Who is to blame for Fiji’s malodorous media?

As an economist, Wadan Narsey has a good grasp on the centrality of journalism in a mediated society, if not on the exact processes by which its influence is exercised over the masses. Those processes, after all, are murky at best. They have been the subject of decades of research by mostly American scholars, who have enjoyed only limited success in revealing their exact workings. Much can be inferred through social scientific research, but not much can be proven. After years of studying such things, however, some truths become evident. Owners do not exercise complete control over either journalists or the published product, as Narsey seems to think. Try as they might, it should be added. Neither are journalists totally helpless, as he assumes in all but absolving them in the finger-pointing currently under way in assigning blame for the mess that Fiji’s news media have become.
Some critics are targeting the hapless journalists, who surely are minor cogs in the media machine. The reality is that journalists are totally under the control of editors and publishers, who in turn are ultimately controlled by the media owners.
That is exactly opposite to the contention of some conservative scholars that owners have little control over the news, which is instead produced by journalists, who tend to be more liberal. One Canadian study by a pair of political scientists actually found that owners had no control over what was reported, which was instead under the complete control of reporters.
Owners do not provide the labour for the product, therefore the product does not necessarily reflect the owners’ values. Instead, because journalism is in essence a human endeavour, it must reflect the values and political orientations of those who do it.
That laughable contention ignores the fact that what reporters write often never sees the light of day, as stories can be easily rewritten or even “killed” by editors, who are appointed by publishers and ultimately owners. Journalists certainly have some control over what news gets out, but whether they have more control than editors and their bosses  is questionable. The upshot of more than a half century of research on this topic is that what appears in the news is usually the result of a power struggle between editors and reporters. Editors tend to be older, more experienced, and more career-oriented. They are appointed by owners who tend to be more conservative than reporters, who have been repeatedly shown to be broadly liberal. Neither is all-powerful in the news production process.

Sociologist Warren Breed, a former journalist, well understood that every newsroom has its unwritten rules descended from on high in the corporate offices. His classic 1955 article “Social Control in the Newsroom” found that reporters are socialised into writing what editors and owners want to see published.  Herbert J. Gans, another sociologist, sat in on meetings between editors and reporters at major U.S. news media outlets in concluding in his classic 1979 book Deciding What’s News that the end product is the result of a “tug of war” between the two camps. Yet even these internal struggles over the news can be the least of the influences on what reaches the public. The classic book Mediating the Message, which is perhaps the most exhaustive compendium of influences on news content, sees five levels of sway. External influences, including government and public relations, can be considerable.

In Fiji, I would argue that the influence of government is paramount. One only has to look at the taming of the country’s news media by the 2009 Public Emergency Regulation and the 2010 Media Decree to see how completely the heavy hand of the dictatorship has muted any criticism of itself. As Narsey points out, cutting off millions of dollars in government advertising to the Fiji Times over the years and diverting it instead to the rival Fiji Sun has no doubt had something to do with how enthusiastic a government booster the Sun has become. The Times, on the other hand, has been threatened with a $500,000 fine for contempt of court over a soccer story it reprinted from a New Zealand newspaper that mentioned peripherally the lack of rule of law in Fiji. (This is not, as David Robie incorrectly asserts, an action taken under the Media Decree.) The Times has also been the subject of endless complaints by the government under the Media Decree, which provides fines of up to $100,000.

Narsey errs in urging the Media Authority to develop a code of ethics for media owners, publishers, editors and journalists. The Media Decree already includes a detailed code of ethics and practice. In fact, it is the exact same code that was adopted by the erstwhile Media Council, except that it adds fines and even possible prison sentences for violating its provisions. The problem with Fiji’s news media is not the lack of a code of ethics but instead the harsh penalties in the Media Decree, which encourage timidity by journalists, and the lack of transparency by the Media Authority. Professor Narsey rightly criticizes Professor Subramani, head of the Authority, for failing to clarify anything.
Why is it that despite three years of controversy over media censorship, Professor Subramani is not to be seen or heard? Subramani certainly has not come to the defense of the vulnerable journalists and editors who have been at the total mercy of the Regime, and who are being made scapegoats for the failings of the media owners.
Subramani, who teaches literature at Fiji National University, has been uncharitably called “Fiji’s Goebbels” by Oxford-based academic Victor Lal, for taking on the job as the regime’s “chief censor.” Narsey, who is the previous USP academic forced out by the regime for daring to question its initiatives, has been critical of Subramani’s lack of transparency before. Subramani has promised to lift the lid on the workings of the Media Authority, but to date very little information has been forthcoming, despite a requirement in the decree that its rulings be made public. Subramani’s 2010 promise that the Media Authority would work with journalists to navigate the Media Decree makes this lack of transparency curious indeed.
Subramani told FBC News the authority would be proactive in working with the media, and constructively help support the development of quality media services. It would also interpret the provisions in the media decree.
This suggests that Subramani may wish to reveal the business of the Media Authority but has been prevented from doing so by the regime, which is notorious for its abhorrence of transparency. The dictatorship’s desire to micromanage everything in Fiji makes its promise that democracy is on its way very difficult to believe. Far from the journalists or even media owners, it is the dictatorship that deserves the bulk of the blame for the sad state of Fiji’s media.

Do the ends justify the means?

Having once stepped over the line and commented on Fiji politics in the context of the abrogation of the Ghai Commission’s draft constitution, perhaps there is no going back. As mentioned then, because I am not a Fiji Islander (is that the correct term?) I usually try to confine myself to commenting on matters of Fiji media except when they intersect with politics. It’s just that it’s beginning to become apparent (to ME, at least) that controlling the media and thus controlling public discourse are central to a certain dictatorship’s master plan for retaining power in the disguise of a democracy. A step back at this point to look at the Big Picture might thus be useful.

There is no possibility of free and fair elections in Fiji if anti-discourse provisions of such decrees as the Media Decree, TV Decree, and State Proceedings Amendment Decree remain in place. This was pointed out in no uncertain terms by the Ghai Commission, which recommended that these provisions be lifted. That no doubt rankled the regime, which has spent the past few years putting these decrees in place. The supposed purpose of the Media Decree is to enforce responsibility in a media that have been seen as irresponsible in the past. In my reading of the record, this does indeed seem to have been a problem. Self-regulation in the form of the Media Council apparently did not prove an adequate mechanism to discourage bad behaviour by an often willful media. The problem is that the Media Decree goes too far because its harsh penalties, including six-figure fines and up to two years in prison, will inevitably have a “chilling” effect on the press and hence on public discourse. It is the metaphoric sledgehammer dispatched to swat a mosquito. Before long, your house has no walls. The TV Decree was obviously enacted last June to chill one particular media outlet, Fiji TV, after it broadcast interviews with two former prime ministers to the effect that a new constitution was not needed and that the acclaimed 1997 constitution was perfectly adequate for Fiji. And the State Proceedings Amendment Decree absurdly grants immunity from defamation lawsuits to government ministers. It is claimed to replace parliamentary privilege in the absence of that institution these days, but it would undeniably give members of the regime an unfair advantage in any elections. Word on the street in Suva, of course, is that someone threatened to sue the Attorney-General for slander, so he simply passed a decree preventing it.

There is also little possibility of international acceptance of such elections as free and fair. Thus the entire excruciating exercise that has been going on for the past several years could all be for naught if Fiji is not accepted back into the regional and international community because the regime’s preferred process was tainted. Besides, under the current power structure in Fiji the military can simply step in and take over if it doesn’t like something the government is doing, so its overbearing influence is the first thing that has to be removed. For the good of the nation, the military must be drastically downsized and the ability of the police and courts to enforce the rule of law must be increased. If members of the military dictatorship wish to stand for election, an interim administration, made up of people who are not standing for election, should be put in place well in advance of campaigning. Free and fair elections will not result otherwise. Nobody will be fooled into thinking so, no matter how contorted the bleatings of Grubby Davis.

The stated objectives of the Bainimarama regime are noble enough. Davis parrots them repeatedly as he smears regime opponents: “To smash the racial paradigm of the past and introduce the first genuine parliamentary democracy in Fiji of one person, one vote, one value.” This sounds all well and good until one examines the means by which the regime is pursuing its ends. It then becomes obvious that the resulting repression would be much worse than the previous chaos. A light hand is always preferred in regulation. Sophisticated and subtle encouragements of good behaviour are often more effective than sledgehammer proscriptions against bad behaviour that might also deter desirable conduct. Fiji’s interim government has laudably enacted some badly-needed laws against hate speech which should solve many of the problems seen in political journalism previously. The 2009 Crimes Decree created a new indictable offence, penalized by up to 10 years in prison, of spreading any report “inciting communal antagonism.”

65. (2) A person commits an indictable offence (which is triable summarily) if the person by any communication whatsoever including electronic communication, or by signs or by visible representation intended by the person to be read or heard—
(a) makes any statement or spreads any report which is likely to—
(i) incite dislike or hatred or antagonism of any community; or
(ii) promote feelings of enmity or ill-will between different communities, religious groups or classes of the community; or
(iii) otherwise prejudices the public peace by creating feelings of communal antagonism; or
(b) makes any intimidating or threatening statement in relation to a community or religious group other than the person's own which is likely to arouse fear, alarm, or insecurity amongst members of that community or religious group.

This brings Fiji in line with advanced societies which similarly ban hate speech. Some countries go farther than others, such as France and Germany, which controversially ban denial of the Holocaust. Some unfortunately hesitate to enact any laws against hate speech. The U.S. interprets its First Amendment, which guarantees free expression, as protecting even this kind of anti-social behaviour. The Crimes Decree breaks ground by including “any communication whatsoever including electronic communication,” which is obviously designed to encompass the Internet. (Laughably, this provision has been interpreted by some as including even gossip.) But the decree controversially also purports to extend its jurisdiction beyond the national boundaries to apply to “any citizen of Fiji in any place outside of Fiji.” This is obviously designed to include blogs, some of which originate offshore but are available online in Fiji. Such an extension of jurisdiction into other countries would be subject to legal challenge as ultra vires, or beyond the Fiji government’s power.

So while everybody would like to see a civilized public sphere in Fiji, if not a muted one, there is a great likelihood that the regime’s reforms, well-intentioned or not, may throw out the baby of political discourse with the bathwater of an irresponsible press. If it is indeed the regime’s intention to introduce the first genuine parliamentary democracy in Fiji, and not merely to perpetuate its hold on power, the reforms it has blundered about with need to be thoroughly re-thought. That will not be possible by following Commodore Bainimarama’s intended course as stated to ABC in a 2010 interview: “We need to stop all people speaking out against the government and its reform.”