Blowing on the Embers of Old Fires: Media and Academic Freedom and Responsibility
|Australian Dr Matthew Thompson|
Opinion by Croz Walsh*
In less than 80 days Fiji goes to the polls in its first election for eight years. The regime's opponents and the media have more freedom now than at any time since 2009. Institutions and arrangements, including overseas observers, are being put place to protect the integrity of the elections, and to protect the media —the public from the media and the media from itself. The military presence is minimal.
So why now do we have the Australian media questioning Brig.Gen. Mosese Tikoitoga about alleged abuses of power seven years ago; the political opposition distorting and exaggerating what he said, and a recently arrived USP journalism educator full of righteous hyperbole over supposed and ongoing torture?
For the Australian media, I suspect a large part of their reason is to retaining reader and viewer interest with sensational stories. For some perverse reason, the general public is often more interested in what is wrong than in what is going well. I hardly think the Sun, Herald and the ABC could give a toss about what it happening in Fiji, or its possible outcomes. They are after a good story.
For the opposition, anything that discredits the government is ammunition.
For Dr Matthew Thompson, the USP academic, I suspect it is as much or more about building his personal reputation as a crusader for freedom, a useful coda for his next book, than about freedoms in Fiji. If I am wrong, I apologize, but his biography (see below) suggests this is likely.
The Opposition's Reactions
The Opposition blog Fiji Today claimed "Government Lawyers force Mosese Tikoitoga to modify previous statement to avoid coup members being open to prosecution in the international arena" citing no source or evidence for their claim.
This is a strange reversal of their usual statements about a military dictatorship. Before, the military told people what to do,. Now, apparently, it's the the way round, which is good to know.
Youth activist shortlisted SODELPA candidate Pita Waqavonovono (who tried some years back to lead a protest march on Suva to which no one turned up) said Tikoitoga "admitted
they had detained and tortured Parliamentarians and Pro-Democracy supporters" (which he hadn't); he claimed "the voice of many young people who were beaten and tortured at various military installations will not be silenced" (without naming a single one), and then, incredibly, called on the "United Nations and Foreign Embassy's in Fiji to look at Tikoitonga's comments in it's entirety [and] look into protecting Fiji's Freedom Fighters, since the Government of Fiji is bent on threatening and abusing Fiji Islanders".
Tikoitoga claims his remarks were made out of context, a selective minute or two taken from a two-hour interview.
The situation, he said, in 2006 and 2007 when the beatings took place was very different than it is today. "What I question now is the timing ... as we near the elections. It's very mischievous to a point that it has now questioned the integrity of the RFMF in a period where we have quite clearly told the public of Fiji that we want no part in political discussions."
"We do not support any political party and we are ready to accept any government that comes after election and we will respect the Constitution," he said. "I am sincerely asking political parties and commentators not to take those comments out of contexts."
I'm afraid this is an idle ask. The only way the opposition can use his remarks to their advantage is by taking them out of context.
MIDA: Protecting the Public from the Media
The Media Industry Development Authority Chairman, Ashwin Raj also raised concerns about the two USP academics from the Journalism Programme. He asked why they did not find and confirm the facts from MIDA before making the allegations about freedom in Fiji. He said:
- They alleged the Fijian Government continues to intimidate journalists in the lead up to the general election, and they also made serious allegations of torture and intimidation used by the Fiji Military Forces to ensure that there is no civil disorder.
- Their accusation that the military is using torture and intimidation to silence journalists, with just a little over two months before the general election, is absolutely without any foundation.
- The political situation in Fiji maybe less than ideal but a lot has been achieved since 2006 and we must move beyond the tireless debate between legality and legitimacy raised by the academics.
The USP Lecturers
As previously noted in this blog, journalism lecturers Dr Matthew Thompson and Pat Craddock spoke out about two journalists being denied accreditation to the recent PIDF
|New Zealander Pat Craddock|
My main concern here is that while they checked out the story with the two journalists allegedly denied accreditation, they apparently did not check out the reasons, either with MIDA or the Ministry of Information, why the journalists had not been accredited. From this, it seems reasonable to assume they were so predisposed to believe the aggrieved journalists that they thought further enquiry unnecessary. Not the best of approaches by journalism educators.
Far more serious, though, are Dr Matthew Thompson's comments in a recent ABC interview with presenter Geraldine Coutts. (Click here for the full interview)
In his opening remark he said he thought it ironic that the Fiji military act as international peacekeepers but condone the use of violence on its citizens at home. Asked how he knew this and whether it was hearsay, he replied that Tikoitoga had admitted it (which he hadn't) and that "the government sort of admitted that at the time and said they'd gone too far." He then went on to say:
"But I mean it continues. I mean even just not in political terms, there's a reasonably steady toll of people with broken hands here, and so the police break their hands, as a regular punishment, they bring out pipes and whips and smash people with them."
Asked how "this rubs off on the students that you're lecturing and what kind of future they have as journalists", he replied: "Not much (of a future), apart from rewriting press releases and doing entertainment and pro-government news stories."
And asked whether he expected any repercussions or reprisals for speaking out he said. "Possibly, there's been academics forced out of the University before (which is questionable, to say the least) and there's been academics picked up by the military before ... I just don't think I'd be doing my job as a journalism lecturer" (if he hadn't raised these issues in class and not spoken out).
Introducing Dr Matthew Thompson
In a later interview by the Fiji Sun he said: "I don't mind a bit of heat. I have been in dicier places like Colombia and Iran."
This casual comment could tell us more than intended about the man. His entry in LinkedIn, a large internet network where professionals write their own profiles, is a self portrait of a man on the move: three journalism jobs in eight years, two books My Columbian Death (2008) and Running with the Blood God (2013), both books about violence and terror in South America.
He lists among his interests Krav Maga (the 'contact combat' martial art developed for the Israeli military) and he's also a trained fire fighter "qualified in such areas as extracting casualties from wrecked vehicles and performing abseil rescues." His doctorate is in literary journalism.
From what he writes about himself, he appears to be an able, versatile person with a penchant to seek out the dangerous. In ordinary circumstances he could be worthwhile appointee to USP, and I've little doubt his students enjoy being taught by such a colourful character.
But these are not ordinary times in Fiji and his recent comments, although conceivably well intended, were poorly researched, unbalanced, emotionally charged, and obviously provocative and anti-Government. He claims he had a right and duty to speak out. But does he? And to speak out in this way?
Town and Gown and Expatriate Employees
Normally, universities encourage their academic staff to engage in off-campus activities, and in Fiji this engagement has been mutually beneficial. The past engagement of Dr Wadan Narsey and the current engagements of USP's Ashwin Raj and Prof Vijay Naidu, and FNU's Drs T.K.Jayaraman and Mahendra Reddy, are well known cases in point.
It is, however, not engagement as such that is being questioned, but the type, quality and timing of the engagement.
Dr Thompson has been in Fiji for three months. Far too short a time to speak out so confidentially on local issues. Putting it bluntly, as far as local customs, behaviour and events are concerned, he is wet behind the ears.
It could be argued that three months is long enough when civil rights abuses are concerned, but he has no direct knowledge of the alleged abuses. He has relied on what others have told him, which raises questions about the knowledge, biases and agenda of his informants.
Much of what he called brutality existed in police culture long before the 2006 coup. This is not to say that beatings did not occur. They did. But his description of the severity and frequency of the beatings far exceeds even those of the anti-Bainimarama blogs, which pick up every rumour.
The blogs have not carried stories about people being regularly beaten with pipes — and they have not reported any recent beatings.
Thompson is engaging in polemics which reflects poorly on his academic professionalism. This is sensationalism, anything to make a headline, not investigative or even "news" journalism.
Tikoitoga made a distinction between then, soon after the coup, and now, since the Public Emergency Regulations were lifted. Thompson makes no such distinction, claiming the beatings continue.
Tikoitoga is referring to political-motivated beatings by the military. Thompson includes non-political beatings. His only evidence other than hearsay was a 15-month old video of an escaped prisoner who had rampaged around Suva being beaten with a stick by corrections officers. This does not make it excusable, of course, but the context was very different than that inferred by Thompson.
The overall impression he creates is of a nation living in fear where people are regularly beaten and tortured by the military and the police. Yet this is a country where three earlier Prime Ministers, all vocal and opposed to the Bainimarama government, walk freely around Suva.
Moreover, the image created by Thompson stands in stark contrast to recent Fiji Sun-Razor polls that show over 80% of those polled feel safer in their homes and think Fiji a better place to live in than before the 2006 takeover.
One must ask, did it not occur to Dr Thompson that to make such allegations now, with campaigning for the September elections well underway, would make it seem he was taking sides, allying himself with the political parties that oppose Bainimarama?
Did he not consider the possible consequences for the university and his students? How will he respond if the University censor him for sensational and mainly incorrect reporting and bringing the University into disrepute? Will he claim lack of media freedom, and ignore or deny his responsibilities for accurate reporting?
And if he is deported for breaking conditions in his working permit or for some other reason will he then retire to Brisbane with enough new material to add a disparaging deportation chapter to a new book, tentatively titled Tortures in Paradise", forgetting he has left his students, to whom he is responsible, without a lecturer for the third time in recent months?
Dr Thompson is not the only one to determine his responsibilities. He has contractual responsibilities to the University and the students he teaches.
USP academics on work permits who engage in off campus activities should ensure the activities and their consequences do not undermine their university work. What they say and write must be accurate, balanced, in context, and apolitical, especially when commenting on highly sensitive topics during an election campaign.
If, as a newcomer to Fiji, Dr Thompson was in any doubt about the likely consequences of his actions, he should have consulted the University authorities.
I trust the university and government authorities will revisit their contract and work permit documents so that people from overseas will have a very clear understanding, before they apply and agree to take up employment in Fiji, of what is, and what is not, acceptable, .
Dr Thompson appeared not have such an understanding or if he did, he chose to ignore it.
* Disclaimer. I am also an expatriate member of the USP community, but my membership, as an Emeritus Professor, is honorary. I am not on a work permit and I am not a university employee. But when those conditions applied, I never made political comments, in public or to my students, and what I wrote met the normal academic requirements for scholarship.