Monday, December 9, 2013

Regime propagandists throw in the towel

The silence from Grubby has been deafening these past few months, and now Croz has announced that he’s decided to “put the blog on hold for a few months.” This can only mean that these two shameless propagandists have outlived their usefulness to the regime. Frank Bainimarama’s military junta has imposed its preferred constitution on the country, one which continues to limit human rights as if the nation was still under martial law. It has silenced dissenting voices inside the country with its intimidation tactics against the Fiji Times and Fiji TV. It has obviously given up on trying to convince the rest of the world of the rightness of its actions because it must know by now that there will be no putting lipstick on this pig. 

The Old Whore From Horowhenua
Just as they did with Time magazine in August, the junta leaders refused to speak with a visiting American reporter recently. “Bainimarama declined an interview with The Associated Press, as did his right-hand man, Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum,” noted AP journalist Nick Perry in a feature article that went out to thousands of media outlets worldwide last week. “Qorvis, whose clients also include Sri Lanka and Equatorial Guinea, did not respond to interview requests.” The junta is obviously gun-shy after its Al Jazeera experience last April, in which correspondent Andrew Thomas scored a sit-down, on-camera interview with Bainimarama, only to hit him with this zinger: “Are you confident that you will win next year’s election and is that because you’ve essentially rigged the constitution to make sure you do get elected?” The dictator’s spluttering response was a classic, and worth watching over and over just for amusement. “You don’t rig constitution,” protested Bainimarama as the camera rolled. “The constitution is for the people of the Fiji. You think I did all this just to rig the constitution?” Um, yes?

Perry’s 1,200-word feature, which went out to the AP’s 1,700 member newspapers and more than 5,000 radio and TV stations in the U.S., plus thousands of other subscribers, included interviews that simply could not be published or broadcast in Fiji given the repressive media environment there currently. “He’s committed treason, and he must account for it,” said UFDF leader Mick Beddoes of Bainimarama. Perry even managed to get a few words from Yash Ghai, the former head of the Constitution Commission who has rarely been heard from since his ungraceful exit from the country almost a year ago. “They didn't particularly want an independent process,” Ghai said of the sham that ended with the ceremonial torching of his commission’s draft constitution, which proposed to restore human rights limited by the junta in innumerable decrees. “Having agreed to it, they changed their minds.”

Perry’s dissection of the junta’s malefactions, which a rudimentary Google search shows was published on more than 7,000 websites, including those of Business Week and Yahoo, left no doubt that the junta is steering a course closer to that of certain authoritarian regimes than to anything that might be described as democratic.
Bainimarama has since worked to improve ties with countries including Russia, North Korea, Turkey and, most importantly, China. Fiji announced this year that 300 senior government and agency officials would be trained in leadership skills in China.
Meanwhile, the regime continues what I call its “mushroom” strategy with Fijians – keep them in the dark and feed them B.S. A classic example of the latter which brought gales of laughter the other day was when Bainimarama told the A-G’s conference that his Media Decree allows for investigative reporting and “especially journalists holding public office holders more accountable.” Puh-lease! How stupid do they think Fijians are? Wait, don’t answer that.
“We look to our journalists to assist in the process of introducing a genuine democracy," he said. "The Media Authority doesn't exist to wield a big stick and inhibit public discourse. It exists to remind the media of its ultimate obligation to report with scrupulous fairness and balance in the interests of every Fijian."
So perhaps it’s no wonder that Grubby and Croz should bow out of this Bizarro World spectacle. Grubby has hardly been heard from since August, when he went after Bruce Hill of ABC so unfairly that I had to challenge him on Facebook. It was nothing short of Grubbygeddon. He has obviously found out the hard way that if he wants to be a self-respecting journalist in Australia, he can’t be a propagandist for a Third World dictatorship at the same time.

As for Croz, he is obviously tired of butting his head against the brick wall that is Bainimarama’s stupidity. The Old Whore From Horowhenua, as Fiji Democracy Now splendidly dubbed him, says he has “run out of new things to write about.” It’s more likely that he’s finally come to realize that nobody’s listening.
There was a time when I immodestly thought the blog  had a role to play in modifying opinions. Then, slowly, reality checked in. The New Zealand media and government are not interested in different perspectives. They have their minds made up. The opponents to the Bainimarama government likewise. And I doubt any senior member of the Fiji government even reads the blog.
It seems my work here is done. But don’t worry. If either of these creeps starts with the propaganda again, I’ll be right there to shine a light on it. Bula vinaka, Fiji!

Friday, August 30, 2013

Frank stiffs Time – and pays the price

Perhaps Fiji’s dictator forgot for a moment (again) that his omnipotence over news media doesn’t extend beyond the country’s fringing reefs and that he can’t fine or jail or bash overseas journalists who speak ill of his regime. Maybe he was so taken with his new media strategy of silence – which has served to muzzle Fiji’s domestic journalists because of his Media Decree’s requirement for “balance” – that he thought he could use it effectively on one of the world’s great magazines. Once again he has learned to his chagrin that real journalists are not so easily cowed.

The latest example of Frank Bainimarama’s stupidity – or more likely that of his media dominatrix Shazzer Smith-Johns – has now snapped back in his face all over the pages of Time magazine. (Hat tip to the ever vigilant Bubu for unearthing this little gem.) The magazine has used the dictator’s own intransigence against him in posting the most scathing indictment yet of the junta’s media strategy, not to mention laying bare the damage the military regime has been doing to Fiji’s economy for the past few years.

Time correspondent Ian Lloyd Neubauer was tipped off to the appalling situation with foreign investment in Fiji by his DJ buddy Bar’el Wachtel, who told him about what happened last week at the Cloud 9 resort near Nadi, which opened in June. Wachtel recently came from the Maldives to spin tunes at the resort’s floating Club 9, which is moored less than a kilometre from the Cloudbreak reef legendary with surfers. As is often the case in Fiji, the idyllic image presented to tourists was soon shattered by the reality of the country’s tribal lawlessness. The floating restaurant/bar, as was well reported by Fiji media, was briefly cut adrift from its moorings last Wednesday by machete-wielding thugs in a brazen daylight raid. Neubauer traveled to Fiji from Australia to investigate, and he soon learned of other such disturbing attacks on tourist facilities. The raid on Cloud 9, he reported, was “but one in a long line of clashes between indigenous landowners and investors in Fiji.” The halting of a multimillion-dollar expansion project at Vuda Marina earlier this year and the severing of costly zip-line cables last month in the Sabeto Valley were other examples he uncovered. Neubauer used a cutting quote in his report from the owner of the zip lines, which were in a new jungle-adventure park where locals also “pointlessly” poisoned hundreds of fish.
“They still eat people in Fiji,” says the park’s American owner, Kevin Purser, in reference to the unsavory past of what were once known as the Cannibal Isles. “Only now they do it in a different way.”
Ouch! Neubauer followed that comment with one from the junta’s least favorite overseas academic. (Although surely I must be pushing hard for that honour.)
“People take the law into their own hands because that is [the] way things are done in Fiji,” adds Brij Lal, Fiji expert and professor at Australian National University. “There is no real guidance on what people should and should not do.”
The regime will be reeling from that one-two combination, but Neubauer was only just getting warmed up. He followed that salvo with his own damning indictment that put the quotes into context and for a finishing blow added a coup de grace from Lal.
It’s comments like these that put a spotlight on business stability in a country that has seen foreign investment plummet from $450 million in 2009 to a paltry $16 million last year. . . . Says Lal: “Investor confidence will only increase when there is proper rule of law and clarity over ownership.”
Like any good journalist would, Neubauer attempted to balance his story with comment from the interim government. He dutifully submitted his request for an interview with Bainimarama. “But after spending 10 days in hotel rooms while my request was passed backward and forward to members of his inner circle, the interview was denied.” Unlike journalists in Fiji, who are forced to labour under the Media Decree, that didn’t stop him from telling his story. After all, as well-trained journalists realise, you don’t HAVE to get comment from all sides to fulfill the requirement for balance. You only have to give them the opportunity to comment. If they don't want to give their side of the story, you can report that, too. And so not only did Bainimarama’s refusal to comment get reported in Time magazine, but so did the reasons behind it.
Fiji’s military government has refused to comment on the raid at Cloud 9 or the security of tourists and investors in the country. That doesn’t come as a big surprise given its vexed relationship with the media. Fiji’s once-dynamic press has been reduced to a docile government mouthpiece since the army seized power in a 2006 coup, while foreign reporters who rock the boat face deportation.
So again the dictator has egg all over his face, as does the country. Neubauer aptly concluded his article by quoting from his DJ buddy, who might also have expressed the sentiments of many Fiji journalists. “I expected doing business in Fiji would be hard,” Wachtel says, “though not this hard.” 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Case studies in self-censorship #1: FLP calls for caretaker government

Vijay Narayan denies that self-censorship is a problem in Fiji journalism and took me to task last year for telling Radio Australia it was. He demanded to know what study I had conducted to prove my contention. Legend FM and its sister stations ran news items on consecutive days lambasting me for speaking without proof. They even conducted a poll of Fiji journalists (four in total), all of whom denied practising self censorship, as if any would admit to the shameful practice.

Forget for a moment that others actually did offer empirical evidence that self-censorship is endemic in Fiji under the current reign of terror. Never mind that self-censorship is difficult to "prove" in a business as subjective as news, where story selection is largely a matter of opinion. But those who consume Fiji media daily and also pay attention to overseas media and the freedom blogs know that some stories simply aren't covered in Fiji. Many are given a regime-friendly spin, always putting the dictatorship's response first. Self-censorship, according to the latest research, is still a "severe" problem in Fiji. Unless that changes in the next year, planned elections cannot be free and fair because of the advantage it would give dictator Frank Bainimarma, who plans to stand for election as prime minister.

But while statistical proof of self-censorship might be difficult to assemble, circumstantial evidence can be gathered to provide evidence sufficient for an informed opinion, at least. This can be done using the "case" method, in which case studies are presented. By examining what stories were covered by whom and how, conclusions can be drawn. So let's pick a recent story and see how it was covered. How about the Fiji Labour Party's annual Delegates Conference, which was held in Lautoka last weekend? Political party conventions, after all, are a staple of political journalism in democracies around the world. Media coverage of these events is important because it provides voters with information about the party's platform that helps them to make informed voting decisions. In the U.S. and Canada, they are usually telecast live, with journalists providing breathless running commentary. So what kind of coverage did the FLP conference get?
  • Fiji Live was the only media outlet to run a story on Saturday. The article by Reginald Chandar focused on the FLP's call for a caretaker government to "take charge of the process of restoring Fiji to democratic and constitutional rule." The online-only publication has proved fairly fearless in covering national politics. In my search last January for any published criticism of the regime's rejection of the Ghai Draft, Fiji Live was the only domestic media outlet to have run any. 
  • Government-controlled FBC ran a story the next day and included at the end of it a comment from Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, whose brother Riyaz is CEO of FBC.  The comment, which was the only one in the story, left no doubt that the regime would ignore the FLP's call for a caretaker government, which the Ghai Draft also identified as essential for free and fair elections. "The Prime Minister has already set out a roadmap to the lead-up of the elections of September, 2014, and that has been the position that government has always adhered to." 
  • Radio New Zealand International also ran a story on Sunday. It also focused on the FLP's call for a caretaker government, but it did not include any comments.
  • The Fiji Sun didn't run a story until Monday, but it was a substantial 763 words and listed five of the resolutions passed at the conference in addition to the call for a caretaker government. Instead of leading with the FLP's insistence that the Bainimarama regime step down prior to elections, however, the article by Rosi Doviverata led with the A-G's insistence that it would not happen, lifting his comments straight off FBC's story, which it credited. In fact, the Sun story's first 200 words were devoted to that angle, after which a hard news lede curiously appeared, focusing on the FLP call and quoting party leader Mahendra Chaudhry. As if to explain why it led with the reaction, the story refered to "another" and "the latest" FLP call for a caretaker government. This suggests that Sun editors considered the story old news, which is arguably true.
  • The Fiji Times also ran a story on Monday under the byline of Maciu Malo, but it was only 150 words long. Instead of focusing on the FLP's call for a caretaker government, it led with its resolution calling for the Great Council of Chiefs to be reinstated. While it listed numerous other resolutions that were passed, it did not mention the call for a caretaker government.
So who's missing? There are several notable media outlets that didn't appear to cover the story at all. 
  • While the string of radio stations under Narayan's news direction provide probably the most comprehensive news coverage in the country, I could find no story on the FLP conference listed on CFL's website Fiji Village.
  • Fiji TV also does not seem to have run a story. At least, I couldn't find one listed on their newscasts. Neither was the FLP conference the subject of its Sunday public affairs programme Close Up.
  • ABC's Pacific Beat, which normally covers Fiji politics like a glove, does not appear to have run a story.
The omissions are glaring, but not wholly inexplicable. Fiji TV has been operating under six month licences for the past year after coming under government fire for airing interviews with two former prime ministers who criticised the constitutional review process. The regime then passed the TV Decree, which allows it to yank the licence of any TV station that violates the Media Decree. It recently appointed a news manager straight from the army who is said to be the regime's inside "censor." Pacific Beat came in for withering criticism recently by regime propagandist Grubby Davis for ignoring a speech that was favorable to the dictatorship, then aired a story on it several days after the fact when Davis filed a formal complaint. Could the esteemed ABC have been intimidated by Davis into ignoring the FLP conference? The paltry coverage by the Fiji Times, which totally ignored the call for a caretaker government, is also possibly the product of regime intimidation. The newspaper already has two strikes against it for contempt of court, the most recent of which cost it $300,000. (In baseball, for those not familiar with the game, a third strike puts you "out.") I am told that the regime has threatened in no uncertain terms to put the Times "out of business." Another misstep could prove a serious existential threat. Under the circumstances, it would be understandable if the Times were to look the other way on stories unfavorable to the regime.

But what about CFL? It's possible that a story ran on one or more of its radio stations without making it onto the Fiji Village website, but it is unlikely. For a media outlet that covers Fiji news as thoroughly as it normally does, to ignore the FLP conference is a glaring omission. Hey, Vijay! You guys don't self-censor to suit the regime, do you?

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Grubby takes to Facebook

Today the brief of a modern Qorvis online operative is social media. Blogging is sooo . . . 2000s. Facebook is the latest thing. One can almost imagine the MINFO confab that blue-skied the latest media strategy. (Sounds like a good topic for Truncated Lounge, our favorite fabulist, who seems to have given up letter writing in favor of digital video.) 

Dissenting voices, which are not allowed in Fiji and are actively suppressed by MINFO, had been detected. Transcripts of Facebook discussion group conversations had doubtless been copied to Shazzer by spies. Perhaps she was even monitoring them herself in real time. Online discussions, after all, are hardly confidential given the cybersurveillance capabilities of the modern state. Apparently that Chinese satellite ship at the Suva wharf can pick almost anything online. 

Just as it had been with MINFO’s blogging strategy a few years ago – injecting regime voices (Grubby, Croz) into an alternative media that had grown up in opposition to the government line – so it would be with Facebook. The campaign would be led, it was decided, by the regime mouthpiece Fiji Sun. The pretense of complaint (Fiji has a complaint-based culture) would be that some criticism of regime propaganda heavyweight Grubby Davis had been heard in the discussions of a group that called itself Friends of Fiji MEDIA. An item was arranged in the Sun’s gossip column Coconut Wireless, which typically serves as the first warning shot to regime critics. It carped that Davis had been denied entry to this group and thus could not defend himself from “attacks” from certain *blush* regime critics. Under the heading “UNFRIENDLY FB LOT,” replacement hitperson Jyoti Pratibha (Leone must be off) officially made the Sun’s – and thus the regime’s – complaint to the impudent journo group.
Seems those so busy attacking our columnist Graham Davis on a closed Facebook forum called Friends of the Fiji Media are refusing to let him in to respond. Scared of their views coming under scrutiny from the vastly more experienced Mr Davis are they? Surely not.
An immediate odor emanated from my laptop as I sniffed that something was up. I argued as best I could against allowing Grubby to infiltrate our group, but its members decided to err on the side of openness, even if it meant opening the door of the chicken coop to the most stentorian propaganda scold in the South Pacific. The Sun approved of the decision, of course, deeming it GOOD SENSE FOR FRIENDS
Good to see wiser heads intervene and prevail at that online media forum. Our columnist Graham Davis has been accepted as a member after some intense discussion. Which is what this forum is intended to promote. Right, let’s all now take a deep breath and move on with the constructive discussion.
An agreement of confidentiality prevents me from revealing our subsequent discussions, and I endeavour to honour such agreements whatever the provocation. It has been, needless to say, delightful fun the past few days. Just like old times, eh Grubby? (Sorry, I lapsed into some Canadian there. Take off, eh?) The question is, how long will Grubby abide by his promise of confidentiality? After all, we’re talking about a man who has no compunction about publishing people’s private email exchanges without their permission in aid of his smear campaigns against them. It’s one of his favorite tactics. He did it to me over and over and over.

Now that he has his prized access to Friends of Fiji MEDIA, Grubby can better earn his salary from Qorvis. His blog, after all, has degenerated into the same old circle of tired, predictable voices singing the same old regime refrain. He has kicked off his new online assignment in fine form. In typical underhanded fashion, he has used his new-found access to Friends of Fiji MEDIA group members on Facebook to further smear his latest target, Radio Australia journalist Bruce Hill. Grubby has charged again and again that Hill and ABC are biased against Fiji’s lovable dictator, King Bananarama. This time his bleatings seem to have gained some traction with ABC execs, who after Grubby’s latest complaint obviously ordered a story broadcast first thing Thursday morning on a speech that was given on Monday.  

But his long-held position as Chief Bias Shrew is not where Grubby is now able to show his true worth to Qorvis and the Future of Fiji. With his infiltration of a Facebook group that includes some influential potential critics and opinion leaders, Grubby is now able to do a bit of what they call "data mining" in online lingo. As a new member of our group, Grubby was able to access Hill’s timeline posts and pounced on one that he has now used as further evidence of his bias against Fiji's benevolent dictator. “Could one of my Fiji friends kindly mail me the two pages of today’s edition of the Sun dedicated to having a go at me?” Hill posted on his timeline. “I’m keen to laminate it and put it on my wall. Message me and I will send you my address.” Grubby may well have been clueless, but doubtless Qorvis – and perhaps even Shazzer herself – saw the danger inherent in the notation that “19 people like this.” Levity in particular must be nipped in the bud, according to the regime. Grubby has thus now dragged several of Hill’s unsuspecting Facebook friends into his vendetta by reprinting their coments on his Grubsheet blog.
Gary McMurray Wow 2 pages! you must’ve hit the nail on the head…
Friday at 5:12pm · 1
Murray Hill Well we’ve always known you were a typical leftie drone.
Friday at 5:13pm · 1
Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson yay! congrats… what an honor! I want to read the story asap
Friday at 5:28pm · 1
Lice Movono Rova Send me ur address!
Friday at 5:32pm via mobile · 1
Some of the comments are hilarious, so much so that one suspects Grubby is totally oblivious to the damage he may have done by reprinting them. “Two pages!” oozed Kate Schuetze. “You must be doing a good job then.” James Morrow seemed out of the loop. “What the hell’d you do?” Murray Hill must be Bruce’s brother, as he had an insight into his insolence. “Didn’t say what he was told to of course.” Journalist Barbara Dreaver saw the upside. “Surely that’s worth a ban?” Bruce Hill seemed to almost welcome the idea. “You would have thought so, wouldn’t you? Maybe it’s in the mail.” Dreaver obviously owns a sense of humor, adding: “Fabulous accommodation at Queen Elizabeth barracks.”

So once again Grubby has demonstrated that there are no depths to which he will not descend in waging his “battle of ideas” of behalf of Frankly Bananas and his planned multiracial paradise. If members of Friends of Fiji MEDIA were not nervous enough about letting him into their midst before, they should be now. For his part, Bruce Hill has had enough. You’ll no longer find him listed among the group's members, so Grubby will no longer be able to grab comments off his timeline. Unless . . . nah. Well, maybe it's not that crazy. Perhaps Grubby should send Hill a "friend" request.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Grubby's hypocrisy laid bare [updated twice]

You could practically see the smoke coming out of Grubby’s ears as he spluttered out a protest on his blog today over Radio Australia having “suppressed” – according to him – news favorable to Fiji’s dictatorship. 

He accused RA journalist Bruce Hill of bias and Radio Australia not only of engaging in propaganda, but of a “blatant attempt to manipulate the news agenda.” Apparently the rank hypocrisy inherent in him making such claims simply doesn’t register with Grubby, who admitted last year to being on the payroll of Washington-based Qorvis Communications in its efforts to help polish the image of Fiji’s dictatorship. It needs a lot of polishing, too, after the events of the past eight months, which have seen the junta spike a draft constitution drawn up by a panel of experts and a video circulate on the Internet showing the brutal beating of two escaped prisoners. The latest public relations disaster to befall the regime has seen political parties forced to pay tens of thousands of dollars to the regime mouthpiece Fiji Sun to advertise the assets and income of their candidates while junta honchos continue to refuse to do the same. 

No wonder the regime has seized on any nugget of hope it can find. Grubby’s latest rant on behalf of the junta concerns a speech given earlier this week by Julie Bishop, the Deputy Leader of the Australian Opposition and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. Speaking to the Australia Fiji Business Forum, Bishop promised to work toward restoring Fiji to its previous place in the world if her party is elected in the upcoming vote. “It is now time to rebuild the bridges,” she said. “Should a Coalition Government be elected at some stage this year I commit to ensuring that normalising relations between Australia and Fiji is a priority of an incoming government.” According to Grubby, this position is now “official” Australian government policy. He uses the word twice in one paragraph to reinforce the fact. Worse, Radio Australia failed to pick up on the significance of this sea change in official Australian policy toward Fiji.
Here was the first significant change in official Australian attitudes towards Fiji in the six and a half years since Voreqe Bainimarama’s takeover. . . . By conventional news standards the world over, it signaled a dramatic change in Australian official attitude and deserved to receive the widest coverage. But Radio Australia chose to ignore it.
Australian taxpayers, spluttered Grubby, are entitled to know "by whose authority Hill, and the rest of the Radio Australia editorial team, chose to overlook a major shift in Australian attitude.” The incident, he continued, “raises grave questions about the editorial independence of Radio Australia,” and is “especially egregious in that it involves the overt censorship of an important speech.” Grubby admits that he “has long alleged a campaign of wilful and sustained bias against Fiji by Radio Australia,” but he insists that “previous instances pale into insignificance beside evidence that Radio Australia is willing to subvert the political process in Australia and deny a voice to the alternative government."
It is more than a grave editorial lapse. It is also contrary to law. On the available evidence, it’s a case of the publicly funded broadcaster taking a partisan position in a manner that contravenes every aspect of the ABC’s Charter. This legally requires it – under an act of Parliament – to report without fear or favour in the interests of every Australian.
So let’s take a look at just how newsworthy this story might be, according to accepted principles of news. There is some theory involved here, but suffice it to point out that the word “new” is the root of the word “news.”  This suggests that something old is not necessarily news, and Bishop’s position on working toward normalizing relations with Fiji is hardly new. A cursory web search shows that she articulated it in 2010 and again last year. Plus, as Grubby himself notes, Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat programme already had two items of “new” news on Fiji that day. I'm sure Grubby would admit that Pacific Beat has whole ocean of other countries to cover, and less newsworthy stories occasionally fall by the wayside. Plus, this was a speech by an Opposition politician, and Grubby has made his view perfectly clear that this species deserve very wary news coverage indeed, lest they actually be *shudder* playing politics.

There were other newsworthy bits in Bishop’s speech which Grubby and his regime masters . . . er, mistress might be less enthusiastic about. Like the part about just what the Fiji junta will have to deliver in order to bring free and fair elections next year and thus be welcomed back into the international community. She pointed out three in particular that are not likely to go over well with the regime.
  1. It is essential that oppositions and politicians have the freedom to hold the government to account.
  2. It is essential that an independent judiciary exists to adjudicate disputes and to interpret the law.
  3. A free and unfettered media might be a complete pain in the neck for politicians but it is essential to hold all the sides of politics to account on behalf of the people.
So don’t go getting your hopes up, Grubby. There is little likelihood of any of those three conditions being met any time soon. Even if the Coalition wins the election, Frank and Aiyaz have little chance of getting back into Australia’s “official” good graces anytime soon, the way they are going.

UPDATE: The sun has come up in Melbourne, and apparently the heat from Grubby's blast has been felt. Radio Australia has now reported on Bishop’s speech, despite the fact it was delivered on Monday and is hardly fresh, no doubt due to the complaint from our favorite propagandist. You can cash your cheque knowing you have done your job well, Graham.

UPDATE: This has brought the requisite crowing from Grubby, who chronicles the prompt response to his email to senior ABC executive, Alan Sunderland, who handles formal complaints on behalf of the news division. Hardly satisfied, of course, Grubby is demanding nothing less than an inquiry. "The whole episode demands an explanation," he fulminates, no doubt preening. "There should be an inquiry into why Radio Australia chose not to broadcast a tape that was in its possession for nearly three days."

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Eerie similarities with Singapore

Having almost finished revising my paper comparing Fiji’s system of press control with that in Singapore (here’s the original, which has been completely rewritten), not only have the similarities become apparent, but the latest moves involving Fiji TV are making a lot of sense as well. It’s almost as if the Fiji regime has finally realized that attempting to crudely impose control from without is nowhere near as effective as ensconcing it within. 
Singapore's press is tightly controlled
In Singapore, founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew made it a project to bring the country’s free press under control in the 1970s and ’80s, especially the dominant Straits Times. Nicknamed the “Thunderer of the East” for its resounding editorials (after the Times of London), the Straits Times opposed the People’s Action Party (or PAP, which has to be one of the all-time best acronyms for a political party) which Lee headed. Lee used the PAP’s political dominance to impose the 1974 Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, under which all newspaper companies had to convert from private to public ownership, which immediately made them subject to the whims of the stock market. The NPPA also required that a percentage of management shares, which controlled editorial policy, be held by government-controlled companies, which placed representatives on their boards of directors and at the heads of their executive committees. At times, these representatives have included the prime minister’s former press secretary and the former head of Singapore’s secret service. In the 1980s, a series of government measures led to the creation of a newspaper monopoly. The two leading Chinese-language dailies were forced to merge, then they were folded into the Straits Times group to form Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), which now publishes all of the city-state’s dozen or so dailies (in four languages). MediaCorp, which owns 80 percent of broadcast outlets in Singapore, is wholly owned by a government investment company, so its control is ensured.
Singapore's leading media theorist, former Straits Times journalist Cherian George, calls the system of press control there Freedom From the Press, which is the title of his most recent book. In an extract available online, George explains how Lee and the PAP incrementally increased their control over the press.
Overt censorship has been largely replaced by self-censorship, achieved through economic disincentives against non-cooperation with the state. . . . The PAP has harnessed the dominant global trend of media commercialisation to tame journalism’s democratic purpose. 
The theoretical framework I have used in my paper to compare press control systems in Singapore and Fiji is that of hegemony, which was developed by the Italian writer Antonio Gramsci while he was imprisoned by  Mussolini’s Fascist regime in the 1930s. “The Singapore media system is sustained through hegemonic processes,” writes George. “Social theorists understand hegemony to be a kind of political domination in which coercion is masked by consent that has been manufactured through ideological work.” State control of media is vital in exercising hegemony, as it is through them that a country’s rulers make their policies seem reasonable and even natural. Thus state control comes to be seen as the public will.

My paper concludes that there are several factors preventing a Singapore-style hegemonic system from being implemented in Fiji. First, while Singapore’s system of political control is much admired by despots worldwide – the PAP has maintained power since the 1950s and often elects every seat in Parliament – some unique features make it unlikely to succeed elsewhere. The country has enjoyed enormous prosperity and was ranked 10th in per-capita GDP last year, according to the International Monetary Fund, just ahead of the U.S. The country’s economic success has endeared the PAP to Singaporeans, who are more than happy to look the other way in its muzzling of the press. Fiji, on the other hand, suffers from high levels of poverty and was ranked 123rd  in per-capita GDP by the IMF last year, behind Turkmenistan, Namibia, and the Republic of the Congo. Fijians are thus less likely to sit still for such infringements of their free expression rights.

More important to the success or failure of hegemony, however, is the way in which it is imposed. George has developed an elaborate theory to explain the success of hegemony in Singapore, but the experience in Fiji is proving quite the opposite. George notes the PAP’s proclivity to plug itself into networks in order to mitigate the traditional vulnerability of dictatorships – information. The “dictator’s dilemma,” he explains in his book, is that an army of spies and informants operating in a climate of fear can never approach the feedback a government receives in a democracy. A monopoly on power can thus be self-defeating because a lack of early warning systems prevents the all-powerful ruler from knowing if the masses are about to rise up against him. The PAP has nicely found a way around this problem by participating in civil society and actually listening to the concerns of people. The result, according to George, has been described as an “elected dictatorship.”
The regime has attempted to keep itself open to the flow of ideas and responsive to change even as it forecloses political competition. This approach, which I term “networked hegemony”, has so far spared Singapore the kind of rigidity and decline usually associated with authoritarian regimes. Networked hegemony challenges conventional wisdom about the kind of openness required of a high-functioning modern state.
The Bainimarama regime in Fiji, on the other hand, has relentlessly insisted on going its own way and has treated feedback with high-handed disregard. In the ongoing constitutional process, for example, it rejected the recommendations of the Ghai commission by literally torching its proposed draft earlier this year. After vowing to write its own constitution for rubber-stamping by a hand-picked constitutional assembly, the regime then cancelled even that planned consultation. As a result, noted the respected UK magazine The Economist, Bainimarma has “blown his chance to preside over the creation of a new political order that is durable and legitimate.”
The other mechanism the PAP has mastered in order to make hegemony work in Singapore is its use of what George calls “calibrated coercion.” The use of violence, noted German political theorist Hannah Arendt, tends to de-legitimise power. Its use must therefore be minimised in a hegemonic system of control, according to George, lest the dictator lose his grip on power.
Authoritarian regimes often overdo their use of force, provoking a political backlash that ultimately weakens them. The Singapore government has been particularly skilled at applying the right doses of force — just enough to contain competition, but not enough to provoke widespread moral outrage.
In Fiji, of course, the use of force is fairly unrestrained. Perhaps there is a greater cultural acceptance of its use, but the basic rule of thumb when it comes to hegemony is that coercion should come in the disguise of consensus. In Bainimarama’s Fiji, bashings are business as usual. Keeping the populace in line this way, however, makes hegemony less likely to succeed. The use of force in Singapore, on the other hand, is reserved for dire circumstances. Force, of course, can take many forms. Governments can exercise their control directly or indirectly through their networks of control. In Singapore, the powers that be have chosen to do what they can to shut Cherian George up. In a decision that has prompted worldwide outrage, Nanyang Technological University (where I used to teach) recently denied George tenure, so he's basically out of a job. (Where have we heard this story before?) Those in power always have the last laugh, it seems. If they want to shut you up, they will, one way or the other. The system in Singapore is just a little bit more sophisticated and subtle than the one in Fiji.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Fiji barely registers in ICIJ database

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists put its long-awaited Offshore Leaks database online a short time ago, and boy has it been busy! You can search it for yourself to see if any of your friends or enemies have money squirreled away in offshore bank accounts.

But you'll need a lot of patience, because it keeps going down, no doubt due to all the traffic it is getting. Just keep hitting that "Try Again" button. Publication of the database is making a lot of moneybag types nervous, because stashing loot in offshore accounts is a time-tested method to evade paying taxes on it. According to the Huffington Post, the documents have been used since April to unearth stories about tax evasion by politicians in Canada, France, Malaysia, Mongolia, Pakistan and the Philippines. Now it has been made public for all to explore. Here's how the ICIJ describes the project: 
Drawing from a leaked trove of 2.5 million digital files, ICIJ has released a series of groundbreaking stories exposing the individuals behind the covert companies and private trusts based in the British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Cook Islands, Singapore and other offshore tax havens. ICIJ’s investigation, the largest in its history, has shaken political and financial institutions from Europe to South Korea to Canada
Now, I know the first question many Fijians are asking. How many offshore accounts does Interim (some say Illegal) Prime Minister Frank Bainimarma have? After all, the very busy Discombobulated Bubu has been working her sources with great effect recently to come up with the startling total of F$1.326 million that Frank has allegedly been paying himself annually in no fewer than 10 ministerial salaries, in addition to his pay as Commander of the Fiji Military. Converted to U.S. dollars, that's more than Obama gets paid. As he's been in the job . . . er, jobs for more than six years now, that would amount to more than F$8 million by now. That's a lotta loot. Do you think he's going to keep it with Westpac or ANZ? Maybe (haha) BSP? After all, he's not going to be able to hold onto power forever (despite what he seems to think), and the day may come when the spotlight is turned on just how he benefited financially from conquering his own country. He might want to have that dough stashed in a safe place overseas.

Right behind him is Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, who according to the Bubu is raking in eight ministerial salaries totaling F$1.03 million, including ironically as Minister for Anti-Corruption. These revelations have proven highly embarrassing for the regime, especially as it is requiring anyone who runs for political office to reveal not only their income and assets, but also those of close relatives. Meanwhile, of course, the regime has been reluctant to disclose just how much its top members have been benefiting from ruling Fiji. The hypocrisy is palpable. The Bubu has been busy trying to get to the bottom of just how the money is funneled to the six regime bosos who reportedly run Fiji. It is apparently done through the murky Hawala system favored by Muslims and in this case run by Khaiyum's Aunty Nur in Auckland.

That's why the publication of ICIJ's database was awaited with great anticipation by regime watchers, but they will likely be disappointed if the results of my first few simple keyword searches are any indication. Typing "Bainimarama" into the search box comes up with nothing. Of course, the account needn't be in his name. That would be too obvious. It could be in a company created to keep the money in. A favorite trick to avoid detection is a "numbered" company which doesn't even have a name, just a number. In Frank's case it's prolly something like 123456 Ltd. Hmmm. Nothing for that either. Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum does return three hits, but two of them are in Cairo and the other is in Mumbai, so they are likely different ASKs.

In fact, typing Fiji into the search engine returns only 23 hits in total, and several of those are duplicates. There are three categories: Officers & Master Clients, Offshore Entities, and Listed Addresses. Here's what we get for Fiji.
Officers & Master Clients (1)
Offshore Entities (6)
Listed Addresses (16)
The sole listing for Officers & Master Clients is Shipbuilding Fiji Limited. The six Offshore Entities would ideally equate to the reported six regime bigwigs *in your dreams* but in reality they are:

As for the 16 Listed Addresses, they are as follows, along with the names of the account holders which you get when clicking on the link. 

Now, not being a Fijian, these names are not familiar to me. William W. Clarke is a name I recognise as a Suva lawyer. He could be holding the money in trust for a client. As for the rest, readers of this blog may have a better idea of who they are. Of course, the magic of Google could help here. Natinkumar Patel is . . . well, there are a few possibilities. One is connected to the Foundation for the Education of Needy Children in Fiji, so he's gotta be one of the Good Guys. Vladimir Fedorov . . . well, there's one who is a retired Russian ice dancer who won a bronze medal at the 1993 Olympics. Well, obviously this is going to take some sorting. You all can figure it out just as well as I can, prolly better.

Of course, the account need not be listed in Fiji. If the regime slush fund is being sluiced through Auckland, it's likely that any accounts are registered there, and there are 13 Offshore Entities and 130 Listed Address in Auckland. Hmmm, what's this Showater Limited? There's lotsa water in Fiji. Nope, that's Craig Alan Hemsworth. What about Capman Holdings Limited? Does Frank ever wear a cap? Nah, he wears one of those military commander hats when he's not wearing feathers. It's some guy named Mark McSweeney. Hey, I know. Let's just try Nur Bano Ali. Nope, nothing. Typing . . . typing . . . DAMN! Typing . . . typing . . . DAMN! Typing . . . typing . . . DAMN! 


UPDATE: Here’s something interesting on a Kelvin John Wade. According to an article in the Melbourne Age on 18 November 1983, which reported on hearings held by the Costigan Royal Commission, a bookmaker by that name “may have had as many as 40 accounts under false names.” The Costigan commission investigated criminal activities associated with the Painters and Dockers Union and uncovered evidence of tax evasion schemes.

Ramesh Solanki appears to be President of the Fiji Textile, Clothing and Footwear Council.

Swedish national Arne Bjorck was involved in a lawsuit in American Samoa which alleged in 1995 that he intended to divert a fishing vessel and its catch to Sweden instead of New Zealand.

Peter Ian Knight is an attorney with Cromptons in Suva and a former President of the Fiji Law Society.

There is a Natin Patel with the Asian Development Bank in Suva who is apparently quite the bowler.

Stanley Hancock is Director of Business Development & Investments for Pacific Building Solutions in Suva. He is also a specialist in marketing, business feasibility studies, financing and joint-venture co-ordination with Eco-Consult Pacific.

David Miller is Director of Taveuni Development Company, whose address is  Level 8, Pacific House, Butt Street, Suva.

Hey, this is fun!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A classic example of doublespeak

Wikipedia defines doublespeak as “language that deliberately disguises, distorts, or reverses the meaning of words.” It is closely associated with the concept of "doublethink" developed by George Orwell in his classic 1949 novel 1984. Political economist and media analyst Edward S. Herman gave a nice description of doublespeak in his bookBeyond Hypocrisy: Decoding the News in an Age of Propaganda
What is really important in the world of doublespeak is the ability to lie, whether knowingly or unconsciously, and to get away with it; and the ability to use lies and choose and shape facts selectively, blocking out those that don’t fit an agenda or program.
I read with some interest an account on Pacific Scoop of the latest issue of Pacific Journalism Review, especially since it was headlined "Pacific research journal slams Fiji censorship, political ‘shackles.’" I therefore expected strong words in the issue's editorial, which is the only article freely available online yet. I was disappointed. I felt I had been the victim of doublespeak, or at least false advertising. If that qualifies as "slamming" censorship and shackling, no wonder the junta wanted me out of the country. Under the headline "Captive to a political elite," the editorial hardly slammed the regime. Its strongest line on the subject reads as follows: "Fiji is a tough, but not wholly insurmountable, problem." It admits that Fiji media are "shackled," but finds lots of space for dissent against the regime, including online. It seems to think the media in the South Pacific should take a look in the mirror first and sees "introspection" as the solution.

From reading the abstracts, the strongest criticisms of the junta would seem to come in articles authored by Mosmi Bhim, a very brave FNU lecturer, and Bob Hooper, a frequent visitor from the U.S. Bhim 's hard-hitting paper is titled "Constitution-making in a stifled democracy: A case-study of self-censorship perpetuating propaganda in Fiji." I have read a 2012 version written before the constitutional review process headed by Yash Ghai went off the rails at year's end and degenerated into a spat that included a clumsy smear campaign, an online leak, and copies of the draft constitution in flames.
Bhim writes of media self-censorship, government warnings of a harsh crackdown on ‘trouble-makers’, and government promises of free, fair, and transparent elections—all in the same breath. With the objective of maintaining the peace, the media can no longer report inflammatory political speeches. But is this a recipe for order? Or will it lead to bottled-up emotions taking more extreme forms?
Hooper's article, which I have just read to my dismay, is provocatively titled "When the barking stopped: Censorship, self-censorship and spin in Fiji." From his frequent visits teaching television journalism, Hooper has tracked the situation over a span of 20 years. He detects a turn for the worse recently as a result of not just the junta crackdown but also geopolitical posturing. His prognosis, notes the editorial, is "grim."
In his latest trip, Hooper encountered a domestic media gagged by lawsuits, a pervasive climate of self-censorship and, for good measure, highly paid US ‘spin doctors’. For Hooper, the Fiji crisis reflects the decline of Western interest and influence in the Pacific, with China and even Russia only too eager to fill the void.
The reference in the editorial's headline to elites comes from the preliminary findings of a national survey of media in Fiji done by Shailendra Singh. It finds "a relatively young, inexperienced and untrained journalist cohort captive to a political elite that serves as its prime news source." Increased education, unsurprisingly, would help make journalists "resistant to rhetoric and able to provide analytical coverage." It will be interesting to compare this conception of elites to that referred to by regime leaders in trashing the Ghai draft constitution earlier this year.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Military monopoly on truth

And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field. We do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and falsehood grapple. Whoever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter? – John Milton, Areopagitica, 1644
Grubby probably thinks that I've lost interest in his splutterings and that it's safe to resume his prevarications, but I have only been otherwise occupied. I do keep one eye on Fiji media, however, and when sufficiently outraged I intend to issue forth accordingly. Such a time has come, as Grubby has chosen a topic on which he is ill-qualified to comment, ie. The Truth.

Logo by Boo
As any second-year journalism student who has learned her lessons knows, The Truth can be a very elusive commodity. Different people have different versions of it. Some claim there is no such thing. Journalism is wedded to reporting the truth, but it is ill-equipped to determine it. Courts can sit for weeks and months taking testimony and hearing argument about exactly what the truth is and can often only come up with a best guess, so how are journalists supposed to determine the truth, as Grubby would have them do? Luckily they deal with a specific type of truth journalistic truth. Journalism, it has been long said, is merely the first draft of history. Often the truth only comes out in the fullness of time, to be told further refined by historians such as myself. The daily grind of reporting only allows a glimpse into what may or may not be the truth. Journalistic truth is hardly the final word. It is instead, according to the Elements of Journalism, more like a conversation. As difficult as it is to divine the truth, it notes, "seen as a process over time, journalism can get at it."
It attempts to get at the truth in a confused world by stripping information first of any attached misinformation, disinformation, or self-promoting information and then letting the community react, and the sorting-out process ensue. The search for truth becomes a conversation. Rather than rushing to add context and interpretation, the press needs to concentrate on synthesis and verification.
This is exactly what is not happening right now in Fiji. Instead of a conversation, some Fijians are told that they must "shut up." Only the military government's version of reality, from the pens of captive journalists and propagandists such as Grubby and Croz, will be allowed. This version is very different from . . . well, from the truth. Just how different depends on the skill of the government propagandists and the degree of control exerted by the government. In this case, they are scant and great, respectively. Which brings us to Grubby's splutterings on truthfulness. He objects to an interview given by former prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry to Radio Australia recently in which he issued according to Grubby manifest untruth. 
He claimed that the Fiji media continued to be saddled with restrictions that prevented any party that opposed the Bainimarama Government from getting proper coverage. This is simply untrue. There are no restrictions on media coverage of Chaudhry’s comments or, indeed, the comments of any other political leader.
I try to stay out of Fiji politics and stick to my area of expertise, which is matters of media, but I'm pretty sure that Chaudhry is correct in what he said. The news media in Fiji are firmly under the dictator's thumb. This has been confirmed recently by several independent international observers. Freedom House, for example, gave Fiji a press freedom score of 56 for the second straight year. [NOTE: I made a minor error here -- Fiji's press freedom score in 2011 from Freedom House was 57, not 56.] Despite the lifting of censorship in early 2012, Fiji's press is no [hardly] freer than before because of the draconian Media Decree. Fiji ranked 120th in the world for press freedom, according to this report, right behind Uganda and Moldova. The country report for Fiji has yet to be issued, but it will be presently available here. I'm sure the press freedom elves are cobbling just as fast as they can. In the meantime, what other data do we have by which to judge the truthfulness of Chaudry's statement versus Grubby's? How about the UK’s Human Rights and Democracy report, which was issued last month? The section on Fiji is not flattering.
Media freedom remains severely limited. Although government censors have been removed from newsrooms, the application of a range of punitive measures means that self-censorship now prevails. The judiciary remains compromised. Those who criticise the government continue to face harassment and intimidation.
Then there's the U.S. State Department's Fiji 2012 Human Rights Report, which is available in both HTML and PDF. It is no more heartening than the UK report, but much more detailed. "Independent media could not operate freely under the Media Decree," it reported. "The attorney general continued to prosecute media organizations for contempt of court if they reported any discussion questioning judicial independence." Intimidation of journalists continued unabated, according to the report. "Some journalists reported they were given verbal warnings by authorities not to publish articles critical of the government." There may no longer be government censorship, in other words, but self-censorship has proven just as effective a means of government control.
Journalists and media organizations continued to practice varying degrees of self-censorship . . . with many reportedly fearing retribution if they criticized the government. Media continued to refuse to publish opinion articles by antigovernment academics and commentators.
The main tactic used by MINFO to muzzle reporting on government, aside from intimidation, was noted in the U.S. report. As the Media Decree requires stories to be balanced, simply refusing comment is sufficient to forestall any contentious reporting.
This requirement enabled government departments and private businesses to prevent stories from being published by not responding to media questions, thus making it impossible for the media to fulfill the decree’s requirement for comment from both sides. However, media sources reported that if the story was positive toward the government, the balance requirement could be ignored without consequence.
So I think we can safely conclude that Chaudhry was spot on in his comment to Radio Australia, while Grubby's protestation is just more low-grade government disinformation. It really boggles the mind that he is able to keep his propaganda gig. Perhaps some Fijians are gullible enough to swallow his swill. Hopefully no one who reads this blog is. Even more idiotic than Grubby's insistence that there are no restrictions on media coverage of opposition politicians in Fiji is his explanation that Chaudhry doesn't get any domestic coverage because he doesn't talk to Fiji media and that Fiji media know better than to report his claims because they "have only a passing acquaintance with the truth." According to Grubby, it is not the job of news media to merely report the claims of prominent people on important matters, but instead to first determine their truthfulness and to then report only those it deems to be correct.
As one journalist put it to Grubsheet: “Why should we report what these guys are saying when we know it to be false?” The answer is “you shouldn’t.” As the Fijian opposition evidently sees it, the local media is there to report their utterances without question. No. They are there to report without fear or favour but are under no compunction to report comments that are either untrue or are not newsworthy judged by conventional media standards.
Wrong again, Grubby. If Chaudhry's claims are incorrect, this should eventually be revealed and will reflect poorly upon his competence as a politician. This is how it works in a democracy, where a good reporter is only too eager to report a politician uttering an untruth. Journalistic truth, after all, is a sorting-out process or a conversation. But the problem is that only one side gets to speak in Fiji. Is there any wonder Chaudhry speaks to Radio Australia but not to domestic media? But there is good news on the truthfulness front. According to the Fiji Sun and what more truthful source could one possibly want? the junta has apparently found the solution to the difficult problem of determining what is truth and what is a lie.
Any political party or member found spreading lies to cause trouble will be charged, the Fiji Police Force has warned. Speaking to Fiji Sun yesterday, Police chief of operations Assistant Commissioner of Police Rusiate Tudravu hinted that they have mounted a joint operation with the Republic of Fiji Military Forces to monitor political activities.
So from now on if people like Chaudhry attempt to spread lies to foreign media, such as saying there is no press freedom in Fiji, they will luckily be brought to justice. According to Grubby, this will likely be another glorious victory for press freedom.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Al Jazeera takes on just another dictator

The international news pioneer Al Jazeera has lots of experience covering dictators. The Qatar-based satellite TV broadcaster, which was founded in 1996 with US$137 million in funding from that Persian Gulf country's emir, made its name covering the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Bainimarma: "That's an insult."
That was the subject of a fascinating documentary by Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim, called Control Room, which explored important issues of objectivity and propaganda. Al Jazeera brought a balance not before seen in Arab media, broadcasting not just government propaganda, but also daring to cover the other side as well. Its motto was "The opinion and the other opinion," and it took balance so seriously that soon Israeli voices were even heard in the Arab world. That angered many Middle Eastern governments, so much so that Al Jazeera was banned from Iraq, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. It was also denounced by the U.S. for airing video of battlefield corpses and interviews with POWs and even Osama bin Laden. Its rich funding has allowed Al Jazeera to install 70 correspondents in 35 bureaus around the world at one count, enabling it to provide coverage of international events that has arguably surpassed CNN and now rivals BBC World. It soon became the go-to source during the Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings that began springing up across the Middle East a couple of years ago. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called it "real news," in contrast to the pap produced by the American networks.
You may not agree with it, but you feel like you're getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news which, you know, is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners.
Al Jazeera began broadcasting in English in 2006 but was unable to gain a toehold on more than a few cable systems in the U.S. and Canada. It may have remedied that problem earlier this year when it bought tiny cable channel Current TV from former U.S. vice president Al Gore for $500 million, which it will use as the base for its planned Al Jazeera America. It is now in the process of beefing up its U.S.-based journalism and just last week lured away CNN anchor Ali Velshi, who is an Arab-Canadian. Al Jazeera even provides much of the international news coverage seen in Fiji, as it is broadcast on both Mai TV and FBC to help fill those long hours of off-prime programming. That makes its interview with prime minister Frank Bainimarama significant, because the hard questions it asked Fiji's dictator stand in sharp contrast to the timid coverage provided by the country's domestic networks.

Can you imagine a reporter for FBC or Fiji TV describing the prime minister's constitutional consultations the way that Al Jazeera correspondent Andrew Thomas did? "What might seem like the ultimate democratic exercise, asking all Fijians to review and endorse this document," intoned Thomas, holding up a copy of the Bainimarma draft, "is dismissed by many as a sham, a way for Fiji’s military ruler to tighten his grip on power." Then the Sydney-based "roving" correspondent, who has been with Al Jazeera since 2010, had the temerity to actually allow a Fijian to voice these types of concerns. It's a good thing he got out of the country before his report went to air. Now that it has, Thomas may not be allowed back. He read his report on the Bainimarama draft over repeated shots of the Fiji Sun's screaming front page headline that recently urged Fijians to SUPPORT HIM.
It keeps Bainimarama in power until election day and allows him to lean on the media and sideline opposition parties and critics in the run-up to it. Then it gives extraordinary powers to whoever is elected prime minister. No community leaders will review this document. Instead the prime minister has taken to the airwaves, asking the people to put their comments straight to him. 
The report then shows Thomas and Bainimarama walking and talking, with Permanent Secretary for Information Sharon Smith-Johns following close behind. “No, no, all positive, no criticism,” Bainimarama is heard telling Thomas before the report switches to an exchange from their sit-down interview.
Thomas: Are you confident that you will win next year’s election and is that because you’ve essentially rigged the constitution to make sure you do get elected?

Bainimarama: I think that’s an insult to the people that’s put together this constitution, when you say “by rigging this constitution.” You don’t rig [a] constitution. The constitution is for the people of the Fiji. You think I did all this just to rig the constitution?
The report then cuts to the British-born correspondent telling viewers that this is "exactly what some people do think." Cut to an interview with CCF head Rev. Akuila Yabaki. "This amounts really to a constitutional coup," Yabaki tells Thomas. "He would have been the author of a constitution that concentrates power in the prime minister, and if he becomes prime minister he benefits from a constitution which he himself has authored." To which Bainimarama protested that his critics are "talking out of the top of their heads. They don’t know, really. They don’t want to know what we have in place." Thomas left Fiji's democratic future hanging in his extro: "As well as a tropical paradise, Frank Bainimarama says he wants Fiji to be known as a respected democracy. Whether his constitution can provide that, though, is unclear." But in a subsequent blog post, Thomas gives a more candid assessment of the regime's draft constitution.
Many in Fiji and elsewhere fear the government-sanctioned charter will merely provide cover for ongoing autocratic rule. . . . There has to be a level playing field going into [elections]; the dice can't be weighted in one candidate's favour. That's what good constitutions ensure.  They level playing fields and make sure the dice aren't dodgy.
Then he tells the story of the lunch he attended on Thursday with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who hosted a group of foreign correspondents. Seated conveniently close to the Seat of Power, he says he was able to apprise her of his visit to Fiji and grill her on the situation there. Gillard gave the "stock response about Fiji," according to Thomas, "without referring directly to concerns over the latest incarnation of the constitution."
She said, "Commodore Bainimarama needs to be held to his promises and accountabilities about having those elections, and they need to be held on time and properly done." Few now doubt Bainimarama is indeed committed to the first part, that elections are held "on time". But, without the second part as well, elections “properly done”, Fiji may be a democracy in name only. 
Al Jazeera has now given worldwide TV coverage to the misgivings many have over Bainimarama's manipulation of Fiji's constitutional process. Coming hard on the heels of the Economist's recent dissection of his machinations, it shows that it is unlikely Bainimarama's draft constitution will stand up to international scrutiny, at least from journalists. Whether it will pass muster with foreign leaders is another matter, of course. But one thing is for sure, as Thomas notes in ending his blog post: "Constitutional clauses can sometimes be dry, but they can also be crucial."