The Fiji Times and the Fiji Government

Hank Arts, me, Fred Wesley. I'm still shrinking!

By Crosbie Walsh

It's so easy to flick quickly though the news and accept what the journalist writes or says, often reporting the views of another, without taking time out to really think what it all means. The recent court sentence* against the Fiji Times is a case in point. Most people have already made their mind up on the rights or wrongs of the case, and many will have had their prior opinions confirmed one way or another. 

For those supporting the Bainimarama government, justice has been done and the Fiji Times got all it deserved. For government critics, this is further evidence of injustice and the lack of media freedom. 
 
And for the politically undecided —and those who recognize that while one can question a judgement, no one, in any country, can question the integrity of the judge or the courts without the risk of appearing in court themselves—it would have been better had the case not come to court but since it did, the sentence was probably correct but the fine was excessive.
 
Coming on top of the political party registration kerfuffle and uncertainties about who will take part in the Constituent Assembly, the judgement certainly did not contribute to a calm atmosphere conducive to talanoa or dialogue. 
 
The Pacific Freedom Forum, a regional grouping of media people, called it a "double whammy" but the two issues should be considered separately even thought their outcomes may be similar. One is contempt of court; the other is restrictions on the old political parties because they did not meet the non-negotiable principles (notably insistence on race-based electorates and ongoing power to the unelected Great Council of Chiefs). 
 
PFF co-chair Titi Gebi of PNG said "the verdict itself given the circumstances is clearly sending a warning on what the media can expect if they step one inch out of line, even by mistake ... We urge the regime to demonstrate its commitment to the free and fair component of democratic elections by allowing the media to be free in order to fairly do its job." 
 
Interestingly, Gebi not too subtly infers that the judge's verdict was influenced by government, exactly the same contempt of court accusation that landed the Fiji Times in court. And to allow the media to keep reporting the opinions of the now de-registered parties, as if they still existed, will only add to discord and further uncertainty. 
 
Whatever the motives or actions of Government, the submissions of the SDL and FLP show they do not want truly democratic elections. They wish to retain race-based electorates. The PFF think these recent events will result in media organizations returning to "censoring themselves heavily." 
 
This is most likely given Government touchiness and the clear intentions of the SDL and FLP to disrupt the dialogue process and undermine the work of the Constituent Assembly even before it has met. But it need not be if Government can expose the muddied motives of the old political parties. 
 
I understand where the Court and the Government are coming from, but I wonder if they have a fair and sufficient understanding of where the Fiji Times is coming from. I met with General Manager and publisher Hank Arts and Editor-in-Chief Fred Wesley in late October. Yesterday I played back the recorded interview to see if it shed any light on the Fiji Times position. I think it does.


There are two daily newspapers in Fiji, The Fiji Times and the Fiji Sun. The former is seen as anti-government; the latter as pro-government. Both protest this simple classification, each saying they are pro-Fiji but with a different approach to what is newsworthy. 
 
Hank pointed to many areas in which the two papers co-operated while welcoming the competition between the papers. The Times has been disadvantaged with all government print advertising going to the Sun but Hank said revenue and circulation are holding up. "We'll get through. We have a responsibility to 160 staff and over 200 consultants." 
 
A major problem confronting both papers, but particularly the Times, is the loss of many very senior staff attracted by higher wages and more assured security to private enterprises in Fiji and overseas. The Times takes on-the-job, overseas training and training placements for budding USP journalism trainees very seriously. Good work by staff is rewarded by further travel and training opportunities and by promotions but it will be a number of years before the skills and experience of lost senior staff are fully replaced. 
 
Now under local ownership, the Times has been left loaded with some of the anti-government baggage of its former owners. "Unfortunately," said Hank, "government still sees us a nuisance factor. I don't believe we are and we've certainly tried not to be. We should be working hand in hand to move this country forward. We can make a difference." I could not agree more.

Both men insisted they have no bad feelings towards government. As journalists, they try to be unbiased and neutral. But as journalists, they also need to be a paper for everyone in Fiji. In response to my comment that even pro-government people are critical of some government actions, Fred stressed the importance of contributions from others in the community. "If ten people agree and three don't, we have to give them the opportunity to say so. That's our role. We wish government would understand us. We have no beef with them." Hank agreed, "We can't go backward. We've got to move on." 
 
The intimacy of Fiji society came through when he added, "The PM and I get on well. He's great company. And our wives are friendly." I expressed the view that if government showed more trust, many more people would be more supportive." They agreed. 
 
They spoke of their efforts to ensure that nothing published could be seen to contravene the Media Decree regulations. Even a normally straightforward story about a road not being repaired would be checked out by reporters. Another story criticising an official that could be taken as libellous would be declined. When this happened, informants, unaware of Fiji's libel laws, sometimes insisted they publish the story or said they would take it to the Fiji Sun. More important stories such as a critical but well balanced article or opinion from one of the NGO's or a former politician would be referred to their lawyers for a legal opinion before publication, or to a relevant government ministry for verification and comment. The situation has improved in recent months but some stories have been delayed and others not published at all because of doubts about how they may be viewed by government. 
 
Very occasionally, despite these efforts, something would slip through. It may be a relatively small infringement like the omission of a byline but on one occasion under the present leadership a more serious oversight occurred: the re-publication of a statement in a NZ paper that the Fiji judiciary was not independent. 
 
This is the case where the Fiji Times was recently found guilty of contempt of court and fined $300,000, and Editor-in-Chief Fred Wesley was fined $25,000 and given a six month jail sentence suspended two years. We spoke only briefly of the the pending case back in October. 
 
More recently, I asked why they did not immediately publish a retraction and apology. I was told they offered but by this time Government was intent on pursuing the matter in court. 

To my mind, the oversight tells more about the shortage of senior staff and the stresses and strains of publishing anything that may be considered controversial than it does about the intent or honesty of the CEO/publisher and editor-in-chief of The Fiji Times. I left their office convinced of their personal integrity, and sad that some in government failed to recognize that this is not the old, antagonistic Fiji Times but a new Fiji Times trying to uphold the legitimate traditions of good journalism under difficult conditions. 
 
The same may be said of government, of course. I have little doubt that they too are trying to uphold the traditions of good government under difficult conditions. I'd like to see Hank and the PM relaxing with a bottle of Scotch Blue Label and not get up until they have a far better understanding of each other's difficulties. Even if they have to finish the bottle.

* See also my Wednesday posting on further charges against the Fiji Times.

Comments

Anonymous said…
Anyone from Fiji who has grown up with the Fiji Times will know Croz Walsh is out of touch down there in New Zealand. The Fiji Times has always been dominating and arrogant and always will be.
The latest charges against the Fiji Times and its directors for not following the Media Decree are another example of their attitude.
Commodore Bainimarama has given us an alternative to the Fiji Times thanks to his support for the Fiji Sun.
Croz must have been drinking that Blue Label with Hank Arts and Fred Wesley to write something as pro Fiji Times as this.
News? said…
The Fiji Times was always Pro the old order of the alliance between chiefs and European and was always anti Indian. Len Usher was a very racist man. Nothing has changed. The Times is not interested in objectivity only in spin. GOvernment news is always published two days late and tucked away somewhere. Photos of the PM and AG are avoided. Front page news are always horror misery and failure. Rather than report good news they dont report at all. They manufacture news. No offence Croz, but racism is felt by the victims, it is not always observed by non victims. The Fiji Times is a disgrace to good journalism. It campaigns, it no longer reports news.
Ram Sami said…
Cannot comment on present day Fiji Times but I well remember from Len Usher to Netani Rika, this paper has been a disgrace to the profession of journalism.

Len Usher who used to write speeches for Alliance ministers to Netani Rika and his campaign against Chaudhary, any semblance of fairness and impartiality in reporting was simply not there.
Anonymous said…
Come on commentators, the only paper a disgrace to journalism is The Fiji Sun. In any case, who are a bunch of un-elected treasonists to decide what should be in the newspapers - and where did they get the power to bring on the Media decree? Tell me!
Anonymous said…
You should read the former publisher of the Daily Post Thakur Ranjit Singh's thesis on the Fiji Times for a university in New Zealand before you try to defend the Fiji Times. Thakur says their attacks on Mahendra Chaudhry and his government created the atmosphere which led to the George Speight coup. They tried to do the same thing to the PM and his Government and this is what led to the Media Decree. Newspapers are supposed to report the news for us readers to former our own opinions. It is not their job to try to force changes in government.
Gatekeeper said…
Well, some of you have it right and some of you have it wrong! Dead wrong. For years, Netani Rika in particular might be said to have acted on his own volition to systematically and deliberately ensure that organised crime syndicates ensnared us all in their webs and vile traffic. He became completely inured to their efforts to undermine the State, to abuse our children and young people and to position us just where we find ourselves now: right in the maw of Trans National criminals. There were, apparently, far greater fish to fry: indulging nationalist sympathies, strategies and at times sheer, naked racism. What wilful folly! The Trojan Horse was IN. And now we must suffer the humiliation of having to be informed by visitors from elsewhere that Fijians are being allegedly paid to be trained by the Taliban to fight Fijians in Afghanistan and maybe other places like Birmingham, or Yemen or Mali or only God knows where? It does not get much more serious than this. So well done, very well done to Mr Rika and all his fellow travellers. You have managed to make our collective future that much more difficult to secure. To what extent did the former FT ownership play ball? What a fascinating discovery that might prove to be! But on the frontline just now, we are having a devil of a time picking up the pieces.
Anonymous said…
To all of you who have been quick to peddle Ranjit Singh's highly thesis, let me tell you this - his thesis and analysis is highly questionable - there is one big difference - those who felt they were on the receiving end always had the right to reply in the Fiji Times - but look at the Fiji Sun - a total disgrace to journalism - and if Ranjit Singh is happy with the media decree, he should be utterly ashamed of himself - media decree was brought in not because of the Fiji Times, it was brought in by Mahendra Chaudhry and others to ensure the newspapers did not reveal any more of the theft and corruption of the present government...I wont be surprised if annonymous talking about the decree is none other than Ranjit Singh
Crosbie Walsh said…
@ Anonymous ... So, the Singh thesis is questionable but you do not say why or even if you have read it. And Chaudhry was no longer in the Bainimarama Cabinet when the Media Decree was promulgated. It would seem you haven't read it, either. You have a right to reply on this blog but if you choose to do so, please support your assertions with some evidence.
Anonymous said…
Do you know anything about the Say Nothing Video Everything (SNVE)
Program mentioned on FijiToday?

Crosbie Walsh said…
Anonymous ... I saw the mention but don't know how to access it. I'll leave that to the anti-blogs. They will no doubt find suitable captions. How about a video of the guard on the Presidential Palace: "Armed soldier block citizen access to the President."?
Anonymous said…
I think Croz is right. I don't think our friend @ Anonymous is even in Fiji and reading the newspapers.
I read Mahendra Chaudhry at length in the Fiji Sun the other day replying to the reports of people being misled into signing up as Fiji Labour Party members.
@ Anonymous should also read Thakur Ranjit Singh's thesis on the Fiji Times as Croz suggests before.
Journalism and Truth said…
Yes Croz. How about a video of the New Years Eve street party and caption it "Fiji Spring Riot Against Brutal Regime"? Or even better, a video of Government Buildings on Sunday with the caption "Courts close down in protest of Brutal Government"?!
Enough Already said…
@anonymous 8.54
Who was a bunch of unelected treasonists in 1987 to pass the VAT Decree? Did you protest? No. When the same bunch imposed the Sunday ban by a Decree, did you protest? No. So please lets not pretend you are concerned about treason now.It is only that your guys are not in power.
Anonymous said…
I have read Ranjit Singh's thesis - yes, the media decree was brought in 2010 but Chaudhry had set the ball rolling in 2008 before he got the boot from his pet defenders over his $2million hoard!
Anonymous said…
Come on guys, why do you want to believe Mahendra Chaudhry: "I didnot receive a cent from Haryana" - Yes, until you were exposed hiding $2million, and then the language changed, oh, yes, it was for my re-settlement in Australia for my own safety and that of my family
Anonymous said…
I wonder if Ranjit Singh ever sent a list of questions to Netani Rika and Russell Hunter during the writing up of his thesis?
Lesley said…
To maintain credibility, the Fiji Times would be best to sever ties with journalists such as NZ's Michael Field who works for Stuff(Fairfax) and I think Radio New Zealand. Michael is so anti the Fijian Government that he takes every opportunity to write negative stuff in NZ newspapers and media, and rarely positive stuff about what is going on in Fiji,(in fact don't think I have ever read anything positive). What he also does is embellish the facts or make up "facts" to sound like what he is saying is the truth. It appears he does this to suit his personal agenda to destroy the good that is being done in Fiji. Any opportunity for a "dig" - he will do it. The fact that he supports the anti Fijian Govt Blog "Coup 4.5" and uses this blog as a source of some of his stories should ring alarm bells. Other media outlets have done the same. You get a good overview about what is happening in Fiji if you read the Fiji Times and Fiji Sun online, Fiji Broadcasting Corporation (FBC), Fiji TV - and Fijivillage and Fijilive - and reputable blogs. Truth is what matters. This is a very good read - the 101 rule of journalism - "The importance of fact-checking for journalists" http://www.mediahelpingmedia.org/training-resources/journalism-basics/640-fact-checking-separates-journalism-from-rumour-and-gossip
Anonymous said…
Lesley, yes, any Fiji news media who use anything by Michael Field are as biased against the Government as he is. Funny that Field works for the same newspaper outfit the Fiji Times got into so much trouble for contempt over running one of their reports. No wonder, the Fiji Times used this, eh.
The other big problem with the Fiji Times is that even though Netani Rika is not there now all his followers are still working there. I am sure Hank Arts means well like Croz says but he does not control the people who are writing and editing the Fiji Times. Rika's followers are still in control at the Fiji Times and I am sure they are just waiting their chance to go back to what they were before the Government intervened to stop the destabilisation like happened to Chaudhry's government.
Anonymous said…
We are nearing 2 years since Chaudhry was in court for his tax/fraud charges. Nothing much has happened since then and one needs to ask why? Fiji likes to talk but no action. So you can understand why the security officers arresting prisoners taking action before handing them in.
Reality said…
the Chaudhry case is a difficult one for the Military. When he was in government they went to great lengths to clear him of any wrong doings. Remember it was all the media's fault and the nast nast blogs. He was only ever charged after he was forced out of government....and only then because he started to critcise government. They wanted him out so suddenly the clear of any wrong doings man gets charged.
Anonymous said…
The Fiji Times today has the Pope all over its front page. Almost nothing in the paper on the PM in Taveuni and the strong support for him there. The Fiji Sun has the Taveuni support for the PM in full on its front page and more reports and photos inside. Go figure.
Anonymous said…
What is the latest news about Fiji Times directors trial? Is this still getting heard today?
Avatar Games said…
wow ?
good thing i ran into this site aye, i heard a bit about this but wasnt entirely in detail.
Anonymous said…
Michael Field is great. He knows Fiji more than you do Mr Coup-Apologist!
Anonymous said…
How about you @Anon & @ Lesley go and jump! Tired of your subtle Indian rhetorics. Both are pathetic.
Anonymous said…
All supporters of Lotus Camp yacking here...better keep away from such monsters that are anti Fijian Race. Shame on you Foreign Flowers with Thorns/Horns!

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