Opinion | Who failed to protect our media freedom?
27 May, 2023, 8:00 pm
On World Press Freedom Day (May 3, 2023) there was an excellent two-page personal account by The Fiji Times Chief Editor (Fred Wesley) on “Never again must we be suppressed”.
To refresh your memory about the personal trials and tribulations faced by not just the brave journalists but also their families (including their traumatised young children) read also the two-page article by Anish Chand “Staring at a brickwall” (The Fiji Times, May 3, 2023) and the article by Serafina Silaitoga “The truth shall prevail”.
But what struck me in Fred Wesley’s penultimate sentence “For many years, when members of our team were harassed, ridiculed, and threatened with assault and sworn at, we had no one to turn to”.
So despite the many happy speeches that Press Freedom Week on the repeal of MIDA, no one asked firstly, why the organisations responsible for the protection of media freedom clearly failed; and secondly, why has there been no public censure applied on those who were clearly guilty of actively subverting media freedom.
They include not only the military and police, but also some media owners, publishers, and some thoroughly unprofessional journalists.
Why has Fiji society not even “named and shamed” the guilty one, as a small deterrence for the future?
Or is all forgiven and forgotten, as is merrily happening in the rest of Fiji society, with salusalu flying everywhere — the only growth industry in Fiji so far.
My article tries to indirectly answer these questions.
My personal perspective on how media censorship became a monster under the Bainimarama government, can be seen in my 29 writings in Section I (Media Censorship Under a Biased Media) of my Volume 3 Our Struggles for Democracy in Fiji: Rule of Law and Media Freedom (see the contents opposite), available for sale at the USP Book Centre.
The readings in Section I, on virtually every aspect of the media and the questions I raise above, point out the effective censoring roles of the police and RFMF, Fiji Sun and its owner, Fiji Broadcasting Corporation and government, MIDA and its chairmen, PIDF, and even the regional University of the South Pacific.
The “Cens” in many of the titles show how they were banned from ordinary Fiji media, but nevertheless appeared on blogs freely available in Fiji (like my own NarseyOnFiji) and globally also on outlets like Fijileaks, CoupFourPointFive, and AUT’s Pacific Scoop.
Perhaps the most important reading which discuss the role of media owners, publishers, and journalists is reading 74 “Media moguls and media independence” (2013) (Cens).
This 2013 article gives many pointers on how fully independent institutions and organisations must be set up so that media owners, publishers, and journalists like Fred Wesley or Anish Chand can turn to for protection against the evil use of state power that Fiji has witnessed during the Bainimarama government’s 16 years in power.
Introduction to section I
Just before the 2014 Elections I put a video on Youtube explaining why the media censorship was so unfair to the Opposition parties and candidates – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EttmRec0o2w
Let me therefore first quote from the Introduction to my Section I (pg195).
While open acts of censorship are easy enough to pick up, not so the silent self-censorship of journalists or management or others in decision-making positions at all levels of society.
In a society where there is no dole, making a living for one’s family can be a precarious activity for someone with a conscience willing to speak up.
One must not forget that the media had seen the unchallenged expulsion from Fiji of publishers (Hank Arts), a newspaper fined a massive $400,000 over a trumped up charge, and editor (Fred Wesley) under a six month suspended jail sentence, a media owner (Motibhai Patel) given a massive fine and jail sentence for a trivial “offence”.
Some idea of the effects of censorship may be had from the statistics in a letter I sent to the chairman of MIDA (Ashwin Raj) on the numbers of my articles published by The Fiji Times and Fiji Sun before, during and after the censorship years.
Let me elaborate on some of the important issues which the public knew about, but did nothing.
Police and RFMF
How quickly has Fiji forgotten the climate of fear created among journalists and the media, because of the unprofessional brutality of the military and police during the early years of the military Bainimarama government.
The public did know that young activists like Virisila Buadromo and Pita Waqavonovono were taken up to the camp and brutalised for merely putting pro-democracy banners on private property[JA1] .
The public knew that Professor Brij Lal was taken to the camp, roughed up (glasses broken), spat on, and threatened with death unless he left Fiji.
The public also know of the 2009 brutality to Ro Temumu Kepa which I put on NarseyOnFiji (Reading 67 “A Shocking Police State” (2009) (Cens)): “At midnight, a whole group of police officers woke up Ro Teimumu Kepa to take her to the police station. Was she a dangerous criminal about to commit a crime at mid-night requiring several police officers?
She is just an elderly woman, insisting on her basic human right to host an annual meeting of the Methodist Church of Fiji; the basic human right for all their church members to participate at the meeting; their basic human right to discuss whatever issues affect their lives — economic, social or political.
Who are the military to decide otherwise?
How could police officers treat this senior lady, Roko Tui Dreketi, like a common dangerous criminal?”
Sadly, none of the other high chiefs (or lower-ranking chiefs) or the thousands of bati in her confederacy came to this lady’s defence.
Who can blame the free media and journalists for keeping their mouths shut when such brutality was so illegally meted out to one of the highest chiefs of Fiji, with no censure?
Then there was the Bainimarama government established PIDF refusing to accept journalists Samisoni Pareti (Island Business) and Netani Rika (Fiji Council of Churches) at their talkfest where the chief guest was the Indonesian President.
The Fiji police “visited” Netani Rika, just as they had when he was driven out of his job as chief editor at The Fiji Times.
The police also “visited” brave musician Seru Serevi after he had launched a song (Let the Morning Star Rise) celebrating the independence struggles of the West Papuan people.
Why has the supposedly free public today not asked, during the current orgy of apologies led by Rabuka’s Coalition Government and Methodist Church, why the police and RFMF personnel who committed all these blatant abuses of human rights have never been publicly identified?
Why have the guilty ones not publicly apologised to their victims, including Ro Temumu Kepa and the journalists they brutalised?
Why have the miliary and police officers who brutally and treasonously removed the former prime minister the late Laisenia Qarase from office, not been publicly identified and censured while their leader blithely walks around free?
Indeed, is grandly “apologising” (while having a feast at taxpayers’ expense) enough to expiate for all the sins committed?
What kind of a deterrent is society setting to discourage future such behaviour?
The media owners and MIDA
In my Reading 74, I explain not only the characteristics of a good media, but also the entire structure and systematic biases of the media industry: one print media (Fiji Sun) and its owner (CJ Patel), one radio and also later a TV Station (government-owned FBC run by the brother of Aiyaz SayedKhaiyum), one TV station (Fiji TV privately owned but which became Government controlled) and a toothless tiger.
I explain why it was in the private commercial interest of CJ Patel to ensure that Fiji Sun and their chosen key journalists (they shall remain un-named) became pure propagandists of the Bainimarama government.
I explain why the FBC received massive subsidies from the Bainimarama government and its executives apparently massive remuneration (revealed recently by Ajay Amrit) to be a total propaganda arm of government.
Some of their blatantly pro-Government and anti-Opposition journalists later even became candidates for FijiFirst party and Members of Parliament.
Only The Fiji Times and its owner originally Murdoch and later Motibhai Patel, their publishers and journalists remained true to their journalism ideals: which I fully explained in this article: to enable the public to (a) have full and free access to public information monitoring government activities with taxpayers’ funds; and (b) ask questions, provide answers, share viewpoints, and to ensure a strong and effective democracy.
There is therefore a massive challenge in front of the current Coalition Government: how to divest all its ownership and control of all media
companies, fully privatising FBC and Fiji TV so that all print, radio and TV stations can have a competitive environment, with Government favouring no one.
In Reading 90 (“Fiji Times not on a level Playing field” (FT 11 Jul, 2015), Reading 91 (“What if Fiji Sun were the victim” 18 Jul, 2015) and Reading 92 (“National Silence on Government media bias” 23 Jan. 2016) I pointed out the massive government advertisement financial biases in favour of Fiji Sun (despite The Fiji Times having a higher circulation), and the vicious unfair attacks by Fiji Sun publisher (Peter Lomas) and its journalist on Professors Biman Prasad and Professor Wadan Narsey.
USP and Transparency International
While the bulk of the Readings are on censorship of the print, radio and TV media, there are several articles which explain how the censoring arm of the Bainimarama government also extended to academic (like USP) and civil society organisations like Transparency International, both being organisations one expect to uphold the principles of media freedom and good journalism.
Reading 75 (“USP Censorship and Good Journalists”) explains how in 2013 Professor Narsey was invited to be the chief guest of the USP Journalism Students Association to celebrate UNESCO World Press Freedom Day.
The day before the event, he was removed from the program under instruction from USP management.
There was no criticism of the USP vice-chancellor by USP Council, or even the USP Staff Association or the USP Students Association.
This censorship was fully documented by journalist Ricardo Morris in his Republika magazine (Reading 76).
Then Reading 80 (“USP’s self-censorship continues”) describes how as part of the 2014 World Press Freedom Day celebrations, the USP School of Journalism (headed by Pat Craddock) held a Panel Discussion at USP on Friday May 2, 2014, to discuss the topic “Media Freedom and the Fiji General Election”.
While the panellists included Ricardo Morris, Seona Smiles, Netani Rika, Rachna Lal, and Ashwin Raj, one of the most prolific academics
writing on media censorship and electoral systems (Wadan Narsey) was not invited.
Unfortunately, the chairperson of the panel (well-known Stanley Simpson) made no bones about wanting to limit critical questions and
comments from the floor especially from the Professor of Economics (Narsey) and a vociferous member of the public (Sadhana Sen).
The chairman also threatened the audience that he would close down the panel discussion if there continued to be interjections from the floor.
Reading 82 (“USP journalism educator under fire” (2014) is all about journalism lecturers (Marc Edge, Pat Craddock, Thompson) being pressured by both USP management to eventually leave.
Reading 94 (“Open censorship of one, hidden censorship of many”, 2016) explains how USP management managed to influence an academic journal (Journal of Pacific Studies) to exclude this writer from analysing the 2014 Elections, and even attempted to remove this professor and Professor Biman Prasad from the Board of JPS.
Such hidden censorship was occurring everywhere.
In early 2013, I had accepted a request from Transparency International Fiji (TI Fiji) to give the Siwatibau Lecture on the good governance implications of planned changes to Fiji’s electoral system.
I had been approved as chief speaker by Mrs Suliana Siwatibau (wife of former USP vice-chancellor).
Then before the lecture could take place Transparency International informed me that my services would not be required as they had “made a tactical shift away from the election theme” to corruption in education”.
Need for new organisations and new MIDA
It is clear that individuals cannot be expected to protect media freedom in the face of vicious and powerful forces who gain from media biases.
Just as workers need “unions” and employers need “employers’ association” there must be media organisations that can ensure that the interests of individuals are ethically and professionally protected.
There must be a media owners’ organization (MOO) to ensure that all media companies operate on a level playing field and to keep an eye on each other.
There must be an organisation to represent publishers and journalists since there can be many a situation when journalists’ interests may not coincide with that of owners.
I am sure that there have been journalists in Fiji Sun and FBC who did not have collective protection in to order to behave professionally, when owners and publishers asked them to do unprofessional work.
In numerous articles I pointed out the total failure of MIDA and its various chairmen (first Professor Subramani and later Ashwin Raj) and the Commerce Commission of Fiji to do anything, despite the grievous anticompetitive nature of the media industry.
While it has been easy to simply get rid of the MIDA of the Ashwin Raj era[JA2] , there must surely be a new MIDA that is genuinely independent and works in the interest of the public in ensuring a free media.
This MIDA would have representation from a media owners’ organisation, from the publishers and journalists’ organisation, and from the public.
That new MIDA will have representatives of government, but be totally independent of government control, with a chairman not belonging to any of the media organisations like the owners, publishers or journalists.
It is critically important that when a Government exercises censorship on a media company (The Fiji Times), publisher (Hank Arts) or senior journalist (Fred Wesley) they should be able to turn to an institution which is charged with protecting media freedom.
Not some individual who can be more easily intimidated.
But of course, the institutions themselves must comprise brave individuals who can stand up to evil pressure.
Only then can journalists like Fred Wesley realistically declare: “We must never be suppressed”.
• PROF WADAN NARSEY is one of the region’s senior economists and a regular commentator on political and economic issues in Fiji. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of The Fiji Times.