Wednesday, April 16, 2014
The new Chairman of Fiji’s Media Industry Development Authority, Ashwin Raj, has been cracking the whip on the nation’s press – and even on overseas journalists – ever since his appointment last year. His stridency is in sharp contrast to the style of his predecessor, FNU literature scholar Professor Subramani, who kept a low profile and seemed reluctant to carry out the regime’s media diktats.
|Ashwin Raj lays down the law to Fiji’s media
Raj apparently suffers no similar compunction about playing the role of media commissar, and his assault on the press, both foreign and domestic, over the past six months has been dizzying. Basking in his new-found limelight, the previously obscure Raj has unleashed a vocabulary that would drive even the most erudite faculty member to a dictionary. By attempting to impress with polysyllabic prowess, however, the diminutive failed academic displays an intellectual inferiority complex that is as enormous as it is obvious.
Raj first moved against Fiji’s media last October, when he announced that MIDA would set up a media monitoring unit to ensure that coverage of the coming election campaign will be balanced and unbiased. He also announced that freelancers, public relations operatives, and foreign journalists in Fijiwould henceforth have to register with MIDA and follow the regime’s restrictive Media Decree. The Cook Islands-based Pacific Freedom Forum spoke out against the added restrictions as “another layer of scrutiny in what is already a tightly regulated media environment.” Some Fijimedia actually dared to report on that story, which apparently led to a sharp private rebuke from Raj.
At the annual Attorney-General’s conference in December, Raj lashed out against those who saw the Media Decree as an attempt to gag the press.
Alarmingly, little effort has been made to actually enter the protocols of the Decree and read through its provisions, which provides a nuanced framework for the enforcement of media standards. If media holds the State accountable, the question then is ‘who guards the guard?’ What legal recourse does the public have in the event that the media has wronged them?
But these were merely appetizers for Raj’s showdown with journalists in the New Year. At the Pacific Islands News Association conference in Noumeain February, he took umbrage with ABC journalist Sean Dorney telling an interviewer that some there felt the press in Fiji “wasn’t as free and open . . . as it should be.” At a social function that evening, Raj reportedly went off on Dorney, who had also privately urged that PINA should stand up more for press freedom, calling him a two-faced “Janus” and promising that he would never be allowed back into Fiji. He followed that up with a letter of protest to the ABC’s Managing Director that threw around howlers like “asseverated,” and “epistemic,”as if to show the Australians how intelligent he was. “Mr Dorney’s lucubration’s [sic.] are mired in generalisations without any substantiation,”railed Raj, who simultaneously deemed MIDA a rousing success with regional governments. “Five months into my appointment, MIDA is beginning to enjoy the trust and confidence of the international community.”
The silliness continued in what can only be described as MIDA’s own version of March Madness. Unable to extract retribution against Dorney, Raj dragged into his feud the Pacific Media Assistance Scheme, which is funded by the ABC administered by ABC International, forcing it to cancel a planned workshop for journalists in Fiji. Raj then demanded that PACMAS distance itself from the ABC and Dorney. In outlining his independent media monitoring unit of “people who have a wealth of experience in the media industry,” Raj then announced that he would also require all media outlets to disclose their editorial policies. “I need to know why certain letters get published at the exclusion of others.” The craziness recently culminated, of course, when Raj could simply stand no more of the Fiji media’s insolence and insubordination. After Fiji TV reported a speech by a chief in the prime minister’s home province that pointed to ethnic divisions in Fiji society, Raj deemed it hateful and summoned the press for a stern tongue lashing, even admonishing assembled journalists for discussing such issues on social media like Facebook.
All of which begs the question, who on earth is Ashwin Raj? He has absolutely no media experience in his background, from what I can tell, and as such he would be highly unlikely to enjoy even a scintilla of confidence among members of the industry he regulates. His most extensive media experience, it seems, comes from reading newspapers and authoring the occasional response. “I would engage with the media as a bystander,” he has explained. “I’d write letters to the editor.”His lack of expertise on media issues is painfully obvious, and his independence is highly suspect. “I’ve got a six member board that keeps me accountable,” he has said, yet the membership of MIDA – which is supposed to include representatives of women, children, and consumers, in addition to the Solicitor-General and someone with media experience – is apparently a closely-guarded state secret.
He is also not a lawyer, as he freely admits, which you would think might come in handy for someone tasked with administering a regulatory act. “I’ve always read law from the perspective of society,” he reasoned for journalists.
It’s one thing to have pure, legal interpretation of the law and another to say, well what does it mean for society and how does society think through legal instruments? Law means nothing unless and until it materializes in the lives of people.
So what do we know about Ashwin Raj and his actual accomplishments? Does he have any to his credit? It is highly unlikely that any journalist in Fiji would dare investigate, much less report on his background, or lack thereof, under the current reign of media terror over which Raj presides. That leaves it to this blog to find out what is known about him and publicize it in order to put the current media climate in Fiji into context. In his day job, Raj is a mid-level administrator at a regional university. He comes from an extremely modest background, being born to a Muslim seamstress and a Hindu gardener (at Marist Brothers school) and raised in a Vatuwaqa shack. His parents’ elopement apparently caused his mother to become estranged from her family, which objected to the mixed union, and caused no small amount of distress for young Ashwin. He came out as gay a few years ago and was active in the Drodrolagi movement which advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer rights in Fiji until quitting the group a couple of years ago. He then began to ingratiate himself with the regime and has been advancing within it rapidly. He delivered the opening address to the 2012 Attorney General’s conference (at about the same time that I was being hounded out of Fiji), at which he declared his admiration for the regime’s “surgical strike” in 2006. Within a few months, he had been elevated as the Master of MIDA.
Ashwin Avinesh Raj holds a Master’s degree in Political Science from the University of Hawai’i, which he attended from 2002-05 on a United States-South Pacific Islands scholarship to the East-West Center. He then enrolled in doctoral studies at Australian National University’s program in Pacific and Asian History, where he began work on his dissertation topic: “Allegories of the Human: Rights of Indentured and ‘Free’Indians and the Production of Humanity, 1879-1937.” That is where his academic career went off the rails, however. Despite spending a year doing research in the Fiji Archives, Raj proved to be all talk and no action, failing to submit even one chapter of his doctoral thesis. He was eventually required to leave Australiaon the expiration of his student visa in 2009.
Raj did prove to be a prolific letter writer during his time in Canberra, however, and some of his submissions to the Fiji Times belie his current complicity in the regime. “Instead of channelling hundreds of thousands of dollars to investigate the media and institute meaningless commissions of inquiry that tell you the obvious,” he wrote in 2008 to criticise the Fiji Human Rights Commission, including its report on Fiji media by University of Hawai’i political scientist James Anthony, “that money would have been better spent feeding and clothing the poor and the homeless.” A letter published the previous year, however, provides an even more delicious irony given Raj’s current position in charge of the regime’s machinery of media repression. He began it in a manner eerily similar to his recent diatribe against the Fijimedia, which began: “I’m quite perturbed by the level of public discourse in Fijias we head towards the national elections.” His 2007 letter began: “I am perturbed by the mood of public discourse in relation to the political developments since the 2006 military takeover.
Rampant anti-intellectualism, purist and locationist jibes and the very curious rise of self selected moral entrepreneurs who give philanthropy without democracy now seem to be the dominant discourses of this particular strand of democracy propagated by the proverbial monkey of good governance called the “interim administration.”