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Tailor-Made for Fiji

Tailor-Made for Fiji

By Dr Marc Edge
4 September 2011

Suva - Fiji has to tailor its regulations according to what it needs. This statement, which I made recently in a presentation to the quarterly meeting of media liaison officers from the Ministry of Information, was reported in The Fiji Times without context, leading some to assume that I was referring to and perhaps even endorsing censorship.

I was not. I was instead referring to the other main thrust of the 2010 Media Decree, which is the limit it places on foreign ownership of Fijian media. This is a subject I have studied and published scholarly research on.

Most countries have historically imposed limits on foreign ownership of media out of concern over foreign propaganda and domination by more powerful nations. In the recent worldwide push for deregulation, however, some countries have loosened or even lifted their foreign media ownership limits.

Britain loosened its limits in 2003 and Australia removed its altogether in 2006.

New Zealand was one of the first countries to lift its foreign ownership limits in 1991 after TV3, its first private television network, went into bankruptcy. It was then bought by Canadian company Canwest Global Communication, which turned TV3 into a money maker by slashing domestic program production and airing cheap re-run Hollywood programming in its place. It sold TV3 for a handsome profit in 2007 to an Australian company. Australians now control much of New Zealand's media.

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Two Australian companies publish more than 90 percent of its newspapers.

Fairfax, the largest, recently pulled out of the country's 130-year old news co-operative, the New Zealand Press Association, resulting in its closure this week.

National differences
But what works for one country, or arguably doesn't work, won't necessarily work for another.

The United States, for example, takes press freedom very seriously.

Its founding fathers made press freedom the first amendment to the US Constitution and this guarantee has been interpreted as almost absolute.

There are thus no limits on ownership of US newspapers, although broadcasting is heavily regulated as in most countries.

Rupert Murdoch bought his first American newspaper in 1973, and a few years ago bought the country's largest and most influential financial newspaper, the Wall Street Journal.

But when he wanted to buy television stations and start the Fox network in the mid-1980s, he had to take out US citizenship, which ironically made him a foreign owner of the press in his native Australia, which at that time restricted foreign ownership to 15 percent of a newspaper company.

A special law had to be passed exempting Murdoch from his own country's foreign media ownership laws. He now owns about two thirds of Australian dailies.

In my country of Canada, press freedom guarantees are not as absolute as they are in the US, largely out of concern over upsetting the country's multicultural balance. Press freedom in Canada is instead limited by the rights of identifiable groups, such as ethnic minorities, not to be subjected to hate speech, which is allowed in the US.

In Canada, we also worry about being dominated by our powerful neighbour to the south and becoming a 51st American state. Long before there was globalisation, Canadians feared "continentalisation" in North America as a result of US media streaming unimpeded across the border.

Media regulations
We thus passed numerous media regulations, including quotas for Canadian content broadcast on radio and television.

Canadians did not want giant American corporations and media moguls owning our newspapers, in which much of the country's political dialogue takes place. Limiting ownership of newspapers might have been seen as infringing on press freedom, however, so Canada devised a clever way to get around this conundrum.

An amendment to the tax laws was passed in the mid-1960s making advertising an expense deductible from business income only if it is published in mostly Canadian-owned periodicals. This had the effect of limiting foreign ownership because businesses would be unlikely to place advertisements unless the cost of doing so was tax deductible.

Every country is different, and its unique needs are a result of its history, geography, demographics and culture.

Every country is entitled to determine its own media policy based on its needs regardless of the direction other nations may be going.

Fiji is a sovereign nation and is perfectly entitled to swim against the tide of deregulation if that is what it decides is best for it.

Fiji has decided that its experiment with allowing foreign media ownership didn't work out and has changed the rules because the media here were seen to be part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Given recent revelations in Britain about Rupert Murdoch's journalism practices, many in Britain and the US are wondering if it was wise to allow him to control so much of their media.

Fiji's decision to show him the door actually looks pretty good right now.

Media reformers worldwide have long been calling for measures to break up big media companies that have become more powerful than some governments. We have been shouted down largely because big media controls the apparatus of dialogue. Rolling back media power in Fiji could be just what the country needs.

That is what I was trying to say.

*************

Dr Marc Edge is a senior lecturer and head of journalism at USP. His most recent book is Asper Nation: Canada's Most Dangerous Media Company. This article has been republished from the Fiji Times with the permission of the author. Find him online at www.marcedge.com

* USP academic warns Fiji media advisers over 'balance':
http://www.pmc.aut.ac.nz/pacific-media-watch/fiji-usp-academic-warns-media-officers-over-balance-7593

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