Government and the Media by Sharon Smith-John



Permanent Secretary of Information
Sharon Smith-John's address to the Fiji Literary Festival, Nadi, October 2 – 9, 2011
 
Good morning.

I’d like to thank the organizers for having me here to today to speak at Fiji’s first Writers Literary Festival! When I was invited to speak today, I immediately went back years to when I started off in the media industry.

“Media Partners in a new vision for Fiji”!  That’s the topic that I’ve been asked to speak on and its an issue that all of us here today are passionate about.  As someone who used to work in the media industry it brings home the incredible reality of how powerful the media is…and it’s true! Rupert Murdoch was described as someone whose empire influenced the making and breaking of leaders. However that was tested recently with News of the World having to close down. That aside, the subject that I’ve been asked to speak on recognises that the media plays if not a crucial then a powerful role in our society.


Critics, academics, political scientists and even students when looking at Fiji’s political history never omit the role that the media has played in the country. There have been accusations, there have been appraisals and then there’s government all in this bubble of studying Fiji’s political history!  At times, most governments would be seen as taking an anti-media stance in most of their dealings and their relationship towards media outlets. Perhaps the law of nature dictates this for us but here in this room, all stakeholders can make a difference and prove this wrong. Ladies and gentlemen, I’m here to speak on a new vision for Fiji and relay to you that government’s vision for Fiji includes a well informed and united Fiji which can only be realized if we strengthen our current partnership. 

When I took on the role of permanent secretary, I thought the problem rested on the shoulders of government’s PR side. Of course that perception is often shared by those like me who were on the outside looking in. My perception was that government simply was not giving the media the news that it needed to keep the citizens of Fiji informed. Naively, I also believed that giving the right information to the media would then empower them to pass that message on to the citizens of the country in an accurate and informed manner. What I saw though is that whilst government’s PR arm actually works very well there is always room for improvement in certain areas and in terms of development. What I also observed when I first took on the role of permanent secretary was that  the other side of the coin showed a less favorable media, both local and foreign towards what was being disseminated to the wider audience. 

Having looked at both sides of the picture I realize that the only way forward was to form strong partnerships with the media and in doing so allow them to understand our challenges whilst understanding theirs at the same time. To date we continue to look at present challenges and how best to address this. 

The primary focus for the ministry of information is to ensure that the ministry is proactive in the delivery of its responsibility which is information dissemination and the provision of archival and library services.  The need for pro activeness cannot be overemphasized. Government’s policies, reforms and achievements must be placed at the fore of the media’s agenda. For this to happen, the ministry has put in place strategies and plans to ensure information is gathered, collated and disseminated efficiently. It is the Ministry of Information‘s responsibility to ensure that government’s plans, policies and programmes are seen and heard by citizens- especially to those in the remote and outlying areas. 

As permanent secretary, one of my responsibilities is to look at the relationship that government shares with the media and how best to strengthen this relationship. This includes identifying weaknesses and areas where we can grow this partnership. This year, in a bid to bring the media ‘closer to the action', so to speak, the ministry took media outlets to various rural and urban community-based projects and will continue to do this. The media tours express our desire to take the media to the heart of these events and government projects. It’s only a small part of a greater responsibility that I personally feel is lacking between government and media outlets.

The Bainimarama government acknowledges and respects the role that the media play especially when it commits both parties in realizing our own goals and commitment to informing all citizens.  

However, let me add that with a great degree of power comes a degree of responsibility. Those in this room recognise that information is powerful and above all influential. We need to ask the question on where to draw the line between responsible journalism and the right to know! That’s where the conflict starts with media partnership between us.

If there is one issue that I agree with is that Government needs to be transparent and accountable and the media play an important role in delivering this message of accountability to the citizens. One of the objectives of this government is to push across principles of accountability and transparency across all government institutions and enterprises. At the same time, we put in place policies and laws to ensure the same principles are pushed at a national level. That includes media outlets.

The weak link at times between government and media partnerships is usually thinking that both parties work for different agendas. The reality is we both have the same agenda, dissemination of information, informing the public, putting in place check and balances and all forms of accountability. On paper this sounds achievable.  The challenge for all of us is to make this actually work, to make it sustainable and to commit wholeheartedly towards it.

The Media law marks a substantial progress in the laws relating to media, and now provides for proper accountability and transparency of all media organizations. It introduces responsible reporting on the part of the media organization, and provides the members of the public with more effective recourse for any complaint against media organizations.

The Media Law promotes and regulates the media sector so as to contribute towards economic growth and help foster a cohesive and inclusive society,
·       to foster a pro-business environment for industry players
·       to ensure fair market conduct and effective competition
·       to increase Media choices for consumers
·       to uphold social values in tandem with societal expectations.
·       To foster a cohesive and inclusive society through quality content with wide reach and impact while promoting nation-building
·       protect Consumers from improper business
·       develop a robust economy.

The Media law is intended to ensure a balance between media freedom and media responsibility, and it establishes mechanisms to ensure this is so.

Accuracy, balance and fairness are a key component to this code of practice, as well as an opportunity to reply. It guards against harassment and pursuit by the media, subterfuge, discrimination and a wide range of laws that protect children and sexual related cases, which all protect the victim’s identity 

I have constantly said to the media, if you find it hard to be pro government that’s ok, but please be pro Fiji.  Personal bias comes into play too much in Fiji in the media.
The Media Decree it will promote growth, promote ethical behavior and also promote accountability and responsible business ethics.

Before I conclude, let's discuss what is a fair and balanced media, without the sensational headlines. Let me read a few headlines prior to 2006, it might help in understanding why we continue to have challenges with the media. 

It pains me to even read out these headlines but its important to understand why we have taken a tough stance with the media. 

·       MP WARNS STATE OF REVOLT
·       ARMY BOSS POINTS ‘GUN’ AT MINISTER
·       THIN OUT THE INDIANS
·       RABUKA WARNS ON RACE BOMB
·       MIGRATION THE KEY says  RABUKA
Former Prime Minister hopes Indians will migrate in large numbers.
“We tighten the controls, Fiji is no longer attractive to the Indian settlers as it has been in the last 120 years”
·       RACIAL TENSION
Deep divisions between indigenous Fijians and Indians are a serious  problem for all aspects of Fiji’s politics, an international human rights report release yesterday
·       SDL PARTY SAYS NO TO INDIAN PM
Fiji cannot afford to have an Indian prime minister. That was the message delivered by the SDL  party. 

One of the problems in the past has been a lack of accountability and guidance for media organizations. Past governments have ignored the need to set guidelines and principles under which media outlets can operate hence the introduction of the media law which now clearly defines the role and responsibilities of the media and sets in place the media authority.  

There is only one conclusion, the media must take a responsible role in reporting and disseminating for information and government must assist the media. There needs to be understanding that as a developing nation, we need to take in cultural and socio economic factors against the size of our population. The media must realize that for a  developing country like ours, information given needs to take into considerations the socio-economic situation of the country. The media must also realize how influential they can be when citizens speak a variety of languages and messages can be interpreted through poor reporting and a race to get a front page story.

Our vision for the future can only come about through dialogue and a greater understanding of our respective roles. This includes putting aside our political differences and taking on the challenge of nation building. More than that, we need to realize that there’s an audience who deserve to receive information in an accurate, balanced and ethically correct manner. They need to be allowed to form their own opinions based on the information given.  At the end of the day, the vision is quite is clear. The road to get there relies on acceptance to each others challenges, both government and the media’s and creating clear channels to communicate and resolve these challenges.

Finally, I would like to reiterate government’s firm commitment in building strong relationships with all media and working through our challenges. I wish you and the organizers as successive literary festival.

Vinaka.


Comments

Transparency and accountaqbility said…
Sharon
Do you think taking over a legitimately elected government with guns adheres to the principles of transparency and accountability? And the salaries of self appointed non elected PM and AG? Should they be trasparent and be accountable to the public who did not have the opportunity to vote foe the 'government' you support?
No balance said…
I find Sharon’s speech disturbing on so many fronts.

Firstly for someone who worked in the industry, albeit only in sales, to promote the media as nothing more than a way for a government to disseminate information to the wider public.

Secondly she does not mention truth, honesty or integrity in her speech once. For me those are the most important aspects of reporting stories.

Thirdly she talks about balance a lot, but there is no balance in Fiji medi at the moment. It is the Government view and it is the Government view. There is no opposition. We have seen the perfect example of this over the Essential Industries decree. The media has been full of the Government point of view but not one word of the Union point of view has been disseminated to the public. That is not balance that is propaganda.

A key role of the media is to hold governments, corporate and the priviledged to account. To report their misdeeds, to let the public know what ministers and CEOs would rather have hidden. But we are not allowed that in Fiji. We have censorship.

Sharon believes the government is doing a good job. She believes the Lowy opinion poll. But how would the government fair if it was held to account. If the Auditor General was allowed to do his job and the reports were to be published. How would the Government fair if its nepotism was exposed to public scrutiny. How would the government fair if the people of Fiji knew we were always running out of passports because the Government could not pay the bill?

What Sharon has and what she wants to continue is for a media to run her propaganda without any changes, questions or thought. She wants the media to give government a free ride. She is not interested in balance, she is not interested in good reporting and she is not interested in freedom of the press or freedom of speech. She is a sell out.
Sharon don't blame the media blame the censors said…
"When I took on the role of permanent secretary, I thought the problem rested on the shoulders of government’s PR side. Of course that perception is often shared by those like me who were on the outside looking in. My perception was that government simply was not giving the media the news that it needed to keep the citizens of Fiji informed. Naively, I also believed that giving the right information to the media would then empower them to pass that message on to the citizens of the country in an accurate and informed manner. What I saw though is that whilst government’s PR arm actually works very well there is always room for improvement in certain areas and in terms of development. What I also observed when I first took on the role of permanent secretary was that the other side of the coin showed a less favorable media, both local and foreign towards what was being disseminated to the wider audience."

When Sharon became PS we had already had over a year of media censorship. So please don't blame the media for any unfavorable press.

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