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Fiji: Media Critics Slam News Service 'Hypocrisy'

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Special Correspondent

SUVA (Pacific Media Watch): Rival Pacific news services and media critics are fuming over a Fiji-based news magazine's columnist, accusing her of self-serving bias, misrepresentation and hypocrisy.

The column, "Here is the news about all [that] regional news", written by Islands Business editor-in-chief Laisa Taga in the latest edition of her monthly magazine, purported to be a review of the region's news agencies.

But media industry sources have branded it as propaganda about the free PINA Nius Online service while dismissing both Suva rivals -- the South Pacific's oldest and best-established news cooperative, Pacnews, and the bilingual Oceania Flash bulletins produced by the Pacific Community (SPC) regional media centre.

The column never declared Taga's personal interest or bias -- she is a previous treasurer of PINA (Pacific Islands News Association), she has long been an apologist for the organisation, and her magazine company office is next door to the PINA secretariat.

Media industry circles have been criticising the claims by Taga for the past week and senior Pacnews journalist Mat Oakley today fired off an open letter to Islands Business condemning her article as "blatantly dishonest, misleading and hypocritical".

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In her column, Taga claimed PINA Nius Online had become the regional news service used most by the region's news media.

"It is the only one of the three regularly used by all the region's biggest daily newspapers," she wrote.

She was also critical about international media coverage in the region, saying: "Once, if something happened in the Pacific Islands, it would first reach other Pacific Islands via radio stations or news agencies in Australia, New Zealand or France.

"It would be edited and angled through the eyes of Australian, French or New Zealand editors. These far away editors were what in the news media are called the 'gatekeepers'. They decided what news went back to the Pacific Islands, and how it was edited and presented."

Taga made no mention of the pioneering Pacific roles of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, particularly its popular in-depth Pacific Beat programme, Radio New Zealand International or Pacific Islands Report website at the East-West Centre in Hawai'i.

In a so-called guide to the three news services, Taga claimed SPC's Oceania Flash "struggles" to get used regularly in major English language media and Pacnews offered "official" news and "lack of depth" in its reports.

Pacnews, a self-reliant news cooperative, had also "become heavily dependent on selling its news service to commercial subscribers".

Taga also emphasised the foreign donor roles with both rival news services: Pacnews was established by the Pacific Islands Broadcasting Association (PIBA) in 1987 with backing by the German aid foundation Friedrick Ebert Stiftung (FES) while Oceania Flash is funded by a French Government grant.

But she did not acknowledge PINA's own dependency on donors.

She devoted twice as much space to PINA Nius Online, claimed it provided "good coverage of development and economic issues" and described its only main weakness as "tight staff levels".

The service has just two editors and no reporters - New Zealand-born "managing editor" Peter Lomas and "editor-in-chief" Nina Ratulele, a Fijian.

In his open letter, Mat Oakley criticised Lomas for his "pompous self-promotion", claiming that a brief search of PIR website revealed that he had written PINA Nius "stories quoting or mentioning himself on 45 separate occasions".

Oakley said Oceania Flash editor Patrick Decloitre, a French journalist who has worked for more than 15 years in the South Pacific, had originally developed the PINA Nius Online news service.

"Taga, Lomas and Ratulele have harboured a well-known personal dislike for Mr Decloitre since he left PINA in acrimonious circumstances with less than flattering views regarding the honesty of its secretariat," Oakley wrote.

"Taga focuses heavily on insinuating foreign influences on Oceania Flash and Pacnews. She emphasises the role of Pacnews' former German funder, FES, skirting over the fact that Pacnews has survived without overseas funding since 1998.

"However, while PINA is almost entirely dependent on donor funds, Taga curiously does not imply that PINA Nius is influenced by the foreign organisations or governments that finance its activities.

"Taga, in her self-appointed role as watchdog patrolling the Pacific for signs of foreign intruders, also fails to mention that the European Union pays Lomas to produce reports about EU activities in the Pacific."

Oakley claimed Lomas then filed the reports on PINA Nius Online without declaring his paid interest.

"This is both a transgression of the media ethics Lomas professes to uphold and, in Taga's terms at least, surely an unacceptable foreign influence on local media," Oakley wrote.

Media industry sources have expressed disappointment over the failure by Taga to acknowledge the highly professional work of pioneering news services in the region, such as Radio Australia and Radio New Zealand International.

For example, RA's Pacific Beat current affairs programme includes regular reports from Fiji correspondent Mika Loga. Producer Clement Paligaru is Indo-Fijian, Caroline Tiriman is from Papua New Guinea, and occasionally Sam Seke strings from the Solomon Islands. Isabelle Genoux covers Francophone countries.

In addition, PNG correspondent Shane McLeod, filing from Port Moresby, Gillian Bradford from Auckland, and Pacific correspondent Sean Dorney are contributors.

"Much of the best Pacific in-depth news backgrounders and analysis are done by Pacific Beat and RNZI and they should be properly acknowledged for their valuable work," says Pacific Media Watch co-convenor and NZ journalism academic David Robie.

"Frankly, the Laisa Taga column is an embarrassing indictment of Pacific journalism -- short on facts and long on xenophobia. Fortunately, there are many good Pacific journalists with more useful contributions to make.

"Pacnews is the authoritative news agency in the region, Oceania Flash has done a sterling job in improving media and public understanding across the linguistic divide, and PINA Nius has a reputation as a second-rate 'cut and paste' service. But it is also a giveaway."

According to one Suva media industry analyst, donor agencies are fed up with the bickering between regional news organisations.

"Any fund that could achieve anything significant for the region's media gets split into at least two, if not three, ways and fails to achieve a critical mass," he said.

"Everyone should specialise - Pacnews should concentrate on its three news bulletins a day. On the other hand, PINA has its strong points, like defence of media freedom (except for the ethics lapses), and training should really be left to the University of the South Pacific journalism programme."


PACIFIC MEDIA WATCH ONLINE http://www.pmw.c2o.org

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 based in Sydney, Journalism Studies at the University of PNG (UPNG), the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism (ACIJ), Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand, and Community Communications Online (c2o).

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