Pacific Media Watch

24 April 2014

REGION: New Pacific 'mayhem' book likened to real-life 'Game of Thrones'

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A documentary crew and Pacific Media Watch editor Anna Majavu (left) at the book launching in Auckland tonight. Image: Del Abcede/PMC

AUCKLAND (Pacific Media Watch): A groundbreaking new book covering Pacific journalism over the past 30 years reveals so many human rights abuses that it has been likened to "an entire series of Game of Thrones".

Don't Spoil My Beautiful Face: Media, Mayhem and Human Rights in the Pacific, by Pacific Media Centre director Professor David Robie, was launched at the Auckland University of Technology tonight.

Its publisher, Tony Murrow of Little Island Press, described the book as "like an entire series of Game of Thrones. The shame of it is that it is not a work of fiction".

The book, with its focus on killings of journalists in the Philippines, and massacres, rape and torture in West Papua and Timor-Leste, highlighted just how widespread the tragedies of the Pacific really are.

"There are many deaths in this book - most are tragic and unnecessary," Murrow said.

The book is also a critique of the mainstream media which ignores and under-reports Pacific issues.

As an example, Dr Robie said the New Zealand mainstream media had failed to cover an important speech by Vanuatu Prime Minister Moana Carcasses Kalosil to the United Nations Human Rights Council in which he called on the UN to act decisively to end the “international neglect” of the West Papuan people.

Speaking at the launch, Dr Robie quoted Carcasses saying that since the controversial Act of Free Choice in 1969, the Melanesian people of West Papua had been subject to ongoing human rights violations committed by the Indonesian security services.

TVNZ's John Pulu (right) with Professor David Robie at the book launch tonight. Image: Del Abcede'Litany of torture'
"The world has witnessed the litany of tortures, murders, exploitation, rapes, military raids, arbitrary arrests and dividing of civil society through intelligence operations…  the democratic nations have kept silent."

Dr Robie added: "New Zealand is among these silent nations."

Dr Steven Ratuva, senior lecturer in Pacific Studies at Auckland University and president of the Pacific Islands Political Studies Association (PIPSA), told the launch that Dr Robie's books had been instrumental in shedding light on the Pacific and that the book launched today was "pretty comprehensive".

The dean of AUT's Faculty of Design and Creative Technologies, Professor Desna Jury, welcomed the book, saying that Dr Robie was the only professor of journalism in New Zealand. He had been focussing on the field of Pacific journalism for many years.

Television NZ Pacific correspondent Barbara Dreaver sent a message which Pacific Islands Media Association (PIMA) chair Sandra Kailahi read on her behalf:

"West Papua, Bougainville, Fiji – it’s every journalist’s conscience. If it’s not then it should be. The stories explored in Don’t Spoil My Beautiful Face are vitally important ....David Robie has been at the forefront of Pacific journalism for decades bringing his brand of measured thoughtfulness, courage and balance.

"His account of reporting in the Philippines on the 'Forgotten Victims of a Silent War 1991' is chilling. Equally so “Terror in Timor” and the self-censorship of mainstream media reporting on it.

'Brutal example'
"And lest we think that was in the past, look no further than West Papua - a brutal modern day example of a story that may as well be virtually non-existent," Dreaver said.

Dreaver, who along with New Zealand journalist Michael Field, is banned from Fiji for her reporting on the military regime there, described Dr Robie as "a leading advocate for media freedom and quality journalism".

Dr Robie said he aimed to provide the context for events in the Pacific that was so often absent from mainstream media reports and so took a series of episodic articles. With the advantage of hindsight, he put them in context while "retaining the integrity" of the original writing.

"I wanted to pick up from where I left off with my Blood On Their Banner in 1989 and Tu Galala in 2002 and provide fresh insights," said Dr Robie.

He had been developing a journalism methodology since 1994, known as "critical development journalism", which he used in writing the book.

"This is not to be confused with forms of development journalism misrepresented by many Pacific politicians seeking to avoid public accountability.

"Critical development journalism is a robust form of journalism investigating political and social process and policy. It is still speaking truth to power, but as well as seeking accountability it tries to find a constructive edge leading to solutions," Dr Robie said.

Little Island Press's Robyn Bern and Evotia Tamua at the book launch. Image: Del Abcede/PMCPoorly reported
The Asia-Pacific region had been poorly reported and under reported in the New Zealand media for years, he said, with the exception of the reportage done by  Radio New Zealand International and Māori Television’s current affairs programme Native Affairs; Tagata Pasifika and Spasifik magazine, along with individual journalists such as Dreaver and Field.

"The poor level of reporting means that we are frequently misinformed or we get a one-dimensional view of developments, which is barely half the story," Dr Robie said.

Stories about Fiji were a case in point. The illegal Voreqe Bainimarama military regime had been considered a paraiah by the mainstream media ever since the military coup in 2006, although the government it displaced was "actually an extremist and corrupt ethno-nationalist regime masquerading as democratic", Dr Robie said.

Although there was a worrying "climate of timid self-censorship in Fiji" because of military decrees that allowed the "dictatorial" Media Industry Development Tribunal to sanction journalists, there was still a handful of courageous and dissident journalists such as Ricardo Morris and his Republika magazine.

Fiji was "not the biggest worry in the region by a long shot," Dr Robie said.

"Indonesian repression in the two Melanesian provinces that make up the West Papua region and the climate of impunity in the Philippines where journalists are assassinated with ease are serious crises in the region. But when do you read about these issues in the New Zealand media?" he asked.

He pointed out that at least 206 journalists had been murdered in the Philippines since 1986 - 34 of them in the Ampatuan massacre in Mindanao in 2009. More than four years later nobody had been convicted for these atrocities.

Dangerous place
"The Philippines is a far more dangerous place for the media under democracy than it was under the Marcos military dictatorship. And now a controversial law in the Philippines billed by critics as an “electronic martial law” that criminalises e-libel may be mimicked in the Pacific," Dr Robie added, saying the law had expanded existing libel laws into the digital domain after the Manila Supreme Court found it was indeed constitutional.

In Papua New Guinea, meanwhile, a draft new cyber-crime law may give government the power to act against individual attacks on social media, to routinely monitor SIM cards with a “full biometric scan” being required from anyone who wanted to buy a new SIM card and to ban people from using pseudonyms on social media.

"The proposed PNG legislation mirrors in some respects the Cybercrime Prevention Act in the Philippines where an offender can be imprisoned for up to 12 years without parole and the law is regarded by critics as a violation of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights" said Dr Robie.

In Thailand too, a similar 'Computer Crime Act' had seen journalists Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian indicted for alleged criminal libel - a move which might spell doom for the online news website Phuket Wan, he said.

Another media freedom issue is Australia’s shameful human rights violations and suppression of information about asylum seekers leading to inquiries into the killing of 23-year-old Iranian Reza Barati while in custody on Manus Island.

He called for a fundamental change to Pacific journalism - more critical development journalism was needed as was more education and training for journalists, and "not just the sort of self-interested short-term training served up by donor agencies," Dr Robie added.

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Anna Majavu

PMW contributing editor 2014

Anna Majavu is the Pacific Media Watch freedom project contributing editor for 2014.