’s face to simulate the experience of drowning.
What’s the local equivalent in fiji? Being hit by a bottle of
Fiji Water? Being forced to run around the rara. We know the buturaki is alive and well in Fiji and always has been.
It cannot be excused but this is not state sponsored torture in the accepted sense – a methodical process to extract information or punish.
And yet the term is bandied around as if it’s established fact.
The other day, the Australian media accepted without question Kenneth Zinck’s claim that he’d been tortured. Not one journalist said – “well precisely how, Mr Zinck? What did they do to you?” No judgment. No integrity.
They also accepted without question the former SDL minister’s claim that he’d fled Fiji in haste after a car chase and needed asylum from the brutal dictatorship. No one said “but what about the airport watch list? Or your multiple entry visa for Australia and multiple previous visits? Or the fact that it’s nearly five years since you were removed from office?”
Pictured with his Brisbane relatives grinning from ear to ear, it wasn’t Kenneth Zinck who’d been tortured but the truth.
And all this from the mainstream media, supposedly the most trustworthy source of information.
Turn to cyberspace for news on Fiji and you’re often assailed by the bizarre and appalling, like the travesties peddled by the so-called journalists on the principal anti-regime blog - Coup Four Point Five.
Where it’s based and who’s behind it, the reader isn’t told.
Some contributors – like Victor Lal and Waden Narsey – have bylines and a degree of respectability.
But most postings on Fourpointfive are anonymous and from under that cloak comes a multitude of journalistic howlers.
It also turns a blind eye to the most appalling racism in its comments section. Indo Fijians are cast as mynahs or mongooses – presumably imported pests – or “useless skinny little Indians “, the prime minister is “the Baini.”, the Indian puppet.
Anyone who dares to express an alternative view is routinely censored. Their comment doesn’t get past the gatekeeper.
How ironic when these are the very people screaming to the rafters about censorship in Fiji. Coming from so-called journalists campaigning for a free media, it’s hypocrisy of the first order.
Incredibly, Four Point Five is sometimes cited as a source of credible information in the mainstream media.
Some foreign journalists seem to be impressed with a website that breathlessly revealed last September that Christmas had come early. Frank Bainimarama had been arrested and the government deposed. We’re still waiting.
There are so many furphies on four point five it’s hard to know where to begin, but let’s examine one of the latest this week, alleging that the prime minister and attorney general are in the pocket of the Chinese.
Quote -“the pair are getting 50-million dollars in cuts from the Gold Century loan . Those in the know also insist Bainimarama and Khaiyum have almost 30-million dollars in offshore accounts, distributed in Hong Kong ,Malaysia and Dubai.”
So that’s how the attorney general can afford those new sunglasses he’s trying on in the latest photograph on Four Point Five.
And what’s the source of this information? Quote – “ coup four point five is unable to verify these figures at this stage and can only say sources have been proven to be right in the past on this sort of information” unquote.
Incredible. Do these so called journalists really think we’re that stupid?
The same article went on to – quote - “sound the alarm about Bainimarama giving Chinese contractors army land to build a shop in Bay View when they are, in fact, Chinese army guys establishing a base in the Pacific under the dictator’s nose”.
“The Chinese vice president comes to oversee the development of the mini Chinese state that is Fiji…Fiji is its conquest.”…etcetera, etcetera,…blah blah blah.
Thank God for a competing voice of reason in cyberspace in the form of a courtly New Zealander – a scholar and a gentleman - who I regard as a media hero.
Anyone seeking the truth on Fiji has no finer guide than Crosbie Walsh – the former USP academic - and his website - Fiji the way it was, is and could be.
What began as a hobby for Croz in his retirement has become the finest daily resource on the country, covering everything from politics to social trends.
He’s a stickler for accuracy, has a refined bulldust detector and is utterly fearless.
While he terms himself a moderate and declares a basic sympathy for the government’s program, he‘s not afraid to criticise and has been a vocal opponent of its current crackdown on the unions.
Croz and another New Zealander known to many of you – professor David Robie of the Auckland University of Technology – are genuine Fiji experts with both judgment and integrity but are shunned by the mainstream New Zealand media.
Why? Because they don’t comply with the dominant narrative of the ugly dictatorship.
Their commentary strikes a discordantly positive note in the chorus of condemnation conducted by the likes of Fairfax Media’s Michael Field and Barbara Dreaver of Television new Zealand.
It happens in Australia too – censorship by the mainstream media that excludes dissenting voices – not banning views already expressed but making sure they’re not expressed in the first place.
Which leads me to censorship in Fiji.
However much the government argues that censorship is necessary to maintain public order, to prevent its opponents from inciting trouble, no journalist or writer can – in all conscience – support it.
Free expression is our stock in trade. Cripple it, restrict it, and our stories aren’t the full story -a pale imitation of the truth. We’re in a straightjacket, unable to fulfill our ultimate obligation to fully inform.
Nearly five years after the coup, I believe the government can afford to lift the censorship provisions of the Public Emergency Regulations and I appeal to it to do so.
Keep the other provisions in place if necessary but loosen the shackles of free expression in the three years leading up to the election you’ve promised in 2014.
When I say you can afford to do it, I think the Lowy poll is proof enough that most ordinary people in Fiji - a remarkable two thirds -support the government’s efforts.
Australia’s Pacific Minister says they were too scared to say otherwise, Pofessor Narsey says they were too uneducated to understand the questions. What elitist nonsense.
The Lowy Institute stands by its findings and says this was the genuine voice of ordinary people in Fiji.
They aren’t stupid, they can tell a good government from a bad one, so do them the honour of respecting their intelligence by restoring their voice fully in the local media.
More than anything else, lifting censorship will send a message to the international community that the reform process is genuine and the lead-up to 2014 will be marked by free and frank debate, the cornerstone of democracy.
Regional governments are looking for signs of progress. Give it to them.
I’m not going to insult my fellow journalists in Fiji with a gratuitous examination of why censorship was imposed in the first place.
But doubtless lessons have been learned, a lot of them extremely painful, as some of Fiji’s most talented journalists have been obliged to find jobs elsewhere.
Even in mature democracies like Australia, media freedom isn’t absolute.
We’ve just seen a prominent columnist dragged before the courts for daring to question whether light skinned aborigines are real aborigines. Remarkably, the judge also ruled that what he wrote can never be re-published.
And democracy and free expression doesn’t guarantee progress. Just ask the people of Papua New Guinea. It hasn’t saved them from a bunch of self-serving politicians who’ve been likened to the Mafia.
Clearly, the Fiji media can’t merely revert to how it operated before the government stepped in. So what’s the way forward?
The answer – how to achieve the right balance between rights and responsibilities - must come from within.
Fiji is lucky to have some inspirational teachers of journalism and I’d like to single out one of them, Shailendra Singh from USP, a man I haven’t met but one I’ve grown to admire.
A former working journalist himself, he’s urging journalists to examine what they do in a new light, to call on their judgment and integrity to take the practice of local and regional journalism to new heights.
I want to pay tribute to Shailendra Singh for having the courage to point out that journalistic freedom in the Fiji context is very different from the rough and tumble of journalistic practice in mature democracies like Australia and New Zealand.
It carries with it far more responsibility to ensure social cohesion, avoid excessive tension and division, and regard journalism as a vital cornerstone in nation building.
Some time ago, Shailendra called for more developmental journalism, such as covering the success stories of ordinary people, as opposed to what he depicted as the local media’s obsession with politics and divisiveness.
He’s recently called for journalists to direct more attention to stories that help alleviate poverty, and God knows the poor in Fiji need both attention and inspiration.
Whatever you call it – the journalism of hope or just a self evident obligation in a developing country to assist in nation building and give the disadvantaged a voice – surely this is a better way forward for the Fiji media than the confrontational model of the past.
The critics may not like it but is there any other way forward for a country with acute racial, political and social divisions and where the concept of democracy is yet to fully take root?
I’m ending with a question, not a statement, because I think this is a debate we have to have and there are better minds in this room capable of providing some answers.
Vinaka vakalevu for listening and now it’s over to you for comments or questions.