A Free and Independent Media
By Matai Akauola*
The Vice- Chancellor Prof Rajesh Chandra, the Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Law and Education, the Head of the School of Language, Arts and Media Journalism, the Acting Head of Media and Journalism, Journalism students, media colleagues, ladies and gentleman.
I am honoured to be given this platform today as we commemorate or celebrate World Press Freedom Day which annually falls on May 3rd.
The theme for WPFD is: Safe to Speak- Securing Freedom of Expression in All Media.
The following is UNESCO’s focus on this year’s WPFD Celebration:
Ensuring the Safety of Journalists and Media Workers
A free, independent and pluralistic media environment, online and offline, must be one in which journalists, media workers, and social media producers can work safely and independently without the fear of being threatened or even killed. It needs to be an environment where attacks, intimidations, harassments, abductions, arbitrary imprisonments, and threats are the exceptions and not the norm. Journalists (as well as citizen journalists), editors, publishers and online intermediaries alike should not be subjected to political or financial coercion and manipulation. They should especially be protected from threats to the security of themselves and their families.
Securing the safety of journalists and media workers is an urgent matter. More than 600 journalists and media workers had been killed in the last ten years. In other words, every week a journalist loses his or her life for bringing news and information to the public. These statistics highlight the relevance of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, and its specific goal of mobilizing the UN family of agencies as well as other stakeholders including UN Member States, regional human rights bodies, NGO and media houses to collaborate in creating a safer environment for journalists. There is enormous potential in the UN Plan of Action in bringing the full weight of the UN to bear on the challenges, and in being a point of reference for others who share the concern to turn the tide. Already we are seeing the various UN mechanisms moving in the direction that contributes to the UN Plan of Action. In addition to the aforementioned United Nations Human Rights Council resolution in 2012, the 2nd UN Inter-Agency Meeting in Vienna, Austria last year, adopted a concrete global, regional, and national level implementation strategy was adopted for the UN Plan of Action. Four countries (South Sudan, Iraq, Nepal and Pakistan) were identified to be amongst other interested countries where alignment of stakeholders could make a difference. Latin America was specifically acknowledged as a region where good work could be done under auspices of the UN Plan, and where lessons could be shared internationally.
As the UN Plan recognises, promoting the safety of journalists must not be constrained to after-the-fact action. Much more must be done for preventive mechanisms and for actions to address the root causes of violence against journalists and of impunity. This implies the need to deal with issues such as corruption, organized crime and an effective framework for the rule of law. In addition, the existence of laws that can criminalise legitimate journalism (e.g. overly restrictive defamation laws or overly broad national security laws) must be addressed. The challenge is to promote respect for international standards for freedom of expression as well as resolutions such as UN Security Council Resolution 1738 (2006).
Fundamental to the UN Plan is the insight that the experiences in one country or region can be useful for others trying to improve the safety of journalists. Compilation and sharing of up-to-date information and best practices and conducting international missions and investigations into particular cases can be highly beneficial. However, much work is still needed to achieve an optimum level of information exchange and joint learning, and in adapting good practices to different regional and national contexts.
Points for reflection:
What are the biggest opportunities and threats to the UN Plan of Action?
How do threats to press freedom differ from region to region?
How can various strategies to improve safety be replicated in different regions?
What are the preventive mechanisms to prevent journalists from being harmed in the first place?
How do we ensure that international standards for safety of journalists and combating impunity are respected and adopted in the country context?
How can public awareness be developed to ensure that press freedom is widely cherished and that public opinion at all levels will not tolerate attacks on journalists?
That is what UNESCO has articulated for the focus on this year’s theme ‘Safe to Speak.
Now let me bring it down to our context.
Now we need to link these UN Plans with what we are doing on the ground in Fiji and other Pacific countries.
You’ll remember that when the coup the fourth coup happened in 2006, there were calls for the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) to relocate to another country.
This call was made mostly by non-PINA members.
The PINA AGM’s in 2007 in Honiara, 2009 in Vila and 2012 at Pacific Harbour unanimously agreed that the PINA Secretariat remain in Fiji.
Thank God for Journalism Schools nowadays.
For some of us, we went through the school of hard-knocks. It was either swim or sink and I was fortunate to have been trained and mentored by the likes of household names like Peter Lomas, Nemani Delaibatiki, Jale Moala, Laisa Taga, Torika Tora and the likes at the old Fiji Sun based in Lami. Most of you young journalists were probably not around when I started 32-years ago. The old Fiji Sun closed because of the 1st military coup in 1987 and by then I was already with FM96 which started in 1985.
In 1987/88, USP introduced the Certificate in Journalism programme and some of us were part of the course with training here and the technical stuff was done at Statham. However, we did not complete the course because our tutor who was funded from Australia had to return home when aid was cut.
USP also went through its difficult days back then with drastic changes.
The various political scenarios in Fiji in the last 26 years have taught us a lot.
It is from this knowledge gained through experience that PINA has approached its dealings with the current Fijian Government.
PINA’s core objectives are: defend and promote media freedom for its members, promote professional training and thirdly building partnership.
The idea of forming a media body like PINA started way back in 1972 and after various meetings, it was decided to officially register PINA in 1986 in Samoa.
So for more than twenty years PINA has been putting out statements against governments that restricted the media from doing its work.
In 2007, the PINA Board decided that we need to take a different approach because we realised it was no-longer one size fits all.
So instead of putting out condemning statements like we’ve done in the past and seeing that it felt on deaf ears we decided to dialogue and find common ground for the safety of our media people first.
We may be doing things differently, but we are not wrong.
One thing that we media people must have is an ‘ear to hear’. A lot of times we’ve come with pre-conceived ideas to the engaging table.
I can recall in a meeting the media and Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama in May of 2008, he called for responsible journalism. It was in this meeting that I raised the issue of safety for journalists which surprised him.
For me I started to reflect and saw that whilst we were harping about Media Freedom we hadn’t worked on cleaning our own backyard.
Most of the experienced journalists had left mainstream media either for greener pastures overseas or other well paid and safer jobs.
We needed to get down to the basics again and get things right the first time.
When you look back through history almost all previous governments in Fiji have at one time or the other tried to control the media.
A fortnight ago, I spoke at the inaugural Pacific Parliamentarians and Political Leaders Forum in the New Zealand Parliament in Wellington and said that safety of Journalists to me was paramount.
I am a firm believer of ‘free and independent media in Fiji.’
In my submission to the Yash Ghai Constitution Review Commission I called for ‘Free and Independent Media in Fiji’ with the entrenchment of the Freedom of Expression into the new Fijian Constitution.
The draft constitution has that and so we need to work from there, taking into consideration the reality on the ground.
In three decades as a Fijian journalist, I have seen governments come and go, those elected and those not. A lot has happened but despite the turmoil and upheaval some of us steadfastly believe there is a lot of goodness and hope in this country.
For me the media has been used and abused by various stakeholders, within and those outside the media. I would like to say that no one is perfect and so is the media.
This is a profession that has suffered in its own way since the first military coup in 1987 and the ensuing coups. Some of my media colleagues have suffered more than others or in varying degrees.
It is from this stark reality and experience that I proposed ‘A Free and Independent Media’ to be upheld in the Fijian Constitution.
From the media’s part we wish to unite in our efforts to raise professional standards and thus strengthen the social standing of journalism. The co-operation between journalists in the field of ethics is also a great training ground for co-operation in demanding our legitimate rights in the Constitution.
However, quality should never be a pre-requisite for freedom. Only a fully free media can be fully responsible.
I see self-regulation and the promotion of quality journalism as additional safeguards of media freedom and even of media power.
In this regard, PINA is willing to work with all media stakeholders and authorities in formulating a ‘Media Self Regulation Guidebook’ that is tailored for Fiji.
It is my hope that this will encourage the further development of media self-regulation, boost the quality segment of journalism, and, hence, help improve the overall media freedom situation in the country.
Media self- regulation will educate on balancing rights and responsibilities.
It will be a joint endeavour by media professionals to set up voluntary editorial guidelines and abide by them in a learning process open to the public. By doing so, the independent media accept their share of responsibility for the quality of public discourse in the nation, while fully preserving their editorial autonomy in shaping it.
Self-regulation is not censorship and not even self-censorship. It is about establishing minimum principles on ethics, accuracy, personal rights and so on, while fully preserving editorial freedom on what to report and what opinions to express.
Self- regulation helps the media respond to legitimate complaints, and correct mistakes in a trial-and-error way.
Self- regulation is a pledge by quality-conscious media professionals to maintain dialogue with the public. A complaint mechanism is set up to deal with justified concerns in a rational and autonomous way.
In the media, obviously all media outlets whose journalists, editors and owners seek to produce a responsible press would engage in this dialogue. Self-regulation can be set up both industry-wide and in-house.
Outside the media, political institutions and public figures are usually the main providers of complaints, as reporting and commenting on their activities is an important job for the serious media. But equally interested partners could be civil society’s protagonists such as business and labour, religious and minority organizations, traditional and newly established interest groups, and, of course, individual members of the public.
Since the phone hacking scandal in Great Britain, Media Authorities similar to the one in Fiji are being set up in Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Not much has been said by advocates who gone to great lengths to crucify Fiji, maybe these advocates are funded by donors from these countries.
This is why this year’s theme ‘Safe to Speak’ is relevant. Whose agenda are you pushing- donors, governments or other stakeholders.
PINA is independent. It is not donor funded it relies on subscription to its PACNEWS bulletins.
Just yesterday we ran news of Canada wanting to boycott the Commonwealth Heads of Meeting in Sri Lanka later this year in protest against alleged human rights violation.
ABC in Australia reports that a federal labour backbencher has called for Australia to also boycott CHOGM.
A newly released Amnesty International report has accused the Sri Lankan government of intensifying a crackdown on critics through violence and intimidation.
Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr has said Canada's boycott would be counter-productive and it would be better to stay engaged with Sri Lanka to directly raise concerns.
Is this the same Australian government that does now want to engage with Fiji?
Some organisations sigh away from these sorts of issues because funding could be cut.
Now back to the Fiji situation, I say you are Safe to Speak. The Media Code of Ethics is in the Media Decree.
A lot of people are making an issue about the huge fines but I am saying if you follow the Code of Ethics than you should not have any problem.
Yesterday, the Pacific Regional NGOs met with the Melanesian Spearhead Group Eminent Persons Group and reiterated our call for Free and Independent Media in the MSG countries.
By attending the political forum in New Zealand, I have made connections with parliamentarians from around the region to have regular discussions on how media and governments can work together to understand each other.
In conclusions, let me share this analogy…
There was this gentleman that used to walk his dog every morning. There was no fences erected around USP and he walked from Flagstaff and through the USP compound to Veiuto and back home.
One day USP decides to erect fences like we see today. This poor chap has to walk all around the fence now. If he tried to cross through USP he will be thrown out.
That is what we are faced with here in Fiji, how do we negotiate the fences. We cannot ignore the reality on the ground but negotiate around it and come up with workable strategies.
I thank you and acknowledge the Almighty of for his presence and grace for this opportunity.
* Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Manager & Training Coordinator- Matai Akauola’s speech at the WPFD Celebration at USP
2 May 2013