Media Effects, Censorship and Fiji ~ Updated

February 27, 2011

by Dr Mark Hayes

I’ve added an Update on March 24, 2011, below, which seems to reinforce several points in my original argument.

Plus another short addition on March 25, 2011 too.

Reports about a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry early in 2011 entitled ‘Social network media exposure and adolescent eating pathology in Fiji’ have gotten me thinking, again, about the Fiji military dictatorship’s rigorous media controls which themselves were evidenced, again, when a story about the declining condition of the largest pot of money in Fiji, the National Provident Fund, was banned from local publication.

(Thanks to Pacific Scoop, A/Prof David Robie, and the Pacific Media Centre for these spurs to further thought about practical media censorship.)

As I was preparing this post, yet another Fiji journalist was hauled in by the regime for a talking to, apparently about a story they’d published on maintainence problems in the Fiji sugar industry.

Communications Fiji Ltd, operator of the Pacific’s largest radio network and of Fijivillage.com, has helpfully dobbed its main cyberspace competitor, Fijilive.com, into the regime’s Media Industry Development Authority because Fijilive’s owner, Yashwant Gounder, hasn’t lived in Fiji for over a year. This is a flagrant violation of the regime’s Media Decree, which requires media owners to have lived in Fiji for at least six months of the last year. Go Get ‘Em!

(Confirms my point about the Fiji media’s extreme solidarity, usually not, whereby an attack on one outlet is usually responded to as a business opportunity by the others.)

Add to the foregoing other recent reports that the dictatorship’s Media Industry Development Authority (MIDA), imposed by the regime’s June, 2010, Media Decree (1.7 Meg PDF), and chaired by Professor Subramani, at one time based at USP, has commenced consulting with stakeholders about how to go about its business.

And a couple of statements on the regime’s web site about ‘Different roles of the media’ from the Director of the Information Ministry, Ms Setaita Natai, and a report headed ‘Accurate message brings peace and respect’ about a Fijian-language workshop mounted by Fiji Media Watch.

As an aside, worthy and well meant though the efforts of the tiny NGO, Fiji Media Watch, have been for many years, they’re on a hiding to nothing in a wholly commercialised media environment like Fiji. If it’s one thing that makes the Fiji media only slightly less suspicious than a competitor getting an advantage, it’s anybody trying to dilute or critique the believed impact of the media’s main content – advertising. As a quite reliable rule of thumb, commercial media hate advocates of media literacy. If media literacy was applied to the Fiji regime’s media efforts, an NGO like Fiji Media Watch could well get the same treatment as other perceived regime opponents or critics.

UpDate – March 24, 2001 -

Two stories in the censored Fiji Times for Wednesday, March 23, reported on a Fiji Media Watch seminar the previous day.

As an aside, all Fiji media are subject to often intrusive censorship, with censors usually stationed in Newsrooms actively vetting copy, and, as the Fiji Times and Fiji TV found out over Easter, 2009, it is forbidden under Section 16 of the still operative Public Emergency Regulations (PER) – Fiji’s so-called ‘Rule of Law’ – to inform readers, listeners, or viewers that their news has been subjected to regime censorship.The PER were supposed to be removed when the regime introduced its Media Decree in the middle of 2010 but they’re still in force.

As a matter of style and for accuracy, I always insert the word ‘censored’ before the name of a Fiji media outlet because its news output has been subjected to routine and probably intrusive regime censorship.

The first censored Fiji Times story was headed Media Affects Children’s Behaviour and reported, in part:

Ministry of Education principal education officer Tomasi Raiyawa said the media worked on theories of exploitation in order to remain sustainable.

Speaking at a workshop organised by the Fiji Media Watch, which focused on the impact of the media on the world, Mr Raiyawa said the media worked like bullets where they penetrated recipients whom he described as sitting ducks.

The audience, he said, was passive to the point where the media was allowed to “vesumona you”.

Vesumona is a composite of two Fijian words, ‘vesau‘, which refers to ‘talking in a foreign language, jabber, chatter, or talk unintelligently’ and ‘mona‘ means ‘ the brain’. In other words, the media ‘messes with your head’.

The story continued: “Mr Raiyawa said a contentious issue was the impact of the media on society, particularly on the argument of the effect of violent action movies on children”.

There is considerable evidence from a range of disciplines – psychology, education, media effects studies – pointing to a desensitization to extreme violence by adolescents and children exposed to severe, repetitious, and violent computer games, but the exposure has to be very significant, almost routine, and reinforced by other factors, including peer legitimation and the user’s social environment. Children particularly, but also many adolescents, can lack the socialization and psychological development needed to clearly differentiate between realistic, if obviously fictional, dramatic, violence and real life violence.

Equally important, and the heroic folks at the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre and the Fiji Women’s Movement who work tirelessly against Fiji’s domestic violence epidemic amply know this, extended exposure to media violence, including but not exclusively to violent movies, crime shows, and similar – Walker Texas Ranger was once a staple on Fiji TV for years – can give apparent legitimation to quick, violent, solutions to personal or individual frustrations or grievances.

Both very broad outlines of applicable research findings, immediately above, are heavily caveated, as are the very large number of studies done on the pressing issues of the complex impacts of repeated, extreme. violence exposure on, separately, adolescents, children, and adults, and the related effects of fictional, though realistic, violence exposure to apparently offering a quick solution to real life issues.

Mr Raiyawa’s reported remarks, though, seriously misrepresent the available, reliable research findings on the pressing issues on which he is reported speaking. He’s essentially arguing that children exposed to media violence are turned into violent sociopaths: “Mr Raiyawa said the media worked like bullets where they penetrated recipients whom he described as sitting ducks”; completely discredited hypodermic needle theory of media effects.

The second story in the censored Fiji Times for Wednesday, March 23, was blandly headed ‘Ministry highlights idea‘ and appears to report on other points Mr Raiyawa made at the Fiji Media Watch seminar on Tuesday, March 22, 2011:

There were “… four types of philosophies in the media world”.

“Oh, no, here we go again,” Dr Hayes groaned. ‘“Four Theories of the Press regurgitated. Hasn’t this guy, and his Education Ministry, figured out that the Soviet Union ceased to exist around 1991, and let’s see if he discourses on the Authoritarian Theory deployed in its Fijian context?”

“The first, world philosophy, was where the paparazzi reigned in a realm of sensationalism, sex, beauty, drugs and politics, he said at a community-based workshop organised by the Fiji Media Watch ù an organisation that raises awareness on the impact of the mass media.

“When my namesake Tom Cruise came to Fiji for a holiday, the media trailed him,” Mr Raiyawa said in a lighthearted moment at the Fijian Teachers Association building at Knollys Street in Suva.

“Fiji fell into the third world philosophy where media coverage focused on development and the improvement of lifestyles.

“I’m certain, our media in Fiji is mixed up,” he said of the category the country’s media fell in.”

OK. Now Dr Hayes gets it.

Mr Raiyawa is advocating a form of development journalism, such as sketched out by development scholar, Susan George, in The Guardian in 2009.

I have absolutely no problem with this, just as I have no problems with peace journalism, a parallel sub-field of journalism which was discussed at USP Journalism late in 2010, and later discussed by former USP Journalism head, Shailendra Singh, at a conference I attended in Auckland in late 2010.

My very grave concern about advocating or even deploying peace and/or development journalism in a place like Fiji, though, lies in the risk of selective capture of these very worthy ideas and advocated practices by a military dictatorship so that some of the popular empowerment and media literacy components in these fields get diluted or even warped to serve, in practice, the interests of the regime which, to be sure, deeply infected with Group Think as it is, has thoroughly conflated Fiji’s developmental interests with its own survival.

The second censored Fiji Times report ended:

The local media was yet to take up its role in development, [Mr Raiyawa] said.

And Fiji, he said, was coming into the fourth world philosophy where there was State control.

Yep. Vinaka vakalevu for clarifying where you’re really coming from, Mr Raiyawa, principal education officer of the Fiji Education Ministry’s executive support unit.

If he really wants to update his knowledge of media theories from a normative perspective, he really should read, carefully, Normative Theories of the Media Journalism in Democratic Societies by Clifford Christians et.al. (2010). But Fiji is by no means a democratic society. It’s a military dictatorship.

Update of March 24, 2011 ends

Short UpDate on March 25 -

Pacific Media Watch has this additional item - ‘Education official hits out at ‘junk food’ media

It is all very well to castigate the media for running very cleverly crafted junk food ads – these things are extremely carefully piloted, tweaked, and tested by highly educated and skilled psychologists, marketers, and production crews; nothing is left to chance – or the implied criticism of what, on my recollection of Fiji’s media, was (and probably still is) its incessant, raucous, and repetitious pushing of credit as a means to get all the stuff you don’t need now, otherwise your neighbors, extended family, whoever, will look down on you.

The media had also given rise to neighbourly competition and subsequently theft, [Mr Tomasi Raiyawa, principal education officer of the Fiji Education Ministry's executive support unit] told participants at the Fiji Media Watch’s community based workshop in Suva earlier this week.

Families could barely make ends meet and were led to steal to meet the needs and wants of their respective families, he said.

Through the media, culture and taste has changed, Raiyawa said.

OK, Mr Raiyawa and the military dictatorship for whom you ultimately work and obey, if you want to get really serious about the issues you quite properly raised at the Fiji Media Watch gathering, start deploying your censors into the sales and marketing divisions of the Fiji media and implement a ‘clean up campaign’, like the regime says it’s doing on corruption, to ‘clean up’ the Fiji media’s real content, its advertising to deal with the genuinely serious matters you’ve identified in your recently reported comments and criticisms.

- Original Post Continues -

I was, and remain, very puzzled about the genuine justifications for the rigorous and intrusive media censorship imposed by the Fiji regime during Easter, 2009, through its Public Emergency Regulations (PER), particularly Section 16 – never made entirely clear who caused the ‘emergency’ -, then the serious reasoning behind and research informing the Media Decree, and then its enabling agency, MIDA. The only material available comes from a study of the Fiji media by Dr James Anthony commissioned by the Fiji Human Rights Commission and released in February, 2008.

(I readily admit to a certain wry amusement when admitting the foregoing puzzlement, as I’m actually quite sure there’s no serious, verifiable, or highly informed media theory or media effects research informing the Fiji regime’s media restrictions or the work of the MIDA. I’m engaging in heuristics, a ‘thought experiment’, probing the issue as if there were some heavy duty media scholarship informing the regime’s media ‘policies’ when, in reality, I’d certainly get more sense from peering into a tanoa of yagona than doing a scholarly deconstruction of the Fiji dictatorship’s media ‘policies’. But let’s play along for the purposes of this exercise…  I’m also deliberately setting to one side informed debates about, and criticisms of, the genuine capacity, or otherwise, of Fiji’s journalists.)

Firstly, a journalistic practice point.

Whenever I see media reports about serious scholarly studies which deserve a closer look, I always go to the source and download the original study. Of course, to do this, one needs access to, and knowledge about how to navigate through, academic or professional databases, usually only available through University libraries.

Then there’s a second point. Serious scholarly studies, such as reported in professional journals like The British Journal of Psychiatry, have been rigorously peer reviewed, and thence can be, and deserve to be, taken very seriously indeed. Very occasionally, poor quality science slips through, or a dodgy study gets published, but science’s self-correcting mechanisms almost always deal with such very rare incidents.

Thirdly, I certainly tunnel into the methodology deployed in studies such as this one reported in the British Journal of Psychiatry lest it be exposed as having all the methodological validity of a very bad public opinion poll or a University class teaching evaluation (i.e., virtually none). It wouldn’t have gotten anywhere near even a preliminary review panel were it in any way flakey.

This study looks very strong indeed.

I won’t rehash the material on Pacific Scoop or on the Pacific Media Centre from this valuable study, and suggest readers go find the original study for yourselves one way or another.

So, what does a very good study into media exposure and adolescent eating pathology in Fiji have to do with media censorship in the same country?

Lots; because both broad issues have to do with media effects upon audiences.

The recent Fiji study into adolescent eating pathology confirms some of the very best general research into media effects on audiences:

“Our study findings are consistent with previous reports that mass media consumption has an adverse impact on eating pathology. These findings are novel, however, in supporting the possibility that indirect media exposure – operationalised in this study as peer network exposure – may also promote risk for eating pathology. They also compliment previous research that has established peer and family-mediated influences as risk factors for eating disorders… Efforts to address the recent degradation of nutritional health in Pacific Island countries might expand to scrutinise the effects not just of culturally Western food products, but also of transnational mass media imports that may promote unhealthful behaviours. Importantly, if second-hand exposure to media content is, indeed, harmful to children, as this study supports, then the recommendation to parents to limit screen time may be inadequate to protect children from the risk imposed by their social milieu” (Becker, et.al., Brit.J.Psych, 2011 198 43 – 50 at 48 & 49).

In other words, particularly on younger members of audiences, but not exclusively so, at least in part because their self- and body identity formation is still variably plastic, the influence of the media, especially television, on their eating habits is amplified or at least solidified by peer interaction over against any direct effects of exposure to media messages which impact on eating behaviours. This can be very carefully extrapolated into probable media effects on adult audiences and their behaviours on consumer choices, voting preferences, and so on.

This confirms the core of what’s called the Lazardsfeld Two Step Flow view of media effects on audiences. (Ok; that’s a Wikipedia entry on this small but very influential part of the vast and complicated Literatures on media effects but it’s a good starting point. Internet Quality Evaluation Filters Always Engaged UQ Library advice 74 kb PDF.)

In general, the media doesn’t tell its audiences how to think about some issue. The media more likely tells us what issues we might think about, but how we actually think about some issue is largely formed elsewhere.

As far as I am aware, and I’m always open to being corrected and pointed to supporting evidence, despite the rigorous media censorship imposed in Fiji since Easter, 2009, not one advertisement for so-called junk food has been censored.

Seems the censors in Fiji are only focusing on journalistic messages in the local media, and ignoring the other, much more significant content, at least in terms of time and probable, repetitious, impacts. Of course, journalistic messages, the media content increasingly squeezed between the advertising – that’s the mass media’s really serious content – entertainment, sport, and community service announcements, is imbued with greater credibility, or allegedly so.

Media content which, apparently, has been processed or generated by journalists in information processing factories called Newsrooms, causes Fiji’s censors and the military dictatorship far more concern than almost endless, repetitious, very cleverly crafted, localised and imported (thence cheaper) advertising, some of which is, on the basis of the recent British Journal of Psychiatry study, significantly influencing adolescent eating behaviours, not so much directly but through a two-step flow of peer reinforcement.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, the Fiji regime’s all but explicit intent is nothing less than the re-working or re-programming of the Fijian psyche to eliminate corrosive, incendiary, ethno-nationalism.

To achieve this, they’ve imposed rigorous journalistic censorship, which has given extra energy to the most ‘reliable’ Fijian ‘public service’, the Coconut Wireless. At least Fiji’s incessant rumour mill never fails, unlike the notoriously unreliable water and electricity supplies. The content, of course, varies from extremely accurate to genuinely incendiary and fantastic.

That’s where journalists step in as information gatherers, refiners, refractors, and professional communicators, sieving the rumours, discarding the rubbish, seeking out the facts, balancing the opinions, and assisting their audiences to to make sense of it all. Good journalism is a very important corrective to the Coconut Wireless.

The media effects theory informing the censors and their masters in the Ministry of Information, including dictatorship appointed Permanent Secretary, Australian expatriate, former Fairfax sales executive, Ms Sharon Smith-Johns, appears to be the ‘hypodermic theory’ – I publish a media message and you are affected by it (rush to buy my product, change your voting preference, riot in the streets, and similar). As a former, senior, sales executive for a leading Australian media corporation, you’d think she actually knows her stuff when it comes to applied media effects theory and research. To be sure, under her control, the regime’s PR does seem to have improved from the earlier days when Lt. Colonel Neumi Leweni headed the Information Ministry.

Of course, the ‘quality’ or ‘impact’ of the message is relevant, so couple a very cleverly crafted message, which might even include a ‘dog whistle‘, with a sound knowledge of what makes the target audience tick, and the hypodermic effect should occur.

What the regime is actually doing is selectively withdrawing certain, quite limited, kinds of media content. Given that they haven’t published the detailed guidelines for the censors deployed in Fiji’s newsrooms – what gets through, what gets chopped – informed observers, like me, are left to reverse-engineer particular incidents to figure out why a journalist was hauled in to explain themselves.

If the sugar industry is failing, which it is, or the National Provident Fund needs some serious investigation, which it does, then why are stories about these issues censored or even suppressed, or, as in the most recent case, a story which passed a censor nevertheless had the journalist hauled in to explain themselves.

My sources have long complained that far from having anything but the vaguest ‘guidelines’ – ‘no politics’ – the censorship is often arbitrary, capricious, or even revengeful, with the censor on the day even cutting or removing a story apparently just to get back at or irritate a particular journalist or editor. Always with the real threat of being able to whistle up militarised police or, much worse, serious, armed, military muscle to enforce Fiji’s new ‘legal order’, the Rule of Fists and/or Glock.

Keep this up, so goes a crude deployment of negative reinforcement psychology – I’ll stop censoring you when you reliably report ‘correctly’ – and Fiji’s psyche might, eventually, be re-wired. So goes the apparent hypodermic effect theory.

Problem is, as an informed reading of the implications of the recent study on ‘Social network media exposure and adolescent eating pathology in Fiji’ for wider media effects confirms, the hypodermic effect of media doesn’t work, either through injection or withdrawal, so imposing rigorous censorship almost certainly doesn’t, and won’t, achieve the sought-after result.

Even allowing for highly varying levels of education, literacy in English and vernacular, media literacy, media access, and a population of some 800,000 people skewed to a younger demographic, the attempted re-wiring or re-programming the psyche of a place like Fiji through attempted censorship of just some media content is very seriously contradicted by the best available global media effects theory and research, including high quality studies focusing right down on to Fiji and its adolescent audiences themselves.

You’d really think that when a regime has its hands on all the resources of state, they’d do much better with their media controls and propaganda than the Fiji regime is currently doing.


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