AUCKLAND (Pacific Media Watch): Despite bans on foreign journalists in West Papua, there is "no excuse" for journalists to turn their backs on the Melanesian people, says the first professor in journalism studies in New Zealand and the Pacific.
Restoring public trust, engaging in critical journalism, and opening the media’s eyes to common blind spots were all on the agenda for the inaugural professorial address of Professor David Robie tonight.
Speaking on Coups, crises and human rights, Professor Robie spoke to a crowded conference room at AUT University, after receiving his professorship last year.
Beginning with the current media crisis, and visiting many other "hot spots" throughout the presentation, Professor Robie charted the course of his life’s journey through New Zealand, Africa, Europe and back to Oceania.
Warning on media
He warned that the current media crisis seemed to be facing a growing "soft" coverage in the aftermath of the Leveson Inquiry in Britain and the Finkelstein and Convergence Reviews in Australia.
“Already there are concerns by critics that the media has started soft-peddling the issue,” he said.
He said the latest edition of Pacific Journalism Review examined the issue of rebuilding public trust in the media.
The only academic Pacific media journal is soon to mark its 19th of publication, and is one of the feathers in Professor Robie’s cap.
Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Rob Allen referred to the large and diverse audience in the AUT University conference rooms and observed that it “says lots about David’s life and work”.
Professor Robie said he had started with the Dominion, the New Zealand Herald, and the Melbourne Herald before working as chief subeditor then editor of the Sunday Observer in Melbourne, with his paper covering politically delicate stories such as the My Lai massacre in Vietnam during the controversial war that divided the Australian and New Zealand public.
He talked of journalists who had influenced him - and at this paper it was the controversial Wilfred Burchett who was prevented from reentering his own country after reporting the Korean and Vietnam wars from the "other side".
Dr Robie's newspaper hired a plane and flew him from Noumea to Brisbane so he could regain an Australian passport.
Africa and beyond
Professor Robie then catalogued how he had covered contentious issues over the globe, from working at the Rand Daily Mail reporting against apartheid, to covering coups and independence movements in the Pacific.
He went on a 13,000-kilometre trip from Cape Town to Cairo to report in a freelance capacity for news services such as Gemini.
“It ended up being a year-long 20,000-kilometre journey in two stages from Cape Town to Paris,” he said.
He even reported on issues such as the Trans-African highway from Mombasa to Lagos: “The big problem was most of this road didn’t actually exist” and his "road-to-nowhere" story featured as a cover story for African Development magazine.
His return to New Zealand via the Pacific came after a three-year stay in Paris, working for Agence France Presse and covering the independence issues of the Kanak people in New Caledonia and the nuclear issues around the French nuclear testing in French Polynesia.
He has tracked the same kinds of political events at most of the countries he worked in, noting that “feudalism, militarism, corruption and personality cults isolate people from national – and regional – decision-making".
“Political independence has not necessarily rid the Pacific of the problems it faces, and, in many cases, our own Pacific political leaders are part of the problem.”
Reflecting on his experience on the Rainbow Warrior, including the infamous chapter of its bombing at the hands of French spies, Professor Robie lamented that not much attention of the New Zealand media was focused on the Pacific, apart from those major stories.
“While the New Zealand media has strongly highlighted the New Zealand role championing a nuclear–free Pacific, it has been less generous about the efforts of Pacific Islands leaders and countries,” he said.
Whether it was the Santa Cruz massacre in East Timor, the People Power overthrow of the Marcos regime in the Philippines, the 2000 coup in Fiji or the Ouvéa massacre in New Caledonia, Professor Robie didn't fail to mention each demanding chapter of his travels.
And in Papua New Guinea, working at the national university was one of the “sternest challenges I have ever had as a journalism educator”.
He said working with students on the journalism school newspaper Uni Tavur earned them the first ever award from the Pacific, including New Zealand, from the Journalism Education Association of Australia, with the 1996 ‘Ossie Award’ for a series of investigative reports.
Working at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji earned similar results with the student newspaper Wansolwara, whose student journalists defied a ban on the paper and the closing down of the university during the 2000 coup. The students still continued reporting and the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism (ACIJ) at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), published the reports online, scooping the Ossie Awards that year.
Professor Robie mentioned events where his writing and critiques of the media earned him the ire of media practitioners, especially in Fiji, where they attempted to remove him from his position, and the country.
“It is an irony that media executives who are so quick to invoke media freedom for themselves can be equally zealous about suppressing academic freedom or alternative media freedom,” he said.
Professor Robie explained the birth of the Pacific Media Centre and the continuation of the Pacific Media Watch project, which started in partnership with Peter Cronau of the ABC Four Corners investigative TV programme while he was at UTS.
He mentioned the focus on diversity and independence struggles, among other development issues facing small island countries in the Pacific.
“The media play an important role in that struggle and thus news values applied by indigenous media are often at variance with those of the West (First World), East (Second World remnants) and developing nations (Third World) in a globalised world,” he said, referring to his “Four worlds” model developed from his own research.
He described more modern influences such as the Nepali Times editor-in-chief Kunda Dixit, Vanuatu-based photojournalist Ben Bohane, and those such as Professor Arlene Morgan of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism who were pursuing "deliberative journalism" models.
Scope for research
Professor Robie stressed that journalism education was a developing field and contained many possibilities for academic research, particularly in a global media climate that was lurching towards sensationalism and away from investigations.
He talked about a collaboration with ACIJ's Professor Wendy Bacon, who is editor of Pacific Journalism Review's new Frontline section.
“There are already success stories in this genre of research,” he said.
“Karen Abplanalp, for example, has produced a major investigation into the NZ Superannuation Fund investment in the giant Freeport McMoRan gold and copper mine at Grasberg in West Papua.”
He finished with a mention of media ‘blind spots’ in the Pacific, including West Papua, where foreign journalists are banned.
“This is no excuse for journalists to turn their backs on Melanesian people who are on the brink of genocide,” he said.
“When did the last New Zealand journalist report there?”
He paid tribute to growing independent news groups using citizen journalism resources such as the Sydney-based West Papua Media Alerts.
He reaffirmed that global warming was another blind spot, especially within the Pacific and mentioned that crucial research was been undertaken by postgraduate students at the Pacific Media Centre into media and climate change.
Finishing on a hopeful note, Professor Robie spoke of the new Fijian magazine Republika, which pledged to “act as a mirror on society without fear or favour”.
Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Rob Allen commended Professor Robie for putting his personal reflection into the address and an "adventurous career" that had been described.
“He is the only person [in the professorial lectures] who has stood on the stage and made life at AUT sound rather sedate and quiet with what he experienced before,” said Professor Allen.
'Sense of purpose'
He said Professor Robie was driven by a “sense of purpose”.
“We do get people who want to be a professor because they want to be a professor, and there are some people who are professors because of what they are. And sometimes they have a sense of purpose that stands out.
Professor Allan’s remarks highlighted Professor Robie’s passion for critical and deliberative journalism, saying that it was important to provide possible solutions, which is a key component of the type of journalism Professor Robie is proposing, particularly for developing countries.
“What will we do? It seemed to me by the end that’s what makes David stand out,” he said.
“Not only is he an academic, a journalist, he is a committed person whose questions will always be: What is the truth and what will we do about it?”
Students and staff at the journalism school at the University of the South Pacific were watching the live stream of Professor Robie’s address from Suva, Fiji, and sent well-wishes through their newly-launched Facebook page.
The full video of the address can be seen here.
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