University of the South Pacific (Photo:South Pacific Travel)

Journalists and media educators have descended on the University of the South Pacific in Suva this week for a conference on “Media and Democracy in the South Pacific”. Not surprisingly, the topic and the timing of this talkfest have caused a high degree of consternation behind the scenes. It was the brainchild of Dr Marc Edge, the head of the USP’s School of Journalism, who has publicly advocated total freedom for the local media at a time of intense discussion over the appropriate model for developing countries such as Fiji.

Dr Marc Edge (Photo:USP)

Dr Edge is finding himself in splendid isolation because of his views. They notably diverge from those of his predecessor at the journalism school, Shailendra Singh – who has advocated more social responsibility – and from the head of arguably the region’s foremost media training establishment, Professor David Robie of the Pacific Media Centre at the Auckland University of Technology. They’re proponents of an ideological journalistic strand variously described as the ‘peace”or “development”model, in which the media is seen as a key component in nation building in developing countries. This entails working in partnership with governments to promote social development and eschewing the confrontational “watchdog” model of much of the western media. While critics like Dr Edge appear to regard this as a sellout, there’s a compelling argument that a more contextual, cooperative and and moderate approach by journalists in developing countries is the best way forward.

Professor David Robie (Photo:Pacific Scoop)

At the USP this week, both sides are arguing their case. But the behind-the-scenes maneuvering in the lead-up to this conference is indicative of the gulf between western perceptions – like those of the Canadian-born Dr Edge – and those of journalist educators with significant local experience like Professor Robie, a former journalist himself in Fiji and other developing countries, notably the Philippines and Indonesia.

Dr Edge caused intense heartburn right from the start as he set about organising this conference. Never mind the questionable sensitivity of staging a “media and democracy” talkfest in Fiji at the present time. The country has been preoccupied with registering voters for the scheduled 2014 election and Fijians are currently presenting submissions to the Constitutional Commission tasked with preparing a new blueprint for the restoration of democracy. At the very least, Dr Edge might have appreciated the pitfalls of sparking a potentially divisive debate at such a delicate moment. Yet he appears to have set out to be deliberately provocative.

"No way": Professor Esther Williams (Photo:USP)

In the first draft of the program placed on the USP’s internet website, the list of speakers included two journalists formally banned from Fiji – Sean Dorney, the Pacific Correspondent for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation ( ABC/Radio Australia) and Michael Field of Fairfax Media in New Zealand. Both men were deported from Fiji in the wake of the 2006 coup. This caused general astonishment in academic circles and it was suggested to Dr Edge that he was being unnecessarily provocative. Yet he persisted until he had to be formally instructed by the USP’s Deputy Vice Chancellor, Professor Esther Williams, that his apparent plan to defy Fijian law was unacceptable.

There was also general astonishment when Dr Edge posted the following invitation to the conference comparing certain Pacific countries to the repressive regimes in the Middle East that sparked the “Arab Spring”.

CALL FOR PAPERS Media and Democracy in the South Pacific University of the South Pacific
Suva, Fiji, 5-6 September 2012

Democracy movements gathered momentum across the Middle East in 2011-12, but in the South Pacific they arguably stalled. Fiji continued to be governed by a military dictatorship resulting from the country’s latest coup in 2006. A draconian Media Decree enacted in 2010 provides fines and even prison sentences for what were once ethical violations. A new government elected in Tonga in 2010 has not moved as quickly as expected toward democracy and media freedom. In Samoa, almost all Members of Parliament are still chiefly matai, and libel laws have a chilling effect on journalism. West Papua continues to be occupied by Indonesia, and its press is subject to onerous restrictions. Even media advocacy groups suffered from dissention, with a group of mostly Polynesian journalists breaking away from the Fiji-based Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) and basing itself in Samoa as the Pasifika Media Association (PasiMA).

Grubsheet understands that three governments – Fiji, Samoa and Tonga – formally complained to the University of the South Pacific. The USP subsequently ordered the posting withdrawn from its website. Yet in the nature of these things, the offending document can still to be found with a rudimentary Google search. It’s no exaggeration to say that Dr Edge – plucky or reckless depending on your point of view – is now very much on the edge himself. His precarious situation has evidently been compounded by formal complaints to the University by some of his students. The details are hazy but some of them allegedly relate to a general intolerance of dissent and allegations that those who disagree with his own ideological position have been victimised.

Unfortunately for the University, the issue goes to the heart of how it is formally training the Pacific journalists of tomorrow. Are they being taught that the alleged repression in Pacific countries is equivalent to that of the Middle East? Are they being taught that the democracy movements that have swept the Arab world ought to be sweeping the Pacific? Equally unfortunately for the USP, its funding comes from some of the countries Dr Edge appears to be targeting. For Samoa and Tonga to lodge protests means that the disquiet over what’s happening at the University’s School of Journalism now extends well beyond the Fiji Government.

Change of tone: Sharon Smith Johns (Photo:Fiji Village)

In a notable change of tone from the host government, the conference began with a speech by Fiji’s Permanent Secretary for Information, Sharon Smith Johns, calling on local journalists to “stop self censoring and start reporting the facts”. She urged the nation’s journalists to take advantage of the lifting of censorship to begin fully informing media consumers. Significantly, her official news release indicates a degree of frustration with the local media for not being vocal enough.

“You will hear a lot about self censorship, the notion that journalists in Fiji are too afraid to report fully and without fear or favour. Such fears are understandable in the transition from censorship to freedom. But I urge journalists not to use this as an excuse not to do their jobs”, she said. Ms Smith Johns said The Fijian Government wanted a vigorous media but with certain conditions that were a prerequisite in most countries – “not to fuel racial division, not to threaten peace and order, not to damage our economy and people’s jobs”, she said.

Ms Smith Johns said there was a clear division of opinion among journalists and journalist educators about what form of journalism was appropriate for developing countries but she didn’t think there was any argument that the needs of media consumers must come first.“In developing countries, we all have a responsibility to educate and enlighten, to create stability for investment and the jobs our people so badly need. This does not come from fuelling division. There is a special responsibility on all of us in a multiracial country like Fiji. Ms Smith Johns said that in the interests of national stability, Fiji had felt obliged to impose a period of censorship on the local media that had now been lifted. “i know some of you have a jaundiced view about the Fiji Government’s attitude to media freedom. As a country, we are a work in progress. But huge progress has been made in achieving genuine democracy. We are committed to the vision of a united, prosperous Fiji in which every citizen has a viable and equal stake.”, she said.

Glory Times Past (Photo:Pacific Media)

Whether the local media takes up the Government’s challenge remains to be seen. Because there are still problems with the Fiji media’s general approach, and especially that of its oldest paper, the Fiji Times. The Times – founded in 1869 and billed “the first newspaper published in the world today” has long been a bastion of opposition to the Bainimarama regime. But there’s plenty of evidence that it also wages war on its readers, regularly depriving them of news of national significance.

At the weekend, Frank Bainimarama opened Fiji’s new embassy in the United Arab Emirates – surely one of the most important countries in one of the world’s most dynamic regions. It was splashed in the Fiji Sun – its competitor for which Grubsheet is a columnist – but not one word appeared in the Fiji Times. The same non-existent or grudging coverage has applied to every Engaging with the Pacific Summit, the meeting of regional leaders convened by Fiji as it continues to be suspended from the Pacific Islands Forum. At the most recent two weeks ago, The Sun carried extensive front page coverage while the Fiji Times banished it down paper with a relatively brief item.

The Fiji Sun, for course, is branded pro-regime and makes no secret of its support for Bainimarama’s program of reform leading to the 2014 poll. But judged purely on the basis of conventional notions of news value, the Fiji Times is clearly depriving Fijians of news they need to know. It amounts to a betrayal of the very people whose interests ought to be paramount – its readers. Small wonder that the Fiji Times – once the country’s proud journal of record stretching back 143 years – is in decline and the Fiji Sun is now the country’s biggest-selling newspaper. Ordinary readers are rebelling at the news stands. They’re not stupid even if that’s the way the Fiji Times seems intent on treating them. A once great newspaper is slowly dying of irrelevance.

Declaration of interest: Grubsheet is a columnist for the Fiji Sun. He has also had previous disagreements with Dr Marc Edge. (see prior postings)