Wars, coups and bloody conflicts are increasingly common in the Pacific region. Reporting these events is difficult especially when national governments denounce journalism and intimidate the media. The only defence available for the region's young and inexperienced journalists is accurate and balanced reporting, writes Gemini News Service’s David Robie, citing a new book on Pacific journalism.
available in NZ from South Pacific Books (NZ) – rrp. NZ$57 – and selected bookstores
TO SURVIVE, GET THE STORY RIGHT
By DAVID ROBIE
(SUVA, FIJI): On October 20 last year, three editorial staffers of state-owned Radio Fiji were detained and questioned for seven hours over a news story.
They were threatened with charges under the Emergency Powers Act for refusing to reveal their sources in connection with a story in the morning bulletin about a split in the Fijian military.
The public broadcasting manager, news director and a reporter were first detained and then taken away from the radio station by armed soldiers. They were eventually handed over to the police.
On 13 November police arrested and charged two Fiji Times journalists with unlawful assembly over the seizure of a military barracks by rebel soldiers. The pair were remanded, accused of "mingling with rebels".
Both these incidents occurred in Fiji following the May 2000 coup led by failed businessman George Speight who held the elected prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry of the minority Indian community and his cabinet hostage in the parliament building.
Such intimidation is not peculiar to Fiji. Although the killing of troublesome journalists is almost unheard of, and prison terms rare, "the Pacific is littered with instances of publishers and journalists being chastised and chased", writes Seona Smiles in a new book on the region's media released in April.
The Pacific Journalist is published by the University of South Pacific. Seona Smiles, a feisty columnist on the Rupert Murdoch-owned daily newspaper, Fiji Times, is a contributor.
The Pacific region is not particularly known for its tolerance for news media. Journalists from the numerous independent island states are usually considered trouble-makers and are treated with derision by their political leaders.
Societies in the South Pacific have deep-rooted beliefs about respect for authority and the privileges of their tribal chiefs that can translate into a lack of accountability and transparency.
All this is coupled with a strongly disapproving attitude towards those who question, probe and publish, says the book.
It cites several cases of harassment and intimidation of journalists. Among them is the deportation of British-born publisher Marc Neil-Jones of the Vanuatu Trading Post by Prime Minister Barak Sope for vigorously probing allegations of corruption.
Another was the unprecedented banning of French news-agency correspondent Michael Field from the annual South Pacific Forum political meeting in Kiribati.
Field angered the authorities by probing too much into the pollution problems in Kiribati the previous year. His investigations were described as "culturally sensitive".
"Expatriates and non-citizens can be dealt with by throwing them out of the country" points out Smiles. But it is tougher for the locals.
"The growing number of indigenous journalists are a different toot of the whistle, however, and some tough measures are bandied about to deal with them," she says.
Pacific governments frequently come up with draft laws aimed at gagging or controlling the media through licensing measures, or a raft of fines aimed at journalists or company directors.
Public opposition and media lobbying have so far kept at bay governments armed with draconian laws, but the survival of media freedom in the region remains doubtful.
In 1996, the editor of the Times of Tonga, Kalafi Moala, one of his senior journalists and a pro-democracy parliamentarian were jailed for contempt of parliament over a news report published by the paper.
Fiji's caretaker prime minister Laisenia Qarase, whose post-coup regime has twice been declared illegal by the courts, complained about journalistic standards at a recent media event.
"Far too many reporters still lack basic skills and sound professional judgement," he said.
"They are uncertain interviewers, poor verbal communicators, have problems with accuracy and are short on knowledge of current affairs. The result is that coverage sometimes compromises the ideals of a free press," Qarase chided journalists.
Smiles herself echoes the views of Qarase and other political leaders in the Pacific by accepting the youth and limited experience of many reporters from these islands.
The median age of Fijian journalists is 22 and their average experience 2.5 years, according to research cited in the book.
The attempted coup in Fiji, the Solomon Islands ethnic conflict and the secessionist struggle in Papua New Guinea have stirred vigorous debates on the quality of reporting and the role of the media.
"It is indeed a frightening prospect to consider a predominantly young, relatively inexperienced, sometimes politically naive and occasionally quite unjustifiably confident media corps, that can have far-reaching effects on public opinion and community action and attitudes," says Smiles.
High standards of accuracy and balance, argues the book, is the "journalist's defence against authoritarian control and the forces that want to silence the whistleblowers".
Jale Moala, one of Fiji's most experienced editors, says that political assignments pose Pacific journalists with their greatest challenge because of the cultural dilemmas they face.
"This is because politics in the region is so often mixed up with issues like culture and tribal loyalties that it can become difficult for reporters to maintain impartiality and direction, especially if they are themselves part of the cultural group involved."
Referring to the May 2000 attempted coup, Moala says much of the reporting was less than impartial.
The reporters were either "swept away by the euphoria of the moment" or feared to report impartially.
"As a result the perpetrators of the terrorist action received publicity that at the time seemed to legitimise their actions and their existence," Moala recalls. And the subtleties of Pacific conflict are not easily understood by foreign journalists. Radio Australia's correspondent in Port Moresby, Richard Dinnen, tells of his own experience in the Solomon Islands in mid-2000.
"It was a curious story. Here was a country tearing itself apart, yet it was still possible to stroll down the main street [of the capital Honiara] and buy a nice chilled coconut and drink it sitting in the shade."
"Just a few minutes' drive away, the elected prime minister was trapped in his residence, no longer able to govern, fearing for his life," says Dinnen.
Explaining this to foreign print, radio and television audiences is a challenge not easily understood.
- GEMINI NEWS
*** About the Author: DAVID ROBIE is a New Zealand journalist and journalism coordinator of the University of the South Pacific, and he is editor of The Pacific Journalist.