Archive: Media: Press freedom on the rocks


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A feisty newspaper publisher’s loss to the Samoan prime minister in a hefty defamation case and manipulation by the Fiji Information Ministry in an attempt to impose legislative curbs have once again put the South Pacific media on the backfoot over freedom of information.

By David Robie in Suva

Press freedom Pacific-style is again on the rocks. A feisty newspaper publisher’s loss to the Samoan prime minister in a hefty defamation case and manipulation by the Fiji Information Ministry in an attempt to impose legislative curbs before next year’s first genuinely democratic election since the military coups have once again put the South Pacific media on the backfoot over freedom of information.

Savea Sano Malifa, editor and publisher of the Samoa Observer, believes he now may be forced to sell the daily newspaper many regard as the scourge of the Samoan chiefly establishment.

After losing in Prime Minister Tofilau Eti Alesana’s civil defamation action which has cost him a US$16,000 judgement in damages in the Supreme Court in Apia in July [1998], he also faces a criminal libel case filed by Tofilau.

He has already had crippling legal fees of US$76,000 to pay off and now the judgment is another serious blow to the viability of the paper.

Vigorously reporting allegations of corruption, nepotism and abuse of public office, the Samoa Observer and its staff have frequently faced harassment — including a suspicious fire which burned down the paper’s printing plant.

Malifa’s recent troubles as the most outspoken editor of Samoa have come amid several recent setbacks for media freedom in the region.

Media freedom developments
Among the developments:

  • Fiji’s Assistant Minister of Information Ratu Josefa Dimuri, ironically a former journalist on the Murdoch-owned Fiji Times, is insisting on dumping the country’s well-respected independent media council and replacing it with a new government-initiated body and laws imposing “codes of conduct”.
  • A report by an Australian consultant that called for the early retirement of Radio Tonga’s general manager, Tavake Fusimalohi, and the abolition of his son ‘Ahongalu Fusimalohi’s position as deputy in an attempt to restructure the station for a “positive course for the future” was met with bitter attacks. Moves were reportedly made by the station’s senior executives to have the consultant blacklisted around the region. The conservative station was described as being overstaffed and lagging behind many other Pacific Island broadcasters in operational practice and performance.
  • Polynesian villagers blockaded the French state-run television and radio station RFO in the territory of Wallis and Futuna in May, preventing local broadcasts for a week. They were angry about the “insufficient coverage” given to a traditional dance spectacular. The chief editor, Philippe Voisin, station director Bernard Joyeux and technical director Alain Delabre were held hostage.
  • The same month, the editor of the Solomon Islands Voice, former Television New Zealand journalist Carole Colville, faced a weekend of harassment after her newspaper exposed allegations of a corrupt land deal. The deal involved prominent Solomon Islands businessman Rex Fera who is an associate of Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa’alu. Describing the actions as “persecution”, Colville said men demanding to see the paper’s publisher, John Asipara, had raided her home early on a Sunday morning. Ironically, the intimidation happened on the same weekend as the UNESCO-sponsored World Press Freedom Day was being marked globally.
  • World Press Freedom Day was also controversial in Vanuatu where Trading Post publisher Marc Neil-Jones reacted angrily over inaugural Media Freedom Awards presented by Vanuatu Broadcasting and Television Corporation chairman Kalvao Moli to three former prime ministers — Father Walter Lini, Maxime Carlot-Korman, and Serge Vohor — and current Prime Minister Donald Kalpokas. Neil-Jones withdrew all support from the Trading Post to the Press Klab and pulled the newspaper out of the organisation. Storming out of the awards ceremony, he said: “I’ve great respect for Father Lini but he deported Christine Coombs over her paper, Voice of Vanuatu, and banned journalists like Jemima Garrett from entering Vanuatu because his government did not like the way they reported the news.”His government rigidly controlled the press and no independent newspapers were allowed. Why on earth is he being given a media freedom award?”
  • Although press freedom has been supported in Papua New Guinea by Prime Minister Bill Skate after three controversial draft media laws were scrapped last year before the Sandline affair, he has been frequently quick to condemn the international media.At a National Press Club luncheon in Canberra in August, he blamed foreign journalists for a painting a negative view of his country. Papua New Guinea, he said, is the victim of sensational reporting by reporters “who have little understanding” of the country.
  • Radio New Zealand International was forced to end its afternoon and evening broadcasts to listeners in the Pacific region from early August, following a slashed budget. Funding cuts by New Zealand’s Foreign Ministry were decided on after considering closing the shortwave station altogether. RNZI employs a number of Pacific journalists as stringers and has a independent perspective in the region.
  • A US State Department report was critical of the Federated States of Micronesia government over last year’s Sherry O’Sullivan affair. It said the government took actions “aimed at stifling investigation and criticism of government activities and figures”.The report, entitled “Micronesia Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1997,” questioned the FSM government’s support of the press, after O’Sullivan, a Canadian citizen editing the monthly newspaper FSM News, was forced to leave the island. She had been declared an “undesirable alien” because of her newspaper’s vigorous reporting.

Work permits
Assaults on media freedom have by no means been restricted to governments alone. Twice during 1997, New Zealand journalist Michael Field was turned down by the Fiji government over work permits while trying to establish a regional Pacific bureau in Suva for The New Zealand Herald.

But it is believed that the real reason he was blocked was because of intense lobbying by two prominent media personalities. Opposition also came again earlier this year from the Pacific Islands News Association to the appointment of Fiji Television journalist Ingrid Leary and myself as lecturer and journalism programme cooordinator respectively (we are both New Zealanders) at the University of the South Pacific.

Although PINA later publicly denied that it was opposed to our recruitment because we were not Pacific Islanders as had been widely reported, it was well known among Fiji journalists that a PINA official had lobbied and written in an unsuccessful bid to prevent us taking up the position.

In my own case, the lobbying and a smear campaign centred on my reporting of the Fiji coups and some revelations about the local news media contained in my book Blood on their Banner. (See also NZ journalists in tangle over Fiji work permits and Pacific Media Watch.

I have filed a complaint with the Fiji Media Council over this affair. [Note: On 2 November 1998, Fiji’s Daily Post apologised for the misrepresentations following mediation by the Media Council.]

But the future of the council itself is also uncertain as the Fiji government seeks to find ways to muzzle the news media in spite of the new constitution’s guarantee of freedom of speech and information.

Although the recent Thomson Foundation report to the government strongly recommended self-regulation, Assistant Minister Dimuri seems determined to interpret the report rather differently.

While the Thomson Report generally gives the Fiji news media a supportive nod, it specifically states that the media should not be licensed and that there should be no extension of the law to deal with publication of leaked documents.

In her Media Watch column, Leary asked: “Why is Ratu Dimuri insisting on creating a government-initiated media council?

“With respect to the minister, it is charming to think that creating a new council would be in line with the Thomson Foundation recommendations and, indeed, the new constitution.

“But it is difficult to see how this is anything more than a charming bid to control the media”.

  • David Robie is journalism coordinator at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji and co-convenor of Pacific Media Watch.
David Robie
David Robie
Dr David Robie was previously founding director and professor of journalism at AUT’s Pacific Media Centre (PMC). He worked with postgraduate student journalists to edit Pacific Media Watch - a daily digital archive of dispatches about Pacific journalism and media, ethics and professionalism. The PMC also jointly published the high profile independent Pacific Scoop news website with industry partner, Scoop Media, and Asia Pacific Report, which David now edits independently in partnership with Evening Report: David is also the founding editor of Pacific Journalism Review (PJR).
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