Friday, January 24, 2014

Singapore-style press control? Not in Fiji

My article comparing press control systems in Fiji and Singapore has now been published online by Sage and will be forthcoming in the April issue of the A-ranked journal International Communication Gazette, which is published out of the Netherlands. It is a revised version of a paper I presented at the 2011 Fiji Literary Festival. Here's the abstract:
Constraints imposed on the press in Fiji under the 2010 Media Decree have been compared with the system of press control in Singapore. The two systems are, however, quite different. The type of hegemonic control that has been achieved in Singapore is unlikely to be replicated in Fiji. The press in Singapore was brought to heel over a period of decades through regulation, including licensing, and legal intimidation in a sophisticated system that utilizes corporate control to ensure that journalists exercise self-censorship. A military dictatorship in place in Fiji since 2006 instead criminalized journalism ethics in the Media Decree and has engaged in repression and censorship of journalists. Fiji’s press system, and the regime’s attempts to control it, were the subject of intense scrutiny in advance of elections planned for September 2014.
The thrust of the article is that those who liken the crude system of press control introduced by the 2010 Fiji Media Decree to the subtle and insidious system in Singapore are greatly mistaken. The government in Singapore has developed and continually tightened its grip on that country's press over the past 40 years or so. Newspaper companies are required by the 1974 Newspaper and Printing Presses Act to trade shares on the stock exchange. A number of management shares are required to be held by the government, which as a result is entitled to appoint directors to the company's board. The resulting top-down control has brought self-censorship which has been called 'Singapore's shame'. The foreign press has been brought to heel by a series of economic disincentives to criticise the Singapore regime, including huge damage awards for libel awarded by a captive judiciary and the banning or limiting of circulation for offending publications.

Fiji, on the other hand, has simply criminalised the former code of ethics of the defunct Media Council, threatening fines and even jail sentences in the Media Decree for what were once ethical violations. Foreign journalists who dare to report critically on the regime, such as Michael Field and Sean Dorney, are simply banned from the country, which of course doesn't prevent them from reporting critically. Censorship imposed under the Public Emergency Regulation has conditioned journalists to refrain from criticising the regime, and media outlets that do dare to question dictator Frank Bainimarama are dealt with harshly. Recent examples of that include the Fiji Times being hit with a $300,000 fine for reprinting a soccer story from New Zealand that included a comment from a FIFA official questioning the independence of Fiji's judiciary, and Fiji TV being put on a series of six-month broadcasting licences (as opposed to the usually 12-years) under the TV Decree, which was imposed shortly after it aired interviews with two former prime ministers who questioned the need for a new constitution.

So how did the misconception arise that Fiji's Media Decree was patterned after Singapore's repressive press model? It likely began with the controversial 2008 Anthony Report, which urged that 'wise restraints . . . be culled from the Singapore legislation on the establishment of a Media Development Authority.' The dictator then called on the media to be more like the Singapore media, 'not pro this Government or any government but pro-Fiji nation.' Many thus assumed that the resulting Media Decree was patterned after Singapore's system, and the myth was perpetuated by a Radio Australia interview. A comparison of the Media Decree with Singapore legislation published in the Pacific Journalism Review concluded that 'many of the sections were copied word-for-word' from Singapore's 2003 Media Development Act. The comparison, which was authored by a prominent Fiji public relations executive while he was a graduate student at Bond University in Australia, was correct as far as it went. It failed to apprehend, however, that Singapore's Media Development Act regulated only broadcasting and online media. Newspapers were regulated by the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act. How did that gaffe slip through the peer-review process? No wonder PJR is a B-ranked journal.

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