"All the news that's fit to print" - NYT building in Manhattan

The New York Times and its sister paper, the International Herald Tribune, have carried the first in a series of stories on Fiji by Matt Siegel, their Sydney-based correspondent who gained unimpeded access to the country last month. There’s no significant news break, which is mildly surprising considering Siegel had lengthy sessions with both the Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, and his number two, Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum. But neither are there some of the usual journalistic howlers, which is to be expected from one of the few remaining newspapers in the world with the resources to deploy a two man team – reporter and photographer – in Fiji for two weeks.

Under the headline, “Detour on the Road to Democracy”, the opening paragraph has Commodore Bainimarama reflecting that the only thing he would have done differently in retrospect would have been to seize power in 2001, not five years later. Siegel doesn’t have him elaborating but Bainimarama has often said privately that he should have acted earlier and spared the country the Qarase years. Presumably – given the course events have taken – he thinks Fiji might have returned to a fairer democracy much sooner. And, of course, he’d have been spared the tag of coup-maker and be widely acclaimed for saving the nation from George Speight.

Matt Siegel (Photo: Twitter)

According to the Times piece, the government is “seething” that its accomplishments haven’t been properly recognised. So it will also be seething that Matt Siegel hasn’t chosen to present it in glowing terms either. He depicts an atmosphere of fear in media circles over the Public Order Amendment Decree and says he couldn’t get any working journalist to speak on the record. The sole critic prepared to be identified is Netani Rika, the former Fiji Times editor – famously forced out of the job – who is now the Reverend Akuila Yabaki’s researcher at the Citizen’s Constitutional Forum.

Not surprisingly given his staunch opposition to the regime, Rika declares himself “not optimistic” about 2014, opining that a lot of the government’s plans are “superficial” and the stage is being set for effective military rule for another ten years. That puts him at odds with Yabaki – his boss at the CCF – who has publicly declared himself optimistic about a successful outcome. It will be interesting to see how Yabaki deals with Rika’s comments. The celebrated clergyman has been anxious to portray the CCF as politically independent and an “honest broker” when it comes to the constitutional process. Although he wasn’t identified as a CCF employee in the NY Times piece, Rika’s comments – in direct contravention of Yabaki’s analysis of the reform process – will certainly raise eyebrows in Suva and raise the ire of government.

Netani Rika at the Fiji Times (Photo: The Australian)

It’s interesting to note that Laisenia Qarase isn’t quoted by the NY Times but Mahendra Chaudhry is. It’s remarkably tame by Chaudhry’s usual standards, merely expressing the view that Fiji needs to address the role of the military after 2014. But this is just the first in a series of articles so perhaps there are more lively comments to come. If anything else, one positive aspect to the NY Times coverage is that Matt Siegel adds layers of badly-needed context to the Fiji story, something most visiting Australian and NZ journalists seem chronically unable to do. One imagines the Government will be disappointed that it didn’t get a better hearing, especially on its multiracial agenda and electoral reforms. But it also needs to appreciate that targeting the media at home is hardly likely to produce glowing endorsements from visiting scribes like Siegel. The global journalistic fraternity is tight.

The same applies when it comes to roughing up regime opponents, something that Siegel insists on describing as torture. He and Grubsheet had a spirited exchange on the subject during our own meeting in Suva, when I pointed out that these were isolated outbreaks of violence rather than an institutionalised state process to punish or extract information. “Fiji doesn’t have formal processes of torture like the United States with its water boarding”, I opined. “It’s more instances of spontaneous beatings – known locally as buturaki – which have always been a feature of Fijian life”.  It was an observation that didn’t impress my interlocutor and frankly, I don’t blame him. Because whatever you call them, there’s no excuse for the beatings that have taken place in custody and the onus is on the regime to ensure they are not repeated. When the New York Times publishes a photograph of the scars that Suva identity Ben Padarath carries from his own beating up at the camp, the military really has no-one to blame but itself.

Here’s a link to the picture gallery that accompanied the NY Times article.

And here’s a link to Matt Siegel speaking to Bruce Hill on Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat about his Fiji sojourn.