MELBOURNE (Radio Australia/Pacific Media Centre): Media freedom still has a long way to go in the Pacific, as governments struggle to understand the role independent media can play in national development.
The Pacific Journalism Review's annual report says Fiji has the most obvious problems, however Vanuatu's lack of media freedom is cause for concern as well.
Even without official censorship, media outlets in Vanuatu continue to face "blatant intimidation".
Presenter: Geraldine Coutts
Speaker: Alex Perrottet, Pacific Media Watch, New Zealand
PERROTTET: Across the Pacific you have a huge range and a huge diversity of different countries, different approaches that governments take to their media. You have very, very small countries, you have a country like Nauru, which virtually doesn't have a media apart from what's run by the government and the outside world can't really get an idea of what's going on there. You have a more developed country, which is the crossroads of the Pacific, which we know is Fiji. But of course that has its own problems doesn't it with a system, a military government in place and a system of organised and censorship which is in place and is in place with a decree that's been passed. So you have a huge range of different issues across the Pacific, and of course experiences by people in the media are wide-ranging as well. And you mentioned Vanuatu, which doesn't have any formal censorship, but you have people in the media there who are intimidated, and only this year were beaten up by people even in the government. So you have quite a serious issue there of restrictions on media freedom, even without a proper system in place by the government.
COUTTS: Well you're talking of course about Marc Neil-Jones, the editor of the Vanuatu Daily Press in Port Vila in Vanuatu, where it was very hard to bring those aggressors to court, and when they did their fine was minimal, laughable perhaps. What does the Pacific Journalism Review's annual report say about that? Why aren't governments getting onboard and protecting their media?
PERROTTET: Well you have a situation in these countries of course, they're very, very small, and compared to a country like Australia or New Zealand obviously the connections between people are much closer, the degrees of separation, the vested interests that people might have. So if you're going to take a brave stance of running a newspaper, like Marc Neil-Jones has done, and you're going to take an aggressive stance and perhaps an approach that we're more likely to understand from a western democracy point of view, you're going to run into trouble, there's no doubt about that. You're going to make people very unhappy.
COUTTS: Well actually in Marc Neil-Jones defence he's just fed up with being beaten up, this is not the first occasion?
PERROTTET: That's right, he's been deported before, he's written an article against the police themselves and as a result was beaten up by the police. This latest one in March this year was an expose on an issue where the Public Works Minister Henry Iauko was implicated, and he proceeded to take six or seven thugs with him into the actual offices, very blatantly into the offices of the Vanuatu Daily Post and proceeded to beat up Marc, who's the publisher. So that's right, it isn't the first time, and he's not exactly an outsider, he's English by birth but he's been there for a good 17 years and is married to a native ni-Vanuatuan. So he understands cultural issues in the country, and I suppose his approach is very dogged, he's someone who doesn't take a backward step and doesn't give up, but at least he shows what you're likely to run into if you're going to take I suppose a western rigorous approach to holding power to account in some of these countries.
COUTTS: But if you're getting an independent media one of the practices in Vanuatu, we'll stay in Vanuatu for a moment, has been in the past for the government and government officials to take an active role in naming the boards that run the radio and television there, in fact some of them have had positions on it?
PERROTTET: That's right, and once again this is just another, I suppose it's an understandable situation where you have a small country you have an even smaller amount of people that are in charge of running the country in those positions of power, and this is the sort of thing that's going to happen. And from a western I suppose point of view, we're not used to that sort of arrangement, we're used to having lots of checks and balances on our democracy. Their cultural approach is not so much that approach, and also it's hard to achieve that sort of approach when as I said you've got such a small amount of people to draw from. So we're talking about very, very different cultures. I think it's quite important that people like Marc Neil-Jones and people that run newspapers like that do take the approach they're taking, because it's a good direction those countries have to go in. But as they forget their way forward obviously we're going to have some of these terrible instances where people take the law into their own hands and react in such violent ways to I suppose the workings of a fledgling democracy.
COUTTS: And a good number of Pacific Island nations, they don't call it censorship of the press, but in practice that's probably what it is, where media outlets accept without challenge press releases that the government puts out, and just reprints them like I say without challenge or even finding out what's behind it?
PERROTTET: That's right, one issue against with the media in the Pacific is education and the training of journalists. A lot of these people go straight into positions at newspapers, and quite frankly work very, very hard and do quite a sterling job for the amount of training they've had, the amount of time they've in the industry. And we can look in our own backyard and see how many people might get press releases off the fax machine and put them straight into the newspaper. I'm at Auckland University of Technology here and there's been copious amounts done by students in communication departments are many universities studying the newspapers of our own countries and how much of it is actually PR. We're looking at a situation where people aren't even trained and they're working in newspapers again with tight deadlines, without being paid too much, it's no surprise there that the press releases and of course coming from the government go straight into the newspapers. You have a situation once again where there's not a lot of resources and people are facing the typical deadlines that you and I face in the media.
COUTTS: But it makes it easier for the media to be under the thumb of the governments if you take that approach?
PERROTTET: Absolutely, and not just under the thumb of the governments, but the sort of conflicts and the in-fighting that you have even within different media organisations is amazing. You have very small media organisations and perhaps it's natural that in that sort of context you have a lot of competition. And going back to Marc Neil-Jones late last year he applied for a radio license, and it was argued by the actual media body, which really I suppose should be representing him, that's the Media Association of Vanuatu, they were arguing that he shouldn't be allowed a radio licence as they wanted to protect the indigenous culture in Vanuatu, and thought that Marc Neil-Jones being an outsider of sorts, having a radio licence would somehow affect the cultural landscape of Vanuatu and affect the indigenous culture there. And so they opposed his application for a radio licence. So you have these conflicts as well where even within the very, very small fledgling media bodies that are operating in these countries.
COUTTS: Well Fiji and PINA, the Pacific Island News Association, did the Pacific Journalism Review's annual review look at that situation and it remaining in Fiji given the extent of the media censorship there?
PERROTTET: We did, that is also a constant issue of conflict within media personnel in the Pacific. We've had people resign from positions in PINA over the years as they stay in Fiji, and obviously there are conflicting issues about really what is the purpose of PINA? I mean it came out of the, as the main media body representing media personnel in the Pacific for the last couple of decades. But since the last coup, the major coup in 2006 in Fiji, it has decided and it's taken a course of action that it's going to say in Fiji. And I think quite admirably to try to teach the military regime that in any democracy that might come about in the next few years that media is certainly something that has to be looked after and given independence. And they've taken that approach with dialogue with the regime. Now that's the one track that you can say is admirable. Many people have argued that no, it's not, and if you're going to represent media well surely you have to stand up for media freedom, and if a country's not going to give you that, well then you have to operate outside the country. John Woods who runs the Cook Islands News, for example, was the vice-president. He resigned, and he now forms part of a new media organisation that started in August last year called PasiMA, which is the Pacific Islands Media Association, another one of these media bodies that keep popping up in the Pacific representing different interests. And they're based in Apia in Samoa. So you have this scattering of media people and different media bodies that are rising up, and definitely people fairly disenchanted with the approach of PINA. But as I said, if you're taking it from the approach of the current president Moses Stevens of PINA, what they're trying to do is really to salvage what they can of the media.
COUTTS: And also self-preservation, but we're running out of time, can I just ask you Alex if you could just summarise then what your recommendations are?
PERROTTET: Well the recommendations would be for media groups to keep lobbying governments and to dialogue with them and to teach them that media freedom is essential. Obviously West Papua would be the worse one because there's actually been killings and abductions and assaults, much more than there are in Fiji and Vanuatu, that's obviously a huge issue. But we will be recommending that media people really I suppose are appreciated firstly for the hard work they do, particularly in some of these countries as they toe the line between different types of censorship. But the governments really do realise that no matter what type of democracy or government that you might have, a free media is absolutely essential to the proper running of a country.
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