Sunday, April 26, 2009

Blogs rule as Fiji regime cracks down on media

By David Brooks: Agence France-Presse

Fijians keeping up with political developments since the media clampdown by Voreqe Bainimarama's military regime this month are turning to a growing band of internet blogs.

The latest political upheaval in Fiji was triggered by the regime's repeal of the constitution on April 10, accompanied by the sacking of the judiciary and emergency regulations to control free speech.

Regime censors have been sent into newsrooms to prevent sensitive political stories being published or broadcast.

Most media have responded by refusing to run any political news, leaving a vacuum quickly filled by the blogs, many contributed to by journalists who have lost their conventional outlets.

Blogs played a part in the 2000 coup and again when military chief Bainimarama toppled the elected government in late 2006, with authorities helpless to restrict them in the same way as the traditional media.

"I think the Fiji journalists are enormously resilient and courageous and they have shown in the past they are very adaptable at dealing with oppressive regimes as they have with the previous three coups," says Pacific journalist and academic David Robie.

Experienced journalists in Fiji are all too familiar with attacks on media freedom after a series of four coups between 1987 and Bainimarama's 2006 takeover.

"But this is the first time we have had really systematic censorship and for getting on for two weeks now," said Dr Robie, an associate professor and director of the Pacific Media Centre at New Zealand's AUT University.

More rumours
Former Fiji Broadcasting Corporation chief executive Sireli Kini said the clampdown on the media was creating more uncertainty, with news being replaced by rumours.

"It's human instinct, people want to know what's happening and when somebody spreads a rumour it spreads like wildfire and it's very destructive," said Kini, who now lives in Auckland.

Some of the blogs have relayed rumours and wild anti-regime rhetoric, but others, such as Fiji Uncensored and Coup Four and a Half, have a strong news focus.

With Fijian journalists contributing material, these blogs are filling the gap left by the muzzled media.

"They have taken over the role of the conventional journalism by informing the members of the public," said Kini.

"Some of them are on the target. There are some well written stories there."

Under the latest crackdown, Bainimarama has announced any person or entity which fails to comply with government media orders may be told to "cease operations".

"We want to come up with these reforms and the last thing we want to do is have opposition to these reforms throughout. So that was the reason we've come up with emergency regulations," Bainimarama said in explanation.

When the censors first entered the newsrooms on April 11, the newspapers and broadcasters devised their own ways of protesting.

Blank columns
The television news bulletin was cancelled and the next day the Fiji Times appeared with blank columns with "This story could not be published due to government restrictions" written across them.

The rival Fiji Post tried a satirical approach, reporting on what staff had eaten for breakfast on the front page.

These reactions angered the regime, which threatened to close down the offenders if there was any repeat.

The government also expelled three foreign journalists who had arrived to report on the upheaval and at least two local journalists were detained but later released because of work they had done for foreign media.

Now the main media are not carrying any political news at all, leaving Bainimarama unable to communicate effectively with Fijians.

"They've shot themselves in the foot by doing this, because by clamping down they've cancelled out any chance of getting their side of the story across as well," said Dr Robie, who was coordinator of Suva's University of the South Pacific journalism programme during the 2000

Judging by past experience, the regime is likely to gradually ease the restrictions.

"I think there will be a loosening in time, but it's hard to say with the degree of paranoia at the moment just what will unfold," Dr Robie said.

Until then, the blogs will continue filling the news void.

David Brooks is New Zealand and Pacific correspondent for Agence France-Presse. Cartoon by Malcolm Evans from Pacific Journalism Review.

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