FIJI is going through a period of uncertainty. There is political instability, the economy is unstable, the tourist industry is going up and down like the trough and crest of waves in front of many of our idyllic beachfront and island resorts, the sugar industry is clutching at straws for survival and poverty, unemployment and cost of living are escalating.
It is probably this climate of doom and gloom that is forcing personalities to make irrational statements and people acting abnormally. Every action has a reaction but firing away like a mis-guided missile is dangerous. This is how comments and actions of a few can be described. There were three reports in yesterday’s Sunday Times that fit this bill.
On the front page, Fiji Labour Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry questioned why Fiji’s Ambassador to China Sir James Ah Koy announced details of the $230 million loan to Fiji by the Chinese government claiming it should have been the role of the (interim) Minister of Finance. It is similar to a child accusing another of stealing his/her lollipop.
On the back page of The Sunday Times was a report describing the actions of some Labasa soccer fans at Subrail Park on Saturday who displayed their wrath on the Rewa team and officials after Rewa won a protest against Labasa for not following player registration procedure. The report sparked memories of the action of Naitasiri rugby players and fans who participated in a brawl at National Stadium in Suva in September 1995. Fiji made world headlines for the wrong reason. Who will suffer if Fiji Football Association decides not host any soccer matches and tournaments at Subrail Park? Who will suffer if Fiji FA decides that Labasa play its matches in empty stadiums just like UEFA punished Italian club side Roma after spectators’ hooliganism?
And prominent academic Dr Biman Prasad on page 11 of the Sunday Times commented, “Journalists must add to the making of better policies by reporting in a neutral manner”. This was part of a feature “In the face o poverty” written by Fiji Times senior journalist Robert Matau. Dr Prasad’s comment is totally to the contrary of USP’s lecturer in Journalism Shailendra Singh. Mr Singh correctly stated, “At times, journalists are the last resort for those who have been treated unjustly. No one else will give them the time of the day or listen to them (victims of poverty) because they are poor and powerless. Such people should command our attention. The journalist must stand ready to assist such helpless people at all times”.
As a person who has travelled around the world giving his opinion and advice to many governments as well as having presented papers at many local and international forums,Dr Prasad’s comment is baseless. Does it mean that academics should not advice governments, carry out consultancy and write books influencing people to see and do things differently. Is Dr Prasad saying that academics like him from USP should not have attended and conducted forums for the interim ministers and permanent secretaries, and the mini-economic summit before last week? Does it mean that academics should purely confine to lecturing and nothing else?
Dr Prasad is more than aware how media organisations and journalists influence public opinion in the western world. In the United States for example, media organisations hold a political opinion and back either the Democratic or Republican parties. Guests appearing on CNN’s Larry King show, who are radio talk show hosts, newspaper magnates or publishers, television journalists and TV anchor personalities publicly show preference for either Barack Obama or John McCain in the race to the White House with campaign intensifying for the November Presidential elections.
If journalists stay neutral and just re-write press releases or take “no comment” as a non-story, then Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward would not have won the Pulitzer Prize for exposing the Watergate scandal that resulted in the downfall of US President Richard Nixon. If Fiji’s media wasn’t vigilant then the quarter billion National Bank of Fiji scandal would not have been exposed if journalists just took Jai Ram Reddy and David Pickering’s accusations of corruption as just cheap politicking.
Had The Fiji Times and Victor Lal just filed away tax documents they received anonymously or failed to verify their authenticity and do intensive investigative journalism, the people of Fiji would not have a clue about Mahendra Chaudhry’s $2 million financial windfall from Haryana, India being kept in an Australian Bank account.
One does not dispute the fact that the media has at times failed to adhere to its code of ethics but there are checks and balances to redress the issue. To an independent observer, a handful of journalists have resorted to ethnic bias when discharging their duties, especially after the 1987, May 2000 and December 2006 coups. But overall, the work of the media, especially after the start of the coup culture in 1987, has been remarkable, balanced, informative and impartial.
Dr Prasad’s statement of journalists stating purely neutral is similar to the desire of the State and politicians to control the media. This also has been a relentless campaign since our Independence. There are those in government, or indeed in the wide spectrum of the society, who will not want the media to dig up the truth. They will want to control the media from reporting on what already is common knowledge amongst our citizens.
They will want to prevent scandals from being made public. They will want to suppress details of abuse of public office, corruption, money laundering, nepotism and cronyism. Essentially, they will want the media to know and report what they think is right.
People have a right to information. This freedom and right is reposed in the people, which the State and politicians must respect at all times. While journalists don’t have a blank cheque to report as they like, the media in Fiji has generally been responsible when discharging their duties. They are the beacon of hope and strength during times of crisis and tragedies.
The saying that the pen is mightier than the sword is very true, significantly so in the state of uncertainty that Fiji is in. Media throughout the world is generally regarded as the Fourth Estate – the last line of defenders of democracy, human rights, dignity and justice.
Dictators, tyrants and despots around the world have succumbed to the power of the media, enabling their nations to genuinely embark on the path of genuine democracy and constitutional rule. Dr Prasad’s neutrality theory therefore has no logic. It is like a driver consistently engaging the neutral gear on his/her car to save fuel without realising the damage being done to the gearbox.
In the same way if journalists stay neutral, shut their eyes, seal their lips and regard their profession as another job, the nation will suffer irreparable damage because of the misdeeds of devious, power hungry, corrupt and treacherous personalities and politicians.