One of the points of contention that emerged from our symposium on Media and Democracy in the South Pacific at USP last week was whether the standards of journalism in Fiji need raising or not. As usual, the topic became one of bitter disagreement. My understanding when I was hired as Head of Journalism at USP a little more than a year ago was that I was here to help bring standards of journalism instruction at USP up to an international level and thus help to improve journalism in Fiji and across the South Pacific. Having been a journalist in Canada for 20 years, holding a PhD in the subject, and having taught journalism since 1998 at universities in four countries, I am well-qualified to do so. I believe that the need for higher standards in journalism here is USP's official position, as articulated by Deputy Vice-Chancellor Esther Williams in opening the conference. David Robie, a Professor of Journalism at Auckland University of Technology and a former Head of Journalism at USP, disagreed with this contention, however. Then he read a Fiji Times article that covered a paper he had presented. Suddenly Fiji journalism standards didn’t seem too good, as he complained in a letter to the editor.
Your reporter has given no insights into what it is actually about. My interview with your reporter has been reduced to two selective sentences in your newspaper, which is hardly fair and balanced journalism. “Why” is a fundamental tenet of news reporting yet your story does not provide this critical component of any good news story -- context.
The need for Fiji journalism to improve was even stressed by Sharon Smith-Johns, Fiji's Permanent Secretary for Information, who until earlier this year acted as the country's chief censor under the Public Emergency Regulation, which imposed martial law on the country in 2009. In what was undoubtedly the most important message to come out of the symposium, she urged journalists in Fiji to not let the past three years of censorship be an excuse for failing to fully inform Fijians.
You will hear a lot about self censorship, the notion that journalists in Fiji are too afraid to report fully and without fear or favour. Such fears are understandable in the transition from censorship to freedom. But I urge journalists not to use this as an excuse not to do their jobs. . . . I know some of you have a jaundiced view about the Fiji government's attitude to media freedom. As a country, we are a work in progress. But huge progress has been in achieving genuine democracy.The naysayers, of course, blame the news media for fomenting the political instability that led to the 2000 coup and advocate tight controls such as contained in the 2010 Media Decree. It provides fines for what were once ethical lapses and even prison sentences for journalists found to have reported something contrary to the national interest, whatever that is. Australian blogger Graham Davis dubbed last week's symposium "Edgefest" and attacked me online and in the Fiji Sun for advocating "total freedom for the local media at a time of intense discussion over the appropriate model for developing countries such as Fiji." He contrasted that with the views of my predecessor as Head of Journalism at USP, Shailendra Singh, who "has advocated more social responsibility."
What Davis does, of course, is hardly journalism. He is, instead, an attack dog devoted to hounding anyone who questions any actions of the Interim Government in Fiji. To suggest that I am not in favour of social responsibility in journalism is a distortion of the truth. Instead I teach students the need to balance press freedom with responsibility. As an object lesson of the need for social responsibility, I use the example of Yellow Journalism that railroaded the U.S. government into the Spanish-American War in 1898. I often mention how history repeated itself when the U.S. press didn't do its job well enough in the run-up to that country's invasion of Iraq in 2003. I also use the example of press freedom in my country, where it is not absolute as under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but instead is balanced against the rights of others in society not to be subject to hate speech.
If you want to see for yourself some of the discussion that went on at our symposium, as well as interviews with our Chief Guest, Professor Robert Hackett from Canada, and myself, I would suggest watching Fiji TV's excellent "Close Up" programme from Sunday, which can be viewed online here, here, and here.