A free and vibrant media is as much a pre-requisite for a healthy democracy in Fiji as upholding the principles of multiculturalism and a multi-faith society that I canvassed in my last article. And two years out from the next election – which will be critical for the maintenance and strengthening of that democracy – it’s worth examining the current state of the Fijian media and whether it is performing its ultimate duty to represent the interests of the people and act as a watchdog against the excesses of those in power.
It is a sad fact that generally the watchdog in Fiji is a pretty mangy animal and on any fair appraisal isn’t performing to anything like the standard it should be. For a small nation with a relatively limited number of happenings each day, the coverage the news receives and the analysis of it is neither comprehensive nor reliable, let alone thoughtful or impartial. And some stories of national significance don’t get covered at all.
Where, for instance, is any detailed examination of the Chinese presence in Fiji and the developments being made by Chinese companies? There are some very serious questions to be asked, and answered, about the safety of the 28-story W.G Friendship Tower in Suva that now towers over the capital. This is quite apart from whether the public interest was served by the lack of consultation and normal official supervision of the project in the first place. There are persistent reports that the Friendship Tower was railroaded through at a high level in spite of warnings from structural engineers that the steel being used on the building would not withstand an inferno. The Chinese developers dispute this but surely the Fijian people deserve to know more from their media. Instead coverage has been virtually non-existent.
It also took foreign media organisations from New Zealand and Australia to uncover the environmental destruction wrought by the Chinese company, Freesoul, on Malolo island in the Mamanucas. And it took the Al Jazeera television network from Qatar to highlight the violent behaviour of members of the Korean Grace Road cult and the extent of the cult’s influence in Fiji. Where was the Fijian media in relation to these important stories? Were local journalists ignorant of what was happening in their own country or did they know but were either intimidated into not reporting them or afraid of retribution? These are legitimate questions for every Fijian to ask and that the media has a duty to answer as part of its overriding responsibility to represent the public interest and hold officialdom to account.
Adrift in a world gripped by pandemic and economic upheaval, never before has it been so critical for the Fijian people to ensure that they are thoroughly informed of events around them. Even before the economic disintegration that has already plunged many Fijian families into crisis, the FijiFirst government’s near loss in the 2018 election had raised fresh doubts about the country’s stability and outlook. The Bainimarama government will have been in power for 16 years when the next election comes around in 2022. And it is now carrying the additional burden of the economic impact of Covid-19 on top of the existing burdens of incumbency and disaffection, with clear signs that the electorate has tired of FijiFirst and is looking for an alternative.
As I reported last month and the government has conspicuously failed to deny, it is already facing pressure from significant elements in the military and from within its own ranks to reinvent itself to make itself more competitive by removing the Attorney General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum. As the pressure mounts over the coming months, those sections of the media controlled by the AG will be manipulated more than ever as he fights for his political survival. And the quality and accuracy of the information flowing to the public about what is actually happening beneath the veneer of spin is bound to become less certain.
The government and its spokespeople have taken to preaching the message that Fijians should only trust news from official sources like the government Facebook page. It is a truly Orwellian notion because the lesson of history is that governments are among the least reliable sources of information, especially in times of uncertainty and upheaval. And for evidence of that in Fiji, you don’t have to go much past some of the government’s messaging for the Covid-19 crisis, in which, for instance, allowing you to withdraw your own money from the FNPF is portrayed as “assistance”.
Let’s be clear about this. Government propaganda urging you to only believe what it says on its own information outlets has no place in a democracy, where an independent media – the celebrated Fourth Estate – exists to act as a filter and hold the government to account. Yet as we’ll see, that notion has been steadily eroded by the FijiFirst government and especially Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, wearing his hat as Minister for Communications, which includes anything disseminated through the Department of Information.
The AG has total control of the government’s information effort, as well as effective control over the Fiji Sun and the Fijian Broadcasting Corporation. Three individuals take directions from him at the heart of this effort – the Qorvis consultant in Suva, Christian Theuer, and two members of the AG’s election campaign team, Arnold Chanel and Damian Whippy, whose company, Vatis, is said to have several government contracts that also weren’t put out to tender. Together they control the government’s Twitter and Facebook accounts to the extent of placing words in the Prime Minister’s mouth in his daily Tweets and Facebook postings. The Department of Information – that used to report to the PM until the 2014 election – does what it’s told. And the PM has no media personnel of his own to give him an independent voice, such as an official press secretary, that would be standard practice anywhere else. As with most things in government, Frank Bainimarama has surrendered control to the AG.
For the Fijian people – assailed by an unprecedented level of spin – scepticism and a wary eye have never been more important. Fortunately, many of them already have well-honed bullshit detectors. This is typified by the following message to me during the week from a friend in the West, where the Covid-19 job losses have created unprecedented hardship and resentment is growing about people from the capital, including civil servants, who have government-protected jobs.
“98% of the occupation of hotels/resorts on the weekends are folks from Suva….the gap just widens…..and if I hear another “be strong”, “one door closes, another one opens” and the favourite “we are resilient” from folks on the secure platform of employment and status, I may not be responsible for my actions”.
So anger over the government’s messaging is clearly mounting. Yet as Fijians look to their media for guidance – to cut through the spin and uncover the truth of their situation – they have never been so poorly served. Leaving aside those stories that simply aren’t covered, few countries have a media that is so polarised in its treatment of the events that shape our daily lives. Pick up copies of the Fiji Times and the Fiji Sun on most days and it can seem that they are reporting events on different planets rather than the same country.
It has long been the case that you have to read both papers to have any idea what is actually going on in Fiji and even then, you have to use your own powers of analysis, such is the parallel universe both publications inhabit. This is all very well for an intelligentsia capable of reading between the lines but where does it leave ordinary Fijians? Well, obviously inhabiting parallel universes themselves, depending on which paper they choose to buy.
The two main newspapers have relentlessly driven themselves to opposite ends of the political spectrum. The Fiji Times is the nation’s oldest paper and ought to be able to use its longevity, profitability and prestige to be a genuine newspaper of record. Yet while alone of the two papers, it gives space to the opposition to put an alternative viewpoint, those comments are invariably in the form of quotes. It steers away from direct criticism itself. And in terms of its own reporting, the Fiji Times has become noticeably timid in the wake of the legal blowtorch applied to it over the years. Instead of being bold, let alone crusading, it seems to continually err on the side of caution.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Fiji Sun is no longer a credible public watchdog at all. It is, in fact, a travesty of a newspaper in the conventional sense. It salivates like a dribbling lapdog over its master, the FijiFirst Government, constantly wagging its tail at the command of Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, who long ago made it part of the government’s propaganda machine by buying its loyalty with exclusive government advertising. More on that later.
In the broadcast media, the same applies to the Fijian Broadcasting Corporation (FBC) under the AG’s brother – its CEO, Riyaz Sayed-Khaiyum. I have already cited the scandalous conflict of interest of the head of the national broadcaster also being a key member of the FijiFirst Party’s election campaign team. This would be unacceptable in any country with even a passing acquaintance with normal standards of probity. The FBC is truly one of the wonders of the modern media world – another propaganda arm of government, funded by Fijian taxpayers of all political persuasions in an arrangement that also goes unchallenged.
Somewhere in the middle are the radio stations of Communications Fiji Limited and its Fiji Village global website, that do their best to pursue a middle course. I happen to think that Vijay Narayan, the CFL News Director, is one of the best and boldest journalists in the country and leads his team to parts of the news agenda that others don’t even try to reach. Fiji TV also strives to strike a middle path despite its current weakened financial state and inability to rely on the same government guaranteed loans that the AG can give his brother at FBC.
Some individual journalists like Lice Movono also have a reputation for asking the hard questions that need to be asked and answered. Yet aside from these honourable exceptions, the rest of the Fijian media generally doesn’t so much speak truth to power but either kowtows to power – in the case of the Fiji Sun and FBC – or like the Fiji Times, cowers in the corner with the occasional defiant yap, its fear of the official boot too often reducing it to a whimper when it ought to be emitting a loud bark.
The Fiji Times feels constantly obliged to defend itself against the charge of being anti-government simply because it is the sole paper that gives the opposition any platform at all. Its customary defence is along the lines of “they said it, we didn’t, and we’re just doing our job”. The paper is no longer the strong voice it has been at other times in its 151-year history. Its editorials have become masterful exercises in avoiding offence and it sometimes bends over backwards to an absurd extent to avoid any suggestion of bias. Last weekend, the Fiji Times even distanced itself from a 50th independence anniversary article by Ratu Epeli Nailatikau with its customary “the views expressed are the author’s and does not reflect the views of this newspaper”. Dangerous subversive, that Ratu Epeli. Could get you into a lot of trouble.
I can feel the hackles of Fiji Times defenders rising and fingers pointed in my own direction. Who am I to criticise? Because my own image with much of the Fijian media is that of a government propagandist – the principal communications consultant to the leadership through my employment between 2012 and 2018 with the Washington-based PR company, Qorvis Communications. That has made me loathed in many circles and understandably so. Because in that role, my principal duty was to convey the FijiFirst government’s program through the many speeches and statements I wrote and to carry out its instructions in relation to dealings with the media.
As I have explained before, I had no compunction in taking the job because I fundamentally supported Frank Bainimarama’s agenda to level the playing field in Fiji and give every Fijian the equal opportunity that had been denied to a large section of the population all my life. Yet the journalist in me admittedly felt uncomfortable on occasions straddling the dual obligations of protecting my client’s position and feeling empathy with day-to-day practitioners of the craft.
My critics say I should be ashamed of having become a mouthpiece, first for the “regime” and then after 2014, for the elected government. Yet my influence behind the scenes was not as pernicious as the critics suppose. I believe I was able to exercise a degree of influence for the good, and certainly to an extent way beyond what a grudging Prime Minister indicated in his recent public statement on my reporting of the Military Council’s call for the removal of the AG, written for him by Qorvis and the AG himself.
Indeed, I played a significant role behind the scenes shepherding the transition from dictatorship to democracy. In March 2013 – 18 months before the scheduled return to parliamentary rule in September 2014 – Frank Bainimarama told me: “Graham, I’m thinking of not having the election. I’m thinking of having a referendum on whether to have an election”. My response to this startling proposition was to argue the toss. “PM, you have promised that you will have an election and you cannot go back on that promise. You can win the election fair and square”. And to Frank Bainimarama’s credit, that’s what happened, though whether it was fair when the Fiji Sun and FBC were so partisan in his favour became an issue that was hotly debated away from the public gaze.
The international observers who monitored the election refused to use the term “fair” in their final report because of media bias, merely noting that the vote had been free and a genuine expression of the will of the Fijian people. Yet for all that, the election went ahead against the Prime Minister’s instincts at the time and it wasn’t the only occasion that I had a positive input at a high level. I certainly think that on any fair appraisal, my contribution was a lot better than the self-serving, money-grabbing opportunism of which I was accused by my critics.
I also happen to know a thing or two about media ethics. In 1998, I was a member of a national panel in Australia that reviewed and revised the Australian Journalists Code of Ethics. I was the prime instigator for a new clause to be inserted into that Code requiring journalists to declare if they have paid for a story. At the time, huge amounts were being spent by television networks to secure exclusives that inevitably raised concerns about whether facts were being exaggerated or distorted to make stories more sellable in a highly competitive market. So a key provision of the code of ethics governing the work of Australian journalists was actually a creation of the dreaded propagandist of later years who allegedly abandoned all ethics to work slavishly for the Fijian dictatorship.
I say all of this not to “big note” or be overly defensive but because many Fijian journalists are bound to say in response to this article: Who is Graham Davis to lecture us about our performance and our ethics? Well my answer is that I stopped being the government “propagandist” nearly two and a half years ago and now write as a private citizen. I also have a modicum of knowledge about the craft, having practiced it for four decades, and know something about the ethical practice of journalism in advanced democracies in which I have worked such as Australia and the UK.
Having also worked closely with the Fijian leadership in recent years – reporting directly to Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum – I also have more than usual insight into their attitudes to the media and how they try to manage and control it. And it is all about control. A great deal of effort has been expended to make Fiji’s media “watchdogs” docile and obedient and reduce their ability to hold the leadership and the rest of the government to account. And it goes far beyond the day-to-day manipulation of the news by the government spinmeisters at Qorvis and Vatis. The media laws in Fiji designed by the Attorney General are among the most draconian in the world. How? Because they not only hold media companies to account for lapses in fact, process or legal or ethical compliance, they target individual journalists.
While a company that commits an offence can be liable for a fine of up to $100,000, the Media Industry Development Act 2010 actually mandates jail terms for journalists whose work is deemed to be against the “public interest” or “public order”. Offences are punishable by a fine of up to $10,000 or imprisonment for up to two years. And in the absence of a precise definition in the legislation of what constitutes the public interest, the government has a very big stick at its disposal to beat errant journalists at will.
Imagine yourself as the average practitioner of journalism in Fiji. Having entered the newsroom at around $18,000 a year, you have reached senior status at around $25,000 a year. Yet hanging over your head if you transgress the Media Authority Development Act is a fine amounting to well over a third of your annual salary plus a jail term. This – coupled with the penalties for media companies – is hardly an incentive to be bold in telling the stories the government or other powerful interests don’t want told. It muzzles the watchdog and has produced a media in Fiji that is chronically supine and can be easily intimidated into turning a blind eye to issues that the public has a right to know.
In the interests of genuine transparency and accountability, it is high time for the penalty clauses in the Media Industry Development Act to be abolished. And it is to be hoped that the opposition embraces this as a cause in the lead-up to the election in 2022, that in the absence of any reform in FijiFirst and based on the latest polling, it now seems almost certain to win.
I’ve already mentioned FBC, CFL and Fiji TV in the context of this story and in the interests of brevity, am confining a detailed examination of the performance of the media to the two main papers – the Fiji Sun and Fiji Times. In a country in which the print versions of the newspapers dominate and are still read while the rest of the world has gone online, the Sun and the Times remain the most important outlets. So here goes.
THE FIJI SUN
The Fiji Sun trumpets a slogan on its editorial page written by the American playwright, Arthur Miller: “A good newspaper is a nation talking to itself:”. Regrettably, the Sun is not so much a venue for genuine debate between the Fijian people but a mouthpiece for the views of one man – Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum – who controls the paper’s editorial coverage to the extent of dictating what stories it should run and what to ignore. The AG’s agenda is the paper’s agenda and it is easy to discern this from both its news coverage and more particularly through the so-called “analysis” articles written by his personal journalistic handmaiden, Jyoti Pratibha, and to a slightly lesser extent, his journalistic manservant, Nemani Delaibatiki.
None of it is subtle. Jyoti Pratibha’s recent pieces have almost exclusively concentrated on the dispute at USP and the merits of the AG’s attempts to remove the current Vice Chancellor, Professor Pal Ahluwalia, partly through the efforts of the AG’s uncle, Mahmood Khan, who he installed on the USP Council. If you read Pratibha’s articles, they never reflect an alternative view. It is all about the correctness of the Fijian government position, just as she routinely acts as the AG’s attack dog against opposition MPs in a manner that doesn’t even attempt to hide her bias.
In recent times, Nemani Delaibatiki has written a number of articles on the split in SODELPA and the battle for the leadership of the main opposition party that will be decided next month. In recent days, he was pushing the notion of a Coalition between SODELPA and the NFP when he knows (sorry, the AG knows) that this would trigger rebellion in the ranks of both parties. When did Nemani Delaibatiki last write an article about the governance of FijiFirst and its failure to hold any meetings at all? When did he write about the issue of FijiFirst party donations, that are currently the subject of a raft of disclosures by Victor Lal’s Fijileaks? The answer is never. Because he and Jyoti Pratibah aren’t independent journalists at all. They are government lackeys writing government propaganda for a newspaper that has surrendered its editorial pages to the AG in exchange for an exclusive arrangement in which the Fiji Sun receives government advertising to the exclusion of the Fiji Times.
In 2013, when the Fiji Sun used my Grubsheet articles in its editorial pages and heavily promoted me as a columnist, I was invited to speak to the journalists on the paper at a “Chatham House rules” session at the Holiday Inn. They seemed mildly surprised when I asked them to keep their news stories free of government bias. I said that the paper could, of course, act as advocate for the government in its daily editorials and in the choice of opinion pieces. But it was critical to keep the news columns impartial so that Fiji Sun readers came to depend on the paper for the integrity of its coverage. “You are no good to the government if you lose that integrity and the confidence of your readers”, I said. I was whistling into the wind.
The then Permanent Secretary for Information, Sharon Smith-Johns, and I both agreed with this approach. Even though she had been the Chief Censor in the immediate aftermath of the 2006 takeover, we were keen to see the papers report the news accurately and impartially as the return to democracy approached. And Sharon-Smith Johns repeatedly made representations to the Prime Minister as her line minister at the time asking him to improve relations with the Fiji Times by giving it equal opportunity in terms of access to government and also a share of government advertising.
In the anti-government blogs, “Grubby and Shazza” were the subject of great deal of derision and mirth, the humour of which we could also appreciate. Yes, we were instructed by the leadership to lodge complaints with media outlets over their perceived coverage and some of these complaints may have been ones that we would have preferred not to make. Yet we both regarded the government’s action in making an enemy of the Fiji TImes as a disaster and believed that cutting off access to the paper was also “cutting off our noses to spite our faces”. Government messaging and advertising was clearly not reaching Fiji Times readers, who were known to be rusted on to the country’s oldest paper and who the government needed to engage.
We could see that the polarisation of the media into extreme camps – the lickspittles at the Fiji Sun and the sullen dissenters at the Fiji Times – was not only undesirable as a matter of public policy but counterproductive to the government’s own interests. But it was a view that was never embraced by the AG, who has always managed to get the PM to agree to enforce his own rigid prejudices, even to the detriment of the government’s own position.
The Fiji Sun was so partisan in favour of the AG personally that it often gave him prominence on the front page and in the rest of the paper even when the PM was performing duties of national significance and should have clearly taken preference. I remember an especially angry telephone call that I made to the Fiji Sun publisher, Peter Lomas, protesting about one such incident. The PM was on a provincial tour, which the Sun covered. Yet it still had Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum on the front page and no less than 13 other photos of the AG in the same edition. And all this at a time when personal relations between the AG and the PM were extremely strained over the infamous “InstaCharge” affair.
Last month, I broke the news of the Military Council document calling for the reform of the government, including the removal of the AG. In the words of the document: “the Fiji Sun is fast becoming an unpopular paper. The perception is that it is fully government controlled”. It specifically referenced the Fiji Sun concentrating on “pictures of the AG and one or two ministers” and reflecting the “government’s webpage and printed material”.
Predictably, the Fiji Sun put the Prime Minister’s subsequent criticism of me for allegedly peddling gossip on its front page yet made no mention of the contents of the Military Council document, including its call for the removal of the AG, even though Frank Bainimarama had conspicuously failed to deny its contents. But of course, the paper reported what the AG wanted it to report and needless to say, the story also said nothing about the military’s criticism of the Fiji Sun.
The Sun’s attitude to the AG can only be described as slavish. He feeds the watchdog with public money in the form of exclusive advertising and routinely whistles it to do his bidding and protect his political position. It is a relationship that is highly improper in that Fiji Sun readers are not party to arguably the country’s dirtiest political secret.
And there’s more. The Fiji Sun has a business arrangement with the Chinese government in which it publishes stories from Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency. These are often little more than Chinese Communist Party puff pieces and propaganda. But the Sun also sends some of its journalists to train in China. What they are learning is of deep concern for the future practice of journalism in Fiji and its impact on the nation’s direction. But then propaganda – not journalism – is the customary stock in trade of both the Fiji Sun and its Chinese patrons.
THE FIJI TIMES
All my life, I have held the Fiji Times on something of a pedestal because it was my introduction to journalism as a small boy in Lautoka, and with the BBC World Service, largely inspired me to become a journalist myself. Since 1869, it has been “the first newspaper published in the world every day” and has a history that would be the envy of papers the world over. It also has a distinguished alumni that includes Phillip Knightley, who worked on the paper in the 1950s and went on to become one of the world’s most celebrated investigative journalists.
I was a personal friend of Evan Hannah – the Fiji Times CEO who fell foul of Frank Bainimarama and Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum and was expelled from Fiji in 2011 – and met him at Sydney Airport when he was deported via South Korea. While Evan and I later became estranged because of my overall support for the Bainimarama government, I have always supported the Fiji Times whenever it spoke truth to power, while having reservations about some of the causes it has espoused. I could never understand its support for the Qarase government’s indigenous nationalist agenda, which I believed constituted a tyranny of the majority in that it disempowered a significant section of the population and was a threat to national unity that I strongly opposed. Later, in government, I would also have dealings with the Fiji Times at an official level. And in the interests of transparency and because it was the subject of court proceedings, I feel obliged to make a disclosure at the same time as I give a critique of the paper’s operations.
During the course of my duties for Qorvis in Fiji, I was prevailed upon by the AG to be part of an interview panel hearing representations from both the Fiji Times and the Fiji Sun in answer to a tender for the placement of government advertising. At that interview, I raised the government’s objections to the Fiji Times routinely ignoring the Prime Minister’s activities, some of which – including major international speeches – was glaringly absent from its coverage. I also questioned the then FT publisher, Hank Arts, about deadline times for the placement of ads with the paper. The slow processes of government, and especially the AG’s habit of leaving everything to the last minute, required some flexibility in terms of placement. Whereas Hank Arts could offer no flexibility, stating that government ads needed to be placed by 8.00 pm at the latest, Peter Lomas from the Fiji Sun undertook to keep the paper open to the moment of printing, as late as 11.30 pm. And that was what was reported to the AG, who eventually awarded the contract to the Fiji Sun.
I had no say in this decision and indeed, as an external consultant, it would have been improper for me to have done so. As I’ve already indicated, my personal preference was for the government to advertise in both papers to gain maximum reach and I conveyed that to the AG on multiple occasions. I was certainly unaware of any arrangement beyond this in which the AG was given control of the Fiji Sun’s editorial columns as some kind of consideration for giving the paper exclusive advertising. Whether this is explicit or implicit, I cannot say. But it is an indisputable fact that it happens and I have witnessed it on multiple occasions.
There is a long history of alleged punitive behaviour against the Fiji Times that its defenders use to cast the paper as a brave defender of journalistic freedom in the face of official persecution. Yet only part of this heroic depiction is true. In 2013, the paper was fined $300,000 for contempt of court for publishing an article that called into question the independence of the judiciary, something that arguably would have occurred in many jurisdictions.
More controversial was the decision in 2016 by the Director of Public Prosecution to charge the Fiji Times with sedition over an article by one Josaia Waqabaca published in its iTaukei language newspaper, Nai Lalakai. The Fiji Times and its lawyers have always cast the offending piece as a “letter” yet it had every appearance of an article and contained the following paragraph:
“Muslims are not the indigenous of this country. These are people that have invaded other nations, for example, Bangladesh in India, where they killed, raped and abused their women and children. Today they have gone to the extent of having a part in the running of the country”.
The Fiji Times had been warned previously by the police about comments that might incite communal antagonism but the DPP, Christopher Pryde, declined to prosecute on the basis that those comments didn’t meet the necessary evidentiary standard. But this time, he decided that, in law, the Fiji Times group had gone too far. On the customary test of whether the public interest was served and whether he had a reasonable chance of securing a conviction, the DPP proceeded to lay charges against Jo Waqabaca, the Nai Lalakai editor, Anare Ravula, the Fiji Times editor, Fred Wesley and the aforementioned publisher, Hank Arts.
Right from the start, the controversy surrounding the case was exacerbated by the charge of sedition, which is generally held to be “conduct or speech inciting people to rebel against the authority of a state or monarch”. In this instance, the offence might clearly be classified as a hate crime against Muslims. But the question in many minds – including the representatives of foreign governments in Fiji – was whether it was sedition in the dictionary meaning of the word in inciting rebellion against the authority of the state.
What wasn’t widely understood was that in Fijian law, inciting racial hatred is covered by the laws of sedition and has been since colonial times. No separate legislation to cover hate crimes had ever been introduced in Fiji – as it has been in Australia and New Zealand – so sedition was the basis on which the prosecution of the Fiji Times proceeded.
It took two years of controversy for the High Court Judge, Justice Thushara Rajasinghe, to rule that while the four accused had a case to answer – which validated the decision to prosecute in the first place – the prosecution had failed to prove that the article was seditious and the defendants were acquitted. The Fiji Times trumpeted the ruling as a victory for press freedom but it left many people, Muslims included, convinced of the need for specific legislation to cover such comments, which would have almost certainly led to convictions in other jurisdictions.
If it was a victory for media freedom, it was a pyrrhic one in that that the verdict is currently being appealed. And having been tied up in the courts for almost two years – on top of the contempt case – and having expended a great deal of money and effort defending the charges, the Fiji Times owners -the Motibhai Group of Companies, which purchased the papers from Rupert Murdoch‘s News Corp in 2010 – lost their appetite for pushing the boundaries.
According to insiders, few substantial articles go in the Fiji Times nowadays without being cleared by its lawyers at Munro Leys, Richard Naidu and Jon Apted. Caution is said to be the prevailing culture at the paper and Fred Wesley’s future as editor evidently hinges on whether he keeps the Motibhais out of trouble. It is an instinct that will only be exacerbated by the current Covid-inspired economic downturn in Fiji.
The relative timidity of the paper can be illustrated even when Fiji Times opinion pieces carrying the aforementioned disclaimer about it being the views of the author, not the Fiji Times. In a recent instance, the identity of the subject of a story I had originally reported was erased entirely from one Times article, presumably on legal advice. On September 26, the Fiji Times columnist, Wadan Narsey, wrote a lengthy piece recording that “Graham Davis has been waging a frenetic campaign on his blog to encourage Prime Minister Bainimarama ( who he still supports passionately) to eject a specific Government minister from his Cabinet ( let’s call him “Minister X”). All through the rest of the article, Wadan Narsey maintained the reference to “Minister X” as if naming this minister would incur the wrath of either the law or the Almighty.
The person in question was, of course, Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum. Yet Fiji Times readers were deprived of his name – or at least those who couldn’t guess it – and I still wonder on what grounds this decision was made. Nothing I said was defamatory of the AG. It was the story of the Military Council demanding changes to the government, including his removal, which isn’t defamatory at all. So why suppress the AG’s name? I sent Wadan Narsey an email asking him but didn’t get a response. I can only suppose that it would have obliged him to acknowledge the timidity of the Fiji Times and its lawyers and given his long-standing presence in its columns and support for the paper, I’d imagine that is not a story he would want to share.
It also seemed odd to me that on the same day, the Fiji Times would lead – on its front page – with a large photo of Inia Seruiratu and the headlines “Graham Davis’(sic) claim on PM’s successor”, “Will he be next”. (without the question mark, which may have been a nod to the possibility of me being correct). The body of the story said that the Fiji Times had approached the Prime Minister and Attorney General on the previous Tuesday asking for comment yet still hadn’t received a response four days later. Surely this added weight to the veracity of my account. Neither the PM or AG could say anything because the story is true. Yet rather than seeking other avenues to “stand up the story”, the Fiji Times simply let it lapse. It was classic case of a question being asked on behalf of the public but not answered. Which I guess is at least better than the Fiji Sun not reporting it at all.
And so we come full circle to my original premise that the Fijian media – as the celebrated fourth estate in our democracy – owes its ultimate duty not to the PM or AG but the people. And that the people deserve better than they are currently getting. There’s another disclosure I want to leave you with, Dear Reader, and it’s one of the most startling of all. Because, believe it or not, a few years back the Fiji Times was saved from closure by Qorvis. Yes, the paper actually owes its life to the propagandists of popular scorn.
Before I came onto the Qorvis account in 2012, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum had wanted to shut the paper down altogether. But history deserves to know that he was talked out of it by an unlikely hero named Sol Levine – a former journalist for CNN who has since left Qorvis and whose identity can now be revealed.
The Jimmy Cagney-like Levine told the AG that forcibly closing a newspaper that had informed the nation for nearly a century and a half would not only cause a monumental political backlash at home but would turn the defence of the Fiji Times into an international cause célèbre. Faced with the prospect of global outrage, the AG grudgingly acquiesced. Yet it’s a sign of his frustration that even years later when the paper’s alleged misdeeds came up in conversation with me, he would rail: “it’s your guy’s fault. Qorvis talked me out of shutting down the Fiji Times!”
In the annals in journalism and PR, there are few ironies so exquisite – the spinmeisters coming to aid of the disclosers they are usually portrayed as trying to thwart. The dreaded Qorvis – the Darth Vader of the journalistic universe – rescuing Fiji’s oldest newspaper from the rampaging Emperor Palpatine on Level 7 of Suvavou House. The terminally self-righteous Fiji Times glee club may not want to acknowledge it but that, Dear Reader, is one story you can genuinely believe. Because it’s the God honest truth.