Thursday, May 22, 2014
As if to prove that not all Fiji journalists have been browbeaten into submission, a few brave young reporters have begun speaking out against the junta’s machinery of press repression, which even as it bullies and intimidates media organisations insists with a straight face that the country’s press is free. Yet the sourcing for these daring reports leaves much to be desired, which in turn leaves the writers open to recrimination from the regime. As far as the Ministry of Truth is concerned, after all, the press in Fiji is now officially free.
The student newspaper Wansolwara devoted most of its latest edition to press freedom issues following World Press Freedom Day earlier this month. The issue’s editor, Tevita Vuibau, stuck his neck out with a front-page story on the recent termination of Fiji TV reporter Anish Chand, and an editorial which called for the press in Fiji to play its proper role in the promised return of democracy there with September elections.
The problem is that his story did nothing to cast light on what actually happened to Chand, who was cashiered in what Vuibau described as “shadowy” circumstances. “It is understood company policies restrict Fiji TV management and Chand from commenting on his departure,” wrote Vuibau. “Allegations that Chand was sent home following a phone call from a high government office to Fiji TV also remain unsubstantiated. Attempts to acquire comments from the Ministry of Information on these allegations have proved futile.”
The story included not even an anonymous source testifying to what actually happened. What we are left with, in other words, is conjecture and innuendo. As has been well established, this is what the Fiji media are best at. Facts . . . not so much.
Vuibau, who is also a reporter for the Fiji Times, led his story off by writing that “former and working journalists maintain that an element of fear exists among reporters” as a result of whatever happened to Chand. A climate of fear has existed for years among Fijijournalists, however, so that is not news. It may well have been amped up by Chand’s departure and rumours which have been circulating about what led to it.
The problem is that Vuibau’s story establishes only what is NOT known. His editorial inside the issue made a heartfelt plea for the basic standards that anyone who appreciates good journalism hopes to some day see in Fiji’s media. “We want journalism to rise again, and to see an end to the era of the ‘churnalist’ – press release writers and other reporters in too much of a hurry or too anxious to ask real questions.” Yet while lamenting a truly lamentable state of affairs, it couched the situation in layers of qualification. “Fear, timidness and meekness – whether real or imagined – are assumed to be the rule by many media practitioners and observers in and out of Fiji, yet exceptions do exist.”
At about the same time that Vuibau was going to press with his non-exposé, Ricardo Morris was taking to the air to provide at least a bit of information, however unsourced. “It has been confirmed by various sources what transpired that led to Anish Chand’s departure from Fiji Television,” Morris told Radio New Zealand International’s Alex Perrottet. “Fiji Television are piloting a new political show in the lead-up to the general election, and there were vox pops that were brought in for the pilot show. The majority of the vox pops had people supporting Bainimarama, supporting the government, and supporting his proposed party.”So what we understand is that the suggestion from Anish Chand was that some attempt should be made to try and get alternative views, try and find people who hold different views and would go on camera with those views. And it is understood somebody at that meeting, or who heard about that meeting, then passed the message on and then a phone call was made from the Attorney General to the management of Fiji TV. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Morris, who has been RNZI’s correspondent in Suvafor some time now, also told Perrottet that he recently resigned under pressure as coordinator of the Cook Islands-based press advocacy group Pacific Freedom Forum. “I have become ineffective in the role of coordinator because of the pressures that have been brought to bear.” He did not identify who exerted the pressure, but told Perrottet that such pressures are brought to bear regularly on media outlets that are not pro-regime. “Probably the bigger media organisations like Fiji Television and Fiji TV, they come under inordinate pressure every day in all kinds of ways. And, you know, if there’s any kind of complaint about broadcast, pressure comes to bear on them from the management. And I think that’s the circumstances they’re operating under every day.” While not providing any concrete examples, Morris nonetheless bravely called out the regime for bullying Fijijournalists. “I think it’s got to be said that there are clear restrictions. Even if people don’t call out the emperor as having no clothes, I think it should be said, everyone knows that there are restrictions and that there are things that you can and cannot say.” Morris is also publisher of Repúblikamagazine, which similarly focused on press freedom in its May issue. “There exists much frustration, hate and a sense of being victimised for journalists to do their work without fear despite the strong stand by the Fiji Media Industry Development Authority (MIDA) that those in the profession were free to report without any pressure,” wrote Kelvin Anthony.
The Masters of MIDA will doubtless not take kindly to Vuibau and Morris coming out and saying what everybody knows anyway. Their job is to create an image in the world’s mind that the media in Fiji have now been officially freed. Behind the scenes, on the other hand, they are wont to send out barbs to media whenever one dares to criticise the lack of press freedom in the country. Witness the memo that reportedly went out after the Pacific Freedom Forum protested MIDA’s clampdown on freelance journalists last October. “Media outlets, especially the editors, must explain the reasons for using the PFF article,” wrote MIDA Director Matai Akauola. “It does not mean that when you get both sides, you run the story. You have to check whether it’s accurate.”
This effectively sets up MIDA as a virtual Ministry of Truth, deciding what may and may not be reported by the nation’s press. Also witness how MIDA Chair Ashwin Raj went off on ABC reporter Sean Dorney for merely telling an interviewer in February that some delegates to the Pacific Islands News Association conference in Noumea felt the press in Fiji “wasn’t as free and open . . . as it should be.”
Unfortunately, the lack of sourcing for Vuibau’s article and Morris’ interview that call out the regime’s deception leave them wide open to retaliation, either under the Media Decree or otherwise. But perhaps the Masters of MIDA would be wiser to just let it alone, as to clamp down again now would be to prove the very point of critics.