Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Who on earth is Ashwin Raj? Part I

The new Chairman of Fiji’s Media Industry Development Authority, Ashwin Raj, has been cracking the whip on the nation’s press – and even on overseas journalists – ever since his appointment last year. His stridency is in sharp contrast to the style of his predecessor, FNU literature scholar Professor Subramani, who kept a low profile and seemed reluctant to carry out the regime’s media diktats. 

Ashwin Raj lays down the law to Fiji's media
Raj apparently suffers no similar compunction about playing the role of media commissar, and his assault on the press, both foreign and domestic, over the past six months has been dizzying. Basking in his new-found limelight, the previously obscure Raj has unleashed a vocabulary that would drive even the most erudite faculty member to a dictionary. By attempting to impress with polysyllabic prowess, however, the diminutive failed academic displays an intellectual inferiority complex that is as enormous as it is obvious.

Raj first moved against Fiji's media last October, when he announced that MIDA would set up a media monitoring unit to ensure that coverage of the coming election campaign will be balanced and unbiased. He also announced that freelancers, public relations operatives, and foreign journalists in Fiji would henceforth have to register with MIDA and follow the regime’s restrictive Media Decree. The Cook Islands-based Pacific Freedom Forum spoke out against the added restrictions as “another layer of scrutiny in what is already a tightly regulated media environment.” Some Fiji media actually dared to report on that story, which apparently led to a sharp private rebuke from Raj.

At the annual Attorney-General’s conference in December, Raj lashed out against those who saw the Media Decree as an attempt to gag the press.
Alarmingly, little effort has been made to actually enter the protocols of the Decree and read through its provisions, which provides a nuanced framework for the enforcement of media standards. If media holds the State accountable, the question then is ‘who guards the guard?’ What legal recourse does the public have in the event that the media has wronged them?
But these were merely appetizers for Raj’s showdown with journalists in the New Year. At the Pacific Islands News Association conference in Noumea in February, he took umbrage with ABC journalist Sean Dorney telling an interviewer that some there felt the press in Fiji “wasn’t as free and open . . . as it should be.” At a social function that evening, Raj reportedly went off on Dorney, who had also privately urged that PINA should stand up more for press freedom, calling him a two-faced “Janus” and promising that he would never be allowed back into Fiji. He followed that up with a letter of protest to the ABC’s Managing Director that threw around howlers like “asseverated,” and “epistemic,” as if to show the Australians how intelligent he was. “Mr Dorney’s lucubration’s [sic.] are mired in generalisations without any substantiation,” railed Raj, who simultaneously deemed MIDA a rousing success with regional governments. “Five months into my appointment, MIDA is beginning to enjoy the trust and confidence of the international community.”

The silliness continued in what can only be described as MIDA’s own version of March Madness. Unable to extract retribution against Dorney, Raj dragged into his feud the Pacific Media Assistance Scheme, which is funded by the ABC administered by ABC International, forcing it to cancel a planned workshop for journalists in Fiji. Raj then demanded that PACMAS distance itself from the ABC and Dorney. In outlining his independent media monitoring unit of "people who have a wealth of experience in the media industry," Raj then announced that he would also require all media outlets to disclose their editorial policies. “I need to know why certain letters get published at the exclusion of others.” The craziness recently culminated, of course, when Raj could simply stand no more of the Fiji media’s insolence and insubordination. After Fiji TV reported a speech by a chief in the prime minister’s home province that pointed to ethnic divisions in Fiji society, Raj deemed it hateful and summoned the press for a stern tongue lashing, even admonishing assembled journalists for discussing such issues on social media like Facebook. 

All of which begs the question, who on earth is Ashwin Raj? He has absolutely no media experience in his background, from what I can tell, and as such he would be highly unlikely to enjoy even a scintilla of confidence among members of the industry he regulates. His most extensive media experience, it seems, comes from reading newspapers and authoring the occasional response. “I would engage with the media as a bystander,” he has explained. “I’d write letters to the editor.” His lack of expertise on media issues is painfully obvious, and his independence is highly suspect. “I’ve got a six member board that keeps me accountable,” he has said, yet the membership of MIDA – which is supposed to include representatives of women, children, and consumers, in addition to the Solicitor-General and someone with media experience – is apparently a closely-guarded state secret.

He is also not a lawyer, as he freely admits, which you would think might come in handy for someone tasked with administering a regulatory act. “I’ve always read law from the perspective of society,” he reasoned for journalists.
It’s one thing to have pure, legal interpretation of the law and another to say, well what does it mean for society and how does society think through legal instruments? Law means nothing unless and until it materializes in the lives of people.
So what do we know about Ashwin Raj and his actual accomplishments? Does he have any to his credit? It is highly unlikely that any journalist in Fiji would dare investigate, much less report on his background, or lack thereof, under the current reign of media terror over which Raj presides. That leaves it to this blog to find out what is known about him and publicize it in order to put the current media climate in Fiji into context. In his day job, Raj is a mid-level administrator at a regional university. He comes from an extremely modest background, being born to a Muslim seamstress and a Hindu gardener (at Marist Brothers school) and raised in a Vatuwaqa shack. His parents' elopement apparently caused his mother to become estranged from her family, which objected to the mixed union, and this caused no small amount of distress for young Ashwin. He came out as gay a few years ago and was active in the Drodrolagi movement which advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer rights in Fiji until quitting the group a couple of years ago. He then began to ingratiate himself with the regime and has been advancing within it rapidly. He delivered the opening address to the 2012 Attorney General's conference (at about the same time that I was being hounded out of Fiji), at which he declared his admiration for the regime's "surgical strike" in 2006. Within a few months, he had been elevated as the Master of MIDA.

Ashwin Raj in Hawai'i
Ashwin Avinesh Raj holds a Master’s degree in Political Science from the University of Hawai’i, which he attended from 2002-05 on a United States-South Pacific Islands scholarship to the East-West Center. He then enrolled in doctoral studies at Australian National University’s program in Pacific and Asian History, where he began work on his dissertation topic: “Allegories of the Human: Rights of Indentured and ‘Free’ Indians and the Production of Humanity, 1879-1937.” That is where his academic career went off the rails, however. Despite spending a year doing research in the Fiji Archives, Raj proved to be all talk and no action, failing to submit even one chapter of his doctoral thesis. He was eventually required to leave Australia on the expiration of his student visa in 2009. 

Raj did prove to be a prolific letter writer during his time in Canberra, however, and some of his submissions to the Fiji Times belie his current complicity in the regime. “Instead of channelling hundreds of thousands of dollars to investigate the media and institute meaningless commissions of inquiry that tell you the obvious,” he wrote in 2008 to criticise the Fiji Human Rights Commission, including its report on Fiji media by University of Hawai’i political scientist James Anthony, “that money would have been better spent feeding and clothing the poor and the homeless.” A letter published the previous year, however, provides an even more delicious irony given Raj’s current position in charge of the regime’s machinery of media repression. He began it in a manner eerily similar to his recent diatribe against the Fiji media, which began: “I’m quite perturbed by the level of public discourse in Fiji as we head towards the national elections.” His 2007 letter began: “I am perturbed by the mood of public discourse in relation to the political developments since the 2006 military takeover.
Rampant anti-intellectualism, purist and locationist jibes and the very curious rise of self selected moral entrepreneurs who give philanthropy without democracy now seem to be the dominant discourses of this particular strand of democracy propagated by the proverbial monkey of good governance called the “interim administration.”
Next: Ashwin Raj on the “(Im)possibilities of Democracy.”

Saturday, April 5, 2014

MIDA takes on Facebook

Apparently it’s not enough for the Media Industry Development Authority to intimidate Fiji’s journalists into self-censorship and timidity. Now the new masters of MIDA want to also rein in discussion on social media like Facebook. There’s only one problem. As usual, they don’t seem to have the foggiest notion of what they’re talking about.

MIDA's Ashwin Raj (left) and Matai Akauola
MIDA Chair Ashwin Raj summoned the nation’s press to a “mandatory” press conference the other day, the metaphorical equivalent of a misbehaving child being summoned to the headmaster's office for a scolding. The nominal subject was “hate speech,” of which Raj had found Fiji TV guilty (without the need for a hearing, of course) for broadcasting rather mild comments by a chief in the prime minister’s home province who pointed to ethnic divisions in Fiji society. As ethnic divisions aren’t allowed to exist in Frank Bainimarma’s multiracial paradise, the regime went off the deep end. Its media authoritarians were immediately tasked by the prime minister with bringing to heel not only Fiji TV, but the rest of Fiji’s press corps as well, lest reporting of the upcoming election campaign get out of hand and actually include criticism of the dictator.

The omnipotent Raj dutifully complied with remarkable alacrity, quickly finding Ratu Timoci Vesikula to have violated hate speech provisions of both the 2009 Crimes Decree and the recent regime-imposed constitution and referring the matter to Fiji’s Solicitor-General for disposition. He also found Fiji TV guilty of violating the 2010 Media Decree and ordered it to broadcast an apology and retraction, as if the speech never happened.

As a result of this finding, Fiji TV’s licence can now be summarily revoked by the government under the 2012 TV decree, with no possibility of appeal. Its licence inconveniently came up for renewal two years ago at the same time that it made the mistake of airing interviews with two former prime ministers who questioned the need for yet another constitution. It has been renewed for only six months at a time ever since in what has been described as less a licence than a “good behavior bond.”  FijiTV, which trades on the South Pacific Stock Exchange, promptly issued a statement to shareholders last week that promised to comply with MIDA’s order. 

This set the scene for Thursday’s remarkable press conference, an audio recording of which has been uploaded to YouTube. “I’m quite perturbed by the level of public discourse in Fiji as we head towards the national elections,” Raj began, reading from a five-page letter to FijiTV which was also released to the press. 
What is even more disconcerting is the complicity of select Fijian journalists and media either wittingly or those that remain oblivious to the laws of Fiji despite several awareness workshops on the Crimes Decree, the Media Industry Development Decree and the Constitution.
Raj was just getting warmed up. In addition to finding the chief’s statement unconstitutional and in contravention of the Crimes Decree, and FijiTV in breach of the Media Decree (all without the need for a hearing or apparently even legal submissions), the non-lawyer and failed academic personally absolved himself of muzzling the press.
My decision this morning cannot be misconstrued (emphasis in the original) as an impingement on the freedom of expression or dismissed as yet another instance of gagging media freedom by MIDA as has been insinuated by some who are posturing as the praetorian guard of human rights but sadly very quiet over the issue of hate speech.
He then ran through the possible punishments for Ratu Timoci – imprisonment for 10 years – and FijiTV – a fine of up to $100,000 and imprisonment of up to two years for its senior managers. Raj then announced that he would take further legal advice on FijiTV’s punishment and ordered retraction as a preliminary measure. In reading his decision, Raj took the opportunity to put the entire Fiji news media on notice and to impose further restrictions and threats of sanction on them. MIDA will be “closely monitoring the tone of public discourse,” he said, through its recently-established “independent” media monitoring unit. 

Not only that, Raj told the assembled media throng, but henceforth he would require, “in the interests of transparency,” translations to be provided of speeches given in Fijian and Hindi at political rallies. “It is incumbent on the media in Fiji to ensure that there is no dissonance in the content of speeches and texts presented in either the vernacular or English in their various modes of delivery.” As further punishment, freelance journalists in Fiji will also now have to register with MIDA and provide "a full declaration of the organisations that they serve."

As he ran through his seven-point decision which imposed sanctions not only on the offending parties but by now on all Fijian media, Raj often deviated from his prepared text to further excoriate the assembled journalists. So it was when he finally reached his seventh and last point, which was obviously one of some vexation for the regime. Not only had Fijian journalists been derelict in their duty to report the news to the satisfaction of the regime, but they had been guilty of *shock horror* discussing it among themselves.
The conduct of a number of journalists on blogsites leaves much to be desired. One just has to see their contribution on Friends of the Fiji Media blogsite. I’m now asking all editors to address this issue as a matter of urgency.
Here is where he deviated from his text and proceeded to scold the nation’s press. “This is a question of professionalism,” he told them. “This is a question of ethical journalism.”
Be very careful what you write on these blogsites, because you’ve got an important responsibility. This is not to suffuse [sic.] the fact that you have, you know, certain political proclivities. We all have subjectivity. But that should not come in the way of your work.
He then singled out, although not by name, two members of the Facebook group Friends of Media Fiji, of which I am a member. “I’ve seen a very senior person from DFAT [Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade] who I’ve had several meetings with,” he said, obviously referring to public affairs officer Dennis Rounds, “fully engaging in Friends of the Fiji Media.” He then took a run at freelance journalist Samisoni Pareti. 
I know of an ABC correspondent who’s also with Islands Business, writes all kinds of statements, I mean absolutely callous remarks, you know, unsubstantiated. That’s not the way journalists should be conducting themselves in this country.
Raj insisted that he was not embarking on a “vendetta against select media outlets” and claimed he was independent. “People are saying that I’m a lackey of the regime,” he noted. “I’ve got no dog in the fight, except for the fact that I've got to judiciously undertake this responsibility.” But  his message to journalists was clear. “Don’t resort to blogsites where you just trash people, because that is not a sign of democracy,” he told them. “That is not a sign of freedom of expression.”

That MIDA is unfamiliar with social media is painfully obvious from its conflating of blogs with the social network Facebook, where the group Friends of Fiji Media conducts its online discussions. Blogs have bedeviled the regime for years, ever since it imposed martial law in 2009 and censored the press. Free online blogging sites such as Blogger and Wordpress, which had recently become popular, allowed users to set up sites on which to post their online ramblings. The result was the Fiji Freedom Blogs, which served as a kind of underground press in reaction to the regime’s clampdown on the mainstream media. The survivors, which are still active five years later, can be found listed on this blog, which I started in mid-2012 to chronicle some of Fiji’s media craziness. That misdeed got me run out of the country by the regime’s propaganda machinery more than a year ago. The junta has been unsuccessful in rooting out other Fiji Freedom Bloggers because most of them are already located safely offshore and aren’t so foolish as to put their name and picture on their blog, although the identities of several are well known.

Social media such as Facebook and Twitter, on the other hand, are networks and groups of friends who select each other. As a result, their discussions are not available for anyone to read, as blogs are, but only to selected "friends." These groups are self-policing on multiple levels. At the group level, administrators can delete posts deemed to be abusive and banish group members who are malicious. This has recently happened in the Friends of Fiji Media group, whose administrators have become increasingly concerned with the problem of vitriol hurled between group members. New Zealand journalist Michael Field and myself, being foreigners, are lightning rods for abuse from regime cheerleaders who have infiltrated the group. The group has also recently been faced with the problem of rooting out fake members who have obviously (to me, at least) been set up by one particular regime cheerleader for the purpose of attacking myself and other regime critics. Without revealing the content of our discussions, which are supposed to be confidential, group members have recently been mulling its very existence in light of the fact that the regime has obviously been monitoring it. Apparently not all group members abide by the ethic of confidentiality, because the regime seems to be privy to our every word.

But MIDA’s complaint about abuse – “absolutely callous remarks” in Raj’s words – could be resolved easily enough by simply complaining to Facebook, which is quite willing to delete abusive posts or pages. It did so when I complained about this page set up by my bĂȘte noire regime cheerleader. It also deleted an illustration by a regime critic after a Fiji Sun reporter complained that it used her picture without permission. Of course, that doesn’t prevent the Sun from reprinting Facebook discussions if that serves its purpose of discrediting regime critics. It did so with a recent exchange between political hopeful Roshika Deo and regime hitman Graham Davis, without Deo’s consent. She promises that a complaint to MIDA will be forthcoming as a result. (How do you like her chances?) Grubby recently quit the blogging business and went underground as a Facebook troll after I outed him as a regime propagandist. He actually inhabited the Friends of Fiji Media group briefly last year after the Sun complained that we were talking about him behind his back. He tried to give me the business there, but I gave it back to him in spades and he thought the better of continuing. It seems that MIDA has other proxies there, although I have been trying to shine a spotlight on them, too.

Social media, especially Facebook, promises to be a key battleground in the upcoming election campaign (it hasn’t started yet, has it?), as Radio New Zealand recently pointed out. You would think that the regime would have the upper hand there, as social media smear campaigns are a specialty of its Washington-based spin doctors, Qorvis Communications. You’d also think that the $1 million a year Fijian taxpayers pay Qorvis would entitle MIDA’s masters to some tutoring on the subject of social media. It is badly needed.