Monday, May 11, 2009

Commentators condemn NZ's policies on Fiji

A neglect of perspective and lack of historical perspective in reporting Fiji’s “coup culture” means New Zealand media coverage of the Pacific country lacks insight and balance, say critics.

By Kacey Maher: Pacific Media Centre

Two New Zealand academics have called for a more critical review of the country’s policies towards Fiji. And they are not alone with this suggestion.

Prominent journalists and community people join both AUT University’s Pacific Media Centre director Dr David Robie and University of Waikato political economist Dr David Neilson in criticising media coverage of the Fiji coups and calling for changes in policy.

Associate professor Robie told Radio New Zealand’s Mediawatch programme it was vital for journalists to challenge the censorship by reporting all the “twists and turns and nuances” of the Fiji political upheaval to gain a more complete and accurate understanding of events.

“Fiji is one of our important friendly nations in the region,” he said. “Even though we pride ourselves on being part of the Pacific, in many ways the Australian media…do a far better job of covering the region.”

Dr Robie also said little attention was paid to Fiji news, especially in print, unless it had some context within New Zealand.

“If it doesn’t make the general news then it doesn’t make anything, because it doesn’t get a space in the world pages,” he told interviewer Jeremy Rose.

The following day, the New Zealand Herald reported in a front page story that Māori party co-leader Tariana Turia wanted to send a delegation to Fiji.

The article, in addition to being New Zealand-related, also featured no Fijian sources.

Underground Fijian blogs such as Intelligentsiya condemned the idea, saying such a delegation would be of little to no help.

Editorial view
As Dr Robie predicted, there were no Fiji-related articles in the world section. However, an editorial column seemed to be filling some of the reportage gaps.

“I like the op-ed article in the Herald from Tapu Misa - with thoughtful quotes from a University of the South Pacific professor,” said Maire Leadbeater, a long-time peace activist and spokesperson for the Coalition for Democracy, who also thinks New Zealand coverage of Fiji has been lacking.

The professor, Wadan Narsey, is a Fiji citizen and a frequent contributor to the Fiji Times - a key example of the types of sources Dr Robie hoped the media would seek out.

With the Auckland-based Pacific Media Center, associate professor Robie tries to right the regional wrongs as he sees them in mainstream New Zealand media.

Along with patchy Pacific coverage, Dr Robie says that too often experts from far afield in New Zealand and Australia saturate analysis and commentary.

Instead, he told Radio New Zealand, sources from USP, such as Narsey, ought to give an analysis that is closer-to-home.

Taualeo’o Stephen Stehlin, executive producer of TVNZ’s Tagata Pasifika, agreed with this assessment.

“I think the reporting of the regional voices has been sporadic with an emphasis on New Zealand and Australia,” he said. However, he says, it is a difficult situation, especially for local journalists on the ground within Fiji.

“It would be good to hear more from professor Narsey and his colleagues - but do they take a risk if they speak critically about the coup?” said Leadbeater, echoing Taualeo’o’s views.

Foreign news sources have been gagged in Fiji since April 10, leaving blogs as essentially the only uncensored media from within.

Journalists hoping to enter from the outside must first agree to a background check and sign a visa application stating that they will cover the news “fairly”.

Moral ambiguity
This has many journalists up in arms about the moral ambiguity of having to get permission from the government to cover political stories.

However, interim regime leader Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama told SkyNews: “It’s not only insightful messages that we are worried about, it’s irresponsible reporting that’s done by the media.

“That’s something we really don’t need done right now.”

Dr Robie told Radio New Zealand, there was a long history of mistrust within Fiji about foreign journalism, especially the foreign journalism that existed within its own borders.

World-wide conglomerate, Murdoch’s News Corp, owns the Fiji Times, the country’s largest newspaper.

He said there had been “major questions about the role of media, particularly print media, not being fair and balanced” in Fiji’s past.

“Over the last couple of years certainly the regime has felt that its side of the story and also the plans and objections - the People’s Charter for example - has never really been covered properly,” said Dr Robie.

“I think that’s very arguable and debatable, but this is a very widespread view.”

It was also reflected in Bainimarama’s actions towards the press.

According to Rebecca Moala, a New Zealand mother Fijian by descent, said: “I know more about how the press has been affected by the whole thing than how the people of Fiji have been affected.”

Radio New Zealand’s Jeremy Rose professed his own dissatisfaction on air: “I’ve got no feel really for how many support this coup, how many are against it.”

However, a lack of resources during this world-wide financial crisis, is a also a problem, says Scoop Media NZ co-editor Selwyn Manning.

“We at Scoop were on a roll from 2003 through to 2007 in positioning strong reportage and analysis on Pacific regional politics and geopolitics in general,” he said.

“But I cannot claim we are doing anything meaningful now, except possibly being a facilitator, or providing the means, for those journalists that have been driven underground in Fiji.”

Lifting the lid
But this could help “lift the lid on the real Fiji,” said Manning.

He explained that it was the covert journalism within Fiji and the news organisations which worked with underground media sources that would find the real stories.

“The mainstream media in New Zealand is devoid of specialist journalists who can work real contacts, real people to ascertain what is the real situation for Fijians in this most murky affair,” he said.

“There's an over reliance on official sources and neglect of attention given to those facing the consequence of the regime's actions.”

It is this neglect of attention to perspective that has Dr Neilson most disappointed with the media. Dr Neilson, a senior lecturer in labour studies, said New Zealand media fell down most in providing issues within an historical context.

He said that the situation could not be understood without at least the background of the coups that came before.

“From Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara onwards, there has been this idea of a middle way between contending power bases, that link to the two major ethnic groups of Fiji,” he said.

The late Ratu Sir Kamisese served as President of the Pacific Islands and was one of the most influential figures of the Pacific Islands Forum.

This “middle way” is the ideal balance of power between indigenous Fijians and the Indo-Fijians, explained Dr Neilson.

Lieutenant-Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka’s first two coups in 1987 were an attempt to keep the indigenous Fijians in power over the Indo-Fijian-dominated Labour Party.

The subsequent 1997 constitution – abrogated by the current President - was designed to ensure that that the indigenous would retain supreme power while also protecting the interests of the Indo-Fijians.

However, Dr Neilson said he felt increasingly pessimistic about Fiji’s future.

Maika Tabukova of the Canterbury Fiji Community is also frustrated over media coverage.

“What the media in New Zealand is doing is making the situation worse,” she said. “Only a Fijian can explain to you what is going on in Fiji.”

Photo: Pacific Media Centre.

Katherine Maher is an American student journalist on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course as part of her Study Abroad programme at AUT University.

RNZ's Mediawatch on Fiji – May 3, 2009
Intelligentsiya – 'The Hand in the President’s Glove'
Fiji's hope lies in peaceful resistance

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