Friday, November 20, 2015
AUCKLAND (Radio NZ International / Pacific Media Watch): Fiji's student journalists have been told they can change the media climate in the country, but face enormous pressures to do so.
As the media industry struggles to fight off claims it is still controlled by the authorities, students at the University of the South Pacific have been praised for their award-winning stories.
But there's a clear message from the students - the government can learn and benefit from the media, and needs to start listening.
Alex Perrottet has more:
The official newspaper of USP's school of journalism, Wansolwara has won international awards for stories, including live online reports of the events of the 2000 coup.
The most recent student editor is Duane Mar, who says Wansolwara has plenty of respect in the region and although they too are subject to the tough media decree, the paper has drawn less ire than mainstream outlets.
"Many of our stories have not copped our students much flak really at all. Our newspaper comes out in the Fiji Sun. It is no secret that the Fiji Sun is very supportive of government but even if our stories can be seen as critical of them, they don't penalise us for that, they don't change our stories, they publish it as it is."
The school recently invited one of the developers of the paper and a former head of the school, Professor David Robie, to be the keynote speaker at this year's awards.
He says he's seen courageous student reporters and editors.
"To some decree they fall below the horizon as far as the media decree is even though they are subject to the media decree the same as any other journalist. They've got a little bit of leeway, well they feel that they've got a little leeway and their editors have always been quite courageous and they take things on, they have a go."
Duane Mar says a colleague this year at USP published an exposé on a student group that had not audited its accounts for some years. He was physically assaulted on campus as a response.
It's that kind of reaction that could be holding back an industry that has operated under stringent controls since the 2006 coup, and the 2009 Public Emergency Regulations that put soldiers in newsrooms.
Editors were moved on and senior journalists left more or less voluntarily. And young journalists are now starting to work in an industry they have only known as operating under a degree of government control.
Duane Mar says as a student he already has experience of the media-supressing delays of government bureaucracy.
"Whenever I've had to ask questions of someone in government, I've had to send them questions at least three weeks in advance. And I'm lucky, I'm lucky that a student publication like Wansolwara gives you that kind of leeway. If your story is big enough you are given time to get your sources in order."
That leeway won't exist in the real world though, and Professor Robie talks of a student on internship at a Fiji media outlet this year who had most story ideas knocked back after being told no response would be coming from the government.
David Robie says although there's more critical journalism in Fiji now, the media decree still has a crippling effect.
"There's a long way to go yet, but there's a feeling in Suva, I was there a couple of weeks ago and a lot of people sort of told me well basically there's a lot more freedom, even under the decree, there's a lot more freedom in the media, only if the media occupies the space but it has to do that, it actually has to push the boundaries and it actually has to have a go."
One publication that is doing just that is Republika Magazine.
It was the only outlet this year to run a story that the opposition leader, Ro Teimumu Kepa, was accusing the Attorney-General, Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum, of making a false declaration of his assets.
But the magazine's acting editor, Vosita Kotoiwasawasa, says since then Republika was denied media passes to the farewell ceremony of the President and no longer receives email invitations to government press conferences.
"Republika chooses to stand different from other media. We just operate differently in putting issues out that would otherwise be swept under the carpet or just be kept aside altogether."
Vosita Kotoiwasawasa says there's plenty of other difficulties in the industry, such as poor pay, which also depletes the talent pool.
Duane Mar says he's heard concerns from within the USP journalism school that its degree may not be helping the industry as designed, with the high level of talented graduates seeking jobs in more lucrative fields.
But David Robie says the new generation of Pacific journalists still provide hope. He singled out Wansolwara's climate change and environmental reporting.
Duane Mar received an award this year for a piece he co-authored on some Fiji resorts on the coral coast dumping waste without proper controls. It was a scoop that no other media covered or followed up.
He says as time goes on, the decree is less and less sustainable, and importantly, it stops the government from learning and benefiting from the media.
"It hinders the media's ability to point out the gaps, point out the errors, point out the flaws that need to be addressed. If they were far more open with us, if they were willing to work with us and understand what our role is, we'd be able to highlight the gaps and the places where they don't see it. They can benefit from us just as much."
Duane Mar says there has to be a working relationship, but there's been no sign in recent years that the government is about to change tune.
Vosita Kotoiwasawasa says at times there's simply a wall of silence.
"Most of the time these days it's really hard to get a response we just get a flat out no, or it gets swept aside completely. I think if the government was more forthcoming to answer queries as we put them out it would be more effective in informing the people more effectively."
In the meantime, journalists are still able to investigate and report, like that exposé of environmental damage on the coral coast.
It's just that too many of them are resigned to stop investigating once any story leads them too close to those in political power.