Sunday, March 29, 2009

Fiji media review calls for 'proactive' role on standards

By Josephine Latu: Pacific Media Watch

An independent review initiated by the Fiji Media Council has called for serious improvements in the council’s operations.

The review, made public in Fiji last week, challenged the council to be more “proactive” in attaining journalistic standards, promoting ethical codes, and “to be seen as a body committed equally to press freedom and press responsibility”.

Recommendations include patching up an inefficient complaints process, dealing out tougher penalties as a self-regulatory body, hiring a permanent and paid executive secretary, and doubling its funding.

The Fiji Media Council initiated the review in response to public criticism, including a controversial and damning report by Hawai’i-based academic Dr James Anthony, organised by the Fiji Human Rights Commission (FHRC) in 2007.

The military-backed interim government last year vowed to introduce a media “promulgation” law and the draft is believed to be based in part on some Anthony report recommendations widely condemned by news organisations.

Written by three nominated consultants - Australian Press Council executive secretary Jack Herman, consultant on environmental issues Suliana Siwaibatu and attorney Barrie Sweetman - the new review was conducted during February.

The review team considered 26 submissions from members of the public, NGOs, members of government as well as media representatives plus other reports and documents.
The panel also conducted its own interviews.

While commending current council chair Daryl Tarte over his efforts, the review noted a strong dissatisfaction apparent in many submissions. These held that “the Media Council has not performed to its own high ideals”, especially over media responsibility.

The review noted that this was partly because of a lack of financial support for the council, but also “largely a result of the fact that the council has not pursued more vigorously, or adequately followed up, outcomes of the complaints process”.

It called for all media organisations to be more committed to upholding journalistic and ethical standards.

Key review recommendations include:

• Improving the complaints process by:
- Appointing a paid executive secretary to deal with complaints quickly and attentively;
- Offering face-to-face mediation as an alternative dispute resolution;
- Clarifying the basis of complaints;
- Supplementing adjudication with a "series of graduated penalties", including censure; and
- Allowing public members of the council to act as media monitors.

• Cultivating relationships with government in the interest of media freedom. The Department of Information, as a member of the council, also needs to use this opportunity to foster a positive relationship with media.

• More responsibility to the general public through:
- Promoting the council by reporting regularly to the public through NGOs, website and forums;
- Actively pursuing its own objectives of improving media standards and condemning ethical breaches; and
- Encouraging public members to raise issues of concern, and even act as mediators in the complaints process.

• Better administration through:
- Appointing a paid administrator (executive secretary) on a permanent part-time - but preferably full-time - position, along with an equipped office and on a fixed salary equivalent to F$20,000-F$30,000 a year;
- Revising the role of the council chair to play no part in the adjudication process, and fixing an
honorarium of F$6000-F$10,000 for the position.

• Recommendations for funding:
- Stronger support from media organisations in order to be effective. The review “does not think
the media meet their own standard for self-regulation at this time”;
- Double income (at least) by increasing fees, but still not relying on any government funding;
- Further pressure on non-member media organisations, including online news sites such as Fiji
Village and Fijilive, to join the council and support its aims through “fees and commitment”;
- Holding an annual meeting for member media organisations to discuss budget; and
- Looking to NGOs and national and international aid agencies for sponsorship of projects such as training and forums.

• Other recommendations:
- Current Fiji Media Council membership is 19. As membership increases to an unwieldy size,
this may be reduced to five industry members (one representing journalists themselves), five public members and the chair;
- Public membership should be advertised as widely as possible and nominees undergo a screening process;
- Representation of journalist and advertising associations on the council;
- Promote more media training and address journalists’ low starting salary;
- Clarify the council’s corporate status in the constitution – it should be a company limited by
guarantee rather than a company limited by shareholding;
- Campaign for a Freedom of Information law; and
- Encourage higher media standards as part of Fiji’s nation-building process.

Full text of the Fiji Media Council review at Pacific Media Watch

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