Saturday, May 9, 2009

Veteran media freedom champions speak out for uncompromised Pacific news

By David Robie in Apia: Pacific Media Centre

Veteran champions of a free Pacific media spoke out strongly in defence of an uncompromising public watchdog role for the region's news organisations at an Article 19 seminar in Samoa this week.

Savea Sano Malifa, editor-in-chief of the Samoa Observer, spoke of his lifelong pursuit of the “hidden stories” at the UNESCO-sponsored seminar, which had a “courage under fire” theme.

“When I started out as a journalist, I realised that I didn’t care much about the everyday, obvious news,” he said.

“Especially the ones that were being deliberately hidden in order that they remained so for a very long time.

“That was the stuff that kept up the pressure to dig deeper.”

Netani Rika, editor-in-chief of the Fiji Times, whose newspaper led the challenge against unprecedented draconian censorship by the military regime after the abrogation of the 1997 constitution at Easter by publishing blank spaces in retaliation against the gag, called for more training of media workers “under fire”.

“How do we build their courage? Simply, by not backing down,” he said.

“It is vital indeed it’s our duty – to ensure that journalists continue to make every attempt to cover the issues that matter to the people, even if the stories we write do not portray our rulers in a good light.”

Move Pacnews
Kalafi Moala, publisher of both the Taimi ‘o Tonga and Tonga Chronicle and who was unconstitutionally jailed for contempt of Parliament in 1996, called on the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) to move out of Fiji and shift its regional news service Pacnews in protest.

“They should get out of Fiji so that they can function independently,” he said.

“We don’t believe they should remain silent. In terms of media freedom, journalists in the Pacific are looking for fresh leadership.”

Russell Hunter, expelled by the Fiji regime while he was publisher of the Fiji Sun in February 2008, also called for Pacnews to move out of Fiji.

“It is appalling that a body that has consistently stood up for media freedom for a quarter of a century or more should have maintained its operations in a censure environment one minute longer than it needed to,” said Hunter, who is now development editor of the Samoa Observer.

Savea Malifa also warned young journalists to defend their independence and not fall foul to the Pacific free “beer and food” culture.

In our small societies, the urge for compromise is compelling. Many journalists succumb to it. They are invited to their governments’ cocktail parties, they accept free beer and food, and they lose sight of the ethics.”

Marc Neil-Jones, publisher of the Vanuatu Daily Post, said his paper constantly challenged assaults, intimidation and bullying by authorities by publicly exposing such behaviour.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) Asia-Pacific bureau’s Deborah Muir and Kalafi Moala were lead trainers for the seminar, organised by the recently formed Pacific Freedom Forum (PFF).

PINA failure
The forum’s facilitator, Lisa Williams-Lahari, a longtime Pacific women’s advocate now based at Otago University, steered the programme – a regional response to the failure of PINA in recent months to respond with timely campaigns to defend the region from assaults on media freedom.

The seminar conducted two days of freedom of speech and expression mobilisation and practical training exercises under the Article 19 umbrella – from the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. The programme was designed to monitor the region’s media more stringently.

A final day of strategic mapping for the forum’s future, leading to the two-yearly PINA convention in Vanuatu in mid-July followed.

The forum issued a final communiqué today outlining its action plan and declaration, including working towards becoming registered as a non-government organisation.

The network also plans to work with other regional organisations with similar objectives such as the IFJ, Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) Regional Media Centre, AUT University Pacific Media Centre and its Pacific Media Watch project, University of the South Pacific regional journalism programme and the National University of Samoa journalism programme.

The forum explored a regional strategy to have a strong presence at the University of Queensland-hosted World Media Freedom Day event in Brisbane, Australia, next May 1-4.

Picture: Taimi Media Network publisher (left), Fiji Times editor-in-chief Netani Rika and Vanuatu Daily Post publisher Marc Neil-Jones. Photo: David Robie.

Dr David Robie is director of the Pacific Media Centre. He was present at the “Courage under fire” media seminar with the assistance of the NZ National Commission for UNESCO.

Samoa 'Courage under fire' seminar final communiqué
Pragmatic approach to Fiji censorship

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