Shallow Unbalanced Reporting on Fiji Unhelpful
An article headed "Fiji: Regime Clamps Down on Advocacy NGOs Ahead of Elections" does not live up to the generally high standard I have come to expect from student journalists at AUT's Pacific Media Watch.
It appears to be a collection of mostly anti-Bainimarama government articles sourced from Fiji online media releases. Each of these stories has a history that cannot be fairly dealt with in one short article. It would, I think, have been better to have dealt more thoroughly with one issue, perhaps the 'clamp down' on the NGO, omitting the ragtag of other anti-government accusations.
The article is not helped by its use of value-laden words such as 'clamp down', 'lambasting' and 'lashed out' which set the tone and make a calm assessment of the issues difficult. More seriously, the article contained a number of errors and made no attempt to provide the background needed to understand the issues raised.
First, only one NGOs is directly concerned, the Citizens Constitutional Forum, and its booklet was on the constitution, not 'pre-election advocacy work'. The booklet contained a number of errors that could misinform ordinary Fijians about Government actions and intent. Whether this was accidental or deliberate is unknown and probably unknowable. But the fact that the booklet calls the Fiji constitution the Government constitution (not mentioning the widespread national consultations on its draft) was hardly an error.
In mitigation, the NGO said the booklet was written by 'experts' but this does not ensure impartiality when the experts were foreigners funded by overseas donors unsympathetic to the Fiji Government.
It is hardly surprising in these circumstances that voter education conducted by NGOs has to be approved by the Electoral Commission. This is a body appointed by —but independent of— Government whose members have impressive and diverse credentials. Its chairman is a former President of the Fiji Law Society. Other members include a university professor (who is also a member of the contentious NGO!), leading figures in tourism and marketing, financial advisory work, film making, a NZ-born Catholic priest who is an expert of voting systems, and a former executive director of a national development NGO.
The remainder of the article presses on with reported attacks on the Fiji government with no further reference to NGOs.
Criticised is the action of the Media Industry Development Agency in demanding Fiji TV apologize for broadcasting what they claim was a "hate speech" punishable by law.
The issue here is not that MIDA was set up by 'military decree', as the article states, All new laws since 2006 have been introduced by the military-backed government.
The issues are whether the speech could have inflamed racial intolerance, and whether MIDA acted properly or over-reacted to the speech. The article does not raise these issues, and wrongly stated the speech aired on FijiTV News, was made at a 'public political meeting' when it was made at a provincial council meeting, and overall the speech was not critical of Bainimarama as the article claims. In fact, the speaker is a supporter of the Bainimarama government.
Another reported accusation, by Dorsami Naidu of the Fiji Law Society, that the Elections Decree allows 'snooping' on internet conversations in the 48 hours before the election is correct, although the word 'snooping' infers misuse. The Decree forbids any election canvassing (including the use of the internet for this purpose) during this period, and in this respect it is not too different from New Zealand.
A further accusation, by the Fiji Trade Union Congress, is that the Decree prevents independent candidates from registering because they are required to obtain a thousand registered voter signatures in order to register. This is correct but misleading.
In September, Fijian voters will vote in one large national constituency with over 300 candidates contesting 50 parliamentary seats. If an independent candidate cannot obtain one thousand signatures, he or she has no chance of crossing the five percent threshold and obtaining the 28,000 votes needed to be elected. The issue is a non-issue and the FTUC, that has political connections and aspirations, knows this.
This is election year in Fiji and, as in any election year, voters —and journalists— need to be especially careful in dissecting and reporting what is said. Journalists should note that while several opposition voices speak out against the Bainimarama government, government usually only replies with one voice. To report each one, rather than each "side", must create an imbalance.
The PMW article gives the impression of an oppressed Fiji nation ruled by the military. This is far from the truth despite what the media has told the New Zealand public for the past six years. Things are not perfect in Fiji and they never were. Media freedom is relative and some aspects of some decrees may rightly be seen as oppressive. But a string of independent and relatively robust polls taken over the past six weeks show between 75 and 80 percent support for Bainimarama as preferred prime minister this coming September, and between 40-49 percent supporting his Fiji First party.
It would seem those opposing the Bainimarama government may not be as representative as the PMW article supposed.