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Fiji’s Fourth Estate should do soul searching

The form, function and ethos of news media in Fiji and the South Pacific are coming under increasing scrutiny.

Questions about the role of media in nation building, and development are not new, but debate about the suitability of western-style reporting in fragile, multi-ethnic societies is gaining momentum.

Our job is to report the news fairly, accurately, and objectively.

The Media may have to introspect as to whether it can continue to behave as it did in the past when so much has changed.

In terms of Fiji’s media environment, such discussions are starting to happen.

This is a sign of progress.

It is a healthy development; we must maintain the momentum and just like the Government, media should be scrutinised and challenged.

The Media should be the Devil’s Advocate to keep it on its toes, and in touch with the people.

Given our watchdog role, we are constantly picking faults in others and hence tend to develop a condition whereby we think we are always right.

Monopoly on Truth?

We start believing that our way alone is correct, and start thinking that we have monopoly on truth.

We assume the moral high ground, and become averse to change and criticism.

As such, we become our own enemy and fail the society we are supposed to serve.

I will argue, with some trepidation, that we have seen shades of this in the Fiji media landscape.

We have set way of doing things, and we cling on, regardless of changing times and circumstances.

For instance, since independence in 1970, Fiji has become increasingly unstable. But we are still stuck in the rut of 1970s style reporting.

The reporting model we follow was inherited from British and from other European countries. But our country and society are different.

Misreporting, hyping or sensationalising conflicts may not result in coups or riots in well-entrenched democracies or homogenous societies but can devastate fragile, multi-ethnic societies such as Fiji.

The May 2000 Coup was a defining moment for the Fiji media. While the Coup provided us with a lot of copy, it also gave rise to an unprecedented level of public and academic scrutiny into the inner workings of the media.

Inflammatory Reporting

The Fiji media found itself under the microscope like never before.

Many papers wrote on media coverage of the one-year rule of the Mahendra Choudhry Government, its forced removal and the ensuing hostage drama.

The Fiji media was forced to defend itself against allegations of inflammatory reporting that allegedly emboldened Fijian hardliners and created the conditions for the George Speight Coup.

Speight’s skills with the media showed how ‘prominence’ and ‘conflict,’ the two conventional news values, can be exploited for personal gain; one, by reporters to publish headline news to make a name or get a promotion and two, by newsmakers such as Speight to capture headlines.

Many researchers have highlighted such a ‘symbiotic relationship’ that was obvious between the media and Speight.

While the media denied any culpability in the overthrow of Choudhry and his Government, the paranoia had already set in the society. Spooked by the events of 2000, subsequent governments intensified efforts to rein in the media.

Qoriniasi Bale, who was Attorney General in the Laisenia Qarase Government, said at the time that the quality of reporting in Fiji was poor.

Do not get me wrong; traditional news reporting has strengths in exposing corruption, promoting human rights, equality and holding leaders accountable.

There are weaknesses in this model when applied in unstable, multiethnic societies given the emphasis placed on conflict as a key element of news.

That is why the media is paradoxically seen as a champion of democracy and a security threat in Fiji.

Conflict has become a highly commercialised commodity of news value.

Mischievous twists

The Australian newspaper quoted an unnamed foreign affairs official saying, “The people may have no choice but to stand up to (Commodore Josaia Voreqe) Bainimarama and his thugs”.

Flippant remarks by people with little knowledge about, or regard for, our situation can be dangerous, especially when parroted and propagated by an ignorant or uncaring media.

The propensity for unrest and violence in Fiji is still underestimated, even after four economically devastating coups and a deadly mutiny in the army.

Rebellion is the last thing Fiji needs. Citizens would only be exposed to more violence and suffering.

If people living in Australia do not understand this, local media should.

Radio Australia recently reported that there was a general decline in journalistic standards in Fiji, and that media was running “dog and cat stories.”

I described the report as “superficial” in a media interview.

I said, overseas journalists, full of idealism but out of touch with the ground realities in Fiji, were painting an inaccurate picture of the country.

It is naive to judge journalism in Fiji through the Australia and New Zealand prism because the situation in these countries is starkly different.

We have had a coup, and we have a punitive media law in place.

What kind of journalism should we practice?

Is it the kind that will lead to the closure of news companies?

We have to be realistic, strategic, pragmatic and operate as best as we can in our current, tough environment.

Martyrdom is great, but you do not live to fight the next day.

I concede that many things that should be reported are not being reported.

Reality Check

But there is a stark choice before us: report some things, or report nothing.

The ‘dog and cat’ reference is revealing. It shows what is wrong with journalism in Fiji and elsewhere today.

Unless you are reporting politics, scandals, celebrities or calamities, you are not doing real reporting.

While our situation is not ideal, we must make the best of it and look for the silver lining.

Recently, we have been reading some really inspiring stories on social issues, such as sacrifices by poor parents to educate their children in schools and universities. It is pleasing to read media coverage celebrating excellence and achievement in education.

Fiji is a poor country. Education can be a great liberator for us.

We need to promote education.

What is happening in the Fiji media landscape is very interesting. We are redefining notions of ‘what is news’.

Raising Standards

We are challenging long-held beliefs and practices such as ‘Bad news is good news’ and ‘if it bleeds, it leads’.

It is not therefore all doom and gloom in the Fiji media landscape, even though it is a pity that we have been forced into looking at alternative definitions of news.

The University of South Pacific Journalism Department has been in existence for more than 20 years focusing on the practice of journalism.

We should also pay attention on postgraduate studies to groom people who can analyse and comment on the media.

There has also been debate and discussion on journalistic standards.

I believe that such discussions should be held in proper context and compared with the standards in other sectors, services and professions in Fiji.

What is the standard of doctors and lawyers, the Government and governance?

How well has our civil service served the country?

It is best to leave lawyers out of this discussion, but if you do a comparative study, you will find that journalists, who do not charge fees or use taxpayers’ money, have not done too badly.

Fiji has great needs. More than 40% of the population lives in poverty. People are underpaid, overworked and continue to live under appalling conditions.

The Fiji media should carefully consider its priorities and journalists should take their jobs seriously.

Fiji needs a free and socially responsible media that is less besotted with prominence and conflict, and committed and devoted to the needs of its people.

Fiji needs media that is free of political influence and manipulation.

Shailendra Singh is Head of Journalism Division and Senior Lecturer at the University of South Pacific, based in Suva, Fiji. The above is an edited version of his speech at a recent Seminar on Peace Journalism: A Dream or a Goal? held at the AUT University in Auckland.

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