FAIRNESS, BALANCE AND THE PACIFIC MEDIA's CULTURAL IMPERATIVE
Five Pacific papers were presented at the inaugural World Association of Press Councils' Oceania regional conference in Brisbane in June 1999. The first was an overview of the region. (Published in PJR was an abstract only - the following is the full article as published in Australian Journalism Review).
By DAVID ROBIE
Abstract: Evolving Press councils in two Pacific nations have made major contributions to notions of fairness, balance and accountability in the region, and the raising of professional standards. They have also warded off varying attempts to gag or hinder the news media from carrying out its role in the public interest. But pressures and dilemmas continue in the region, often from a cultural as well as a political perspective. The media in some countries is refreshingly outspoken and courageous; in others there is a worrying trend towards self-censorship. Journalism education is also of growing importance in the Pacific and a key foundation for media freedom.
Freedom of expression is a universal value. It is enshrined in a variety of international and regional instruments, such as the Universal Declaration of Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Evolving media councils in two Pacific nations, Papua New Guinea and Fiji, have made major contributions to defending freedom of expression, and notions of fairness, balance and accountabilty in the region, and the raising of professional standards.
They have also warded off varying attempts to gag or hinder the news media from carrying out its role in the public interest. As the Fiji Media Council notes in its most recent annual report:
A free media really means a media free from any interference by government or any kind of censorship. A system that allows a newspaper, radio station or television station to criticise and comment on government policies without fear of being closed down.
In Fiji editors and news directors have the freedom to express their opinions and to publish information that has leaked from government or commercial sources without fear of recrimination (Tarte 1997).
Nevertheless, pressures and dilemmas continue in the region, often from a cultural as well as a political perspective. While the media in some countries is refreshingly outspoken and courageous; in others there is a worrying trend towards self-censorship. Journalism education is also of growing importance in the Pacific and an important foundation for media freedom.
Freedom at the crossroads
Towards the end of 1995, when Papua New Guinea's Constitutional Review Commission first mooted possible legislation against press freedom, the Post-Courier was among the media that greeted the news with more than a degree of pessimism. In a sombre editorial titled PNG HEADED FOR DICTATORSHIP?, the newspaper warned that the move could be the beginning of a drift towards a "dictatorship style of government" in Papua New Guinea (Post-Courier, 1996).
However, the news media organisations in a determined show of unity did their best to head off such a scenario under the CRC's so-called "Seventh Directive". In a bold effort to inform the public of the issues at stake - the media organisations made a move to promote public awareness of the importance of freedom of the press and freedom of expression and information as pillars of a democratic society. A new Media Council of Papua New Guinea was established, incorporating the defunct Press Council but with a wider mandate now covering broadcast media. The revamped council organised a two-day seminar in February 1996 with the theme "Freedom at the crossroads: Mass Media and the Constitution".
Although the CRC media subcommittee did not treat the media seminar as seriously as it ought, and the public largely ignored it, the move was strongly supported by the news media industry, and other interested groups. It was a healthy barometer reading for the state of the news media and comprehensive news coverage spread its message. There was strong representation of the news media - Anna Solomon, at the time chairperson of the PNG Media Council; EMTV chief executive John Taylor representing broadcast media; and then Post-Courier senior reporter Neville Togarewa representing the journalists' union. They suggested that the subcommittee might back off recommending further legislation controlling the news media (Pacific Journalism Review 1996, 3:2:5-9)
In its interim report, drafted after six months of hearings and considering submissions, the CRC subcommittee said: "The existing laws on the media are sufficient and the government should not propose and get Parliament to enact any new restrictive legislation". However, the subcommittee went on to recommend that an "independent Media Commission" be established. This caused some disquiet because it was argued that the "commission" should have government involvement, including the choice of its members.
The misgivings proved well-founded when three draft media laws emerged in November 1996 with draconian effects for journalists and media organisations - and the public's right to know. The International Press Institute described the Media Commission Bill and the National Information and Communication Bill - which sought to register journalists and radio/television presenters, and to license publishers and broadcasters respectively - as both being open to abuse by government authorities.
The draft Freedom of Information Bill was a watered down version of what had been expected. In fact, some described it as a "control of information" Bill.
Under the proposed Media Commission Bill, a nine-member Media Commission, to be appointed by the head of state, would have been given power to refuse or renew application for a certificate of registration. Before a journalist or presenter could be registered, he or she must have qualifications satisfactory to the commission and be "a fit and proper person". Fines of up to K2000 were provided for offending "unregistered" journalists.
Among the many critics at the time who condemned the draft legislation were Papua New Guinea's Chief Ombudsman Simon Pentanu who dismissed the CRC's drafters as having "no clear aims other than perhaps a number of thinly disguised political agendas". A PNG Media Council analysis said the two media bills had approached the dilemma of truth with "a heavy handed approach, imposing unacceptable risks on society". In the face of the public outcry, the Bills were shelved, but fears linger on that similar legislation could be revived.
A check list of controversy
While Papua New Guinea, the country with the largest news media in the region, was preoccupied with the threats to its own press freedom, several disturbing events affecting media freedom were taking place around the rest of the South Pacific:
A cartoon published in the Cook Islands News on 28 September 1995 was belatedly cited by the parliamentary privileges committee for contempt.
A Tongan journalist, Tongan Times deputy editor Filo 'Akau'ola, was given an 18-month suspended prison sentence in February 1996 over the publication of a letter criticising Police Minister Clive Edwards. In September 1996, 'Akau'ola was again in the limelight when he and his editor, Kalafi Moala, along with pro-independence Member of Parliament 'Akilisi Pohiva, were jailed for 30 days for contempt of Parliament in the most serious threat to Pacific media freedom since the 1987 military coups in Fiji.
In Fiji, the Rabuka government ordered an urgent comprehensive review of laws regulating mass media during 1996. The review was to include advice to the government on whether it should impose a limit on foreign ownership of news organisations - and if so, at what level of shareholding.
In the three years since then, several niggling incidents have undermined press freedoms in the region.
In 1998, in Fiji the then Communications Minister, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, directed Fiji Television to broadcast on its free-to-air channel coverage of the Hongkong Sevens tournament after the company had made a commercial decision to broadcast it on its pay channel Sky Sports. This followed a controversial decision by the minister in December 1997 to prohibit Fiji TV from broadcasting the Millennium series, described by one critic as a "sci-fi programme with some sex and violence" (Naidu 1999). A legal challenge was filed against the Hongkong Sevens decision, but as the move was enormously popular, the issue died fairly quickly.
In 1999, in Fiji a number of incidents led up to the historic general election in May:
The Fiji government was angered during the election campaign by "some trenchant articles in the Daily Post, particularly by its political columnist Mesake Koroi, provoking an extraordinary fullpage government advertisement, at public expense, attacking the 'false allegations' in Koroi's popular weekly Opinion column" (Robie 1999a).
A Fiji television interview with the outgoing military commander, Ratu Epeli Ganilau, drew a warning from then Attorney-General Ratu Etuate Tavai to follow policies laid down in its broadcasting licence, saying the broadcaster should have sought approval from the Minister before broadcasting the interview. Chief executive Peter Wilson defended the broadcast as being "the normal business of television news and current affairs" (Wilson 1999).
A refusal in May to allow a so-called "blacklist" Television New Zealand journalist, David Lomas, into the country did nothing to allay concerns about the government's commitment to a free media. "The barring of Lomas was dismissed as a bureaucratic bungle by [then] Assistant Minister Josefa Dimuri, who called for a review of the so-called blacklist. But critics remained unconvinced" (Robie 1999).
The most debated event was the purchase in February of a controlling 44 per cent shareholding in the ailing Daily Post newspaper, stirring warnings of a crude attempt to stifle media freedom in the run-up to the election (Pacific Journalism Review 1999). Most media organisations attacked the move, except for the muted Daily Post itself. President Jokapeci Koroi of the Fiji Labour Party, which eventually became the government in a landslide election win, complained: "What has happened to the freedom of the press which this government supposedly respects? Or is it that this government is still in the modus operandi that existed immediately after the coup?" (Robie 1999). As it turned out, the Daily Post retained its editorial freedom in a fairly robust way and also provided arguably the best print coverage of the election (Daily Post 1999).
In Samoa, a judge ruled in April 1999 that the criminal libel claim by the late Prime Minister Tofilau Eti Alesana against the Samoa Observer publisher and a former editor could go ahead in the latest government pressure on the newspaper. Tofilau had claimed he was criminally libelled in a letter to the editor published by the newspaper on 6 June 1997. Savea Sano Malifa and his former Samoan language editor, Fuimaono Fereti Tupua, risk being jailed for up to six months if found guilty.
In Vanuatu, a week before the Pacific celebrated World Press Freedom Day on May 3, the publisher of the Trading Post, Marc Neil-Jones, was assaulted over a story published in the newspaper about an ongoing electoral dispute. He and his staff also faced verbal intimidation. Neil-Jones was allegedly assaulted by a close associate of the Deputy Prime Minister Willy Jimmy at a Port Vila nightclub. But the government condemned protests over the incident, claiming one media freedom group in particular was patronising in its criticism (Pacnews 1999).
The Vanuatu incident, in particular, represented the views of many politicians in the region who invoke spurious cultural and traditional arguments to justify condemnation of the news media. These arguments invariably talk about "cultural sensitivities", "responsibility" and "accountability" - but media accountability to whom and for what? As Anna Solomon, publisher of Papua New Guinea's Independent, says:
Community expectations and concerns with cultural sensitivity can be accommodated by a [self-regulating] Media Council while at the same time upholding the right to freedom of expression and publishing. Cultural sensitivity should not be used as a smokescreen to gag the press and that is what we have been hearing (Solomon 1996).
Case study on the Monasavu affair
In July 1999, Fiji Television was put under pressure from politicians and even its own board over its coverage of the Monasavu land rights protests in the highlands of Fiji's main island of Viti Levu (Fiji One News, 1998). The Monasavu dam and catchment, supplying 80 per cent of electricity to the nation, is on their land, but the landowners' village has no power. A long standing grievance spilled over into a public demand for F35 million in compensation. At one stage during the protests on the road access to the dam, a group of landowners daubed themselves in warpaint and threatened to "kill" for their rights in a rather theatrical gesture.
However, government politicians took the incident very seriously, prompting Fiji TV's managing director Walter Thompson to protest to the chairman, Laisenia Qarase. He cited Senator Irene Jai Narayan's family reaction to the coverage in saying:
I am sure hers is not an isolated case. The images of warriors in warpaint, armed with bamboo spears, with statements of people being injured or killed is not a balanced presentation of the situation. Progress has been made, albeit painfully slowly, which is in sharp contrast to the impression being conveyed by TV news reports. I believe this borders on being irresponsible and inflammatory.
We are now entering a particularly sensitive time, with the new Constitution coming into force on 27 July 1998 and the general elections due early in 1999. I believe the reporting policy and practice of Fiji TV must be modified to avoid aggravating situations, which can have a serious impact on the peace, harmony and good governance of our country (Thompson, 1998).
In a 30-page defence of Fiji Television's editorial policies in general and coverage of the Monasavu protests in particular, Wilson said: "The issues raised by Mr Thompson are central to the operation of a free and independent media in a democratic society. They raise important and ethical issues of journalism" (Wilson 1998). He added that key questions included what is news?" and "Should challenging stories be suppressed in the interests of 'harmony'?"
Wilson provided a content analysis comparing Fiji TV's news coverage with similar news services in Australia and New Zealand. The analysis demonstrated that Fiji One had a higher "neutral and "good" news content (92 per cent) than One Network News (NZ - 85 per cent) and Channel Nine (Australia - 78 per cent) (Table 1). He also listed typical news values of a libertarian media model, such as Impact, proximity, prominence, timeliness, conflict, currency, and the unusual.
Table 1: Content Analysis of Fiji, New Zealand and Australia national news bulletins:
Fiji 1 News
One Network News (NZ)
Channel 9 News (Aust)
# - %
# - %
# - %
21 - 8
17 - 4
4 - 1
228 - 6
33 - 14
145 - 18
11 - 1
44 - 1
2 - 4
249 - 84
114 - 81
169 - 77
3 - - - -
39 - - - -
8 - - - -
163 - - - -
76 - - - -
72 - - - -
Neutral and good
- - - - 92
- - - - 85
- - - - 78
He quoted Sally White: "To erase conflict from news would be to rip out its guts" Then he went on to say:
The Monasavu story fitted virtually all of the above criteria of newsworthiness. I have consulted with the head of the journalism school at the University of the South Pacific, the director of the New Zealand School of Broadcasting, and the current TVNZ managing editor of news and current affairs. They were unanimously of the view that the story had to be carried if Fiji One News had any credibility as a news source.
The government and the bureaucracy generally adopted the policy of trying to limit the story by ignoring the media. The army and police were generally more forthcoming. The protesters showed quite sophisticated use of political theatre and at times wished to engage the media to communicate their side of the story. Government criticised coverage of the story by all media.
The key concern apparently being expressed by critics of the television coverage is that they were upset by the images of conflict inherent in the "traditional warriors" threatening to kill anyone who came against them. As well as being personally upsetting to some, they considered it could incite other people to threats or acts of violence.
Another concern that has been expressed is that television coverage gave the protesters a platform to express their grievances which, in the opinion of the critics, they should not have been allowed to do.
Virtually every news professional in the free world would argue that such a story should be carried. The reasons lie in the role of the media previously described.
The loss of Monasavu would affect virtually everyone on Viti Levu. The conflict was serious. The issues of land rights and compensation are key matters of ongoing public interest for Fiji. As the story [unfolded], it [appeared] that the landowners [had] some legitimate concerns (Wilson 1998).
Uncertainty over media legislation
The future of new media legislation being drafted to prepare the way for a statutory media council in Fiji, replacing the current self-regulatory Fiji Media Council and for a regulated code of ethics and standards, is now uncertain after the Rabuka government was voted out of office in May. The government of Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry pledges a free press, but at the same time it has been hinting that the media needs to get its house in order and if it doesn't, the government will do it for them.
According to Assistant Minister Lekh Ram Vayeshnoi: "Some media organisations, to some extent, have been seriously lacking in carrying out their duties. They have shown that the public's right to accurate and factual information appears the least of their concerns. They have shown that they have seriously eroded their credibility and their very important position in a free functioning democracy" (Vayeshnoi 1999).
The Fiji law drafters could do well to note a recent draft document, Freedom of Expression: A Statement of Principles to Inform Legal Systems in the Commonweath. Few would argue with its primary declaration:
Freedom of expression means the freedom to receive and impart ideas, opinions and information without interference, hindrance and intimidation. It may be exercised by journalists, and by citizens generally, through speaking, writing, publishing and broadcasting or through non-violent physical acts.
We regard freedom of expression as the primary freedom, as an essential precondition to the exercise of other freedoms. It is the foundation upon which arise other rights and freedoms (Commonwealth Law and Media Foundation 1997)
This document has some specific recommendations that are particularly useful in a Pacific context. Referring to journalists as employees, the document says: "Free expression does not belong to employers and managers. Free expression requires that journalists enjoy substantial independence from their employers. The terms of journalists should respect and reflect this requirement."
Freedom of expression, argues the document, demands the recognition of journalist unions: "Journalists' unions have an essential role to play in protecting journalists and advancing professional values." Why are there no effective journalists' unions in the Pacific today, like elsewhere in the world? Teachers, academics, nurses and many other people have professional unions in the Pacific. So should journalists (Robie 1999b).
Another point is about press or media councils. While the Commonwealth document rightly says they are a good idea and need to be strengthened towards self-regulation, it also adds: "We favour the tripartite model, structured around the separate and distinct interests of the public, the journalists, and the owners or managers." No Pacific media council follows the tripartite model - instead they favour public-owner/manager models. Free expression needs something better.
Education for journalists is another pillar of media freedom. The University of Papua New Guinea's 25-year-old journalism programme is being wound up and is not expected to last beyond the end of this year. This pioneering programme in the South Pacific has educated some 190 journalists in Papua New Guinea and elsewhere in the region.
It is a tragedy for journalism education in the region that the UPNG programme is closing down. Questions can be asked whether enough was done at the crucial time to ensure the programme continued. Nevertheless, the University of the South Pacific is a worthy successor, with innovative teaching and journalism production, and a growing programme.
It can also be asked whether Pacific news media organisations, particularly larger ones, are doing enough to train and raise journalism standards, or whether they rely too heavily on outside donor agencies. The Post-Courier is the only news media organisation in the region that has consistently put its money where its mouth is in recent years, sponsoring computers and printing training newspapers for both UPNG and Divine Word University.
Finally, a quote from the foreword to a book summarising the 1996 seminar on press freedom organised by the PNG Media Council:
"...relations between government and press have deteriorated ... they are deteriorating ... and on no account must they be allowed to improve."
This piece of serious wit contains a warning which is as apt for [the Pacific] today as it was for the United Kingdom when Lord Jacobsen uttered it. If relations between the press and government are smooth, if they are not brittle, we are in dangerous waters indeed (Millett 1996).
Commonwealth Law and Media Foundation (1997), draft "Freedom of Expression: A Statement of principles to inform legal systems in the Commonwealth", September.
Fiji's Daily Post (1999), "Post gets top election rating", May 20.
Fiji One News (1998), "Monosavu warriors" item, July 1.
Pacific Journalism Review (1999), "Daily Post buy out deal", Vol 5:1.9-29.
- (1996), "Editorial: Freedom at the Crossroads", 3:2:5-9.
Millett, John (1996), "Foreword", in Freedom at the Crossroads: The Media and the Constitution, August.
Naidu, Richard (1999), "Having fun playing God," in Pacific Journalism Review, 5:1:48-51.
Pacnews (1999), "Vanuatu Govt critical of Pacific media organisation", May 6.
Post-Courier (1996), Editorial: "PNG headed for dictatorship?", cited in Pacific Journalism Review, November, 3:2;5.
Robie, David (1999a), "Fiji government's bizarre purchase sparks election fear", The Independent (NZ), April 7.
- (1999b), Editorial: "Media and free expression", Pacific Journalism Review, 5:1:5-9.
Solomon, Anna (1996), "The past and present role of the Papua New Guinea Media Council," in Freedom at the Crossroads: The Media and the Constitution, August.
Tarte, Daryl (1997), "Chairman's report: Fiji News Council Annual Report No 2", December 31.
Thompson, Walter (1998), Letter of complaint to Fiji Television chairman Laisenia Qarase, July 16.
Vayeshnoi, Lehh Ram (1999), Address to Fiji government media liaison offices training workshop, Labasa, June 1.
Wilson, Peter (1998), Board information paper: "News policy and practice", August 31.
- (1999), Media statement on Fiji Television, March 3.
David Robie is Coordinator of the Journalism Programme at the University of the South Pacific, Fiji Islands. He was the Australian Press Council Fellow 1999 and gave this address at the World Association of Press Councils' First Oceania Regional Conference, Brisbane, 22-23 June 1999. Only an abstract was published in Pacific Journalism Review - the actual article was published in Australian Journalism Review, 21 (3) 1999, pp 25-35. EMAIL: David.Robie@usp.ac.fj
Copyright © 2000 David Robie and Asia-Pacific Network. This document is for educational and research use. Please seek permission for publication.
Publication copyright © 2000 Pacific Journalism Review. Inquiries to the editor: David Robie
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