Saturday, June 28, 2014

Discretion needed in moral entrepreneurship

Outrages abound for anyone who is forced to live in a military dictatorship. For a journalist, the natural instinct is to do everything possible to help by shining a light on the outrages.  A similar duty applies to an academic, especially if an outrage falls within a scholar’s area of expertise. The response from an academic, however, should be more measured and contemplative. Making expert comment in the media, for example, would be one way of expressing one’s informed opinions. Issuing denunciatory press releases . . . not so much.

Patrick Craddock
The situation becomes more complicated if the person is both a journalist and an academic. In which capacity – and in which manner – should the person speak out? It gets even more complicated if the person is a foreigner. To be teaching on a work permit in Fiji imposes some constraints on engaging in domestic politics. The fact that the country is gearing up for its first elections in more than eight years makes the situation even more sensitive. Making expert comment on issues within one’s area of academic expertise is risky enough, as I began finding out two years ago. I was careful not to comment on Fiji politics or culture and to stick to matters of media and media policy, on which I felt I had not just a right  but a duty to comment. As media policy is determined by the government, however, any criticism I made of measures such as the TV Decree or the State Proceedings Amendment Decree was taken as political meddling and a government complaint was inevitably made to my employer. As a guest in Fiji, I would never have considered criticising matters such as military torture or police brutality, however odious. There are others, such as Amnesty International, whose job that is.

All of which renders mystifying recent media statements made by Patrick Craddock and, to a lesser extent, Matt Thompson. The pair, who are journalism lecturers at a certain regional university, took the unusual step a week ago of issuing a press release saying they were “appalled that one of Fiji’s top journalists was denied accreditation to the Pacific Islands Development Forum and [that] police allegedly harassed another.” They might have been able to get away with that, as these are matters pertaining to the media and thus are arguably under their purview. Scholars don’t usually issue press releases, however. Press releases are usually issued by the institutions that employ them. The real problem, however, started when they criticised Brigadier-General Mosese Tikoitoga, the head of Fiji’s military, for apparently having justified torturing Fijian citizens. Thicko had told the Sydney Morning Herald he “wouldn’t deny” that Fijians have been beaten and tortured by the military regime, claiming it was necessary to stave off civil disorder. “But a lot of these people were actually trying to instigate violence by creating anti-government movements or militant groups,” he said. “They were talking on the radio and so on.… If you let them continue to have a voice, you create a potentially dangerous environment. So it was the lesser of two devils.” That apparently outraged Craddock and Thompson. “Do Fijian soldiers beat and torture people they see as troublemakers while on peacekeeping missions or do they reserve that treatment for Fijian citizens?” asked Thompson in their press release. “The military don’t seem to have a clue about democracy. The media have all kinds of absurd restrictions on them but the armed forces can seemingly do what they want. What a sad state of affairs in which to enter an election period.” 

That brought the predictable reaction. First, Thicko backtracked on his statement. “I did not admit to anything, let's get that clear,” he told the Fiji Times. “What I told the journalist at the time was that I would not deny that some people were taken to task. I said I would not deny it because there were so many reports done and there were so many investigations carried out on that issue.” Then Ashwin Raj took umbrage with the allegations of both journalistic intimidation and military torture. “These reckless academics are trying to instill fear in the citizens of Fiji,” the gnome-like Chair of the Media Industry Development Authority told FBC. “It’s another feeble attempt to keep us in a perpetual state of crisis.” He told the Fiji Times that the pair should have contacted MIDA and the Ministry of Information to check the facts before making such statements. “Any responsible academic as a necessary measure would have first ascertained and corroborated the facts before making a series of gnomic pronouncements about freedom.”

Exactly what business this was of MIDA is not clear, as it is charged with regulating the media, not with regulating people who make statements to the media. Raj was doubtless enraged, however, by the personal attack that Craddock made on him in the press release. “Where was the loud-mouthed MIDA when this [intimidation of journalists] happened?” asked Craddock. “It was silent and still is. The Chairman, Aswhin Raj talks about robust journalism. It is all mouth water talk. What an insult to freedom of speech.” Raj responded by calling the duo “ill-informed, self aggrandizing, self-selected moral entrepreneurs.” The stoush has now caught the attention of international media, including the UK newspaper The Guardian.

Raj is also a mid-level administrator at the same institution where Craddock and Thompson teach, so it wasn’t long before they were called on the carpet and asked to repudiate their press release and promise not to issue such statements again. They were then each issued a written demand to sign a letter agreeing to restrictions on their rights to freedom of speech and academic freedom or suffer the consequences. A deadline of Friday passed. A second press release was issued on Sunday, this time under Craddock’s name alone. “The letter implies that there were inaccuracies in the Media Release,” it noted. “There were none. The army has admitted that they have tortured and beaten people.” As if that wasn’t defiance enough, the release unusually included excerpts from a recording of Craddock’s meeting with university administration, in which a senior administrator is heard saying “All of us understand that we don’t live in a normal democratic government situation. . . . whatever we put out in the news media we are very careful.”

This effectively seals Craddock’s fate, as he can now expect to be dismissed for insubordination. The only question is whether Thompson will follow suit or knuckle under to muzzling by his employer. Unfortunately the real losers in this spat will be the students whose education has already been disrupted twice in the past 18 months, first by my departure, then by that of my successor. Craddock and Thompson were brought in on short notice under emergency conditions to keep the ship from sinking. Unfortunately, they may end up being the ones to send it to the bottom.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Dictator inadvertently endorses Fiji Times

The bumbling dictator has done it again. Frank Bainimarama has begun his campaign for the September election, but his rhetoric is so over the top as to literally defeat its purpose. The oldest propaganda trick in the book is the Big Lie, under the theory that if you tell a lie big enough, people simply have to believe it. Bainimarama is apparently intent on testing the limits of this theory, but the outrageousness of his latest pronouncements could serve to pull back the curtain enough to reveal his grand deception.

Wrapping himself in the flag
“Our intentions are pure,” he insisted at the official launch of his FijiFirst party this past week. “Judge for yourself what we have been able to achieve for you so far, judge for yourself how much life has improved under my government, judge for yourself the true and genuinely inclusive intentions I have for the betterment of all Fijians.” Given both the dire state of the Fijian economy and the brutal repression of political participation seen in the country of late, such an invitation risked audience members falling down laughing, if such disrespect would not ensure a quick trip to the Queen Elizabeth Barracks. The recent fiasco over the withdrawal of a scholarship from a university student whose only crime was to campaign for an opposition party is just one example of the stranglehold the government has placed on political participation. The government-mandated exclusion from the political process of union officials, academics, NGOs and other intellectuals, not to mention the “old” politicians Bainimarama so reviles, is further testament to his grip. The uber-authoritarian regime that has ruled Fiji since 2006 has so repressed freedom of expression and controlled public discourse through its MINFO and Qorvis spin doctors that apparently no lie is too big for the dictator to feel confident in trotting out. In his Biggest Lie of all, the military dictatorship has brought Fijians not only prosperity but intellectual freedom as well.
[Fijians] have also yearned for a more liberal society where people can question, ask and think outside the box, without being told not to do so, because of culture, tradition or religion. All of this has been made possible under my government. And the work we started 7 years ago, must now continue for the sake of all Fijians.
But Bainimarama’s biggest bugaboo, of course, is the news media, most of which he has been able to either control or co-opt, except for a couple of pesky outlets such as the Fiji Times and Fiji TV, which try to tell the truth whenever possible. Thus he just couldn’t resist taking a shot at one of his favorite targets. “Beware of media organisations such as Fiji Times whose journalistic standards are not only unprofessional but are blatantly biased,” he told the captive audience at FijiFirst’s launch. “They seek to distort facts, manipulate figures and blatantly print misleading headlines and stories. If they have a political bias they need to declare it.”
In the meantime I urge all Fijians to get other sources of information other than the distorted views of Fiji Times. . . . Many of their senior journalists and associates through social media and other forums spread misinformation and are anti-government. Therefore how can we expect them to be professional and give you the right information?
Questioning any of the junta’s many missteps and even misdeeds, of course, is not allowed in Fiji. Bainimarama much prefers the sycophants at CFL, FBC, and the Fiji Sun who will slavishly promote his party line. Luckily, a few brave others aren’t afraid to speak up about the charade. “We normally have coverage towards the back of the paper,” Social Democratic Liberal Party leader Ro Teimumu Kepa told ABC reporter Liam Fox while he was in the country recently. “[It comes] after Bainimarama’s photo and whatever he has to say on the front page, and then after all the supermarket ads and the sports and film and television ads.” Ro Teimumu added that when her party has campaigned in some communities, police have turned up afterwards to question people about what was said. Fox also interviewed National Federation Party leader Dr Biman Prasad, who was forced to resign his long-held professorship at a regional university in order to contest the election because of its proscription against political participation. “We’re telling the whole world we’re holding an election, yet the world must also see there are all these restrictions that are in place which do not allow political parties to engage freely,” he said. “People who are opinion makers, academics, NGOs, trade union officials, they’ve all been barred from taking part in political activities and actually talking about issues.”

NFP candidate and former Fiji Law Society president Dorsami Naidu was even more blunt in answering Bainimarama’s charges of media of bias against him. “I think he’s got to look at himself in the mirror and hear his own voice played back to him because he has suppressed the media for so long that he doesn't know what a free media is and what criticism is,” Naidu told Radio New Zealand International. “I mean, he thinks he’s above criticism. And if he thinks he’s done the right thing then let the people be the judge.”

The blogs, which have served as the underground press in Fiji ever since the 2006 coup, are more than happy to shine a light on the regime’s deceptions. “The Bainimarama government has a lot of faith in propaganda,” observed Fiji Today recently. “They’re convinced if they repeat a lie often enough and stop any political rivals from having access to the media to refute their lies, the lies will win.”
Sometimes I think they could almost succeed. They pump out publicity and the Fiji Sun laps it up. Every day Sun readers are treated to stories of success and optimism under the ‘popular’ dictator. Inevitably, some people will think good things are happening somewhere even if they can’t see it in their own neighbourhood. But there is a problem the propaganda machine can’t deal with – the truth. When they tell us how much they’ve improved water supply and health the suspicion grows that we are being fed on a diet of lies. The truth about water supply and hospitals can’t be hidden from people whose taps are dry or sick people turning up to clinics that don’t have the bandages or medicines they need.
Of course, the campaign has only just begun, and we can expect much more fun and games in the coming months. The latest outrage has yet to build steam, which is the admonition the press received the other day from the Fijian Elections Office, which has apparently taken the media-bashing baton from MIDA, whose masters are indisposed at the moment, what with Ashwin Raj being on the sick list and Matai Akauola reportedly resigning to contest the election himself. Members of the press were summoned to a pre-election talking to this past week from communications director Josua Tuwere, who was appointed straight from the ranks of the Fiji Sun. According to the Fiji Times, Tuwere admonished media organisations “to impart the right information to members of the public about voting.” Stand by for the fallout on that one.