Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 12:19 | SYDNEY
Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 12:19 | SYDNEY

Fiji tells the media to shut up


Graeme Dobell

17 April 2009 13:29

The political tragedy afflicting the people of Fiji hurts in so many different ways. My despair at the latest set of wounds Bainimarama has inflicted on his people caused an unusual reaction: I haven’t wanted to write about it.

For someone reaching towards four decades in journalism, this is not natural. Journalism, as a craft, does not conceive of any form of writer’s hesitancy, much less writer’s block. Headlines and deadlines always banish hangovers and hesitancy. As an editor of mine once opined: ‘Ignorance is no bar to journalism.’ (And he was only half joking.)

To apply a similar sort of rule to Fiji: repeating past mistakes while hoping for a different outcome is to mix desperation with ignorance of your own history. The imposition of military censorship and the casting out of Australian and New Zealand journalists are examples of bad history repeating itself. To quote Australia’s longest-serving Pacific correspondent, the incomparable Sean Dorney, Fiji’s problem is that ‘there's an extreme amount of order, but there's no law’.

The maze of mirrors that Fiji has re-entered with military censorship was illustrated by the ABC interview with Fiji’s Attorney-General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiuum, who assured Australian listeners that everything was normal in Suva. Was he aware that the editor of the news website FijiLive had been detained by police? ‘Okay, well, I didn't know about that. Under the public emergency regulations, a person can only be detained for 24 hours.’

And that’s the point. The Attorney-General hadn’t heard about it because Fiji’s media can not report such uncomfortable news. The real Alice-in-Wonderland moment was when the Attorney-General railed against people outside Fiji getting the facts wrong about what is happening in Fiji. ‘There's a lot of speculation - people are sitting in Sydney, Canberra, Wellington, Auckland and other places, and making all sorts of calls as to what is happening in Fiji. On the ground it's something completely different.’

The military has created this dilemma for itself. Imposing censorship devalues the worth of what is published or broadcast. If Suva will only allow the positive stories to be published and broadcast, the automatic assumption is that all sorts of bad news is being suppressed.

I had a lot of experience of Fiji’s version of military information management during the coups of 1987 and then the more enlightened version during the 2000 coup when no censorship was imposed. I wrote a piece comparing the different media experiences of 1987 and 2000 for the Pacific Economic Bulletin.

The difference was that the Fiji military took a pragmatic decision that censorship didn’t work. Letting the media do its job actually helped the military regime. Open coverage of all sides of the politics of the 2000 Parliamentary siege by Fiji’s papers, radio and TV cut down, or at least counter-balanced, the wild rumours.

The greatest frustration the military had was that it could not directly answer the claims running around the web. On the ground in Suva, the military could argue its case with its own media and the foreign journalists and get wide coverage of its side of the story.

The military commander and head of the military government in 2000 was Frank Bainimarama. He has forgotten the media strategy that once worked for him.

You get a lot further arguing your case than by muzzling anyone who disagrees. Censorship means Bainimarama’s breakfast will no longer be disturbed by headlines that offend or anger him. The trouble is that everyone else in Fiji won’t believe much of what the local media does tell them.

Photo by Flickr user Jachin Sheehy, used under a Creative Commons licence.