Archive: Fiji – why the media were also Speight’s hostages


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Some reporters and news organisations were too ready to give legitimacy to George Speight’s “two bit” rebellion. The Fiji print media in particular failed to give insightful and critical analysis, writes David Robie.

By David Robie in Suva

It is too easy to generalise about the media or those who work in it, especially over coverage of the Fiji insurrection — the third attempted coup in 13 years.

Criticisms should differentiate between types of reports: contrasting those of the on-the-spot specialist — whether local stringer or regional specialist with long-term knowledge — with those of visiting “crisis” reporters, or “parachute journalists”.

It was astonishing how captive the journalists were to terrorist leader failed businessman George Speight. There was an extraordinary symbiotic relationship between them.

In a sense, the news media were hostages too, even providing a human shield at times of confrontation between the rebel group and the military at checkpoints.

Few journalists in the Fiji media industry, who have a median age of 22 and media experience of 2.5 years, had experienced the two successful military coups in 1987 staged by Sitiveni Rabuka. Nor did many have experience of covering other major political crises.

The media contingent in Fiji was mostly dominated by Australians and New Zealanders. However, there was a liberal sprinkling of Britons, two Japanese crews, a couple of Americans, a correspondent for Le Monde, and a handful of Filipinos.

All three major international newsagencies — Agence France-Presse, Associated Press and Reuters — were reporting too. The media pack offered Speight a profile and credibility — it aided the rebel leader’s propaganda war.

Fuelled the crisis
The media, in fact, fuelled the crisis and gave Speight a false idea about his importance and support — it gave him “political fuel”. Some sectors of the foreign media did not grasp the complexities of the crisis, that this in fact was a power struggle embracing the indigenous Fijian community.

They reported it in terms of racial stereotyping, and assumed that the majority of indigenous Fijians supported the coup perpetrators.

“I don’t know where they got this idea that the majority of Fijians support this coup,” remarked political commentator Jone Dakuvula on the controversial Close-Up programme on Fiji Television. “We only have about a thousand people sitting at Parliament — there are about 400,000 Fijians”.

He added: “It’s very simplistic to use words like ‘majority’ or ‘minority’ because you can’t actually base it on any real knowledge about what people out there in the rural areas feel. Most ordinary people are just watching and observing what’s happening — they’re not active participants in this coup.”

On the other hand, there were many examples of insightful reporting on websites in the so-called “Internet coup” — analysis was generally available on some websites in the mainstream media, certainly in Fiji.

One disturbing feature of Fiji local coverage — and international coverage too — was the failure to fairly report the “civil society” and the range of views outside of the main protaganists.

An international audience could be forgiven for thinking that there were really only two major players in the Fiji crisis — Speight and the military. Not even the deposed elected government (those MPs who were free) was given much media coverage.

Indo-Fijian voices ‘frozen out’
Academic and independent analysis was barely touched. Indo-Fijian voices were largely “frozen out” by the media as if they did not exist.

Speight was the apparent coup leader — a kailoma (mixed race) and a failed businessman, who tore off his balaclava to reveal his identity after the seizure of Parliament on 19 May 2000 in what was billed by supporters and the news media as a “civil coup”.

In fact, his six accomplices were renegade soldiers of the élite Counter Revolutionary Warfare Unit set up by Rabuka to protect himself and any indigenous government and a total of 39 military defectors eventually moved into the parliamentary compound.

By the end of five weeks it had emerged that Speight had been recruited for his exceptional communication skills just hours before the insurrection began. The real power was former British Special Air Services major Ilisoni Ligairi who had been recruited by Rabuka to set up the CRW unit.

In 1987, Rabuka staged both coups for “indigenous Fijian paramountcy”. In 2000, George Speight led the latest putsch for the same reason, arguing that Rabuka had betrayed the cause by supporting the 1997 Constitution which laid the foundation for a multiracial and democratic future for Fiji.

On 27 July 1998, the new Constitution came into force. It included cross-communal voting and established the first Human Rights Commission in the South Pacific. The country officially became known as Fiji Islands, and the people Fiji Islanders.

Mahendra Chaudhry, the country’s first Indo-Fijian prime minister whose Fiji Labour Party won the largest ever mandate in the May election to head a People’s Coalition government, was deposed by Speight, assaulted and threatened with a gun to his head.

Pugnacious political style
With an abrasive, pugnacious political style derived from his trade union background, Chaudhry was hated by some indigenous Fijians even though his administration had arguably done more in office during one year for both the rural and urban poor of both Fijians and Indo-Fijians than previous largely indigenous administrations.

However, the “race card”, as played out by Speight, his supporters and the news media, is “misleading and mischievous”.

George Speight . . . the “race card”, as played out by him, his supporters and the news media, was“misleading and mischievous”
George Speight . . . the “race card”, as played out by him, his supporters and the news media, was “misleading and mischievous”. Image: Pacific Journalism Online/USP Journalism

Chaudhry is not the problem, nor are the Indo-Fijian communities. As former University of the South Pacific politics lecturer Teresia Teaiwa adds: Fiji’s problem is Fijian. Increasingly problematic configurations of indigenous leadership in the country.

Fiji has a complex racial and religious mix in its population of about 800,000 with mainly
Christian indigenous Fijians (51 percent) slightly outnumbering Indo-Fijians (44 percent), both Hindu and Muslim, with the rest being mainly European and of mixed-race descent.

During the last coup period, the news media faced far more grave threats to their independence and integrity than during the Speight insurrection. On 14 May 1987, Rabuka assured news media executives that they could rely on a “censorship free press”, but he warned against inflammatory reporting.

Both The Fiji Times and the Fiji Sun bitterly condemned Rabuka and the coup in an editorial next morning.

Rabuka’s regime ordered the two newspapers to stop publishing indefinitely while armed troops and police occupied the two offices. The next day, May 16, became the first time (apart from once during a hurricane in January 1986) in more than a century that The Fiji Times was not published.

Purge of political critics
The military regime began a purge of political critics and opponents by arresting them without charge.

One newspaper, the Fiji Sun, remained defiant, championing democracy and the freedom of the press. Publisher Philip Harkness refused to be intimidated and would not agree to publishing after the coup until freedom was restored. Directors Miles Johnson and Jim Carney were detained without charge when the Fiji Sun was closed after the second coup.

In spite of the two previous coups, covering this insurrection was a testing challenge for Fiji’s mostly young journalists. While the journalists generally came out with flying colours, there were some flaws that ought to be examined.

One was the readiness of some reporters and news organisations to give legitimacy to Speight’s rebellion. Another was the failure of the print media, in spite of the piles of newsprint covering the event, to give insightful and critical analysis.

Reporting of a major crisis of this kind is generally accompanied by analysis in quality overseas media. It is the one advantage that print media has over radio and television — and is essential when news websites are providing this.

Initially, The Fiji Times had no doubt where it stood:

“Outrageous and criminal … We have witnessed how one moment of madness will set this country back by decades. This illegal takeover must end. The democratically elected People’s Coalition has to be restored.”

Sympathised with the rebels
The Fiji Times never repeated that message and in fact later in the five weeks appeared to strongly sympathise with the rebels.

The newspapers quickly referred to “self-proclaimed head of state” George Speight when clearly there was only one legitimate President, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. Likewise, Ratu Timoci Silatolu was being called “interim prime minister”.

Just because the elected government was being held hostage, it did not mean that it was no longer the legal government.

The Fiji Times published the only profile about Speight’s pyramid sales and insurance career — written by a News Ltd journalist. (A Murdoch News Corporation subsidiary owns the Fiji Times.)

There was no in-depth local profile written, something matching a mahogany-and-Speight piece in The Sydney Morning Herald by Marian Wilkinson which exposed how the coup leader stood to gain a financial “killing” from an American timber resource company — until the Chaudhry government was swept to power and trashed the deal.

By day seven, the Fiji Sun was already calling the rebels the “Taukei civilian government”.

Criticism of the media was beginning to emerge. The fact is that some journalists had basked in the glow of coupmaster Speight — something that is hard to imagine in hostage situations in other countries. And this raises ethical questions about how “cosy” the media was with the terrorists.

Said one foreign journalist: “They [rebels] feed us, give us a bathroom and look after us. I like them.”

Fiji Television raid
But that was before the Fiji Television raid on May 28 after which many international journalists fled the country.

The big issue, never satisfactorily resolved, centred on whether journalists should place themselves under Speight’s unpredictable temperament by entering the parliamentary compound.

Other questions centred on the ethics of giving Speight a media platform, at will, to “sound off” only metres from where 30 MPs, some who had been assaulted with a gun put to their head, were being detained incommunicado.

Part of the extraordinarily symbiotic character of the crisis was how the media turned, as the Melbourne Age’s Tony Parkinson put it, “a two-bit terrorist into a celebrity”. More sobering still, it was a tale of how some journalists obsessed with putting themselves in the middle of the story, risked becoming “tools of Speight’s crusade to dismantle Fiji’s democracy”.

Added Parkinson: “We have seen a mass outbreak of this virulent strain of ego-journalism. It is not a pretty sight and it raises an awkward ethical question: to what extent have the visiting media in Suva become unwitting accomplices in George Speight’s brutal game of brinkmanship?

“Virtually from the moment the rebels seized control of Suva’s parliamentary compound, it wanted to be seen to parachute into the danger zone. This meant an obscene rush to get inside the compound and do on-the-spot reports on Speight, the megalomaniac of the moment.

“The media were in hot pursuit of images of masked men with guns, who would do insane things to achieve their aims. It was a heady and addictive brew. Some media organisations overdosed.”

Inside the compound
Reporters (admittedly mostly local) spent nights on end inside the compound trying to explore the innermost thoughts of Speight. They drank kava with his supporters. One journalist shared a pizza with Commander Jimmy, Speight’s brother. He always wore a balaclava so he had to filter his meal through the mask.

The souring of the rebels’ relationship with the media came only after Sydney newspapers ran banner headlines such as The Sydney Morning Herald’s THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE .

It was thanks to international media that local journalists became more detached in the reporting with the playback from abroad of terms like “coup”, “insurrection” and “rebellion”.

Whatever the pork-and-dalo carnival atmosphere in Parliament grounds, the issues needed to be faced honestly.

This was about an act of terrorism with hostages’ lives under threat. Indigenous chauvinism does not override human rights.

David Robie is senior lecturer and journalism coordinator at the University of the South
Pacific. This article was first published by The Independent in New Zealand. It was abridged from a research paper, “Taukei Takeover: The Media Anatomy of a Coup”, that he presented as a keynote speaker at the Australia and New Zealand Communication Association Conference at Ballina, NSW, July 3-5. This paper was later published by Australian Journalism Review (22(2): 1-16).

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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