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.