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Of Croaking Toads, Liars And Ratbags

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Fourth Estate column by a University of the South Pacific journalism lecturer, SHAILENDRA SINGH, who is a former editor of The Review news magazine and currently supervising editor-in-chief of USP's Wansolwara regional training newspaper.

SUVA (Wansolwara/Pacific Media Watch): Journalists John Hurst and Sally White start their book, Ethics and the Australian Media, with some colourful descriptions of journalists.

They quote the 18th century English political journalist, William Cobbett, who likened us to a parcel of toads which when disturbed by a brickbat, ³turned on their backsŠ.showing their nasty white bellies, and all croaking out their alarm, emitting their poisonous matter².

Journalists have also been called jackals, sharks, reptiles, liars and ratbags.

In Australia, journalists are "huge and fearsome mastiffs". They are motivated by "self-aggrandisement, self-promotion and ego". Their stories are ³absolute manufactured garbage written without regard for the truth".

Needless to say, the authors do not necessarily share these views. What they have poignantly pointed out is that grievances about the media are not new and that little has changed over time.

They add that complaints about media performance should be taken seriously, most of all by the media itself.

Meanwhile, Fiji Government senator Mitieli Bulanauca, not to be outdone, recently labelled local journalists "mad crazy loonies and stupid people" who need "to be trained, guided and directed".

His comments in the Fiji Senate that the media are "Satan's agents" and that editors, publishers, reporters and announcers are racist and naive amateurs who are breaking down the fabric of life in Fiji, may some day even find their way into a book.

Another Government senator, Rev Tomasi Kanailagi, a former Methodist Church of Fiji president, branded the Fiji Times and Fiji One as the "agents of evil". The good reverend¹s anger stemmed from media reports that the church¹s finances were not being properly audited and media debate in Fiji about the burden tithing may be placing on indigenous Fijian parishioners.

At the crux of this and other outbursts is the larger issue of media freedom in Fiji. The powerful Methodist Church, and indeed some politicians, feel there is no place for a western-style, free media in Fiji. They would like to see the media reined in, if necessary, through government legislation.

This may or may not happen when the new Fiji Media Bill becomes reality. Work on the bill has been going on quietly but fervently for some time at the Information Ministry. It missed being tabled during last month's sitting of Parliament.

The race is on to have it ready in time for the February session. The bill could change the way the media operates in Fiji - for better or for worse.

The bill, we are told, will be largely based on the Thomson Foundation Report prepared by two British media consultants in 1996, with some additions from Cabinet. The Thomson Report has been seen and fully endorsed by the media.

There is nothing in its recommendations that impinges on media freedom. On the contrary, it seeks to improve the conditions for the media to function freely.

Government, on its part, has given repeated assurances that it will not bring in laws that will curtail the media's freedom. However, the media and the Government have a different view of what constitutes media freedom, or even news for that matter.

Assistant Information Minister Simione Kaitani couldn¹t understand the "unnecessary' media fuss about the auditor-general's report which, among other things, revealed that the 22 Government departments collectively overspent their budgets by $29 million in the last year alone.

Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, meanwhile, has to pay the newspapers to get his speeches aired even though a public relations specialist charged almost $80,000 to write them.

Contrary to former Finance Minister Berenando Vunibobo's comments in 1995 that the $220 million National Bank loans scandal was "water under the bridge", the issue is still making news today.

The Thomson Foundation report says that while "responsible governments and politicians should share a common aim - the best interest of their society - their roles are different".

"In a healthy democratic society, the relationship between politicians and a free press is, quite properly, likely to be wary, questioning and sceptical, rather than close, cosy or adulatory."

It can be safely said that the relationship is hardly close or cosy at the moment - the tea and biscuit privileges journalists enjoyed in Parliament was removed recently.

Among those slighted by the media is the Minister for Women, Adi Asenaca Caucau. She complained that her off-the-record comments that the death of a child as a result of a domestic dispute was because the couple were "living in sin" was reported.

The Fiji Times even had the audacity to write an editorial asking the Prime Minister to give the Honourable Adi the boot.

But the litany of complaints against the media cannot always be dismissed out of hand. Concerns about unbalanced and unethical reporting, sensationalism, insensitivity, lack of depth and research in articles and a poor understanding of the issues are too frequent and too numerous.

Another common complaint is that the media is loath to make retractions or correct mistakes. It has even been accused of bringing down a government or two.

One of the reasons given for the poor standards is that journalists in Fiji are young, inexperienced and poorly trained. There is little argument about this, although it's interesting to note that the complaints about journalists in Fiji almost mirror those in developed countries where scribes are better trained, more experienced and well paid.

There is broad consensus, however, that the situation in Fiji should not be allowed to continue, not the least because of the racial and political make-up of the country. In such a situation, an irresponsible media can be like a bull in a china-shop, capable of wreaking serious damage.

The Thomson Report viewed the lack of professionalism in Fiji seriously: "This in our view is a major obstacle to a responsible implementation of the proper freedom of the media," said the report's authors, adding: "We are satisfied that media errors and misjudgments were much more often the result of inexperience than wilful distortion; but that is of limited consolation to their victims."

Over time, allegations of misconduct damage the media's integrity and credibility in the eyes of the public. By not taking heed of the grievances about standards, the media in Fiji can become its own worst enemy.

The media's shortcomings only strengthens the cause of those calling for censorship, including Government.

One area Government is clearly sceptical about is self-regulation through the Fiji Media Council, as recommended by the report. Even the authors admitted that a system allowing the media to be judge and jury at its own trial was far from perfect.

It was, however, strongly against Government regulation, seeing this as the greater evil. The authors had hoped that the Fiji Media Council, with a matching membership of lay people and media owners, and with a common code of practice, would help raise standards.

In its nearly seven years of existence, the council, under the chairmanship of Daryl Tarte, has attended to more than 120 complaints. But whether it has lived up to the expectations of the Thomson Foundation report is a point of contention.

The media feels the council is doing a fine enough job. The Government is in disagreement.

Admittedly, outside the media, there is a widespread feeling that getting the offending media outlet to publish the council's judgements as a punishment is a mere slap of the hand. This hasn't worked as a deterrent.

Similar complaints about media councils in other countries has seen some action, says former University of the South Pacific journalism coordinator David Robie, now a senior lecturer in journalism at New Zealand's Auckland University of Technology.

"In Australia and New Zealand, there are the high profile media watch style programmes run by prominent journalists independent of any of the media proprietors. They regularly expose shortcomings of the media and name offending journalists.

"The whole idea is to raise ethical and professional issues in public and hang them out there for public debate."

Hurst and White, in their book, say the media must pay more attention to ethics. They must open themselves to more debates about the principles and applications of media ethics and revise their entrenched position.²

They were referring to the Australian media. But they could well have been talking about Fiji. Ultimately, this could be the media's best weapon against those who have a vested interest in controlling the media and are using the issue of media performance towards this end.

+++niuswire PACIFIC MEDIA WATCH ONLINE PACIFIC MEDIA WATCH is an independent, non-profit, non-government organisation comprising journalists, lawyers, editors and other media workers, dedicated to examining issues of ethics, accountability, censorship, media freedom and media ownership in the Pacific region. Launched in October 1996, it has links with the Journalism Program at the University of the South Pacific, Bushfire Media, the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism, and Pactok Communications, in Sydney and Port Moresby.

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