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.

1 comment:

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