How to Stop the Fiji Regime in its Tracks when it comes for Journalists
By Dr Mark Hayes, a Brisbane-based media and journalism educator who knows the media situation in Fiji very well indeed.
In Fijian, there’s a term used to describe ‘sweeping under the mat’, ‘or ‘secretive decisions’, a ‘deliberate denial of transparency and accountability’ – Vere Ubiubi (pron: Very Umbi Umbi). This is an example of how it works in practice.
The disgraceful, and quite possibly illegal and certainly in contempt of court, deportation of Fiji Sun editor Russell Hunter on Tuesday morning, February 26, 2008, is, among many other things a serious failure in crisis responding by the Fiji media.
A senior, and well known, media executive, and his family, are intimidated, and he’s kidnapped in the dead of night by a cowardly snatch squad sent by person or persons unknown. Meanwhile, a superior court issues a ‘stop order’ to prevent an apparent deportation attempt, and this is ignored by all relevant authorities and agencies. The executive is deprived of all communication, so he can’t even tell his family where he is, let alone contact his lawyer or staff, driven almost 200 kilometres at night (if you’ve driven from Suva to Nadi, even in daylight, you know that’s a very scary journey), humiliated as he’s hurried through Customs and Immigration, publically segregated from other passengers in the Departure Lounge, and bundled on to an Air Pacific jet.
The belated feeble excuses offered by senior authorities make no rational sense, and no even remotely convincing evidence to justify this action has been produced.
The Fiji media make all the expected, ritual, noises while Mr Hunter’s long gone from Nadi Airport.
At every step, we can see a cascading failure in crisis responding on the part of almost all with genuine interests in this outrage, especially in Fiji.
This is made even worse because, following on from the 2000 – 2001 crisis, and then the heroic stand some media took on the evening of the 2006 coup, the Fiji media should know how to very effectively respond to a grave governance crisis in general, such as a coup, and a specific incident such as Mr Hunter’s treatment (or other well documented harassment of several of their number over the last year or so).
On the night of the 2006 coup, the Fiji military, following the ‘book of coups’ (yes; there is one) tried to prevent the Fiji media from reporting statements from the ousted SDL government by deploying soldiers into several newsrooms. The Fiji Times and Fiji TV refused to publish looming bulletins and editions under military intimidation, and other media similarly resisted military pressure. The responses of the Fiji media that night, and into subsequent days were genuinely heroic, and amply demonstrated what principled solidarity can achieve. Over subsequent months, however, the Fiji media has revered to its usual acutely competitive habits, even when one of their own was summoned to the military camp in northern Suva and verbally threatened later in 2007. Around the same time, the leading US nonviolence think tank, the Albert Einstein Institution was seeding copies of its Anti-Coup Handbook very widely around Fiji-based NGOs.
Here’s not the place to go into a detailed exposition of nonviolent direct action, but what I am strongly arguing is that if the Fiji media consistently deployed principled, highly informed, and creative nonviolent resistance techniques and tactics, at the very least they could educate the Interim Government that it is really not a good idea to mess with them, and, when another incident of harassment occurs, deal with the ‘authorities’ like a swarm of wasps. These techniques are entirely congruent with the Fiji Media Council Code of Ethics.
Putting it another way – and Fiji must be one of the few places on the planet not to have had Star Trek on its television screens – the Fiji media needs to install individual, newsroom, and industry Corbomite Shields, so that any attempts at attack against any one of them rebounds against the attacker, with equal force. A related idea is backfire, which can be planned for, and engineered to occur when harassment occurs. Even obdurate slow learners, like the Fiji military appear to be, will sooner rather than later get the message.
Much nonviolence is informed by the proposition that dominators only wield power and thence obtain, if not eager obedience, then at least acquiescence, to the extent that their targets let them. In many important respects, the very wide array of nonviolent techniques available, even in far worse, even lethal, contexts than contemporary Fiji, are aimed at eroding and even removing a dominator’s power.
So, revisiting the Hunter deportation, at many stages, nonviolence could have been deployed to monkey wrench the intended activities of his cowardly snatch squad, and, more importantly, their even more craven and cowardly masters. Some of these techniques need to be deployed and rehearsed well in advance of possible intimidation, and some can be deployed as needed. Nonviolent resistance should by no means be a spontaneous response to pressing intimidation, as is connoted by the obsolete term ‘passive resistance’, but requires planning, preparation, and creative, principled, and courageous deployment. Finally, though, there are no guarantees of success (just as there are no certainties in warfare either).
With Mr Hunter in Sydney, the Fiji Media Council could show it remembers what a spine is for by coordinating a joint industry operation to get him back, as well as seriously investigating the whole foul and disgraceful exercise. It may be they have an ally in this exercise in the person of the Interim Attorney General.
The Council’s President, Mr Daryl Tarte, with a suitably equipped Fiji TV crew using small digital video cameras, could go to Sydney, and return with Mr Hunter, and record the whole process from the inside.
There’s another good story to report if Air Pacific declines to carry Mr Hunter because, they may well claim, he’s been declared an illegal. By whom? Under what powers or legislation, and using what evidence? Qantas, which code shares with Air Pacific, might need interrogation too if Mr Hunter seeks to travel on a Qantas ticket rather than an Air Pacific ticket, and is similarly declined passage.
A radio journalist or two, with digital audio recorders, could also be dispatched on this part of the operation. Mobile phones can be used to broadcast and photograph, even video, proceedings live as they occur.
At Nadi Airport, the plane can be met by a group of reporters equipped to report the story from the outside, including interrogating officials in the terminal, as they have choices to obey or not.
As it appears to be the case that there was a court order out preventing Mr Hunter’s deportation, some media need to track down and explain why that order was ignored, by whom, and why Air Pacific, as the carrier, also ignored the court order. Other media need to seriously interrogate the real reasons why Mr Hunter was deported, and why it was absolutely necessary to send a cowardly snatch squad to his home at night, rather than visit him at work, by appointment, as civilised authorities usually do to serve, for example, legal documents or even press releases. Are all legal documents served on all media in Fiji by similar means, and if so, why, and if not, why not, and by whom? Perhaps all Fiji media should refuse to accept all legal documents unless they are delivered to appropriate executive’s homes late at night by a cowardly, secretive, anonymous snatch squad. After all, there is now a clear and very high level precedent for this kind of activity, so what’s the problem?
Indeed, the media should seek to identify the members of Mr Hunter’s snatch squad, and expose them, because they had a choice in the matter. International law, and military regulations, fully allow for the principled disobedience of an illegal order by individual soldiers. Even military genocides occur because soldiers actually doing the killing, and civilian officials often assisting, particularly these days, ignore their consciences, and even basic training in the laws of war, and obey their illegal orders. And similarly up the snatch squad’s chain of military and civilian command, outing each and every person responsible. That’s called accountability.
A fairly well known trick to pull when one fears physical intimidation, in a bar for example, and rapid withdrawal seems difficult, is to hit the floor writhing and screaming as if one had actually been assaulted. Mr Hunter could have executed this kind of tactic in the Departure Lounge of Nadi Airport (which I know well) to draw significant public attention to his situation. It appears that another passenger on his flight was a senior US consular official who kindly lent him extra cash prior to arriving in Sydney. Excellent witnesses such as this official can be later called on in court, as well as quoted in subsequent stories.
The pressure the combined Fiji media should put on the Interim Government should be incessant, unremitting, and indefatigable, like wasps, coming at them from many simultaneous directions, seeking answers to entirely legitimate questions, chasing down angles and leads, and drawing the public into the continuing story, by engaging them actively in the restoration of democracy, monitoring power, and exposing abuses of power. That’s what the media does.
The foregoing is, by the way, entirely congruent with the principles of good governance, and media freedom, which, so the Interim Prime Minister recently declared, was ‘secure and guaranteed in Fiji’. By reference to generally accepted and internationally supported standards and principles, we assume.