Self-censorship in the Fiji media – Fijileaks reviews a timely book on coups, culture and criticism


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By Victor Lal, founding editor-in-chief of Fijileaks

Don’t Spoil My Beautiful Face: Media, Mayhem & Human Rights in the Pacific, in a sense, is a sequel to David Robie’s 1989 book Blood on the Banner: Nationalist Struggles in the South Pacific. I had read Blood on the Banner with great interest and enthusiasm, for Robie and I had the same publisher — Zed Books, London.

Blood on the Banner beat me to publication in 1989, for I had to make major changes to my original manuscript Fiji’s Racial Politics – The Coming Coup.

In the last chapter I had concluded that if the FLP-NFP Coalition [Fiji Labour Party-National Federation Party], under Dr Timoci Bavadra, win the 1987 general election, there would be ineluctable military intervention by the native Fijian dominated military. On 14 May 1987 Sitiveni Rabuka overthrew the new government.

Consequently, my original manuscript had to be drastically revised with additional chapters. It was later published by Zed Press as Fiji: Coups in Paradise – Race, Politics and Military Intervention.

Robie’s Don’t Spoil My Beautiful Face, as one reviewer [John Pilger] of the book has put it, “is an extraordinary ‘secret history’ of a vast region of the world of which David Robie has been a rare expert witness”. I fully endorse the comments. The book also has a foreword by Kalafi Moala, deputy chair, Pasifika Media Association (Pasima), Nuku’alofa, Tonga.

Moala made international headlines when he was jailed in Tonga in 1996 for contempt of Parliament, together with his deputy editor, Filo ‘Akau’ola, and MP pro-democracy leader ‘Akilisi Pohiva. They were locked up for 26 days without any contact with the outside world.

But they were not forgotten. Moala recalls: “One of the main drivers behind the protest against our imprisonment was a man who at that stage I had known more by reputation than personally. He is award-winning journalist David Robie, author of nine books, journalism professor, and an analyst and Pacific news reporter for more than three decades.

Drew international attention
“Not only did he write about our story and distribute it to his network of media in the Pacific, but news agencies from outside the region picked up the stories and drew international attention…Without David’s involvement, the story and reaction to our imprisonment would not have been so widely known.”

Don't Spoil My Beautiful Face
Don’t Spoil My Beautiful Face book cover.

We should not be surprised, for Robie is also a campaigner on many issues. I have always argued that an academic must also be an activist; otherwise the world will be a very dull and dangerous place.

Don’t Spoil My Beautiful Face is divided into six parts, with an introduction: Trust and Transparency. Part One: Out of Africa; Part Two: Colonial legacy conflicts; Part 3: Indigenous struggles; Part Four: Forgotten wars, elusive peace; Part Five: Moruroa, mom amour; and Part Six: Media Education.

Again, in reviewing this book, I found another common connection. Robie opens the introduction by quoting a former Kenyan chief editor, George Githi, of the Daily Nation, with whom he once worked with, and who observed wryly about media freedom in developing countries:”‘For governments that fear newspapers, there is one consolation. We have known many instances where governments have taken over newspapers, but we have not known a single incident in which a newspaper has taken over a government.”

Githi was former press secretary for then President Jomo Kenyatta, founding father of Kenya. Githi’s comments stuck with Robie for a long time, and at one stage he (Robie) used the quote as a personal email signature. But, as Robie rightly reminds us, these days the notion isn’t quite so absurd.

As an example, he cites the Italian media tycoon and former Prime Minister Silivo Berlusconi, controlling shareholder in the Mediaset empire, and also mentions Mahendra “Mac” Patel, chairman and chief executive of the Motibhai Group, and owner of the Fiji Times and Herald Limited.

I mentioned the Kenya connection. I am currently engaged in several academic projects relating to Kenyan history, and have completed a book length biography of Justice Thacker, the judge who had convicted and jailed Jomo Kenyatta following the outbreak of the Mau Mau Rebellion in the 1950s.

The manuscript, based largely on Thacker’s private papers, is titled: A Portrait of Jomo Kenyatta’s Judge: Justice Ransley Samuel Thacker’s Journey to Kapenguria, 1891-1953. Before taking up the position as judge of the Kenya High Court in 1948, Thacker was Attorney-General of colonial Fiji. Naturally, Githi had been of interest to my study of Kenyatta.

‘Checks and balances’
In 1965, at the age of 29, Githi had become Daily Nation’s fourth editor-in-chief, promising this “newspaper will not flatter Kenyatta or the government” as an administration should not be allowed to have absolute power, “there must be checks and balances”. Journalists and media proprietors in Fiji should take note of Githi’s 1965 declaration.

In this review we will concentrate on Fiji, for others have reviewed Don’t Spoil My Beautiful Face from different perspectives. In Part Two, Chapter Nine, Robie writes at length on Fiji: Countdown to a coup in 1987. Just before the coup, he had been one of only two New Zealand journalists in Suva reporting on the dramatic victory of the Fiji Labour Party led Coalition. (Robie was also in Fiji for the 2000 George Speight coup, then as a journalism educator leading a group of students covering the putsch).

In the book Robie asserts that most journalists covering the 1987 coups focused on an exaggerated racial divide instead of fundamental changes that had happened in Fiji to lead to the election upset — and then the military takeover. His reports, the first of a series for New Zealand’s New Outlook magazine, focused on the changing paradigms of political struggle and background to the coups.

It is also worth noting that Robie has recalled at length the beating of University of the South Pacific (USP) academic Dr Anirudh Singh in the chapter entitled “Human rights abuses in the Pacific”. Singh narrated his abduction and brutal torture by soldiers in retaliation for a protest burning of the discriminatory 1990 Constitution in his book The Silent Warriors. Robie reminds us of Singh’s harrowing ordeal by reproducing his Auckland Star (17 December 1990) article titled “They put a noose around my neck”.

In Part Six, Robie focuses on “Media Education”. Chapter 22 begins with “Shooting the messenger, 2002” where he quotes former FLP Senator ‘Atu Emberson-Bain: “So much for the free media in this country — the debate always focuses on freedom from government interference. What about freedom from the big [private sector] boys on the block with their vested interests?”

In spite of the rhetoric about governments pressuring the media in Pacific countries — yet this does happen all too frequently — Robie believes a greater threat to press freedom sometimes comes from a small clique of self-serving media veterans, many of whom are of expatriate palagi origin and who have disproportionate influence.

The now defunct Fiji Media Council also comes for criticism, and rightly so, for eagerly co-operating with two British media consultants in 1996 regarding media legislation. Robie states: “Any journalists worth their salt should be resisting any attempt by governments to hinder the media. The consultants’ report was merely an attempt by the Fiji Media Council to save its own vested interest.

‘Thin end of the wedge’
“In fact, one could argue that the industry itself opened up the thin end of the wedge by collaborating in the first place with government attempts to control media.”

Robie also reminds us that the Bainimarama regime was just as critical of the media as the ousted Qarase government. Self-censorship by the media was replaced by the longest sustained censorship regime of any Pacific country, imposed when the 1997 Constitution was abrogated at Easter 2009.

Failure by the Fiji Media Council to get its own house in order led first to a deeply flawed media “review” by Hawai’i-based former Fiji academic Dr Jim Anthony arranged by the Fiji Human Rights Commission, and then the imposition of the notorious Fiji Media Development Decree 2010. Robie points out the deportation of Fiji Times publishers Evan Hannah and Rex Gardiner and Fiji Sun’s Russell Hunter.

The end result, according to Robie: “Although the Bainimarama regime never succeeded in closing The Fiji Times in a cat-and-mouse game, as it undoubtedly wished, the government did manage to force the Australian-based owner News Limited (a Rupert Murdoch subsidiary) to sell the newspaper to the local Motibhai Group in 2010. Chief editor Netani Rika, long a thorn in the side of the regime, and deputy editor Sophie Foster were also ousted and replaced with a more compliant editorship by Fred Wesley.”

What calibre of journalists are needed in the Pacific? Robie reminds us of Shaista Shameem’s call at a USP seminar marking World Press Freedom Day (WPED) on 3 May 2002, where she wanted a higher educational standard for Pacific journalists.

In her view the region’s journalists need to know far more about history, politics, sociology, philosophy and the sciences. “Anyone can learn the technical skills of journalism — that’s the easy part. The hard part is to understand the worlds that you are writing about. My definition of a good journalist is someone with such in-depth understanding of the issues that the words, though simply written, virtually leap out from the page,” she says.

One of the problems in the region, Robie points out, is that there is virtually no in-depth reportage of the media itself. While some sections of the media attempt valiantly to ensure power is accountable, there is little reflection about the power of the media.

We could go on, and on, but we will stop here, and highly recommend that you read Robie’s timely book, for we don’t want to sppil a beautiful read for you!

Fijileaks: Lots of reviews have been published in other countries about DSMBF yet there has been a strange silence in Fiji . . . self-censorship no doubt (apart from the student press Wansolwara and a piece by then head of journalism Pat Craddock also in Wansolwara).

Victor Lal is the founding editor-in-chief of Fijileaks and former general secretary of the now defunct Journalists’ Association of Fiji. A former Fiji journalist, he is a University of Oxford-based researcher and the author of Fiji: Coups in Paradise: Race, Politics and Military Intervention (1990) and From Reporter to Refugee (1997). This review was first published by Fijileaks.

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