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.