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?

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