Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Pacific media puppetmaster

I was somewhat surprised to see David Robie stick his head above the parapet the other day to take some shots at me. That's not normally his style. Robie can usually be found behind the curtain, throwing levers, pushing people's buttons and pulling their strings. But I have noticed his fingerprints all over the smear campaign that has been ongoing against me since I dared to disagree with his pronouncement (and that of Graham Davis) that the PINA conference last March brought peace to Pacific media. Make no mistake, Robie is the third leg of the Fiji regime's propaganda stool that is more publicly presented by bloggers Davis and Crosbie Walsh. Robie's support for the repression the military dictatorship has inflicted on the country's news media is longstanding and central to justifying the current regime's tight control. In fact, his 2001 "Coup coup land" theory was the very justification for the draconian 2010 Media Decree that provides fines and even prison sentences for journalists. This theory is that the Fiji news media, specifically the Fiji Times, were responsible for the 2000 coup because of their unremitting criticism of the government of the day. They thus cannot be trusted with freedom and must be subject to statutory regulation as in the Media Decree. My reading of the record suggests instead that the Times was practising good solid journalism in most instances in holding the government to account. The 2000 coup and other coups are instead attributable, from what I can see, to the overbearing presence of the military and the lack of any rule of law in Fiji. Robie has been pushing government-friendly alternatives to press freedom in Fiji and elsewhere in the South Pacific, namely "development" journalism, which sees media working in partnership with government to encourage development, and "peace" journalism, which envisions media proactively proposing solutions to conflict in society rather than merely reporting events neutrally. I prefer "watchdog" journalism that holds powerful institutions to account, especially governments.

The one thing Robie cannot stand is anyone disagreeing with him. He is, after all, the King of Pacific Journalism. Dissenters and especially outsiders such as myself are subject to denigration, discrediting, and worse. In my case, far from descending to do the deed himself, Robie has let his students and paid henchmen for Qorvis do most of the dirty work in attacking me. In the wake of my interview with Radio Australia last April that questioned the "Pacific media at peace" narrative, his recent Master's graduate Thakur Ranjit Singh got first crack with a scathing column in the Fiji Sun.
Perhaps Dr Edge needs to take a lecture from Professor David Robie, head of Pacific Media Centre and former head of journalism at USP, on peace journalism, on better understanding of press in the Pacific, non-suitability of western-style conflict journalism in Fiji and how to utilise the potential capability of USP’s journalism school. Dr Edge’s assertion that a form of development communication was not suitable for Fiji shows his lack of depth about underlying media problems in Fiji and the Pacific.
I had mentioned to David at the PINA conference how interesting I found Singh's thesis blaming the 2000 coup on the Fiji Times, but I also told him I found it terribly one-sided and biased. Upon reading Singh's insulting attack on me, I felt moved to go public with my misgivings over his scholarship. That drew a defence from Robie, who as I recall privately agreed with my observations about Singh's admitted bias. "Mr Singh was examined robustly by three external examiners with expert knowledge of Fiji media and coups," wrote Robie in a letter to the Sun defending AUT scholarship publicly. "Dr Edge does not qualify in this category." Perhaps not, but I can read, and Singh clearly states his purpose on page 3 of his thesis: “No in-depth study through a systematic content analysis had been done to substantiate the allegations that have been made by Chaudhry and his supporters and repeated by various academics and politicians since initially postulated through MLP by Robie.” He sets out that his goal is to substantiate the allegations made by deposed prime minister Mahendra Chaudry, and promoted by his professor, that the Fiji Times was to blame for the 2000 coup. Setting out to prove pre-conceived notions is not supposed to be the goal of scholarship, which is instead supposed to be a process of neutral inquiry.

After that, Robie could barely even mention my name on his blog Café Pacific, instead referring to me only as "one Canadian media educator" in an entry of May 12. Café Pacific and AUT's Pacific Media Centre websites regularly reprint attacks on regime critics by Australian "journalist" Graham Davis, who admitted in September that he is a paid propagandist for U.S. public relations firm Qorvis Communications, which is under contract for US$1 million a year to promote the Fiji junta. Davis, who hounded me relentlessly on his blog and in the Fiji Sun due to my advocacy for press freedom in Fiji, criticised a certain gathering I organised in September which was designed to explore issues of media and democracy in the South Pacific. Davis dubbed it "Edgefest." Robie found the attack by Davis, which was reprinted across a full page of the next day's Fiji Sun, to be the most cogent coverage of the event.
The most insightful preliminary article was actually an offshore blog column on Grubsheet by Fiji-born journalist Graham Davis who wasn't actually even there (and should have been invited). While this mainly dealt with behind-the-scenes tensions leading into the conference, it at least raised some of the core philosophical issues facing the future of  regional media.
The next attack on me soon came from a tag team made up of two of Robie's students. After the September event, they went public with their disaffection for me in reports which were published in successive editions of the Fiji Sun one weekend. Master's student Alex Perottet quoted someone reminding me at this event that there had been great achievements in the past. “It is not year zero, and you need to understand the local context … If you come with the wrong attitude you put a lot of people off, and then it’s a very bad start.” PhD student Rukhsana Aslam wrote a bizarre column which basically screamed "my professor is better than your professor." She saw the difference as a matter of cultural assimilation. "Mostly, foreign journalists enter a new and troubled country with a pre-set mind that already has the division of 'me vs them.' They are there to tell the world how the local communities are falling short of the 'Westernised' ideals of democracy, human rights, tolerance."
Or they are, like Dr Marc Edge . . . working to “raise the standards to an international level”. They may sympathise or even empathise with the locals but always from a distance – they never connect, never become one with them. In order to be accepted by the people, one needs to belong to them. In turn they are owned by people. One example is Professor David Robie, a Kiwi journalist-turned-academic, who is professor in the School of Communication Studies at AUT University and director of the Pacific Media Centre. He has been referred to by many Pacific Islanders as being “one of us”. Not only because he understands the complexities of socio-political context of the Pacific countries, but because of the way has he identified himself with their people.
Of course, my mistake was to suggest in the first place that journalism standards in the Pacific could possibly be raised. That might mean that the Great Professor of Journalism hadn't been doing his job very well over the years. No wonder he reacted the way he did, reminding all present how great things were when he was there, and even when he was in Papua New Guinea. That's what any discussion of Pacific journalism always turns into when Robie is involved. Others might as well not even exist. I noticed that I quickly became a non-person as far as AUT was concerned. Like this story, which I actually sent out to the media. By the time it got picked up by PMC, I was nowhere to be found and instead the story got around to, as usual, how great things used to be under Robie. Or how about just last week, when I broke a bit of a scoop in the form of the Ghai commission's outside report on Fiji's Media Decree, which predicted it would result in propaganda and self-censorship by journalists. PMC just picked it up uncredited, downplayed the criticisms in the report, and even downloaded it and posted it on their own website. It doesn't take too long to figure out the bias of regional media outlets. PMC is obviously pro-regime, as is Robie. Just last week PMC was full of stories about how great things were in Fiji's media, like this one and this one. I should have known that Robie was back to pimping the dictatorship when I read this last week.

But I'm glad that David has come out from behind his curtain and stuck his head above the parapet. When he starts taking shots at other people he will have to start defending his own actions. And he has a lot to answer for.

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