By Pacific Media Watch in Brisbane
A New Zealand media educator who headed Pacific journalism schools for a decade has called for a stronger voice against censorship from the region’s communication education sector.
“The student press and broadcasters in the Pacific universities need to be proactive in their coverage and philosophy as news media,” said associate professor David Robie, director of the Pacific Media Centre at AUT University.
“They need to protect the freedom of the press and freedom of expression in the traditions of an independent Fourth Estate while also helping Pacific nations forge a common vision.”
Speaking in one of the University of Queensland’s school of journalism and communication World Press Freedom Day lectures, Dr Robie gave a series of case studies involving censorship in the region’s journalism schools, including the George Speight failed coup in Fiji in May 2000.
The University of the South Pacific journalism school’s training website Pacific Journalism Online was closed by the university administration when martial law was declared in Fiji on May 29 and only allowed to resume again three months later providing no coup news was published.
University authorities also tried unsuccessfully to halt publication of the journalism programme newspaper Wansolwara, which published a special coup edition in June 2000.
The censorship attempts by the authorities led to international protests by media freedom bodies such as the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontières and New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
“The university failed to gag student journalism on both counts through the students’ personal courage and determination and they were later vindicated by winning several international awards for their coverage,” Dr Robie said.
He also praised the role of the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism (ACIJ) at the University of Technology, Sydney, for immediately establishing a “mirror” website for the USP journalism students and continuing to publish the “gagged” students’ stories, pictures and audio clips.
“Their archive continues to this day,” he said.
Dr Robie said he had surveyed a number of students who had experienced coverage of that coup and they had “developed enormously” as journalists over the past decade. The experience had equipped them well for their careers.
“A shared view of many of the students reflecting on what they had learned during the putsch is that student journalism was in many respects more independent than the mainstream commercial media driven by profit,” he said.
Asked whether journalism schools were doing enough in the present climate of Pacific censorship, Dr Robie said far more could be done to continually test the boundaries.
But he cited Wansolwara’s special “role of the media” issue last year and an edition of the Fijian Studies journal devoted to media and democracy, which were examples of strong contributions to debate.
He also cited examples of attempted censorship by authorities at the University of Papua New Guinea, but said the student journalists had remained resolute.
Pictures: Top: Dr David Robie and Dr Levi Obijiofor, of the University of Queensland, at UNESCO WPFD 2010. Middle: Vanuatu Independent deputy editor Evelyne Toa and Dr David Robie. Bottom: PNG Ombudsman Chronox Manek.