AUCKLAND (Pacific Media Watch): Despite repeated attempts by Fiji’s Repúblika magazine editor Ricardo Morris, he has never been granted an interview by the University of the South Pacific after a controversial decision made over USP’s World Press Freedom Day event last month.
According to Repúblika magazine, economist Professor Wadan Narsey was removed from speaking at the World Press Freedom Day event on May 3 under instructions from the USP management.
Narsey had initially been invited by the USP Journalism Students Association to the event.
Professor Narsey intended to deliver a scathing speech where he would accuse the owners of mainstream media in Fiji to have a detrimental effect on the media content, and where he would claim that freedom of expression in Fiji today is severely limited.
Ricardo Morris was present at the World Press Freedom Day event at USP. In an interview with Pacific Media Watch, he explained that he knew something had been going on, but said no one would speak to him about it.
Later, Morris received an email from Professor Narsey explaining he had been "disinvited". This prompted the editor to contact USP for an interview, but he was met by an organisation that only seemed to obstruct his requests:
“The Vice-Chancellor directed me to the School Responsible, the School Responsible…the Head of School wouldn’t reply to my questions, neither would the journalism school, neither would the journalism association’s president.
“I just thought that it’s the height of irony that on a day to mark world press freedom, you know even if there wasn’t anything sinister, it was quite significant that he was disinvited, and I thought that they should at least have the courtesy to respond to questions and gone on the record,” Morris said.
He underlines though that he was in contact with Professor Sudesh Mishra, who is the head at the School of Language, Arts and Media at USP.
Professor Mishra told Morris that Narsey’s removal from the World Press Freedom Day event did not have anything to do with “academic freedom". but he declined to say why the media scholar was denied the opportunity to speak at the event.
Mishra also declined to take part in an interview.
Pacific Media Watch has also been in contact with the head of the Journalism Programme at USP, Dr Ian Weber, and Professor Sudesh Mishra without being granted an interview. Weber referred to Mishra, who declined to be interview.
After having been met by nothing but refusals from USP, Morris came to the conclusion that he had to do something.
“That’s when I decided that it would only be prudent to publish [Narsey's] speech in full,” he explained.
Professor Wadan Narsey’s full speech at the World Press Freedom Day event can be read at Repúblika magazine here and also at PMC Online.
Morris has trouble understanding why USP refused to be interviewed.
“I cannot figure [this] out for the life of me. Maybe they were really busy, maybe they didn’t see my email, but I can’t figure out how, because I followed up several times as well. Maybe they just didn’t want to draw any more attention to the fact that they had been involved in what many would call censorship of academic freedom or freedom of speech.”
The editor does not rule out that the USP’s reaction may be due to Professor Narsey’s opinions.
“Professor Wadan Narsey is an outspoken academic on development in Fiji,” Morris said, and claimed USP always has been wary of him because of his “forthright views".
Narsey is a former professor of economics at USP, and a prolific commentator on social and political issues facing Fiji and the Pacific.
Fiji press freedom
It is safe to say that there is a discrepancy in how groups within Fiji view the state of media freedom in the Melanesian country.
Professor Wadan Narsey is firmly placed among the critics. In the speech he never got to deliver, which was published as a commentary on Repúblika magazine's website, Narsey stated that:
“[T]he Fiji regime’s decrees, public stance and prosecution of media owners, publishers and editors, have effectively prevented the media from being a 'watchdog' on government. Some media organisations are largely propaganda arms for the regime.”
Narsey is backed up by many international observers and NGOs. Reporters Without Borders puts Fiji in its ‘orange’ category stating that it has “noticeable problems.”
At the 2013 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders, Fiji was ranked 107th of 179 countries worldwide, making it the bottom-placed Pacific country.
Pacific Media Watch has been in contact with Professor Narsey, who declined to be interviewed because he said he did not have anything to add that was not included in the commentary.
Free and fair?
Others take a wholly different view than Narsey. In an email interview with Pacific Media Watch, the CEO and publisher of the Fiji Sun, Peter Lomas, characterised the media freedom climate in Fiji as “free and fair.”
“Reporting now, it must be said, is much more responsible. Things were bad in the daily media before and changes were needed.”
In his commentary Professor Narsey was particularly critical of the Fiji Sun, stating that it is “the blatant propaganda arm of the regime” and claimed that the newspaper has a monopoly of government advertising due to its pro-regime reporting.
Lomas snubs Narsey’s comments and attacks his credentials.
“Wadan Narsey is a disgruntled ex-USP academic with a large chip on his shoulder. Any sweeping comments he makes like this must be seen in that context. He should not be portrayed as an independent or objective commentator.”
When asked if there are financial incentives for the Fiji Sun to be pro-regime, Lomas answered:
“The Fiji Sun is unashamedly pro building a better Fiji. We and the FBC [Fiji Broadcasting Corporation] were the first to adopt this stance. It’s good to see others in the Fijian news media have followed.”
Professor Narsey was given the opportunity to comment on Lomas’ characteristics, but declined.
Ricardo Morris brushes off Lomas’ criticisms of Narsey and says he is a “very well respected academic.”
The Repúblika magazine editor backs up Narsey on all of his statements, but takes one reservation.
“I think to some extent journalists themselves too know what they’re doing and they will self-censor themselves.”
“It may not be completely true to blame everything on the corporate owners, because I think individual journalists themselves know and take a conscious decision to censor themselves some times.”
Morris also points at another problem not mentioned by Narsey, which is that most of the current Fiji journalists were not active before the 2006 coup.
Consequently, Morris argues, the new generation has become accustomed to a more servile type of journalism in which hard questions and investigative reporting are sacrificed.
“The reality is that in Fiji today because of past experiences a lot of journalists just go through the motions do a ‘he said, she said’ story and that was it, they don’t dig deeper apart from lifestyle and the softer stories, there are hardly any political analyses, political analytical stories.”
To improve the standard of journalism in the country, Morris encourages the immediate formation of a Fiji journalists union in order to realise that “an attack on one of us is an attack on all".
“It’s true that ‘united we stand, divided we fall’, and I think in the case of Fiji that’s the problem right now ‘divided we fall’.”
Listen to the 15-minute interview with Ricardo Morris. Below is a transcript of the interview, where Ricardo Morris initially explained what his background is and what the aim of Repúblika magazine is.
RM: I’ve been a print journalist, mostly print journalist, for more than a decade now. The aim of Republika magazine is to…it wasn’t to replace the media’s that currently operating in Fiji, but it was to provide an alternative, an alternative voice, alternative viewpoints and fresh ideas that other mainstream media either don’t want to touch or don’t think it’s worth it.
DD: Why did you choose to publish Professor Wadan Narsey’s speech on Republika magazine?
RM: Well, I was invited to that event, to help judge one of the events, to mark World Press Freedom Day. I was curious about something that had been going on, but no one wanted to speak about what was…you know, you could tell there was something going on under the surface, but no one wanted to go on the record and speak about it. And then it was discovered, Wadan Narsey then emailed to say that he was invited and then disinvited, and it was my attempts to get comments on the record from the University [of the South Pacific]. The Vice-Chancellor directed me to the School Responsible, the School Responsible…the Head of School wouldn’t reply to my questions, neither would the journalism school, neither would the journalism association’s president. I just thought that it’s the height of irony that on a day to mark world press freedom, you know even if there wasn’t anything sinister, it was quite significant that he was disinvited, and I thought that they should at least have the courtesy to respond to questions and gone on the record. That’s when I decided that it would only be prudent to publish his speech in full.
DD: What are the reasons do you think for them not speaking to you?
RM: I cannot figure out for the life of me. Maybe they were really busy, maybe they didn’t see my email, but I can’t figure out how, because I followed up several times as well. Maybe they just didn’t want to draw any more attention to the fact that they had been involved in what many would call censorship of academic freedom or freedom of speech. Although I must point out that Professor [Sudesh] Mishra did respond to me, and he is the Head of Language at the School of Language, he did reply to me and he pointed out that there wasn’t anything…it didn’t have anything to do with academic freedom, but then he wouldn’t explain as well what the issues were. But it is round on that Professor Wadan Narsey is an outspoken academic on development in Fiji, and also that, you know, USP always [has been] weary of him since he left because of his forthright views.
DD: One of Narsey’s main points is that the ownership of the Fijian media influences the content of the news media. In your opinion, to what extent is that true?
RM: I think, yeah, it carries a lot of merit to that assertion. Because that’s one of the reasons why I started my own publication, even though it’s small – I have only one staff and we rely heavily on freelancers and contributors – I think it does. The ownership of media in this country plays a big role in how the media does its work, because if you look around you see that the Fiji Times is owned by mainly a department store chain; the same thing with the Fiji Sun, owned by corporate interests. There are other shareholders who also have significant business interests in other fields apart from the media. There’s Fiji Television as well involved, and you have CFL [Communications Fiji Limited] and Punjas. Punjas has a big stake in CFL. Yeah, you can see that now media people own huge stakes in Fiji’s media businesses, and it has an effect on the way that journalists operate whether we like or not. That is why I started my own [publication], because I have a media background. I don’t come from, you know, a big corporate background. I don’t have big financial backing, so it’s just my sweat and tears and oppression that I’m doing this.
DD: What stories are being left out of the Fiji media?
RM: Well, there’s a range of stories. If you follow…of course follow the blogs most of the stories that get reported there, whether they are verified or not, do not usually make it into our mainstream media. Sometimes they do a few weeks, a few months down the line. Sometimes when it does appear, it’s only as a brief. It’s only as a side in another story, which is why as an independent, alternative publisher, what I do is I verify some of the better stories from blogs, from facebook – facebook carries a lot, people post up a lot of things on Facebook now – if I’m able to verify some of those stories then we mention something about it on our facebook page as well and we publish something in our pages. It will be things like things to do with crimes, or if the police say that they cannot comment, or the police say that it’s a non-issue it doesn’t get printed at all, it doesn’t get published at all. Another problem is the media decree, which makes it virtually mandatory to get a reply or get a comment from a person related to the story, or get a reply from the person. Many times, if opposite party refuses to reply or won’t reply then it’s virtually impossible to get a balanced story, because that’s one of the requirements of the media decree is to have a fair and balanced story. So what do you do if an official or an official source refuses to say anything about it, or refuses to even acknowledge your question? You are left with virtually no choice but not to publish anything like that. That’s some of the challenges that Fiji media faces at the moment.
DD: Another point Narsey made in his comments was that there are financial incentives to be pro-regime in Fiji at the moment. Do you agree with that?
RM: Yes, I think I tend to agree with that. A few people, a few advocators, have said you’re too political, and that the things we do are a bit left field or a bit on the wild side, so they tend to steer clear of us. So I think there is a merit to what Professor Wadan Narsey says about the financial incentives.
DD: I’ve also spoken with Peter Lomas at the Fiji Sun, or he’s given me some written answers at least. He criticises Wadan Narsey’s credentials, saying he is a “disgruntled ex-USP academic with a large chip on his shoulder.” How reliable are the comments made by Wadan Narsey?
RM: Well, Professor Wadan Narsey is actually a very well respected academic. I mean it is Peter Lomas’ view that he is a disgruntled academic, and that is his view, but if you listen carefully to what Professor Wadan Narsey is saying – and he’s said this over the years, he’s been consistently saying the things he’s been saying – and a lot of his work is based on his extensive academic experience. He has done a lot of ground-breaking work even with the Fiji Bureau of Statistics looking into poverty figures, so his work is quite reliable, I would turn to think.
DD: Lomas also characterises the media freedom in Fiji as “free and fair.” How would you characterise the media freedom in Fiji?
RM: Well, I suppose freedom and fairness is in the eye of the beholder. That’s all I’ll say.
DD: Alright. What can realistically be done in the current political situation in Fiji to improve the standard of the media?
RM: I think the problem at the moment is that the current, most of the current crop of journalists, have never functioned in an environment that was pre-2006 environment. A lot of the journalists that were around in 2006 have either moved on to corporate jobs, communications jobs, left the country, gone into management, and so the rest…actually the journalists underground, the ones that are front liners, are a younger lot, a lot that haven’t been exposed much to, you know, that it is a journalist’s job to ask questions, and it is a journalist’s job to challenge and we shouldn’t be intimidated or afraid. The reality is that in Fiji today because of past experiences a lot of journalists just go through the motions do a ‘he said, she said’ story and that was it, they don’t dig deeper apart from lifestyle and the softer stories, there are hardly any political analyses, political analytical stories. Although I must point out that in the past few weeks the Fiji Sun has started an elections coverage. They’ve been doing quite a few good interviews with political figures, old political figures, new political figures. That has been an interesting concept coming from the Fiji Sun, because some of the things that have been published you wouldn’t have expected Fiji Sun to publish, you know, stories in which the subject is calling for mass peaceful protests. I think, if you look carefully, there are some instances of the media opening up testing the boundaries, and it’s happening, so despite what I said earlier, yeah there are some instances where interesting bits of reporting are coming up, but you really have to pay attention to see it.
DD: But do you think there is something that can be done to improve the media in Fiji in a short term perspective?
RM: I think the first thing we’ve been trying to do, and the first thing that should be done, and which we as journalists have been trying to do for many, many years now, is to organise ourselves, get our act together as journalists. I’m not sure where registration of our organisation is at the moment, but that was supposed to have happened. So I think the first thing we need to do is to, you know, organise ourselves, and we need to realise that an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us. The problem right now is that a lot of the media is fractured. Some journalists don’t talk to other journalists, and some journalists tend to write less than flattering things about other journalists in their gossip columns and this go on and on, so the media remains fractured. It’s true that ‘united we stand, divided we fall’, and I think in the case of Fiji that’s the problem right now ‘divided we fall’. And that’s the first thing we need to do is get our act together and organise ourselves. Then we can see where the problems are, where we need particular training, where we need more support. I think that way other journalists can realise that you can do your work without fear or favour, and the more journalists realise that, the more it’d become natural to them. What I’m wanting to say is that, yes, a lot of times the analysis of the media when the local media here look at it they think ‘oh look, here we go again’, you know, it’s a lot of simplistic analyses, and it’s not that straightforward, it’s not that black and white. Because this being Fiji, despite our ideological differences, say for example the Fiji Sun, it doesn’t mean I don’t talk to journalists from the Fiji Sun. We do! We talk. We chat. That’s why I say that Dr Narsey’s analysis is true to some extent. The journalists on the ground have very little influence after they’ve done a story, and there are numerous examples of that. I still have a good relationship with them, but it’s just ideological differences on the management that’s another story.
DD: Is there anything you didn’t agree with Professor Narsey on?
RM: Well, I think to some extent journalists themselves too know what they’re doing and they will self-censor themselves. It may not be completely true to blame everything on the corporate owners, because I think individual journalists themselves know and take a conscious decision to censor themselves some times, so that’s about the only point I think needs to be clarified.
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