Saturday, July 19, 2014

Raj to demand media policies: Narsey

According to Professor Wadan Narsey, MIDA honcho Ashwin Raj plans to follow through on his threats to demand written policies from Fiji media outlets, although from the wording of Raj’s ramblings it seems to be print media only so far. The move will come with less than two months to go before the planned September elections which will hopefully return Fiji to democratic rule from military. 

Narsey published on his blog an email from Raj to MIDA director Matai Akauola which asks that it be circulated to Fiji media outlets. In it, Raj seems to seek Akauola’s agreement that such a demand is reasonable. It refers to policies regarding publication of “opinion pieces, [and] letters to the editor.” As usual, Raj takes pains to absolve himself in advance of any possible press repression. “This is an important issue about access and equity and must not be misconstrued as MIDA muzzling media freedom,” he writes.

Raj also appears to back off his plan for a media monitoring unit, which with the coming election might smack just a bit too much of regime intimidation. “The mainstream media unequivocally rejected,” the plan for a media monitoring unit, Raj writes, “even though such an initiative has been undertaken in many advanced liberal democracies that are strong on freedom of expression.” Here he is mistaken, as most media monitoring operations are not government-run but rather done by academics, NGOs, or professional pollsters. To have government scrutinizing news media coverage on the eve of elections would just validate perceptions that Fiji’s ruling junta is tightening the screws on media, which are already heavily co-opted or intimidated. Doubtless media advisors Qorvis scotched this idea.

The full text follows.
Dear Matai,
You will attest to the fact that on several occasions, I have requested the mainstream media to disclose their in-house editorial policy. In the interest of transparency, the public should know exactly the rationale behind the publishing of select articles, opinion pieces, letters to the editor to the exclusion of others. There are some who have received unfettered access and prominence in select media outlets and still lamenting that their contributions are being heavily censored while there are those who are complaining that they have no access to mainstream media at all.
I had also suggested the idea of setting up a media monitoring unit which the mainstream media unequivocally rejected even though such an initiative has been undertaken in many advanced liberal democracies that are strong on freedom of expression.
So the onus is really on the media to substantiate their claim that they have in place an in house editorial policy that ensures that the media is balanced, that they are committed to ensuring access and equity and are transparent at all times.
 This is an important issue about access and equity and must not be misconstrued as MIDA muzzling media freedom. How does the mainstream media ensure that there is balance?
 To date, I have received nothing from the media houses. I am now requiring the media to disclose this.
 Appreciate it if you can circulate this e mail to the media. Can we convene an editors roundtable soon please?

Friday, July 11, 2014

In Fiji, one must choose between being an advocate for media freedom and a journalist

By Shaivalini Parmar
Human Rights Watch

In Fiji, one must choose between being an advocate for media freedom and a journalist.
The chairman of the Media Industry Development Authority (MIDA), the government body tasked with regulating the media, advised a prominent local journalist in March to make exactly that distinction in his work—providing a revealing insight on the position of media freedom in the island-nation. In Fiji, the practice of free journalism remains limited by government retribution against those who are perceived as critical of the ruling administration.

Special Broadcasting Service
Parliamentary elections, scheduled for September, should be Fiji’s first democratic elections in nearly eight years. The country has been without an elected government since Rear Admiral Voreqe Bainimarama seized power in a December 2006 military coup. Bainimarama’s government arrested, arbitrarily detained, and imposed hefty fines against journalists.  Foreign journalists, including Sean Dorney of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, who have reported on topics that the government perceived as controversial, have been summarily deported.

Multiple cases of government interference of media

As elections near, allegations of government intimidation and interference with the media have resurfaced. Newsrooms no longer host censors as in the immediate post-coup period, specifically after the Public Emergency Regulations (an act that gave authorities absolute control in determining legitimate journalism) was lifted in 2012.

But the draconian 2010 Media Decree remains in place. The decree imposes severe penalties on any publication that MIDA deems threatening to “public interest or order.” Journalists found guilty of violating the vaguely worded decree can be jailed for up to two years and fined up to 100,000 Fijian dollars. The decree also severely restricts foreign media ownership in Fiji. In addition, the government also issued the Television Amendment Decree of 2012, demanding that all broadcasting comply with the provisions of the Media Decree. It threatened to discontinue Fiji TV’s license if it broadcasted anything perceived of as “anti-government.”

And where official censorship may not occur as blatantly as in the past, this last month alone has seen multiple cases of government interference and intimidation of the media. On June 25, MIDA called for the investigation of two journalism academics from the University of the South Pacific (USP) who commented on the military’s use of torture and on the state of media freedom in Fiji. The authority lambasted the pair, claiming the statements were both unsubstantiated and could cause irreparable damage to Fiji.

In another incident in late June, MIDA denied accreditation to a prominent Fiji-based journalist, effectively barring his attendance of the Pacific Islands Development Forum in Nadi. —an act that was condemned by regional media rights groups for its lack of transparency and due process. 

Pressure on media to provide pro-government coverage

Critics have alleged that there is increasing pressure on local media to provide strictly pro-government coverage. With past contempt cases against local news outlets including the Fiji Times—in 2013 a Fiji High Court verdict imposed on it a fine of 300,000 Fijian Dollars for republishing an article questioning judicial freedom in Fiji—it is likely that publishers will continue to verge on the side of caution. The repercussions from acting to the contrary are too severe.

In a paradoxical move this past month, the government sponsored a series of voter awareness and media training sessions. But without a critical basis for unbiased reporting and open debate, these programs are rendered meaningless. When major news sources are deterred from publishing anti-government views, it creates an unbalanced playing field that will give pro-government parties an advantage in the upcoming polls.

Authorities have met all allegations of censorship and harassment with denialMIDA chairman Ashwin Raj described the USP Journalism academic’s statements as “unsubstantiated and anachronistic,” maintaining that journalists need to stay clear of debating between legality and legitimacy, and contending that journalists continue to hold a “plurality of voices.” However, as evidenced by the authority’s response and subsequent call for investigation, it is clear that certain voices are excluded from that same plurality.

If the government is committed to a democratic transition, it should cease the harassment of journalists ahead of the elections. It is imperative that authorities lift restrictions on the media, including both the 2012 Public Order Amendment Decree and the 2010 Media Decree.

Shaivalini Parmar is a senior associate with the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Will Fiji Times dodge a bullet in Kabakoro case?

Suppression orders are routine in cases of domestic violence in most countries, a fact which apparently escaped just about everyone yesterday after word leaked out that the dictator’s son Meli Bainimarama and his beautiful bride of only six months, Hosanna Kabakoro, had both been arrested and charged after a weekend altercation. Most cases of domestic violence go unnoticed by the media, of course, but this one has a double dose of the news value we call Prominence. Any time celebrities are involved, the newsworthiness of a story goes up, and this one was too sensational for a couple of Fiji news outlets to resist. Unfortunately for them, that is a crime under the 2009 Domestic Violence Decree, which allows for a suppression order to be made on the names of the parties involved. The intent is to protect the victim, of course, but the name of the accused is also usually banned from publication if a suppression order is made because publishing it would tend to identify the victim. The question in this case is exactly who is the victim.

Please don't spoil her beautiful face
After the Fiji Times and FBC ran stories naming the couple on Monday, Director of Public Prosecutions Christopher Pryde sent a memo around to media outlets informing them that a suppression order had been made. He also ordered media to immediately retract any account of the proceedings that had been published or broadcast. It would be impossible to recall every copy of the Times that had been printed, of course, but the newspaper did remove the story it had posted on its website, as did FBC. From the wording of Pryde’s memo, the order was made on Monday morning. It was likely made after regular business hours commenced, or several hours after the Fiji Times would have hit the streets. This could save the Times, which was fined $300,000 for contempt of court a couple of years ago. Another conviction would likely bring an even larger fine, which could potentially bankrupt the newspaper.

The question becomes, did FBC air the story before or after the suppression order was made? According to Google, its story was posted online five hours after the Fiji Times story. If it was aired after the suppression order was made, it could be in hot water. We would be amazed, however, if the regime-friendly broadcaster, which is run by the brother of Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, suffers any consequences. If it doesn’t and the Times does, then there will be much justified howling about favoritism.

The evidence
Word of the story leaked out Sunday on Facebook, with Fairfax New Zealand reporter Michael Field posting a cryptic item that basically dared Fiji media to investigate. “Reliable reports coming out of Suva that a key figure in the military regime is in police custody and his wife is in hospital in a bad way,” he wrote. “Local media too frightened to report.” Field reported the story on Monday, but committed an embarrassing spelling mistake. As if to prove Field wrong, the Times surprisingly ran with the story, perhaps without getting legal advice, reporting that Kabakoro suffered lacerations to her hands and bruises on her body.

According to Repúblika magazine, in a Facebook post that has also been removed, Meli Bainimarama faces four counts of assault, was released on $3,000 bail, was ordered not to have any contact with his wife, and will appear in court again on August 11. Kabakoro was also bailed, according to Repúblika, “but must appear in the High Court in the next court date because her charges are more severe. She is charged with intent to cause grievous bodily harm.” Repúblika also reported that an interim suppression order had been issued, which could spell trouble for the Times and FBC, both of which reported the story after the couple had appeared in court and been released on bail.

To make the story even more newsworthy, Kakaboro is herself a journalist, being an editor at Mai Life magazine and a former Miss Congeniality in the 2010 Miss Teen USA contest. Her family fled Fiji following the 2000 coup and she attended the University of Southern Idaho. She shacked up with Meli Bainimarama, a former soldier who now runs his own company of mercenaries and lives with his parents, and actually moved into the dictator's home with him last year, according to Field. Their New Year’s nuptials were not without controversy, Field reported, although not as much controversy as the wedding of the dictator’s daughter eight years previously. (No wonder the junta slurpers hate Field so much. He gets all the dirt.)
The couple decided to marry on December 21, but a family row blew up and the couple left for Nadi – and a small family-free wedding on New Year’s Eve at a luxury resort. Fiji media sources say local media have been told not to report any of the drama. The daily Fiji Times instead devoted its front page to the Boxing Day wedding of a Fiji clan leader, Anare Peni, 71, to one Merelita Canauvi, 20.
The most prominent person in this story, of course, is the dictator himself, and the blogs are having a field day with the hypocrisy involved. “How many lectures have we had from the leader of Fiji Fist on domestic violence?” asked Fiji Democracy Now. “From the start there has been a contradiction between the high sounding regime rhetoric and the practice.” Not six weeks ago, the dictator called violence against women a “national disgrace” and vowed to crack down on it. “It is time for all of us to think long and hard about the treatment of women in our nation because the continuing level of domestic violence in Fiji,” he said. “Through my government’s initiatives, the police have adopted a policy of zero tolerance of all violence against women.” It will be interesting to see who gets cracked down as a result of this sorry incident – husband, wife, or media.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Some excellent questions from Wadan Narsey

Sometimes we get so overwhelmed with quantity from Wadan Narsey that we lose sight of the quality of his observations. He has been researching and writing about Fiji’s economy for decades, and he has a broad understanding of how things work there. He and I are basically on the same page WRT Fiji media, except that he focuses primarily on ownership, which is my usual perspective. I believe that with the small number of players and the heavy hand of government dominating the media landscape in Fiji, ownership is not yet a consideration. The suppression of voices of dissent is an impediment to democracy ever visiting these shores again. If ever voices of opposition are ever heard here again, that will be a sign that media freedom is increasing.

Professor Narsey has posted a list of questions for MIDA boss Ashwin Raj. While waiting for his undoubtedly eloquent response, I offer my own answers and/or snarky asides, in italics.
“Questions for MIDA and Ashwin Raj”  also sent as Open Letter to Editor 
(The Fiji Times, Fiji Sun, Island Business) 3 July 2014.
Chairman MIDA  
Dear Mr Raj
I totally agree with, and support your constant reminder to the public, that MIDA should not be, and is not just concerned about media freedom and/or media censorship, but also the overall good development of the industry, as is clearly indicated by the name, Media Industry Development Authority.  
I would be grateful therefore if you would answer the following media development questions, which have been raised directly and indirectly in the public arena over the last year or so, some with you as well.  
1.         Earlier in the year, you gave a commitment at the World Press Freedom Day panel that you had written to the editors of the newspapers, seeking clarification of their policies on what letters to publish and not.  
(a)       Could you please tell the public what has been their response and whether MIDA is comfortable with their position.
Newspapers may have a written policy on letters to the editor. It is unlikely they have a written policy on news content. They may have a code of ethics. See Warren Breed’s "Social Control in the Newsroom” (1955) 
(b)       Could you also please ask all the television and radio stations what their policy is on interviewing experts on public policy issues in various fields (for example, the humble field of economics which all political parties, candidates and voters are focused on currently)?    
The foremost Fijian expert on economics is probably running against Bainimarama. Dean Biman Prasad is a keen intellect who puts school-leaver Bainimarama to shame. The media will have to interview him. Professor Narsey would be a close second, with nobody else really close behind, but the media will interview him only reluctantly, as he is well-known for telling the truth.  
2.         As a “level playing field” is an essential part of the development of a free, fair, competitive and transparent media industry, could you please inform the public what is your position on:  
(a) tax-payers advertisement funds being channelled by the Bainimarama Government only to Fiji Sun with The Fiji Times, the oldest Fijian newspaper, being totally denied
This is squarely in the political economy field which Professor Narsey and I share. Money talks, and you knows what walks. The junta has not been shy about putting its money where its marching orders are.
(b) outright subsidies given to FBC via government budget and government guarantees of loans from FDB, with no such subsidies given to either Fiji TV or the other radio broadcasters, Communications Fiji Ltd.
See above. Through the purchasing power of the Fiji government – or more correctly the borrowing power – the junta has been able to import the latest techniques of public opinion shaping. Qorvis is small potatoes in its own country, but by controlling the media, and thus public opinion, it can basically rule Fiji.
(c) the clearly intimidating renewal of the license for Fiji TV on a six monthly basis, while FBC TV suffers from no such restriction 
Richard Naidu was never more correct than when he described it as less a licence than a “good behaviour bond.”  
(d) While Fiji TV’s accounts are available to the shareholders, FBC accounts are not available at all to the taxpayers who supposedly own FBC.
There has been a decided lack of transparency in Fiji, especially on the part of the government.
(e) Mai TV’s “scoop” at obtaining rights to the broadcast of FIFA World Cup (a legitimate entrepreneurial transaction admired in the business world) being forcibly shared by decree amongst the other broadcasters, on financial terms dictated by the Bainimarama Government rather than negotiated amongst themselves as a market transaction.
“Reward your friends and punish your enemies,” Samuel Gompers, 1850-1924. Enough said.
3.         Given that you (and the PS Ministry of Information Sharon Smith Johns) have often publicly admonished journalists to be “robust” and “boldly investigative” in their work, did you query Fiji TV and the owners Fijian Holdings Limited why respected senior journalist and administrator Mr Anish Chand was sacked from Fiji TV on this year’s World Press Freedom day, because of complaints from the Bainimarama Government (as was related to you during the World Press Freedom Day panel at USP).
From all accounts, the order to fire Chand came from ASK. Raj was hired by ASK. And he would query this. . . why?
4.         Can you inform the public what your reaction is to this obvious “intimidation” (to use a euphemism) of a senior experienced award winning journalist, which clearly encourages other journalists to “self-censor” in the interests of their jobs and family welfare?   You might wish to know that well before you became Chairman of MIDA, Anish Chand had also been demoted in 2010 for having friends in the National Federation Party, while another colleague of his at Fiji TV, Merana Kitione, was also removed from her area of expertise and work, for similar reasons.
Only in Bizarro World would Mr Raj be able to give you a reaction to the obvious intimidation of journalists in Fiji, because he has been the one most pro-active in intimidating them.
Yours sincerely 
Professor Wadan Narsey Suva