fiji UNCENSORED

May 7, 2009

Courage under fire

PACIFIC FREEDOM FORUM PROJECT XIX

  • Fiji Times Editor in Chief NETANI RIKA, spoke today at a Pacific Freedom Forum Project XIX, Courage under Fire regional media workshop in Samoa. Project XIX refers to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of speech.

IT is difficult to put thoughts into words when you know that everything you say has the potential to be a threat to the very existence of 180 people with whom you work and close to 1000 who depend on them for a living.

Last month the Appeals Court in Fiji ruled that the removal of Laisenia Qarase’s government by the army and its shadowy group of supporters was illegal.

The three judges declared not only that the takeover was illegal but that the President appoint a caretaker prime minister to lead Fiji to democratic elections within a suitable time frame.

Hours after the judgment was handed down, the interim Prime Minister, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, agreed on national television to abide by the ruling and uphold the law.

The next day he was reappointed by the President – this time to head an interim government of the same people who had lead Fiji prior to the declarations of the court.

Immediately, a Public Emergency Regulation was put in place to ensure that there would be no opposition to Bainimarama’s regime.

In a nutshell the regulation prohibits public gatherings for the purpose of political meetings and – under Section 16 – stops the media from broadcasting or printing material which may incite the people.

This rule gives the Permanent Secretary wide-ranging and arbitrary powers to decide what may cause incitement. There is no requirement for this public servant to declare why the decision has been made to prevent a particular news item from being made public.

On the afternoon of Bainimarama’s return to power, the Permanent Secretary for Information told news editors that as part of the regulation, each media organization would be allocated a censor and that each censor would be accompanied by a police officer in plain clothes.

The police officer – we were told – was to protect the censor. We were not told from whom the censor would need protection.

In Fiji it is often the case that rules can change from day to day without warning or explanation.

As days and weeks have passed, the number of censors has increased, as has the number of police officers.

These enforcers of the law are no longer in plain clothes and sometimes take on the duty of the censors, deciding what we are permitted to print.

What, you may ask, are we permitted to print?

Basically any story on government must put the interim regime in a positive light or it will not be permitted.

No views contrary to those of the Interim Government are permitted – even if balance is provided in the form of a comment from a minister of state or a senior public servant.

Censors did not allow the publication of the reactions of the Commonwealth and the United Nations to the reappointment of Bainimarama as interim prime minister by our president.

We were not allowed to publish news of street protests in Thailand or the assassination attempt on US President Barak Obama.

Censors entered our newsroom on the evening of the day that the President ordered Bainimarama’s reinstatement.

Of course we had dozens of stories from all across the political spectrum showing reactions to this event. We were not allowed to publish any of these stories.

The next day our Sunday paper – which is now a collectors’ item – was published with white space in place of the stories which the censors – both trained journalists and one of whom had worked in the mainstream media – had culled.

We carried bold notices in those spaces declaring that the newspaper had been prevented from publishing the stories under the Public Emergency Regulations.

It was a sensation and drove home to the people of Fiji the point that we were powerless to tell the truth, powerless to tell the country what it needed to know, powerless to carry out our duty to the nation and provide free speech.

And it brought home to them the fact that media freedom is intrinsically linked to their right to know and their freedom of expression.

Unfortunately the interim government was not amused and the Fiji Times management was summoned before the Permanent Secretary for Information to be told that white space was not allowed under the Public Emergency Regulation.

What, then, do we do next?

We have decided to go about our daily assignments in the normal manner. Our journalists and photographers cover every possible assignment attempting to get as many sides of the story as possible.

Yes, we continue to cover stories which do not portray the Interim Government in a good light.

Those stories are assigned to pages and go to the censors each day. More often than not these stories are declared unfit for consumption by the people and are knocked back by the censors.

The next day we cover every assignment again – including the stories which the Interim Government does not want – and inundate the censors with copy.

Sometimes the stories get through, at other times they are spiked. It is an extremely frustrating exercise.

Last week a domestic airline was forced to close because of financial difficulties which are not linked to the current regime.

Our business writer prepared comprehensive coverage, covering all angles of the story, providing fact files, historical background – a masterpiece from a young journalist.

The censor on duty did not allow our reports to run unless we carried a quote from a specific minister.

We refused and pulled the story.

The following day we placed the same stories in front of a different censor – No worries, the issue was covered, albeit a day late.

It is safe to say that the greatest challenge we face with censorship is inconsistency.

What we may or may not cover is at the discretion or more often the whim of the censor on duty.

Last week the Public Emergency Regulation was extended for a further 30 days. The Permanent Secretary for Information declared this week that the media was now reporting responsibly.

In my view, Fiji’s media has always tried to report responsibly. Unfortunately, all of our country’s rulers since independence in 1970 believe that responsibility means no anti-government stories.

The people know of our inability to provide a truly independent view of what is happening in our home.

Those who can use shortwave radio to find a link to the outside world and news broadcast on Radio Australia or Radio New Zealand.

A plethora of blog sites has sprung up spewing Fiji stories, rumour, gossip and speculation into cyber-space.

Most of this news is accessible only to the small portion of the community which has access to the internet.

Unable to halt the onward march of the bloggers, Fiji’s rulers have resorted to ordering the closure of Internet cafes from 6pm each evening in an attempt to stem the tide.

But how does it stop the coconut wireless which for generations has provided steady – if not entirely factual – news in countries around the region?

But we gather this week to discuss courage under fire.

To say that Fiji’s media has been under fire since December 2006 is no exaggeration. We have been threatened, bullied and intimidated. Our cars have been smashed, our homes firebombed.

Despite this, our staff have remained committed to the ideals of a free media, telling the stories that must be told, exposing the weaknesses in State policies and also covering human interest assignments.

It is because of their commitment and refusal to detract from the cause that the Interim Government has been forced to gag the media.

It is important in these trying circumstances for senior journalists and managers to maintain a brave face and communicate constantly with their staff, offering support and protection.

It is also imperative that we offer guidance and direction and stress the importance of the role of a vibrant, free press in a democracy.

Training, upskilling and mentoring are also important.

At the Fiji Times we have found that our people – and many of them are young – understand the complexities of the situation we face.

How do we build their courage? Simply, by not backing down.

We continue to cover the issues which are important to people – water, roads, food prices, housing, superannuation, health services, governance, accountability, transparency.

Every story is covered in detail as if we were working in a truly democratic country without the current restrictions.

Each day we challenge the censors by putting every possible news item before them.

Sometimes we are lucky and the occasional story slips through the net. On those days we celebrate quietly.

The danger is that under the current circumstances, journalists may start to censor their own stories.

We must not allow that to happen.

It is vital – indeed it is 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.

Our leaders must learn to deal with criticism from the electorate.

For journalists it is frustrating to spend the day covering issues and then writing reports which cannot be printed.

To their credit, however, our team at the Fiji Times continues to cover the issues, continues to test the censors, continues to push the boundaries of the regime’s regulations.

That takes true immense courage.

In our a situation it would be easy to roll over and practice self-censorship or get out of journalism because it’s just too hard.

To their credit, however, our journalists have risen to the challenge, continued to report without fear or favors and remained objective.

They have bravely stood up to intimidation, rejected censorship and recognized that when a nation is controlled by usurpers it is imperative that the public’s right to know is protected at all costs.

And they are determined to break the culture of silence which so often surrounds our leaders – elected or otherwise.

I am proud of the journalists with whom I work and their colleagues in Fiji’s media industry. They are a tribute to the profession we all love so much. – fiji uncensored

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