On Dictatorships & Useful Idiots ~ Part 2

by Dr Mark Hayes

Updates – August 8, 2010 ~ As a demonstration of the “heat and dust” the Fiji situation can engender, have a listen to the Graham Davis & Dr Jon Fraenkel ‘debate’ on ABC Radio National’s The National Interest on Friday, August 5, 2011.

A/Prof David Robie’s Cafe Pacific Blog has this comment by Mr Davis, with pointers to his Grubbstreet Media Blog.

On my listening, both sides to this ‘debate’ glossed some important points of fact which I’ll try to tunnel into soon (rather busy with other activities at present).

Here’s a summary of the controversial Qarase Government bills which really angered Cmdr Bainimarama in the leadup to the 2006 coup, from the ANU publication, from Election to Coup in Fiji.

And I have found a decisive Fiji regime media release about hosting the AIBD Conference in Nadi in July, 2009, and a picture of Cmdr Bainimarama delivering his keynote address there.

Scroll down to the AIBD section of the original Post.

Of course, neither AIBD or the Fiji regime’s Ministry of Information have responded to my requests, as set out in the body of the Post, which continues below…

Original Post -

In the first part of this series, I explored the continuing scandal enveloping the prestigious London School of Economics (LSE) and its financially assisted ‘constructive engagement’ with the Libyan regime following the latter’s significant rehabilitation from global pariah status.

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi at LSE ~ now sought on war crimes charges

Earlier in 2011, that ‘constructive engagement’ went horribly wrong.

Wikipedia has set up a LSE-Libya page, which collects more material on this whole affair (engage Wikipedia content ‘quality filter’ as needed).

The LSE – Libya scandal raises very serious issues for any university or NGO which considers ‘constructive engagement’ with a similar kind of regime.

But by no means is this a straightforward case and, as I attempted to show, there were, and remain, certainly persuasive arguments from both sides, though the continuing and appalling Libyan situation has, post facto, further very strongly shifted the balance against any kind of so-called constructive engagement with the Gaddafi regime.

I finally came down on the side of those, like the late LSE Prof Fred Halliday, who argued against LSE ‘constructively engaging’ with Libya, most certainly against taking any money from representatives of the regime.

I coupled that detailed and heavily referenced discussion with the notion and practice of authoritarian regimes, such as the former Soviet Union, and no doubt others, carefully picking ‘useful idiots’, particularly but not exclusively journalists, celebrities, or intellectuals, who could be used to, at the very least, contradict a much wider view of the regime as loathsome, or worse – spread doubt – or better, promote a ‘fairer’, ‘more informed’ or ‘balanced’, view of the regime through carefully organized tours and other forms of ‘engagement’.

‘Useful idiots’ can be motivated by all sorts of reasons, from the base and venal through well meaning to the genuinely idealistic. They may fully acknowledge that the regime is ‘smelly’ through to loathsome, and worse, but argue that no engagement at all closes any even potential opportunities to do some good, influence regime identities, or support the ordinary people effectively being held hostage by the regime’s agents.

Picking and cultivating ‘useful idiots’ need not be crude and thuggish; it often isn’t. Diplomatic functions, opening nights at the opera, ballet or art exhibition, speaking invitations to service clubs, churches, or universities, are among the opportunities to assess potential targets who can then be cultivated further. Entirely routine business meetings, conferences, or deal negotiations offer other opportunities, well removed from any even remote taints of sanctions busting or corruption. Even tourists visiting the pariah country, and largely insulated from the local environment in resorts or on carefully run tours, can quite inadvertently be used by the regime for propaganda purposes (See, ABC TV’s Foreign Correspondent for August 3, 2010, at 14.55 – 16.57). The point is to seek out, cultivate, and exploit targets who could be used for ‘soft diplomacy‘ or push grey propaganda.

Here I will consider the case of a major media NGO which engaged with the Fiji military dictatorship just over three months after Easter, 2009.

The next post in this series will examine the Pacific Islands News Association’s ‘constructive engagement’ with the Fiji regime.

But first, a very brief contextualization – (this is a very bald summary of my much longer Fiji backgrounder from August, 2010, which contains many references and links to further material, and which nobody has sought to systematically critique or refute).

Dr Steven Ratuva ~ Auckland Uni. 'Coup Expert'

If an acknowledged expert on Fiji, the Fiji military, and a close scholar of coups in general, Auckland University’s Dr Steven Ratuva, can posit a very similar analysis of there being no apparent endgame to the Fiji situation, in a June, 2011, interview with Pacific Scoop, then I stand by my similar August, 2010, analysis.

It might seem, as lawyers say, a ‘nice’ point, and some media outlets, like RNZI and Radio Australia’s style practice is to describe the Fiji regime as the ‘interim government’, but I prefer to describe it as a ‘regime’ or a ‘military dictatorship’ while News Corporation often uses the term ‘military regime’, with qualifiers such as ‘non-elected’ (which is understandable given events well known, which I touch upon below), and Fairfax outlets vary between ‘Government’ and ‘authorities’. I always put regime identities’ roles in lower case and between ‘single quotes’ and, when citing or quoting from a Fiji media outlet, preface the citation with the word censored, because that outlet’s content has been censored.

Radio Fiji’s News Director, Stanley Simpson, gave this careful assessment of the Fiji media environment to a Citizens Constitutional Forum seminar in Suva in June, 2011.

Emeritus Professor Crosbie Walsh

A highly informed and quite consistent opposing view to mine (and many others, including some serious, heavy hitting, Pacific and Fiji scholars, some based at ANU) can be found on Emeritus Professor Crosbie Walsh’s Blog where, on Tuesday, July 12, 2011, he wrote (emphasis in original):

WHEN A GOVERNMENT IS GOVERNMENT, LIKE IT OR NOT. Some readers prefer to call the Bainimarama government a regime because they do not like it and say it is illegal. These people criticise this blog for using the term government, and occasionally interim government, despite the fact that  it very definitely is the de facto government of Fiji. Calling it anything other than a government will not make it go away. Another reality is that Fiji’s national bird is the kula, not the ostrich that buries its head in the sand hoping that what it can’t see will go away. [with a picture of a kula attached]

E/Prof Walsh, whose Blog I regularly peruse, including the comments to Posts, most certainly knows his stuff when it comes to matters Fiji, and is explicitly honest with what he is seeking to do. At times, he is critical of the Fiji regime, such as on the continuing extension of the Public Emergency Regulations (June 18, 2011) I have alerted him to these Posts and have invited him to comment (as I did with my Web Diary Backgrounder). I just happen to significantly disagree with him.

Fiji had its third military coup in December, 2006, but the constitutional architecture remained intact, the ousters of the Qarase SDL government described their administration as an ‘interim government’, and were making statements indicating they’d like to take Fiji to democratic elections quite soon.

There were some instances of human rights abuses, including against journalists. The publishers of The Fiji Sun and The Fiji Times, both Australians, were all but kidnapped by shadowy military snatch squads and deported, on very flimsy grounds, the Times’ editor’s car was vandalized and his house firebombed. At the time, then Land Forces commander, Col. Pita Driti, denied the military were responsible, adding that, if the military had done it, they’d have done it properly. The then Australian High Commissioner, James Batley, received credible written death threats. (Not that I’m suggesting the interim government had anything directly to do with these activities; could have been rogue soldiers or police on a frolic of their own, perhaps to curry favor with their superiors, or even a disgruntled former employee. Who knows, until the police complete their investigations, person or persons currently unknown are charged, and convicted?)

I was in Fiji when the first of these death threats were delivered to ‘Fortress Australia’ and the ‘word’ around the more informed channels in Suva’s always lively, often dead wrong, occasionally incendiary, and occasionally very accurate ‘coconut wireless’ (it’s a learned skill to figure out what’s what) was that the fire bombings, vandalism against other regime opponent’s properties, and the death threats were the work of a very nasty ‘dirt unit’ tucked away deep in the Fiji military’s Nabua, northern Suva, headquarters. Nobody’s ever been even charged, let alone convicted of anything to do with these activities.

The ousted Qarase SDL government commenced legal action against the coup and on Maundy Thursday, 2009, the Fiji Appeal Court ruled that the 2006 coup was illegal, implying though by no means directing, that the interim government ought to quietly step aside, allowing the ousted government to return, or, as occurred in early 2001, directed the ousted government to govern on an interim basis, taking the country to elections as soon as practicable.

Initially, it appeared the ‘interim government’ would comply with the court’s Ruling, but the ailing President was prevailed upon to install the ‘interim government’ as the ‘government’, which then began to, and continues to, rule by decree.

International, and Regional, reactions were immediate, and, in general, strongly condemning of the newly installed military dictatorship. The Melanesian Spearhead Group countries – PNG, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, with the Kanaks in New Caledonia having observer membership, and Fiji itself – were more equivocal regarding Fiji.

A set of Public Emergency Regulations (PER) effectively became the rule of law in Fiji, backed by the rule of fists and/or Glock. It’s never been made clear who caused the ‘emergency’ requiring that the ‘public’ be ‘regulated’. The PER are now routinely extended, despite firm promises to remove them once the Media Industry Development Decree, and its enabling Media Industry Development Authority (MIDA), were promulgated in the middle of 2010.

Section 16 of the PER impose rigorous, intrusive, media censorship, including forbidding the media to remind its audiences that their news is censored. The PER even cover Fiji-based journalists publishing stories overseas, and the onus is on the journalist to conclusively prove their story did not originate in Fiji, even though it might have been published overseas.

Sean Dorney & Fiji Journos ~ Suva ~ April 12, 2009

Over Easter, 2009, the ABC’s Sean Dorney, and two NZ TV 3 journalists, were detained and then deported from Fiji, at least one local journalist who reported on the deportations was also detained, and the Suva and Nadi FM relay transmitters shared by Radio Australia and Radio New Zealand International (RNZI) were shut down.

Fiji Times ~ April 12, 2009

Locally, on Easter Saturday night, Fiji TV pulled its early evening news edition, and the next day, The Fiji Times published a now collector’s item Easter Sunday edition, showing where the military installed censors had demanded copy be removed, including the cartoon,  in protest at the imposed censorship. Both acts of resistance were deemed ‘illegal’ by the self-installed regime.

Fiji TV ~ 6.00pm Bulletin ~ April 11, 2009

The week later, ABC News reported: Fiji media told to adopt ‘journalism of hope’.

The ABC quoted former interim Fiji indigenous affairs ‘minister’, Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, in his speech following his swearing in as ‘deputy president’, calling on the media: “Where there are disputes, [bring] reconciliation. Where there is error, truth. Where there is despair, hope,” he said. (It was not reported whether or not he was channeling St Francis of Assisi.) The ‘journalism of hope’ has remained a major theme of the regime’s media requirements.

As a journalism and media academic, I’m well aware of ‘development journalism‘, and ‘peace journalism‘, as two topics or sub-fields in journalism studies and practice periodically gaining traction and attention in journalism literatures, (e.g., Aslam, R., Peace journalism: A Paradigm shift in traditional media approach, Pacific Journalism Review, V. 17, No. 1, 2011, Pp. 119 – 139), but have never heard of, or read, scholarly studies focusing on ‘the journalism of hope’. (Are there any grants available to research ‘the journalism of hope’? If there were, you’d be amazed how many experts on ‘hope journalism’ suddenly appear. But I digress… )

Radio New Zealand domestic news carried a more comprehensive wrap of the situation on April 17, 2009.

The Media Decree promulgated in the middle of 2010, among many other things, required that Fiji media be 90% locally owned, and thence the News Corporation-owned Fiji Times was sold last September to the Motibhai Group, the principal of which, Mahendra Motibhai Patel, was jailed in April, 2011, on unrelated corruption charges.

For all practical purposes, Fiji is ruled as a military dictatorship, though, insofar as these things go, Fiji’s dictatorship is a fairly benign one, with none of the significant murderous human rights abuses or a raging leader’s personality cult which typify other appalling historical or contemporary regimes of this kind.

Nobody’s been shipped out beyond the fringing reefs past Nukulau Island, off Suva, a vein opened to attract the qio (sharks), and tossed overboard, and public servants, school children, or church services don’t have to salute The Great Leader’s picture prominently displayed in offices, classrooms, and elsewhere. (But see, e.g., US State Dept., 2009 Fiji Human Rights Report.)

But that’s a matter of degree, and some would argue any human rights abuse by any regime is intolerable, and must be exposed and opposed.

Others, such as E/Prof Walsh, would argue that, taking very informed account of Fiji’s history, sociology, its overall context, something decisive was, and is, needed to re-wire the ‘national psyche’ to eradicate corrosive ethno-nationalism, corruption, and significantly improve Fiji’s governance (he doesn’t quite use the phrase ‘re-wire the national psyche’); implement the so-called People’s Charter, and the Roadmap the regime asserts it is following towards elections in the latter half of 2014.

That decisive ‘force’ or ‘entity’ is the Fiji military dictatorship and its firm rule by decree, backed by the active intervention of the militarized police and the military itself.

In bald summary, goes this pragmatic argument, if you want to make a good omelet, you have to break eggs. If you want to achieve what the Fiji military claims it wants to achieve, against the kinds of resistance it could encounter – witness the chaos during the depths of the Speight fronted putsch of May, 2000, or the horror of the attempted military mutiny on November 2, 2000 (I was in Suva that terrible afternoon) – you, occasionally, have to intimidate, assault, or even, very regrettably, threaten to kill some opponents to demonstrate that resistance is futile.

I would rather argue, informed by the theory I dissected in my PhD thesis, that, taking the very fullest and most informed account of the context one is examining, if it cannot be conclusively shown or argued that, for example, the suspension of fundamental human rights such as freedom of assembly and freedom of speech (including media freedom) is absolutely necessary, then the suspension of those all but universally accepted rights is illegitimate and must be opposed (preferably by nonviolent means, for reasons I also sketched out in my thesis, and occasionally elsewhere).

I really do mean absolutely necessary, and not just invoking the pragmatic ‘omelet argument’.

That’s my very modest entry point into the very complicated territory of democratic governance theory and practical governance, where far better and more erudite minds than mine have ventured over centuries.

I am reminded, though, of Winston Churchill telling the ‘Mother of All Parliaments’ on November 11, 1947, that, “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.

Probing and critiquing the doing of practical democratic governance in a context such as Fiji throws up challenges to the erudite, largely Western, modernist, Enlightenment-derived, theories pitched at as universalistic level as possible, which is what theorists like Habermas attempt – do or even can such lofty theories have universal purchase? – and then, in the light of specific, ‘on the ground’ contexts, do the erudite theories need adjustment or could be even inapplicable, requiring more modest, even pragmatic, pitching and deployment?

(Somewhat surprisingly, there’s only been one deployment of Habermas’ theory of communicative action into a Pacific context, and that many years ago, into pre-contact and early post-contact Yap or the Caroline Islands, and here the theory was found to be inapplicable. [Berg, ML (1991), Jurgen Habermas in the Western Caroline Islands, Anthropos 80, pp. 397- 411.] . I know somebody who is closely developing parallels between Pacific Talanoa, as interpreted and deployed by Tongan scholar and now democratically elected Parliamentarian, Dr Sitiveni Halapua, and communicative action theory. But I digress… )

It can readily be argued, as some Fiji regime spokespeople and commentators have periodically opined, that the Fiji context is unique, only locals can understand why the regime is doing what it does in the ways it’s doing it, that attempts at democratic governance have failed, witness two coups in 1987, a putsch in 2000, another coup in 2006, and serious questions about the probity or fairness of the 2001 and 2006 elections even under the ethnically biased 1997 Constitution and concomitant electoral laws and procedures and, finally, that Western style, or derived arguments for, constitutional and Parliamentary democracy and governance have only partial relevance, at best, to Fiji’s peculiar context.

This, as The Fiji Times opined in 1987, is the ‘Democracy is a foreign flower, unsuited to Pacific soils’ argument.

The key point here is that between early December, 2006, and Easter, 2009, Fiji had an ‘interim government’ though with military backing, but that after Easter, 2009, Fiji has been ruled by a military dictatorship, including severe, intrusive, media censorship.

Finally, the Fiji military dictatorship rules by doing what military dictatorships do world-wide: Holds the population effectively hostage, requiring, at the least, minimal or even no opposition to their domination, or better, eager acquiescence to their domination, all the while with actual, continuing, psychological threats, and occasionally physical threats, even targeted acts, of enforcement and retribution, wrapped around a veneer of self-decreed, self-referential, ‘legitimacy’ (a.k.a. ‘Group Think’), careful buying-off of key stakeholders (the continuing stealthy raids on the Fiji National Provident Fund {FNPF}, the country’s largest single pot of money), and continuing rigorous curtailment of fundamental human rights such as freedom of assembly, and freedom of expression, including media freedom.

This Radio New Zealand International story on July 5, 2011, encapsulates several of the immediately above elements ~ a highly suspicious court and legal system prevented from adjudicating on matters covered by regime decrees (no appeals allowed against decrees), concomitant blocks on fundamental human rights, and raids on the FNPF, as does this Radio Australia Pacific Beat story. A later story also points to deeper systemic problems with the FNPF.

Also in passing, though relevant, are the reasons why the Fiji regime, as a key and continuing part of both the Public Emergency Regulations and the Media Decree, rigorously censors the media. I might be feigning acute naievity, and I could well have missed something important – always open to being corrected, with supporting evidence – but for the life of me I cannot pin down the applicable media theories and specific research findings informing the Ministry of Information and the MIDA people, the Chair of which, Professor Subramani, really ought to know his stuff – he’s a very respected former USP and then FIT literature scholar who also knows the USP Journalism Programme very well indeed -, and thence justifying their continuing rigorous media censorship.

It may be that the regime really does know what journalism is supposed to be doing, as powerfully described by the Israeli journalist, Amira Hass, in her Anna Lindh Award acceptance speech in 2004:

Journalism’s main task is to monitor power, to locate domination and to follow its characteristics and effects on the people, to observe the relations developing between power and the subjugated. Even between these two ends there is always a dialogue, an exchange of behaviours, opinions, emotions, habits, influences. Power is never a one-track, one direction action….

Monitoring power is a voluntarily-adopted mission of journalism, I believe, in a centuries-old development of the media and its social contract with the society in which journalists operate. It’s not the only role – but it is the most important one. I believe the mission of journalism is to scrutinize the actions of power: not to overlook the dialogical relations, and yet to question the motives of those in power and their acts: because they’d do anything possible to retain power and deepen it, because they hold the means to perpetuate the false equation between the ruler’s good and the public’s good, or portray their power as God-sent and natural. By monitoring power, the media is contributing to the dialogue between the sides. They are not equal, not symetrical, and still they converse. The media reports about this conversation, but it also participates in it, by the very publication. It mediates information and by doing so it helps developing the dialogue. And the media should do the impossible: scrutinize itself as to what extend it silences or not the voice of the disadvantageous party in the dialogical relations.

The foregoing ought to seriously worry any authoritarian regime, which may be the main reason why they always come for the media, and far too many also arrange for journalists to be jailed or killed (see, RSF and IFEX). (It also ought to be engraved on the psyches of serious journalists, along with strong, and strongly applied, ethics codes supported by their employing outlets and editors.)

I’m also very informatively bracketing out of, or suspending from, my argument, periodic criticisms of the competence or capacity of the Fiji media, and specifically, though not exclusively, criticisms of the then News Corporation-owned Fiji Times, advanced by scholars such as AUT’s Associate Professor David Robie (e.g., Robie, Mekim Nius South Pacific Media, politics, and education, Suva, USP Book Centre & Auckland, AUT, 2004, esp. Pp. 91 – 119). These criticisms have been selectively deployed by the Fiji regime when they have occasionally bothered to attempt to justify their rigorous media controls.

Pacific Media Watch has a comprehensive collection of materials by A/Prof Robie, focusing on his controversial December, 2000, paper “Coup Coup Land: The Press and the Putsch in Fiji” presented at that year’s Journalism Education Association (JEA) conference in Australia, and reactions thereto.

And the academic journal, Fijian Studies: A Journal of Contemporary Fiji, Vol. 6 1/2, 2008, carries several papers on the Fiji media, including an updated paper by A/Prof Robie, ’2000 Retrospective: Coup Coup Land – the Press and the Putsch in Fiji’.

What was also interesting about this double issue of a scholarly journal published out of USP in Suva, and jointly edited by Shailendra Singh, then Head of the USP Journalism Programme, and Prof Biman Prasad, a leading USP economist, was that, though it was dated 2008, it was not published until late in 2009 or early 2010. I was told that the editors and the publishers were concerned that it, too, could fall foul of the Fiji regime’s censors, but they published anyway, though late, due to pressures of other commitments. There were no repercussions.

The USP Journalism newspaper, Wansolwara, was exempted from being submitted to the censors, after application to the regime’s ‘information ministry’ because it is a student publication. Wonsolwara (a Solomon Islands word meaning ‘One Ocean, One People’) is subject to the Media Decree. The USP Journalism news web site hasn’t been updated since March, 2007, though this has nothing to do with the current Fiji media environment.

What the immediately foregoing does illustrate, again, is how even academics and a Regional university journalism programme have to consider the possibility of local regime intimidation, or worse, when going about their entirely legitimate academic work. Intolerable in other comparable environments, including in the Pacific.

A current I have detected running through some commentary on the Fiji situation, but which I haven’t systematically tracked, is an element of payback against the Fiji media, particularly The Fiji Times, for its alleged,  occasionally demonstrable, and certainly asserted, bias against, for example, the Bavadra Government, ousted in Fiji’s first coup in 1987, and the Chaudhry Government, removed by the 2000 putsch. Occasionally, critics evidence a slippage in understanding between an Editorial comment, news or feature reporting, an opinion piece, and letters to the editor, folding all content together to ‘prove’ a consistent ‘official line’, even allowing for the highly varying levels of media literacy in the Fiji community, from highly sophisticated to ‘if it’s in the paper, it must be true’.

I’m completely bracketing out of this discussion any ‘Murdoch News Corp “conspiracy theories”‘, resurgent and deafening around the News of the World phone hacking scandal, which doesn’t need any conspiracy theory, and would remind critics such as The Guardian’s Prof Roy Greenslade that of the 175 then News Corp owned newspapers, only two in early 2003 Editorially argued against the then looming Iraq war, the PNG Post-Courier and The Fiji Times (not that it mattered much).

Netani Rika ~ UQ, August 2009 © Dr Mark Hayes

At a seminar at the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Queensland at the end of August, 2009, then Editor in Chief of The Fiji Times, Netani Rika, defended the newspaper’s record (story & PDF of his talk proper from Pacific Scoop and Pacific Media Center at AUT). His speech proper was also published by Radio Australia, which reported that, soon after his return to Suva, he was increasing security at his home.)

To be sure, like all newspapers, particularly those with varying capacity levels, The Fiji Times has been guilty of spectacular lapses in journalistic competence (one thinks of the ‘skirt journalism’ controversy when a senior FT reporter was having an affair with Sitiveni Rabuka), but it is making too much of these to argue for a consistent, calculated, and systematic, longitudinal, bias one way or another.

It’s much more likely, as well as plausible, that any news reportage bias over against Editorial bias in The Fiji Times critical of the Chaudhry Government, focused on its policies, which included slowing and perhaps even reversing the then rampant neo-liberal ‘privatize all government owned assets’ ideology freighted by News Corp, the IMF, ADB, and others, deployed right down into smaller Pacific economies, and, Fiji being a small place, Chaudhry’s own antagonistic personality, witness, for example, his notorious and illadvised attack on the Fiji media when he launched the Fiji Media Council in October, 1999. (See also, Robertson, R. & Sutherland, W. Government by the Gun, The Unfinished Business of Fiji’s 2000 Coup, Annandale, Pluto Press, 2001, esp. Pp. 5 – 11.) {The quoted Amazon.com prices, even for used copies, are outrageous!)

In Fiji’s peculiar context, Chaudhry, being an Indo-Fijian, plus being belligerent, some would argue arrogant, and successfully alienating the local media, provided ample kerosene which his political and economic enemies passed on to extreme ethno-nationalists (Fiji’s so-called Taukei {landowner} ‘movement’; more a dog whistle sensitive ‘enthusiasm’ than a coherent political force as such), who then erupted on May 19, 2000. But that’s only part of the Fiji 2000 crisis story.

The whole story of the 2000 putsch has never been fully told, and probably now will never be, as some key players, such as the then Police Commissioner, Isikia Savua, have subsequently died. (How come Savua and his police seemed largely powerless to prevent the looting and arson which erupted in Suva on May 19, 2000, and did he and/or his police intelligence unit have any earlier indications that potentially serious mayhem was afoot?) I have occasionally opined that Fiji needed, and needs, a Fitzgerald Inquiry-style Inquiry (see my Web Diary backgrounder).

As always, I stand to be corrected on this, or any other, point, with verifiable, documentary, evidence.

A/Prof Robie has also been a highly informed critic of the 2010 Media Decree, and featured this analysis of the then PER censorship situation, by leading USP-based economist, Professor Waden Narsey, on his Café Pacific blog. (Prof Narsey has also been an excoriating critic of the regime’s continuing raids on the FNPF.)

It is how two significant Regional media NGOs, the Asia-Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development (AIBD), and the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) have been used as ‘useful idiots’ by the Fiji military dictatorship since Easter, 2009, and continuing, that I will now dissect.

This section deals with AIBD, and the next Post in this series deals with PINA.

AIBD ~ Nadi, 2009

The 2009 Asia-Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development (AIBD) Assembly, at the palatial Sheraton Denarau Island resort near Nadi  between 18 and 25 July, 2009, was a classic example of how authoritarian regimes use otherwise worthy and reputable organizations as ‘useful idiots’, as captive platforms to present themselves in a positive light.

Given the events over Easter, 2009, the newly (re-) installed regime, having moved from an being an ‘interim government’ to a full military dictatorship, would have been very keen, to say the least, to mount a ‘charm offensive‘, and hosting a major Regional media gathering presented a major opportunity to be exploited.

AIBD is a Malaysian-based UNESCO spin-off which operates in the Asia – Pacific Regions. Their introductory statement runs, in part:

The Asia-Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development (AIBD), established in 1977 under the auspices of UNESCO, is a unique regional inter-governmental organisation servicing countries of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN-ESCAP) in the field of electronic media development.  It is hosted by the Government of Malaysia and the secretariat is located in Kuala Lumpur.

The AIBD is mandated to achieve a vibrant and cohesive electronic media environment in The Asia-Pacific region through policy and resource development.

The Institute seeks to fulfill this mandate by mobilizing the intellectual and technological resources available within the national broadcasting organizations of its member countries as well as regional and international bodies through a well-established infrastructure and networking mechanism which includes government agencies, non-governmental organizations, institutions of higher learning, the private sector and individual professionals…

Membership is only open to sovereign states, which can delegate membership to, say, a national broadcaster, such as the Fiji Broadcasting Corporation, or even a Government department, such as a Ministry of Information or equivalent.

It’s worth noting that almost all Pacific broadcasters are government owned and operated, or have been corporatised but retain significant government investment and board representation, if somewhat removed in some cases, or, even when wholly in private hands, tread quite carefully when interacting with their local governments. The Fiji Broadcasting Corporation, for example, is corporatised, and positioning itself for privatisation, but retains a significant government involvement as a public service broadcaster, while tiny Radio Tuvalu was government owned and operated, then operated as a government corporation, and was de-corporatised and brought back into the Tuvaluan Government’s Ministry of Information late in 2007 because it could never, ever, become self-funding (See, Hayes, M. On Being a Tuvaluan ‘Tino Tusitala’ in Papoutsaki, E. & Harris, U.S. (eds.) South Pacific Islands Communication Regional Perspectives, Local Issues, Singapore, AMIC, Auckland, Pacific Media Centre & AUT, 2008, Pp. 254 – 273; the whole book is essential reading on Pacific media issues.) The temptation, of course, is for governments, any and all governments, to regard a media outlet in which they have any kind of interest, as the government’s broadcaster, and not the people’s broadcaster and asset.

AIBD runs a wide range of very well regarded broadcasting-related workshops and training sessions, and its major conferences are attended by workshops, trade shows, and the all-important networking alongside formal sessions.

Then AIBD Director, Dr Javad Mottaghi  won the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association Elizabeth R award for an exceptional contribution to public service broadcasting, presented at the CBA Conference in Tonga in February, 2009. He is now the Secretary General of the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union.

It’s interesting that their Web Site seems to only showcase recent, and up-coming, events and activities. No significant mention that I can find of their 2009 Nadi conference, though a Report from their Nadi conference is On Line (PDF). (No archived pictures gallery, or Blog-type entries, or ‘colour’ reports.) (Always being open to being proven wrong, with supporting evidence.)

There is a Page showcasing AIBD’s 1st Pacific Media Partnership, which was one of the outcomes of their 2009 conference in Fiji (nobody would criticize any of these activities; they’re all very worthwhile and, no doubt, well received by participants and their employing or supporting organizations).

Ms Setaita Natai ~ Fiji Min. Info.

However, AIBD still has the ‘acting permanent secretary’ of the Fiji Ministry of Information, effectively Fiji’s deputy censor, Ms Setaita Natai, representing the ‘Government of Fiji’, as the Vice-President of its General Conference.

The 21 to 24 July, 2008, AIBD Conference, in Bali,  saw then Fiji military spokesperson, and freshly appointed Permanent Secretary in the Ministry for Information, Lt.Col. Neumi Leweni, appointed as AIBD Vice-President. (His Wikipedia entry is seriously out of date.) At that same conference, Fiji nominated to hold the 2009 conference.

Cmdr. Bainimarama & Lt.Col.. Neumi Leweni

In other words, since the middle of 2008, and especially since Easter, 2009, AIBD appears to have had a senior operative for what became the Pacific’s military dictatorship installed at the center of some of its significant activities. It is inconceivable that, if she wanted to keep her job, Ms Natai, a former media lecturer at the Fiji National University (PDF of a student’s story on an address she gave earlier in 2011), wouldn’t be reporting back to her masters about AIBD’s activities.

Recall that, in the middle of 2008, Fiji was still being governed by an ‘interim government’ with military backing, which periodically affirmed that it wanted to return the country to democratic, civilian, rule as soon as practicable.

Some media freedom advocates would have been decidedly uneasy with Leweni as MinInfo boss, suggesting a continuing militarization of the Fiji public service, and with AIBD 2009 coming to a country with a military-backed ‘interim government’ installed, particularly as the interim government had already shown its hand with the all but kidnapping and deporting of two newspaper publishers earlier in 2009, invoking hastily changed immigration regulations, and the ‘mysterious’ attempted, and un-investigated, firebombing of The Fiji Times’ editor’s house in late March, 2009 (not that I’m suggesting the interim government had anything directly to do with the latter; could have been rogue soldiers or police on a frolic of their own, perhaps to curry favor with their superiors, or even a disgruntled former employee. Who knows, until the police complete their investigations, person or persons currently unknown are charged, and convicted?).

On March 12, 2009, the Fiji interim government issued this media release about AIBD Nadi 2009:

Fiji Department of Information

MEDIA RELEASE

HEADLINE:

FIJI TO HOST ASIA-PACIFIC MEDIA CONFERENCE

News in brief:

(THURSDAY MARCH 12TH 2009,No:0547/DOI) FIJI TO HOST ASIA-PACIFIC MEDIA CONFERENCE Prime Minister Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama has invited all 43 full members of the 26 member countries as well as the  74 affiliate members  and 48 international partners to the 35th Asia Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development conference in Nadi.

The gathering is expected to attract top executives of both the television and radio industries around the Asia-Pacific region as well as over a hundred delegates including donors to attend the annual event.

Prior to the General Conference, a regional workshop on Media Laws has been scheduled from July 18-19 and will be conducted by Dr Venkat Iyer a senior law lecturer  at the University of Ulster,United Kingdom.

Similarly an executive leadership seminar on HIV & AIDS and two parallel workshops for radio and television on HIV have been planned for July 25-27 where consultants from the Asia-Pacific region will conduct the training.

The main objectives  of  AIBD are:

-to promote media professionalism in electronic media in Asia and the Pacific region

-to provide an Asia-Pacific regional platform for dialogue in electronic media policies and development

-to encourage member countries to utilize the AIBD for consultancy in media matters

An organizing committee comprising of officers from Fiji Television, Fiji Broadcasting Corporation Limited, the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, Maitv , the Pacific Islands News Association with the Department of Information will facilitate this important conference.

A budget of $240,000.00 will be raised by the organizing committee to successfully facilitate this annual event.

The 35th AIBD conference together with its associated meetings will take place at the Sheraton Fiji Resort, Denarau Island from July 19-26 2009.

Ordinarily, nobody would cavil over much in the above, most certainly not the advertised workshops on HIV/AIDS, and regional media law. But notice the unqualified term ‘Prime Minister’ in the above media release; no ‘interim’, which is what he still claimed to be at the time. It’s also not clear if the $240,000 were Fiji dollars.

A month later, the interim government devalued the Fiji dollar by 20%, which necessarily benefited Fiji’s tourism industry, provided tourist numbers increased to off-set the higher imports costs, but would adversely affect locals dependent on overseas sourced goods and services.

The Fiji dollar is worth US .56 – 57c, AUD .53c and NZD .66 – .67c (as at 16/7/11).

The whole situation changed much for the worse over Easter, 2009, some four months before AIBD 2009 was scheduled for Nadi later in July.

William Parkinson ~ CFL Ltd. MD ~ CFL pic.

With the Public Emergency Regulations being rigorously enforced, military censors installed in all Fiji newsrooms, and Fiji media outlets forbidden from reminding locals that their news was actively censored, at the beginning of June, 2009, William Parkinson, MD of the Pacific’s largest private broadcaster, Communications Fiji Limited, wondered if Fijian broadcasters would be even allowed to report on the up-coming Nadi AIBD conference:

“To have the government involved in a conference like this, the media involved and in fact representatives from Asian media involved as well, it could well help in discussing the issue. That said the AIDB is largely a training organisation rather than an organisation that focusses on media freedom,” Mr Parkinson told RNZI.

The rigorous censorship was already having its effect, as Mr Parkinson, whose media operations the regime could shut down within minutes, and whose own newsroom on Waimanu Road, Suva, hosted active military censors, was carefully describing the regime as ‘the government’.

The same day, RNZI reported that the then President of the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA), also then PNG National Broadcasting Corporation CEO,  Joseph Ealedona, was attending AIBD Nadi but would raise PINA’s media freedom concerns with the Fiji regime:

“Media organisations should have meetings there, we shouldn’t run away from the problem. I think its good AIBD is having a meeting there. It is there that we will raise our concerns to the interim regime on the ground. It’s not good staying outside and criticising.”

Mr Joseph Ealedona ~ PINA President 2009 ~ JAWS pic.

The RNZI report added, “As head of Papua New Guinea’s National Broadcasting Corporation Joseph Ealedona can attend the conference while media restrictions may prevent Fiji’s broadcasters being there”.

Mr Ealedona also seemed to think that Fiji still had an ‘interim regime’ when the censored Fiji media was required to describe the regime as ‘the government’, and accord its key identities no qualifying descriptions of their then illegitimate hold on power.

Eleven days later, the Pacific Freedom Forum, and then IFEX, “…warned the Asia-Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development (AIBD) to keep its agenda free from interference by Fiji’s military regime in the lead-up to its July 2009 conference”.

Then PFF co-chair, Susuve Laumaea, from PNG, wondered:

“The military regime has already made contradictory statements about how the authorities are going to allow journalists to report on the AIBD conference. What we want to know is how Fijian journalists attending AIBD are going to be censored while their overseas colleagues are not. Are spies from the Fiji regime going to be snooping around AIBD gathering evidence against Fijian broadcasters who don’t report ‘correctly’?”

AIBD could not have been unaware of events over Easter, 2009, and, as late as the beginning of June, could have shifted the venue for their looming conference to another Pacific country, though this could have been difficult as June and July is the height of the tourism season when hotel bookings would have been high.

AIBD could have postponed the conference, or even cancelled it, admittedly causing some grief to prospective attendees, but issuing a strong explanatory statement, thus demonstrating its non-negotiable commitment to media freedom.

In later April, 2009, the inaugural meeting of what has become the Pacific Freedom Forum (PFF) was due to be held at the Secretariat for the Pacific Community’s media center, in the northern Suva suburb of Nabua, coincidentally just south down the King’s Road from the Fiji military HQ, but the newly installed military dictatorship made it very clear that such a meeting would be decidedly unwelcome, so the meeting was hastily shifted to Apia, Samoa.

Monica Miller (Am.Samoa, PFF Co-Chair) Misa Telefoni Retzlaff (then Samoa Dep.PM) Dr Mark Hayes ~ Samoa, May, 2009 © Lisa Williams-Lahiri, 2009

I was planning to attend this meeting in Fiji, with some trepidation given the media freedom situation, and very mindful of my then employing UQ Journalism School’s Head, Prof Michael Bromley, banning all staff and student travel to or through Fiji. I changed my flight bookings and arranged accommodation in Apia accordingly. The venue was the UNESCO compound, and attendees were able to find accommodation without too much difficulty.

Dr Javad Mottaghi, AIBD Director 2009

Then AIBD Director, Dr Javad Mottaghi, was quoted in this story (italics in original):

Kuala Lumpur, 16 June 2009 — Fiji is still hosting the Annual summit of the Asia- Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development (AIBD) next month despite the unstable political situation in the island nation. The assurance comes despite the extension of the Public Emergency Regulation (PER) for another month by the military-led government of Commodore Frank Bainimarama. The PER, which effectively muzzles the Fiji media, has been in place since May this year when the country’s constitution was abrogated. It has been extended on a monthly basis.

“AIBD will go ahead in Fiji as planned, said AIBD director, Dr Javad Mottangi. “We are expecting the conference to be successful. We invited broadcasters from Asia – Pacific region to be in Nadi, Fiji from 20-27 July.”

Dr Mottanghi said AIBD decides the agenda and the content of the meeting for its members.

“It is AIBD who decides and implements the activity and Fiji is only the host. This is similar to other countries, the theme and the agenda will be decided by AIBD. We have received a good support from our host and both from the private and public organisations. We hope this will be the first opportunity for Asia- Pacific broadcasters to come to the region and we hope that many of our Pacific colleagues can also attend.”

It’s a big achievement for the Pacific that a country like Fiji can host this big meeting of broadcasters.

“For the first time in the history of AIBD after 32 years, the general conference is going to be held in the Pacific. We have to work together to make sure the conference is a success,” Dr Mottangi said.

The PNG Post-Courier ran the story as a Viewpoint item on June 18, 2009.

Given the language – ‘…the unstable political situation in the island nation…’, and similar in the first paragraph, there is no way this story would have gotten past the censors in any Fiji newsroom, or been sent Region-wide and beyond by the PINA-operated, Suva-based, PacNews service, also subject to rigorous military censorship (about which more in the next Post in this series).

The AIBD 2009 conference went ahead in Nadi, and what was predicted the regime would do with it was exactly what occurred.

Here’s how RNZI reported the keynote speech by Commodore Frank Bainimarama:

Fiji’s Bainimarama defends media crackdown at AIBD conference

Posted at 23:15 on 20 July, 2009 UTC

Fiji’s interim prime minister has defended his regime’s crackdown on the local media at a conference of Asia-Pacific broadcasters in his country.

Commodore Frank Bainimarama told the opening of the conference that the regulations are achieving its desired impact in inspiring positive changes in the local media industry as well as the community.

He said that censorship was needed because the media had hindered national unity and progress.

The Commodore overthrew the elected government in a December 2006 coup — the fourth in two decades — and sent military censors into local newsrooms after scrapping the constitution in April this year.

Three foreign journalists have been expelled from Fiji and several local reporters detained as stories considered negative to the regime were banned.

The crackdown prompted calls for the Asia-Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development or AIBD to cancel its conference in Nadi.

The interim Government’s spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Neumi Leweni, who is in charge of censoring the media, is the vice-president of the AIBD conference, which opened on Monday.

Now things get very interesting indeed.

The only reference I can find on the Fiji regime’s ‘official’ web site to the 2009 AIBD conference is an eight entry, thumbnail picture gallery.

I have thoroughly searched the site, and the earliest speech and media release entries I can find are dated August, 2009, almost two months after the AIBD conference. Google cache searches pull up an older Fiji ‘government’ web site, with promising links to speeches and media releases surrounding AIBD Nadi, but they all default to a 404 error when clicked upon. I have asked the regime’s ‘ministry of information’ to send me that material (e-mail, 10/7/11). I’m still waiting.

The media releases and related documents include these (try the Links; none worked during 11 – 16 July, 2011):

35th Annual Gathering/8th AIBD General Conference
AIBD members honour Fiji’s path – PM <http://www.fiji.gov.fj/publish/page_15549.shtml>
Jul 22, 2009, 16:42

35th Annual Gathering/8th AIBD General Conference
Focus on journalism of hope – PM <http://www.fiji.gov.fj/publish/page_15548.shtml>
Jul 22, 2009, 16:40

Press Releases
AIBD members honour Fiji’s path – PM <http://www.fiji.gov.fj/publish/page_15543.shtml>
Jul 22, 2009, 16:03

Press Releases
Focus on journalism of hope – PM <http://www.fiji.gov.fj/publish/page_15542.shtml>

Jul 22, 2009, 16:02

Press Releases
AIBD members honour Fiji’s path – PM <http://www.fiji.gov.fj/publish/page_15538.shtml>
Jul 22, 2009, 14:40

35th Annual Gathering/8th AIBD General Conference
Media Law workshop and the official opening of the AIBD – 21/7/2009
[ Visit Website <http://www.fiji.gov.fj/gallery/view_album.php?set_albumName=AIBD> ]
Jul 22, 2009, 12:28

News Briefs
Wed – July 22 ’09 <http://www.fiji.gov.fj/publish/page_15553.shtml>
Jul 22, 2009, 11:25

Photo Gallery
37th Asia Institute of Broadcasting and Development (AIBD) Conference, Fiji – July 2009
[ Visit Website <http://www.fiji.gov.fj/gallery/view_album.php?set_albumName=AIBD> ]
Jul 21, 2009, 11:54

35th Annual Gathering/8th AIBD General Conference
PM Bainimarama – Welcome Address at the 35th AIBD ConferencePM Bainimarama – Welcome Address at the 35th AIBD Conference <http://www.fiji.gov.fj/publish/page_15526.shtml>
Jul 21, 2009, 09:16

Speeches
PM Bainimarama – Welcome Address at the 35th AIBD Conference <http://www.fiji.gov.fj/publish/page_15525.shtml>
Jul 20, 2009, 18:54

In the Press Release, above, headed AIBD members honour Fiji’s path – PM (emphasis added), dated Jul 22, 2009, 14:40, the regime claimed -

In his welcoming address, the Prime Minister said that he was aware of the enormous pressures from certain sections of the international community to take this opportunity away from Fiji.

“You have honoured our right as an independent and sovereign nation to choose our own path and find our own solutions to a brighter future,” he said.

Commodore Bainimarama also said that this path was made clear on July 1st through his Government’s Strategic Framework for Change which was guided by the vision espoused through Fiji’s majority supported Peoples Charter for Change, Peace and Progress.

In other words, from the regime’s point of view, AIBD holding its 2009 conference in Nadi was a very significant endorsement of everything the regime was doing which, presumably, also included the imposition of rigorous media censorship under S 16 of the Public Emergency Regulations.

The regime’s newspaper insert, New Dawn, Issue 5, dated August 15, 2009, carried a story about AIBD Nadi on Page Five:

RESOUNDING SUCCESS FOR AIBD CONFERENCE 09

… Permanent Secretary for Information & Archives, Lt Col Neumi Leweni said despite the challenges faced by organisers in hosting the first ever AIBD conference for Fiji and the region, the event was one of resounding success.

“It particularly went very well as anticipated and it was one of resounding success for all, especially for the organisers in AIBD Secretariat, the Government of Fiji and of course for those travelling to Fiji as delegates from their respective regions to participate at the conference.”

Director AIBD, Javad Mottaghi echoed the same sentiments expressed by Lt Col Leweni in that it was a very memorable and successful occasion at the Conference.

“The delegates and their accompanying persons also enjoyed the excursion programme for which, we are grateful to the organisers. The warm hospitality and professional arrangements were highly appreciated,” said Mottaghi. “The conference itself and associated meetings were a huge success and we were impress by the way the Government of Fiji through the Ministry of Information organized the 8th General Conference of the AIBD and its associated meetings so successfully.”

New Dawn published Bainimarama’s speech in full on Page Nine:

Fiji, ladies and gentlemen, is privileged to host the 35th Annual Gathering and 8th AIBD General Conference. And as the host nation, let me say that we are more than happy to have you with us on Denarau Island, here in the western part of Fiji. …

Cmdr Bainimarama ~ AIBD Nadi, July 2009 ~ Fiji regime pic

That path, as was made clear on July the 1st, through my Government’s Strategic Framework for Change, is guided by the vision espoused through Fiji’s majority-supported Peoples Charter for Change, Peace and Progress. …

Ladies and gentlemen, in Fiji we continue to strive towards sustainable development through partnerships with all sections of society, including the media in particular. Unfortunately, in this regard, we have been restricted in the past by divisive policies and a media culture that has not been conducive to national unity and real progress. What my Government aims to do over the next five years is intended not only to realize a truly united and better nation, but to also make significant progress towards achieving the 8 Millennium Development Goals, which the AIBD also seeks to promote. Fiji’s Strategic Framework for Change and the Road Map is geared towards ensuring that by September 2014, we would have laid the foundations for fair elections and sustainable democracy.

At this juncture, ladies and gentlemen, I wish to digress briefly and provide you with the gist of Fiji’s Strategic Framework for Change, and that is: for the first three years beginning now, my Government shall focus on improving the socio-economic and infrastructure conditions throughout the country. This will include encouraging our private sector including the media to partner with Government in initiatives that will be pro-growth and pro-poor. The focus on the economy and infrastructure will be followed by the formulation of a modern day Constitution, and then the holding of elections for parliamentary representation by September 2014. We are under no illusion that pursuing these objectives will be enormous and fraught with challenges.

However, we remain confident that we will be equal to the challenge. And to that end, we welcome the recognition and support given by our Melanesian brothers during the Melanesian Spearhead Group meeting in Vanuatu just over a week ago. I also take this opportunity to invite others in the international community to engage and partner with Fiji, in her pursuit of a better future for all her people. For what we seek ultimately is a truly united Fiji; a Fiji where development is sustainable, and where corruptive practices and poverty are negligible; a Fiji where opportunities are equally available to the different ethnic groups that make Fiji what it is.

In pursuit of these, we have seen it necessary to put in place the Public Emergency Regulations. The PER is merely a temporary measure, which seeks to provide a stable socio-political platform that is conducive for our nation-building initiatives to take place. The PER also focuses on the media where the key message is for the media to be more balanced and responsible with their reporting. From our assessment, the regulations are achieving its desired impact in inspiring positive changes in the local media industry as well as the community.

Slowly but surely, the focus is shifting from the journalism of old to development journalism and the journalism of hope which are premised on capturing the positive contributions made at all levels of society. Ladies and gentlemen, my Government believes in media freedom and the freedom of expression. We recognize that these are fundamental principles of true democracy. However, my Government also strongly believes that media freedom is not absolute, and that the media must exercise this freedom and right to express oneself with greater responsibility. The media must ensure that their work does not impact negatively on the rights of others or the stability and wellbeing of the nation.

My Government further recognizes that the media is an essential development partner that can contribute immensely to positive change, peace and progress. It can educate. It can inform. It can also inspire. Potentially, the media can provide a clear pathway for growth and be an important tool for progress and advancement. But for this to happen, we need to have media personnel who are capable and responsible more than anything else. And to ensure that we have them, we must champion the interests of both the media owners and the journalists.

Ladies and gentlemen, as broadcasters and media personnel you have the potential to do so much good such as repairing race relationships and building bridges between communities and various sections of your respective communities. You also have the means to inspire patriotism, commitment, respect and dedication to the task of nation building. Such is the potential that you wield as broadcasters and media personnel. The media must become the voice of love and unity, the voice of reassurance and hope. As an agent of change for the betterment of Fiji and all her people, my Government is prepared to support the Fiji media to be dynamic yet consistently balanced and responsible.

On the same token, my Government will continue to support the role and responsibilities of the AIBD in raising the standard of journalism and media responsibility throughout the Asia-Pacific region. Ladies and gentlemen, over the next few days, I encourage you to openly share your experiences, and also take the time to enjoy the beauty of Fiji and her unique cultures. I welcome you again, and I also wish you every success with your conference.

Any Fijian journalists reporting this speech would have been extra careful to do so ‘correctly’, well above and beyond their usual professionalism and competence, and their text copy, pictures, voice, and vision packages would have been carefully reviewed by the censors installed in their home newsrooms in Suva before publication.

And on Page Nine, beneath Bainimarama’s speech, New Dawn ran this story:

AIBD MEETING IN FIJI WAS A SUCCESS

The 35th Annual Gathering and 8th General Conference held at the Sheraton from the 18th – 26th of July this year was a culmination of months of preparation, good management, team work, and the divine guidance.

More than sixty members gathered at Nadi to attend the General Conference and more than one hundred delegates and participants passed through the meeting venue in the 8 days of meetings, workshops and seminar.

The 35th Annual Gathering turned out to be a resounding success.

More than one hundred delegates, participants and observers from the Asia and Pacific region entered the venue either to attend the workshops, participated in the professional discussions or merely joined other delegates to deliberate in the general conference. At the general conference, Fiji was nominated for the second time to be the Deputy President for a further two years and has also become a member of the Executive Board.

Also established in this year’s conference is the AIBD/Pacific Media Partnership Group that will see the Pacific Broadcasters working closely together to enhance their skills and develop a more united front in dealing with issues concerning the Pacific Islands.

The visitors were treated to two days of dinner and excursion. On Wednesday 22nd the visitors toured Viseisei village and dine at the village green and on Thursday were taken for a boat trip to the Mystery Island and a farewell dinner onboard the Captain Cruises Ship Fiji One on their return sponsored by Tourism Fiji. The experience will linger in their memories for a very long time.

Cabinet granted one hundred thousand dollars toward the facilitation of the conference.

….

The success of the 35th AIBD annual gathering can be attributed to the hard working civil servants who worked tirelessly as a team and the generosity of a few sponsors who responded positively to the call made by government to support the development of broadcasting media in the Pacific. The AIBD annual gathering in Fiji was undoubtedly beneficial to all participants and it was an opportunity for government to assess and confirm the following; • That participants gained valuable experiences in the development of broadcast skills and management • That hosting an international conference can be facilitated effectively through controlled cost management • That it was a wonderful opportunity to show case the reality of Fiji’s present situation to the world of hostile media environment. • That Fiji is still the safest tourist destination and a haven for international conferences.

Secretariat

The Question remains, ‘Why did AIBD go into Fiji?’

It would have been entirely reasonable for AIBD to publicly state, with appropriate supporting evidence, that organizing for this major Regional conference was too far advanced, even after Easter, 2009, for it to be shifted or even cancelled. These major events are like oil tankers; extremely cumbersome to maneuver, take a very long time to stop once in motion. AIBD was, they could have said, locked into this exercise and for, perhaps, contractual reasons, couldn’t back out. As far as I can find, they didn’t.

It would have been, as lawyers say, a very ‘nice’ matter to consider: Had AIBD been contractually locked into going to Nadi, with contracts signed with the venue, exhibitors, donors, and even the Fiji interim government prior to Easter, 2009, and those contracts broken or withdrawn from due to AIBD deciding to move or even cancel the conference, on highly principled grounds witness events over Easter, 2009, and continuing, who would reach for their lawyer to sue, and where would the breach of contract actions be heard were they to reach a court of law? Were such matters heard in Fiji’s courts, would the local media be allowed to report the cases freely? A ‘nice’ exercise to put to law students at USP’s Law School, perhaps.

Given, as their then Director said, “It is AIBD who decides and implements the activity and Fiji is only the host”, they could have adjusted the official rundown or speaker’s list, and politely asked Baimimarama to withdraw as a Keynote speaker, along with any other regime identities on the official programme. No doubt, this would have sent the regime into apoplexy, with probable consequences, perhaps reprisals, against local media organizations on the organizing committee, following.

AIBD could have firmly told the regime that their conference was a ‘media freedom zone’, from whence local journalists would be encouraged to freely report, their stories tracked from source to publication, and any regime interference or censorship appropriately criticized On the Day, with continuing sensitivity to subsequent reprisals or revenge attacks on journalists. In their comfortable resort suites, full delegates would have had open access to a wide array of satellite television services – CNN, BBC World, CNBC, and Australia Network Television – as well as good Internet access the local Fijians could probably not afford, and whose local media was rigorously censored. (There’s something awry with the Fiji TV owned pay TV service Sky Pacific web site, so I cannot access its current schedules. The Wikipedia entry is more informative, updated in mid-May, 2011.)

Perhaps partnering with organizations such as IFEX or RSF, AIBD could have organized a training workshop on media freedom, and ways in which censorship, and On Line surveillance – the regime actively monitors and data mines all Internet and telephone traffic into and out of Fiji – can be evaded. In July, 2009, RSF released a new edition of its Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber-Dissidents, and a Pacific launch of this would have been a highlight of AIBD Nadi had they been invited to attend.

What wasn’t known at the time was that the UK-based media training and capacity building organization, The Thomson Foundation, had been secretly training some of the heroic video journalists who contributed to the Oscar-nominated documentary, Burma VJ (which I first saw at the inaugural PFF meeting in Samoa in May, 2009). A showing of Burma VJ at AIBD 2009 would have been received very well indeed.

As early as the mid-1990s, The Thomson Foundation had been assisting the Fiji media to develop its capacity, including a consultancy with the then Fiji Government on improving media self- and legislative regulation. The Foundation could have been invited back for a workshop on this kind of activity as part of AIBD 2009.

Fiji regime censor ~ Fiji Sun newsroom ~ frame grab from ABC TV Foreign Corr. ~ August 3, 2010

To my almost certain knowledge, since Easter, 2009, there has not been a single smuggled picture of a regime censor at work in a Fiji newsroom published, and only one short sequence of video of a regime censor on television, in an ABC TV Foreign Correspondent programme broadcast on August 3, 2010 (running from 10.03 – 11.32 into the story). Interestingly, the sequence was shot at the Fiji Sun, which, of all the Fiji media, has been by far the most enthusiastically supporting the regime, has been rewarded with regime advertising at the expense of The Fiji Times, and carries the regime’s newspaper insert, New Dawn.

Delegates attending AIBD could have staged their own protests at the presence on official podiums of local military dictatorship representatives, such as walkouts, standing and turning their backs on regime speakers, or at least attempting to publicly question them, as at a normal media conference, about their media ‘policies’.

None of the foregoing activities I have sketched out above occurred at AIBD Nadi 2009 (always open to being proven wrong, with supporting evidence).

The Fiji regime has significant official standing within AIBD (see also, above), and, in order to facilitate their 2009 Nadi conference: “A budget of $240,000.00 will be raised by the organizing committee to successfully facilitate this annual event” (March 12, 2009, interim government media release).

Some of this money would have come from the associated trade show, where exhibitors rent floor space for their booths or displays, from donors quite possibly including AusAID (though official relations between the Fiji regime and Australia were extremely frosty, and remain so), UNESCO, and other UN agencies, perhaps some diplomatic missions, and from attendee’s registrations. AIBD itself would have added some funds. The rest could well have come from the Fiji regime and its ‘ministry of information’. When you’re running a military dictatorship, you have your hands on the national coffers, and can raid them at will, including for self-promotion.

Tucked away in the New Dawn story, Issue 5, dated August 15, 2009, at the bottom left of Page Nine, top of the second column, directly beneath the picture caption, is this sentence: “Cabinet granted one hundred thousand dollars toward the facilitation of the conference” (emphasis added). Given the organizing committee had raise $240,000, it appears that just under half of that came directly from the Fiji military dictatorship.

There’s usually nothing suspicious about a government assisting a conference such as AIBD Nadi. Governments are very mindful of the economic benefits of having conferences come, and the intangible goodwill accruing. It’s part of the continuous cycles of ‘soft diplomacy’. In this instance, however, it was a quite newly self-installed military dictatorship, severely restricting fundamental human rights (the PER), no doubt very keen to spruik its credentials, assisting a major Regional media training and capacity building organization to come, and be used to further its grey propaganda.

Richard Broadbridge (MaiTV Fiji) far left, Ken Clark (Fiji TV), center, Lisa Williams-Lahiri (WAVE, PFF), far right ~ © Lisa Williams-Lahiri, 2009

One of the associated workshops at AIBD Nadi was mounted by WAVE, Women Advancing a Vision of Empowerment, a Pacific network of women, many associated with the media, and some with active involvement in the Pacific Freedom Forum (their Web Site hasn’t been updated since December 4, 2009).

Some WAVE folks were at the inaugural PFF meeting in Apia in May, 2009, and we certainly debated the issue of the looming AIBD Nadi conference, with some arguing for a boycott, while others arguing for cautious engagement.

As Ms Williams-Lahiri’s Picassa gallery shows, WAVE certainly had a noticeable presence at AIBD Nadi.

The way I heard it, though, was that the Official Proceedings were comfortably held indoors at the Sheraton Denarau Island resort, while WAVE were shunted outside into a leaky tent with a malfunctioning sound system, and their meeting was interrupted by periodic inclement weather (when it seriously rains in Fiji, you sometimes can’t even hold a conversation indoors so loud is the waterfall-like deluge on the roof or on windows).

Ken Clark, Fiji TV, (left) with WAVE attendees ~ AIBD, Nadi, 2009 © Lisa Williams-Lahiri

It would be making far too much, on the available evidence – always opening to being proven wrong, with further evidence – to even hint that AIBD, or any of the non-regime attendees at their July, 2009, Nadi conference, eagerly, wholeheartedly, endorsed every aspect of the regime’s media activities.

Fiji’s ‘ministry of information’ seemed to think they did, issuing media releases with these titles: AIBD members honour Fiji’s path – PM and Focus on journalism of hope – PM (neither of these Links work).

But, as I have shown, the regime seized on AIBD’s presence to claim its endorsement for its activities (Media Release, Jul 22, 2009, 14:40) – AIBD members honour Fiji’s path – PM:

In his welcoming address, the Prime Minister said that he was aware of the enormous pressures from certain sections of the international community to take this opportunity away from Fiji.

“You have honoured our right as an independent and sovereign nation to choose our own path and find our own solutions to a brighter future,” he said.

Commodore Bainimarama also said that this path was made clear on July 1st through his Government’s Strategic Framework for Change which was guided by the vision espoused through Fiji’s majority supported Peoples Charter for Change, Peace and Progress.

I have no idea about whether or not quiet, or not so quiet, words were privately or even publicly exchanged with regime identities and supporters, and any critics attending the conference. If there were, then, on the certain and continuing evidence, any criticisms were comprehensively ignored by the regime, witness the continuing imposition of the Public Emergency Regulations, now routinely extended, and its later Media Decree, also enforced.

(In passing, and relevant. On the AIBD 2009 organizing committee was Fiji TV, Media Niugini, and Sky Pacific’s senior executive, Ken Clark, himself a former PINA president. On May 28, 2000, following an edition of the Fiji TV Sunday evening current affairs show, Close Up, hosted by then Fiji TV journalist, Riyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, a gang of thugs from Parliament House, then occupied by Speight’s mob, swarmed down to Fiji TV’s Gorrie Street, Suva, HQ, broke in, and trashed the place, putting Fiji TV off air for three days. Mr Clark knows much more than most observers do about out of control, rampaging, Fijian ethno-nationalism.)

Rather, and my reading of the available evidence might be far too strong, I detect a (subtle) current of embarrassment on the part of AIBD. They, perhaps, really would have preferred to have been able to shift their major conference, but, perhaps for contractual reasons, or even simply to save face, they were locked into Nadi in July, 2009, and had to make the best of it.

The Fiji military dictatorship certainly took maximum advantage of the opportunity AIBD afforded them, witness, for example, Baimimarama’s keynote speech, above, published media releases, and no doubt, significant networking by regime agents as well.

Dr Javad Mottaghi ~ AIBD ~ Nadi, 2009 © Lisa Williams-Lahiri

The strongest AIBD explanation I can find for their presence in the Pacific’s local military dictatorship is in this  RNZI story:

AIBD head declines to comment on whether Fiji censorship was wrong

Posted at 23:35 on 28 July, 2009 UTC

The head of the Asia Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development, the AIDB, has given his tacit support for the censorship in Fiji, saying the journey to democracy is a long term one in any given country.

Javad Mottaghi, who is at the Pacific Media Summit in Vanuatu, says his organisation is a non-political body whose ethics preclude any interference in the affairs of member countries.

Last week, Mr Mottaghi was at the annual AIDB conference which was organised by the interim regime in Fiji, which now applies strict media censorship.

Mr Mottaghi declined to comment on whether it was wrong to gag the Fiji media.

“You see, you have certain definitions when it comes to certain issues. Then we have other definitions of the issues you are raising. The only way forward is to discuss. My maxim is to agree on disagreement on certain issues and to agree on agreement on certain issues.”

Javad Mottaghi of the AIDB.

At the very least, on the basis of the available evidence, AIBD should have taken greater heed of Geoffrey Chaucer’s advice, from circa 1390: “Therfore bihoueth hire a ful long spoon That shal ete with a feend.” (If you’re going to sup with the Devil, you’d better bring a long spoon.)

The AIBD 1st Pacific Media Partnership Forum occurred in Tonga from August 20 – 27, 2010, a far more media ‘friendly’ environment, and a country successfully undergoing its own cautious, occasionally fraught, transition from an authoritarian, feudal, monarchy to a constitutional, Parliamentary, monarchy, with attendant, now largely gone, periodic media freedom fights (setting to one side the activities of one newspaper, notorious for its significant capacity failures), with noticeable improvements foreshadowed.

And just how interesting was the grandly called ‘Pacific Media Summit’ a.k.a. PINA 2009, at which Dr Mottaghi was interviewed by RNZI I will show in the next Post in this series.

(As a PS, and in the interests of fairness, accuracy, and balance, I have twice sought comment from the current AIBD Director,  Mr Yang Binyuan, (e-mails, 1/4/11 and 10/7/11) but he has not even acknowledged receipt of my e-mails.)

5 Responses to On Dictatorships & Useful Idiots ~ Part 2

  1. ts_3000 says:

    Since you started off with references to Libya, Check out this article and how the framing of coverage by western employed journalists, and bury the lead on important contextual information.

    This media technique was demonstrated in 2003 by News Corp affiliates like Fox News, cheer leading the dubious weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). This media abuse occurred in a democracy, where corporate power has overtly taken over all political parties, media companies.

    Considering the geopolitical factors in the Pacific, Are the same western owned media, prodded by the shadow global government arm, mis-framing political events and at times puppeteering political actors in Fiji, like the have done in countless other middle eastern, south american nations?
    Consider this response, as an olive and vermouth for your ethical 3 martini lunch.

  2. Dr Mark Hayes says:

    An interesting comment, ts_3000, but tangential to my main point, which is how and why a leading institution, like LSE, got involved with the Gaddafi regime. I think I have traversed, and Linked to, the complex arguments ‘For’ and ‘Against’ that involvement. My more important point was that this wasn’t some flakey little outfit desperate for money but a major education and research institution up there almost at the Ox-Bridge level, which should have been able to properly assess the risks and dangers of involvement with Gaddafi. The involvement has hurt them very badly indeed.

    Turning to the Pacific, too complex a matter to traverse in a short Comment. There is evidence of Australian involvement in Fijian politics right back to the Bavadra – Rabuka days. Qarase and the SDL sought advice from Crosbie-Textor in, from memory, the 2006 elections.

    More broadly, Australian media coverage of the Pacific, with a very few exceptions (e.g., Radio Australia, Australia Network Television, Rowan Callick in the Oz) is appalling and often evidences ignorance of what’s really happening in specific countries. A dead giveaway WRT Fiji, for example, is to frame the situation with reference to ethnicity (Indos vs indigenous Fijians). Complete rubbish.

    I haven’t detected any serious neo-imperialist framing of reportage of the Fiji situation in the Australian media (despite what regime identities periodically assert, playing to their domestic and some Regional audiences, e.g., the MSG), but the issue deserves some closer attention, I’d agree.

    Aside from the PNG Post-Courier, News Corp has no investment in the Pacific media. Malaysian interests own the PNG National, and Chinese interests have holdings in some Islands media. Mostly, Islands media is locally owned and operated, with government interests in some outlets, directly or through corporatised investments.

    Mostly, like News Corp actually, owners of and investors in Islands media are much more interested in maximising profits and shareholder returns. If this means Editorially going soft on, or attacking, a government, that’s what they’ll do, but, at times, the consequences more widely can be bad for business in the longer term (local instability, tourism falling, investors getting wary, and so on).

    Many thanks for your comment, though.

  3. [...] I have earlier noted how the USP Journalism Programme had to obey the Public Emergency Regulations, especially Section 16, and submit copy for its student newspaper, Wansolwara, to the Fiji regime’s censors for approval, and now it must also adhere to the requirements of the regime’s Media Decree. It might be a nice point, but if the Programme has secured an exemption from the Ministry of Information because its newspaper is published solely for educational purposes, then that, too, is intolerable, because it necessarily instills permanent self-censorship into its students, lest the Ministry withdraw its exemption. [...]

  4. [...] I have earlier noted how the USP Journalism Programme had to obey the Public Emergency Regulations, especially Section 16, and submit copy for its student newspaper, Wansolwara, to the Fiji regime’s censors for approval, and now it must also adhere to the requirements of the regime’s Media Decree. It might be a nice point, but if the Programme has secured an exemption from the Ministry of Information because its newspaper is published solely for educational purposes, then that, too, is intolerable, because it necessarily instills permanent self-censorship into its students, lest the Ministry withdraw its exemption. [...]

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