When Media Becomes Threat to Democracy
Thakur Ranjit Singh
What we learn from History is that we do not learn from History. Action taken by Fiji Media Industry Development Authority (MIDA) on Ratu Timoci Vesikula’s reported “hate-speech” and punishment meted by MIDA need to be viewed from a Historical rationale and perspective. We need to appreciate how a Western type free and partisan media in the past contributed to fall of democracy and Fiji’s political instability.
Any democracy that does not grant equality, fairness and social justice to all its citizens is not worth defending – that is what I proclaimed in a seminar held in Auckland in the aftermath of Bainimarama takeover of Qarase government in December, 2006. I have held that view since, and feel honoured to be branded supporter of Bainimarama.
The latest one to do that is Wadan Narsey, who named me as a cheerleader of Bainimarama. Response to that later, but he has been critical of the decision of Fiji Media Industry Development Authority (MIDA), and its Chairperson, Ashwin Raj. MIDA has slated and punished FIJI TV for breaching strict laws that have been put in place subsequent to past upheavals where media have been seen indulging in mischief-making. I know this - as a former publisher of Daily Post, I was removed by Qarase for being too nosey. I have conducted a research on Fiji media. Perhaps Wadan needs to have a read of that thesis and appreciate how a partisan media can be a threat to democracy. [Electronic version available at: http://aut.researchgateway.ac.nz/handle/10292/2554]
Perhaps this illustration will help bring to reality those who think the Western concept of media freedom is some religious mantra essential for Fiji:
“Nationalists plan protest march
NATIONALISTS around the country are ready to support their leaders and plans to overthrow the government.
The statement promised a blood pledge in honour of Fijian ancestors to:
- Overthrow the Chaudhry Government
- Establish a 100 per cent vanua based Fijian parliament and ban any non-indigenous person from parliament.
- Declare Fiji a Christian state
- Establish a programme of Fijianisation in education, business and the economy.
Mr Butadroka fuelled the crowd’s enthusiasm with remarks aimed at the Indian race.” (My emphasis)
This journalistic miracle appeared in The Fiji Times on 22 May, 1999 - three days after Chaudhry’s Peoples Coalition Government was sworn in. It was reported by an I-Taukei journalist, Dionesia Tabureguci, and must have passed along the great legends at the Fiji Times that time, Editor, Samisoni Kakaivalu, Editor- in-Chief Russell Hunter; and Netani Rika and Margaret Wise may also have been around in the newsroom. My research and thesis which was a partial fulfilment of the requirements for degree of Masters in Communications Studies (MCS) at Auckland University of Technology’s (AUT’s) Journalism School showed some starling results. Media, as the fourth estate, is supposed to be the last bastion of democracy. However, in case of Fiji, ironically, the most influential press, Rupert Murdock’s The Fiji Times, appear to have contributed to the fall of democracy, and we are paying the price for it now.
One year rule of People’s Coalition Government was led by an Indo-Fijian Prime Minister, Mahendra Chaudhry between May 19, 1999 and May 19, 2000 when Speight’s putsch – attempt to overthrow a democratically-elected government took place. During that period, sensational headlines in The Fiji Times, penned by I-Taukei journalist screamed aloud: Rabuka warns on race bomb, Chiefs warn on Bills, Threats on MPs, State under fire, NLTB boss warns Chaudhry, Church leader warns Chaudhry, Chief’s paper wants to oust Chaudhry, Landowners take over school, PM under fire, PM should quit, says Rewa MP, Taukei workers threaten action, Holy land, Stand up, Qarikau urges Ra, Landowners shut offices, Taukei vow to remove PM, Chief warns of war, Eviction time, Racist group in land talks, Tora warns Chaudhry, Bau chiefs warn Chaudhry, Closure threat on airport, Adi Senimili warns Chaudhry.......and so on shocking display of sensational and divisive reporting.
It appears that in one year, every form of a Fijian leader warned and threatened Fiji’s Prime Minister, just because he happened to be an “Indian”. The Fiji Times and freedom of press gave ample opportunity for hatred and sensation to be amplified throughout the nation by the largest and most influential newspaper.
During that time, new groups of militant and nationalist make-shift organisations sprang up overnight to oppose government’s initiative. Their little known leaders with suspect following were given undeserved exposure by the press under the guise of media freedom despite such utterances bordering on sedition and hate-speeches. These were also in clear breach of Media Code of Conduct, and out of reach of self-regulatory and hardly effective toothless tiger, Fiji Media Council.
Media in general and The Fiji Times in particular provided ample opportunity for anybody who wished to take a pot-shot at the highest seat of the country- the President and the Prime Minister. A responsible media, especially in a developing country, divided on racial lines would be expected to exercise caution in allowing such dereliction of ethics and duties to allow such show of disrespect to the leaders of a developing nation under the guise of media freedom.
In a multiracial developing country where the makeup of the newsroom does not reflect the population of the country, we can have very partisan reporting. The Fiji Times, with a majority I-Taukei gatekeepers and news reporters fell in that category. I suppose FIJI TV also falls in that category now. In my research, it showed that those writing sensational and “negative” articles on Indo-Fijians and Chaudhry government were I-Taukei, who comprised over seventy-five percent or three quarters of those penning those news items that showed by lines. Media researchers have established that journalists’ race and own political views crept into newsrooms. Politics in Fiji is so often mixed with issues like culture loyalties that it could become difficult for reporters to maintain impartiality and direction, especially if they come from same racial and cultural groups as those reported on. In a country like Fiji battling with racial issues, environmental factors encourage an atmosphere of ethnocentrism and racial feelings within journalism.
While research already shows dereliction of duties of print media, no research appears to have been done for TV in general and FIJI TV in particular. However its ownership and gatekeeper profile, points to something to be worried about. Therefore, it was timely for MIDA to pull it up, bring into notice, nip in the bud and even punish it for the irresponsible and sensational reporting camouflaged as news item.
It is nonsensical to say that items said in vernacular and directly translated did not carry hate-speech. More than the spoken words, the tone, the body language, hidden idioms and mannerism of mother tongue may speak a lot more than the English translated version. If MIDA or a similar regulatory body with initiative, teeth, interest in national welfare and national development existed in 1999/2000 when media became a threat to democracy in Fiji, perhaps Fiji may have seen a more stable politics. That is why media schools in Fiji have to appreciate understand and value the concept of Development Journalism, more popular and socially and economically beneficial in multi-racial Developing nations. (That, maybe later, or perhaps Media Maestro Mark Edge can add his Canadian bit)
Fiji is not ready for the Western type of cut-and–paste democracy. Neither is it ready for the Western concept of First World unfettered and uncontrolled media freedom. Western Democracy and Western Media Freedom concepts have failed Fiji in the past.
We need home-grown solutions for both, and Fiji’s move in this direction needs better appreciation through an informed historical perspective and understanding of rationale for such decisions.
[Thakur Ranjit Singh is a media commentator and post graduate scholar in communication studies from Auckland University of Technology (AUT). Electronic link of his research thesis on Fiji media is available on: http://aut.researchgateway.ac.nz/handle/10292/2554. He runs his blog site FIJI PUNDIT at: www.fijipundit.blogspot.co.nz]