Media Freedom in the Pacific: The Rhetoric and the Reality-- Crosbie Walsh
What follows is the unpublished half finished draft and speaking notes of an address I gave to AUT journalism students three years ago. Hence the green highlighting and underscoring. Much has happened since but the paper is as valid now as it was then. -- Croz
All good research, and this includes work by journalists, should start with a definition of terms. And tonight we cannot proceed unless we define the five key terms in the title, and recognize they all have different meanings for different people. If I may borrow from the title, this is my first task: to ask rhetorical questions about the reality of the terms we use.
Let' s take the the easiest word: the Pacific, and recognize that I'm trying to define its meaning in a politically charged environment. We may for a start ask: does it include NZ's Pasifika or Maori? Or are only indigenous people who reside in the Islands Pacific Islanders?
In the Fiji context, some Taukei say that only full-blooded indigenous Taukei are Pacific Islanders while all others are vulagi, or visitors ? These people obviously automatically disqualify Indo-Fijians who ancestors settled in Fiji over 140 years ago, far longer, one must note, than most pakeha ancestral links to New Zealand.
The same people, and I am not just talking about the rabid ethno-racists, I am talking about the law with respect to succession and voting, that states that people of part-Taukei ancestry, the Kailoma (part Taukei-European) and KaiSolomoni (part Fijian-part other Melanesian), have no right to be called Taukei unless their father is a Taukei. Part-Taukei people therefore have therefore no claim on land belonging to their mother's people and for voting purposes they were classified as General Voters along with Europeans, Chinese, and others. The only way a Taukei woman whose partner is non-Taukei can claim her children are Taukei is if she conceals the father's identity.
And if people such as Kailoma and Indo-Fijians do not qualify, Europeans should be non-starters. They are obviously not Pacific Islanders. Or are they? Well, it seems to depend. Ethno-racists in Fiji give New Zealand born and based journalist Michael Field who is strongly opposed to the Bainimarama government an 'honorary' Pacific Islander status but they deny this status to Fiji-born and educated journalist Graham Davis, who also speaks Fijian and some Hindi. Thus, Field has a right to speak on Fiji matters. He is cited often in their blogs. But not Davis who is labelled as a coup supporter, supposedly lacking in knowledge of Taukei culture and insensitive to Taukei protocols. I wonder how many Pasifika journalist, in New Zealand and in the Islands, hold back in case they offend protocols, and I wonder also what this may say about media freedom and self-censorship.
I take it that our concern about media freedom revolves around our understanding of democracy: another term open to many interpretations. In the Fiji context, media freedom has meaning for the educated urban elites but what can it possibly mean for less educated Taukei, especially those in rural areas, who have been brought up to accept authority, respect their elders and accept without question what their chiefs have to say?
Before discussing freedom, the question in which most people are interested, it is necessary to say a few words about rhetoric and reality.
Most people take rhetoric to mean exaggeration or the choice of words to persuade or impress which are also usually insincere. That is one meaning but it has a far more noble origin. Aristotle, the Greek philosopher who lived over 2,300 years ago, used it to refer to the art of discourse (or debate, discussion, dialogue, or conversation, if you prefer) and a means of persuasion. He said speakers seeking to persuade appealed to their audiences by using one or more of these three approaches : logos (the appeal to reason), pathos (the appeal to emotion), and ethos (the appeal to society's guiding beliefs, ideals and ideology) to which he added experience and knowledge.
This is not as abstract as it may seem. Think for a moment of the weight given to reason, emotion and our beliefs in the way our media has covered Pacific events, and how our politicians have formulated policies. Reason requires analysis that requiries “good” data, adaptability and the capacity to respond to changing events, and we have seen little of that. Our emotions are engaged as we read of floods, diseases and poverty, and we contribute to various appeals that makes us feel good and possibly superior. And the way many Australian and New Zealand journalists and politicians look at the world, shaped as it is primarily by preconceived ideology of what, for them, is right and wrong, and not by knowledge or experience, too often results in news reports with no context, misplaced government policies, and accusations from the Pacific that they object to bullying.
In the Fiji context, this explains why so much attention has been given to terms like military dictatorship, a return to democracy, the abuse of human rights, and media and trade union freedom and and early elections. It is not that these are not matters of concern. Of course they are. But to understand what is going on the concerns must be put in their historic and current perspective, we should recognize that our definitions may be culturally biased and inappropriate, and that all parties have their own motives for seeing things as they do.
Breaking Fiji news as I was writing this is that former leading politicians, Qarese, Chaundhry and Beddoes, have told the visiting Australian and New Zealand foreign ministers that they want an immediate return to civilian government, the cancellation of all decrees passed by the Baimarama government and a referendum to consider changes to the Constitution. All three requests will seem very reasonable to the foreign ministers. Afterall, this is what they would expect in their own countries but their countries have not experienced four coups in the past 25 years; they do not practice racial politics, they are not part of the problem they claim to solve, they are not obviously corrupt, their people would vote independent of the influence of chiefs and religious leaders, and they would not personally benefit if these changes are introduced. This, of course, is my interpretation of reality and my rhetoric, but the politicians requests should also be seen for what they are.
Which brings us to the definition of reality. Briefly, there is none because they is no one universally acceptable definition. Sufficient to say that Western, Eastern and indigenous definitions vary greatly, and within these societies men and women, the young, the middle aged and the old, experience different realities. As I wrote elsewhere:*
* TERS, The Essential Research Skills, 2005:87.
… It is the victor who defines — and prescribes — the reality of the vanquished; the coloniser the reality of the colonised; the rich the reality of the poor; the powerful the powerless; the educated the uneducated; the abled the disabled; the present the past; the vocal the silent, and so on, and so on.
And so, having argued that nothing has only one definition, we come to media freedom. The commonly accepted definition, by Western journalists and those influenced by Western teaching, is that media freedom should only be checked by the laws of libel, obscenity and sedition. Reporters Without Barriers has gone so far as to construct a scale to permit international comparisons and censorship, self censorship and government restrictions are among their indicators. They obtain their data from other journalists. New Zealand is the 13th most free country in the world; Australia is 30th; PNG 35th, Samoa 54th and Fiji 117th, up from 149 two years ago.
But no allowance is made for context; no consideration is given to the influence of private media owners; no attention is given to the need for private media to make money, increase their circulation and so satisfy their advertisers. It appears not to matter that the news presented is so often a shallow statement of only one side, or that many reporters are themselves biased or have no special expertise on what they are reporting. And, most importantly, no consideration is given to the consequences of journalist reports. In other words, no mention is made of media responsibility, the other half of the media freedom equation. This is not to criticise all journalists but I doubt we would accept such a definition or summary of freedom if it were applied to the medical profession or to the aviation industry.
These are very important concepts in the Pacific. Briefly, “war” journalism focuses on violence, conflict the the spectacular in which one side is usually good and the other bad. It rarely examines structural causes, and it is not concerned with the consequences that may occur from publishing its material. In Peace journalism, on the other hand, issues are not painted as black and white, it provides a voice for all the people. Issues are placed in context. It avoids emotive and imprecise expressions. Race is mentioned only when it is relevant. Much more attention is given to causes and the possible consequences of publishing reports.
I'd now like to share with you some of my experiences in publishing a blog on Fiji, and my thoughts on mainstream media reports on Fiji,
My experience of NZ reporting (most in note form)
There are very few academics in New Zealand who are qualified to comment on events in Fiji since the 2006 Coup, and two of them are in this room. But I have apparently been boycotted as someone to refer to by the NZ media, and I understand David and Steve Ratuva have been rarely interviewed. Instead, our media has relied on non-specialists like Rod Alley and anti-Bainimarama people in Australia such as Briji Lal, and Jon Fraenkel.
I have no proof but there are indicators that some of our journalists have relied on the rapid anti-Bainimarama blog Coup4.5 as a source for their stories.
M ichael Field is probably the best known NZ journalist who reports on the Pacific. It was because I found his Fiji reporting so biased and misleading that I started my blog. Time is limited so I'll provide only one example of his reporting. Last year there was an outbreak of typhoid in three villages some 50 kilometres up the Sigatoka River. It affected a dozen or so people. Field reported this as a serious threat to tourists on the Coral Coast, a popular tourist destination. Field knew where the outbreak had occurred and must have known the threat was a very small one. Barbara Dreaver gave similar reports some time later.
Barbara Dreaver. Interview with Ratu Tevita Mara who fled Fiji when changed with sedition. Got lost when fishing. Picked up by the Tongan navy. Took documents that would prove all. Barbara smiled at the fishing story (obviously a lie) and did not ask to see the documents which, if they really existed, were in the next room.
Glib use of terms like “Return to democracy”. Fiji has never had a democracy as we know it. Most rural ethnic Fijian vote as they are told by their chiefs and church ministers. E.g., 2006 elections. Electorates of very different sizes, penalised urban Fijians and the Western Division. Preferential voting. One electorate required 7 counts before one candidate had the necessary 50% of votes to be elected. System Not understood. Overall, of people registered, 15-20% not voted (39% of Indo-Fijians), and over 10% invalid votes.
Won by one seat. And obvious irregularities in polls. Whole boxes of voting papers went missing and in one electorate over 100% of voters voted (Dr Neil Nielson's extension review of the2006 election hardly mentioned by the NZ media,)
Judiciary pawn of Government? FLS appalling record. Backlog of cases over 2 years; theft of client's money; Law society but won't go to Fiji.
The Appeal decision – coup illegal. Abrog Constit and sacking of judges. No choice; misrepresenetation — judges not sacked. Most reinstated.
Religious freedom? Withholding of meeting permits reported as infringement on religious freedom. In the UK Methodist even held prayer meetings and fasts. Context. No mention of Church leaders' rabid racism or participation in earlier coups
Coverage of events in Fiji
A year ago the international media were very concerned about the Fiji government's treatment of the Fiji Times that was eventually forced to change it ownership.
Here are some examples of Fiji Times coverage of events. You may ask whether is was peace or war journalism.
Chaudhry complaints 1999 anti-Labour bias. Inflamed opposition, contributed to the 2000 Coup.
Coverage of ---
David --- (not just Fiji Times; all media) Speight Coup euphoria fear
Concern about HR but never IF HR 2000 and refugee camps, and exodus.
The arson reporting (FT editor and T.Uist cars). green beret QEB. Led readers to judge.
Reporting both sides for the Fiji Times meant citing one government source and three anti-government sources. (3:1)
All the instances I've cited, and there are of course many more, have intended or unintended consequences: they undermine confidence in the Bainimarama government and the economy. They misinform overseas policy makers, deter much needed investment. Gives heart to the of Bainimarama opposition. And so creates instability and distrust. Real threat of bloodshed.
It is in this light that we need to see why PER were imposed.
Why media freedom will continue to be limited unless unless there's greater responsibility.
And why there's still significant self-censorship in Fiji today.
For the forthcoming Constitution and Electoral Reform dialogues to progress, a much higher degree of media freedom is needed, but this will only occur if its abandons “war” journalism. The type of journalism we have in NZ is not appropriate, at this time, in Fiji.
One last word, it is assumed that mainstream media is more reliable than the blogs. This is not necessarily so. The anti-Bainimarama blogs at least disclose their biases, which most media do not. My blog acknowledges its biases; provides more than one side of most stories and publishes letters from both sides; clearly separates opinions from facts; provides backgrounds to most stories, and cites sources as much as possible. Further, it avoids provocative and emotional words. and seeks positive outcomes from the present situation. I think “true believers” in democracy and media freedom should expect no less from the mainstream media — wherever it is located.
Vinaka and thank you.