Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Well, it didn’t take long to answer THAT question!

The day after I posted my last blog entry, I got a phone call from Legend FM reporter Dhanjay Deo, who asked if I would grant him an interview about our symposium on Media and Democracy in the South Pacific last week. I thought that was a bit odd, because it had ended five days earlier, but I was happy to oblige. I am always happy to help journalists in Fiji do their jobs. It didn’t take long before I realized that Mr. Deo was not interested in talking about our symposium, which was a huge success, but instead had a bee in his bonnet about an interview I had given to Bruce Hill of Radio Australia the day before. (Bruce gets me into so much trouble. It’s a wonder I still talk to him.) Deo complained that my comments about media self-censorship in Fiji had gone out internationally. Had I done any research to back up this claim? What proof did I have for this? No, I told him, I hadn’t done a scientific study on this, but I hoped to soon because this seems to be a big problem here. I have spoken with a number of Fiji journalists, I assured him, and from what I can tell, there is a tremendous climate of fear and uncertainty in the country’s news media after the lifting of censorship in January. Now that they are instead subject to provisions of the 2010 Media Decree, which provides fines and even prison sentences for reporters who take a wrong step in their line of work, there seems to be a natural reluctance to question authority. It’s not what you see in the Fiji media, I told him, it's what you don’t see. You don’t see any hard-hitting journalism. Well, I guess he decided to prove me wrong. He kept browbeating me and interrupting me. Where was my proof? Where was my scientific study? I asked him to let me answer his questions, but he had become like a mad dog by then, so I had to hang up. He called me back. I told him I would not speak to him again until he apologized for his rude behavior. He called back again, and again. Each time I refused to talk to him. I then fired off an email of complaint to his boss, Communication Fiji Limited news director Vijay Narayan.

Soon my phone rang again. I fully expected it to be Dhanjay Deo, given that he had called me back a half dozen times or so by then. Instead it was Vijay Narayan. I told him I have never been treated so rudely by an interviewer in decades of giving media interviews, but he seemed to have no problem with the way his reporter treated me. Where did they get their lessons in interviewing, I asked him, from watching BBC Hardtalk? Suffice it to say I didn’t get very far with Mr. Narayan. Then I saw that CFL had posted the story on its website, headlining it “Claims made but no proper survey done.” It basically skewered me for having no evidence to back up my contention that self-censorship was rampant among Fiji journalists. The story also played on the various CFL radio stations, including FM 96, in addition to Legend FM. That’s OK. I can take a bit of “gotcha” journalism. They’re sore at me for criticizing the news media. They’ve taken a lot of heat. Let ’em get it out of their system. I can take it.

But then Vijay Narayan went too far. I noticed in looking at the story online later that it had been updated at 5:15 that afternoon. It added this line:
He also said that we were rude and thinks that we are running a newsroom like BBC Hardtalk.
There’s only one small problem with that. I never said that to Dhanjay Deo. I said that to Vijay Narayan in complaining about his reporter’s rudeness. Can a news director add to a story something said to him by an interview subject in a complaint about the interviewer? Not under my reading of the Media Decree, which sets out some strict guidelines for what journalists can report. Under Section 5, “Subterfuge,” it states: 
Media must use straightforward means to obtain information. . . .  Use of subterfuge, false identity, or covert recording to do so can be justified only in rare circumstances where the material sought ought to be published in the public interest and could not be obtained in any other way.
Publishing comments made in a complaint by a disgruntled interview subject hardly seems like a straightforward means of obtaining information. But wait, it gets better . . .er, worse for Vijay Narayan. Take a look at Section 23, “Interviews.”
Interviews for print, electronic media, radio and television must be arranged, conducted, and edited fairly and honestly. Potential interviewees are entitled to know in advance the format, subject, and purpose of their interview. . . .
Vijay Narayan freely admits what he did. “After addressing your complaint about Dhanjay, I resumed the original line of questions that Dhanjay had been unable to complete in his interview with you,” he told me in an email. The problem with that, of course, is that he didn’t inform me he was interviewing me. I was obviously, from what Narayan quoted me as saying, still complaining about his reporter's conduct and not addressing the subject of the original interview. I would never have agreed to another interview after what I had just been through. So while Dhanjay Deo was guilty of merely being rude and overly aggressive, Vijay Narayan may be guilty of something much worse – an offence under the Media Decree. The matter is now in the hands of CFL Managing Director William Parkinson. If he can get his staff straightened out, and if a suitable apology is issued – and broadcast – that will be the end of it. If not, it will become a matter for the Media Authority. By great good coincidence, we just happen to be studying the Media Decree in my Media Law class soon. This promises to be better than Defamation Week.

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