Dr Marc Edge

The following was submitted to the Fiji Sun for publication as a reply to Graham’s column of Sunday. As the column was reprinted from this blog, however, I feel it is appropriate to post the reply as a blog comment as well, which will also open it up to response by Graham and others. But first I must thank Graham for getting such a lively discussion going on such an important issue. This is like manna from heaven on the eve of World Press Freedom Day later this week, which we at USP Journalism have numerous events planned to celebrate.

Unfortunately, however, Graham was seriously mistaken on several important matters of fact in his column. I am sure he is familiar with C.P. Scott’s aphorism that “comment is free, but facts are sacred.” If he can’t get his facts straight, how seriously should we take his opinions? Of course, you can also point to his tactics, as some others have done. I think most readers well understand where Graham is coming from on this issue and others.

As an award-winning historian, I can assure you that even the most eminent of us disagree on what the facts mean, and history is continually being revised as new facts come to light. If you want to know exactly what I am teaching first-year journalism students at USP, you can read the Introduction to the textbook I have assigned for JN101 this semester for free online at http://www.journalism.org/node/72.

I’m disappointed that Graham Davis (“Edge of Reality,” Fiji Sun, 29 April) was “underwhelmed” by my panel presentation at the Pacific Islands News Association’s recent Media Summit at Pacific Harbour. In chronicling how disappointed he was, however, I feel that he seriously misrepresented what I said. There were some audio problems with the panel, however, so perhaps he didn’t hear me very well despite sitting in the front row. Panelists were given only 10 minutes each, as there were five of us and only an hour allocated, so I also had to rush through all the things I wanted to say. Maybe I went too fast for him, so perhaps I should go through them again.

I wanted to introduce myself to the delegates, most of whom I had not met, being a relative newcomer to Fiji. I mentioned that despite being from a land far, far away, I have some familiarity with the region because I had sailed through the South Pacific after leaving the newspaper business in Canada many years ago. I told of how I arrived in Tonga in 1996 while Taimi ’o Tonga publisher Kalafi Moala was imprisoned for exercising freedom of the press. My time in Tonga piqued my interest in such issues to the extent that I sailed back north the following year to enroll in doctoral studies in Journalism in the U.S. I feel it is thus fitting that I have returned to teach Journalism at the University of the South Pacific.

I also wanted to promote the Journalism programme at USP because we were somehow not included as a conference sponsor, while FNU logos were seemingly everywhere. I wanted to introduce our new radio station manger, Semi Francis, and to mention that Radio Pasifik is now back on the air in Suva at FM 89.4 after several years of silence. We hope to soon have an official launch, and to begin broadcasting in other Fiji markets and across the South Pacific via the Internet.

I had wanted to introduce my colleague Irene Manueli, who does such a great job of putting out our Wansolwara student newspaper, but she had to dash back to Suva for a class that morning. I held up the latest issue, however, and mentioned that I had brought a number of copies for delegates, which were quickly scooped up. I also announced that we hope to soon have the Wansolwara back online. It has been offline for several years. You will want to check out our issue this week, which will be included with you Fiji Sun, as we have a nice scoop on the ongoing Miss World Fiji saga. I urged delegates to send us their best and brightest students, as we are the regional Journalism programme. I also mentioned that we hope to soon offer introductory and advanced courses via distance learning.

I glanced at my watch to see that I had used fully half of my allotted time with preliminaries, so I got right to the subject at hand. It had been rather broadly defined on the programme as “political, religious, racial, ethnic, legal, drug related, climatic and health issues in a historic era when the media is buffeted by winds of change.” I said that I thought too little time had been set aside for discussion of such important issues. An inordinate number of sessions, on the other hand, had been devoted to trivial matters such as sports and to PINA’s seeming obsession with non-communicable diseases, which had been given two full hours that morning while our panel was originally scheduled for only 45 minutes. I said rather pointedly that there were more important issues for journalists to discuss than NCDs. While there had been some sessions on important issues such as climate change and corruption, there had been virtually no discussion of press freedom or other political issues that will largely determine how these other important issues are dealt with.

I said that I thought we needed more discussion in the Fiji media on political issues, which is the hallmark of a free press. I praised Graham’s recent column on race politics in Fiji (“Qarase stirs up trouble,” Fiji Sun, 14 March) and said that I thought we needed more such provocative political commentary. It might be painful and messy, I said, but it will be necessary – rather like lancing a boil — if Fiji is to get over its recent political trauma and return to democracy.

I then announced that USP Journalism had just been given the go-ahead to hold a two-day symposium in September on Media and Democracy in the South Pacific, at which we intend to explore these kinds of issues in depth. I invited delegates to attend and even participate, as we plan to include presentations by journalists and journalism students as well as by media scholars and political scientists. I got my vinaka vakalevu in at just on 10 minutes, so I was pleased I had packed so much into such a short time.

I thus don’t quite understand how Graham could write that I “said nothing especially critical at the conference itself.” It is true that I did not bring up my dissatisfactions at PINA’s conference-ending Annual General Meeting. That was because I was informed that USP did not have a vote there, being only an associate member, and as far as I could tell it would have been pointless to protest anything because no other dissenters were in attendance. Many of them, of course, had boycotted the entire conference. Some who had come to Pacific Harbour apparently realized that the deck had been stacked against them and simply chose not to attend the AGM.

I sat amazed as the voting delegates were asked to simply rubber stamp a list of resolutions that had been prepared behind closed doors by committees representing industry groups. Approval was obtained without much discussion. Those of us who are journalism educators and media critics had met before the AGM with the aim of forming our own industry group, which would give us a vote and thus a voice. Some doubted the usefulness of that, given PINA’s seeming resistance to discussing important journalism issues, but I would prefer to help reform PINA from the inside.

As for Graham’s contention that my remarks “have come out of left field a full month after the conference ended,” that is not true either. They have come in response to his recent column on the subject. (“Pacific Media at Peace after Pacific Harbour,” Fiji Sun, 25 April.) Bruce Hill of Radio Australia, who had been good enough to come and talk to my third-year International Journalism class after the PINA conference, was well aware of my dissatisfaction with how things had gone there. Thus when Graham attacked him as a trouble-maker in his column, Bruce called me to get my reaction. I reiterated that all was not lovey-dovey in Pacific media, nor in PINA, as Graham and some others would have people believe. I offered to go on the record with my dissenting opinion.

I have no problem with the way Bruce presented my interview, nor with the way he reported on the PINA conference, with which Graham took great issue. Bruce played the contentious interviews for my class, and I was impressed not only with his interviewing skills, but also with his even-handed reporting. He interviewed a PNG government official who made a fairly outrageous statement to the effect that news media should not report critically on government. An outraged Kalafi Moala, according to Bruce, practically insisted on responding with some strong comments of his own the next morning. Was Bruce stirring up trouble or manufacturing conflict? Hardly. He was doing good journalism. Bruce is a real pro. He doesn’t deserve Graham’s criticisms. That said, I know exactly what Graham means by the Australian media manufacturing conflict in Fiji. I have had my own views misrepresented on Radio Australia, but not by Bruce.

I also feel it was WAY over the top, not to mention fairly thin-skinned and defensive, for Graham to portray my account of the PINA conference as somehow implying “misrepresentation” on his part, or as “pouring scorn” on his account. Nor was I suggesting the PINA conference was a “seething mass of discontent.” And I certainly didn’t, as he claimed, “comprehensively trash” David Robie’s account.

What we have here is called a diversity of viewpoints, which is usually considered a virtue in journalism. People can choose for themselves which one they think is closest to the truth, or they can take them all with a grain of salt. Graham and I obviously have different perspectives. I am a journalism scholar and an outsider here, while he is a practitioner who enjoys a well-entrenched position as a government insider, judging by his sources. I’m also pretty sure we were talking to different people at the PINA conference. No doubt this was a much more peaceful affair than the last one in Vanuatu, but that doesn’t mean the wounds are healed and everyone is happy. I think many have given up on PINA and simply absented themselves, which is sad. I don’t want to do that. Not yet.

I and others feel strongly that PINA should be acting as an advocate for their member journalists, not working on behalf of sponsors to use their member journalists to advance a development agenda. It is undeniable that Fiji’s media are at a crossroads in 2012 with the lifting of the PER after almost three years of censorship. They are instead now subject to the provisions of the 2010 Media Decree, which has criminalized what were once journalism ethics. From what I can tell from talking to Fiji journalists, there is a tremendous climate of fear and uncertainty in advance of the first rulings from the new Media Authority. What do journalists need to know to stay out of jail and avoid being fined?

Then there’s the State Proceedings Amendment Decree 2012, which is supposed to replace parliamentary privilege by exempting government ministers from legal liability for defamation for any statements they make. It also exempts news media outlets from liability for publishing or broadcasting their defamatory statements. But if ministers have immunity and their political opponents don’t, it will have a chilling effect on government critics. How credible will the pronouncements of ministers be if they are not legally liable for making defamatory misstatements? Should the media thus be reporting their statements at all, especially if the other side is not allowed to speak freely? After all, that wouldn’t be balanced reporting as required by the Media Decree. It’s getting a bit ridiculous.

These all would have made useful topics for discussion at a conference of journalists in Fiji, but there was no mention of any of them at the PINA summit. They are the kinds of issues that we will be discussing at our Media and Democracy symposium in September, however. We will also be discussing them at our World Press Freedom Day events on campus this Thursday and Friday. Unlike PINA, we want to shine a light on these issues. They are the types of things we discuss with our students all the time. Some of them who attended the PINA conference, by the way, were also unimpressed with the lack of open discussion on these issues. Obviously they have been learning to think a little bit more critically.