Monday, June 18, 2012

The gloves come off

Things started to get nasty between Fiji’s dueling dailies on World Press Freedom Day in early May. Both newspapers used the occasion to take a stand on the issue, which has been controversial here in recent years. The Fiji Sun asked in an editorial what kind of press model would be right for Fiji, the “developed world model” thriving on conflict and “gotcha” journalism? The discredited brand of journalism practiced by the now-banished Rupert Murdoch? “Or should it be the developing world model emphasizing nation and peace building? The journalism of hope, as some have put it, rather than the journalism of despair?” Well, if you put it that way, there’s really no choice, is there? Who wants despair, when you can have hope? In media studies, this is an example of what we call framing, where an issue is presented in such a way as to suggest a conclusion.

The newspaper’s editorial postion, BTW, followed from a bit of a debate in the Sun over the previous week about just what role the press should play in Fiji going forward. It all began with a reply I wrote to a blowhard blogger whose musings just happen to get printed verbatim across full pages of the Sun. I argued for more discussion in the Fiji media on political issues, which is the hallmark of a free press.
It might be painful and messy, I said, but it will be necessary – rather like lancing a boil – if Fiji is to get over its recent political trauma and return to democracy.
A former publisher of the defunct Fiji Post, who recently did a Master’s degree in New Zealand, took me to task for this, arguing that Fiji was not ready for First World media freedom. He added an ad hominem attack that my arguments for press freedom and against so-called “development” journalism showed a “lack of depth about underlying media problems in Fiji and the Pacific.” Well, I was pretty sure that I could offer a fair amount of depth on the subject, so I was forced to reply, pointing out that the new Master’s graduate had declared his bias from the outset in his thesis attacking the Fiji Times for fomenting the 2000 coup with its coverage of the government of the day. I added that in my opinion that disqualified his thesis as a work of scholarship. That brought an angry reply from his thesis supervisor. Which brought an overwrought response from Mr. Blowhard Blogger. And on it went. Lovely stuff leading up to World Press Freedom Day, for which we had an event planned on campus, at which the U.S. ambassador to Fiji would be the chief guest.

Not to be outdone, the Fiji Times filled a two-page centre spread that day with stories on press freedom, including an interview with the permanent secretary for information, in which the interim government was described as a “military junta.” Well, at least that was balanced. But my favorite was the story that told how one a Times photographer was barred from the Sun newsroom when he attempted to take pictures there, and how its editor refused comment when asked about public perceptions that the Sun is a “medium of government information.” This is a complaint that has been voiced increasingly here, including by the National Farmers Union, which recently called the Sun “a puppet of the regime.” Mick Beddoes, president of the United Peoples Party, has been  pounding the Sun recently for its reporting. There has even been criticism that the Sun does not run critical letters, although I must say they ran my replies verbatim.

This is what is sometimes called “lively” journalism and is harmless if not taken to extremes. Plus it makes for interesting reading, if you know the respective political positions of each publication. I find it interesting that issues of press freedom have become so contentious in Fiji recently. These questions have long since been resolved in most advanced societies, which have decided that press freedom is essential to their development. I believe it confirms the central role that news media play in any society, especially in an emerging nation like Fiji. That’s why it’s such a battleground, because those who wish to exercise political control know that they must first control the media. It is a battle that will help determine the future course of democracy in Fiji and of human rights here.

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