When the media meet military muscle expect a battle of wills
As the war of wills between the military and the media in Fiji intensifies, the growing question is: Who will blink first?
So far, Commodore Frank Bainimarama’s army-backed regime is clearly in front.
It has imposed strict censorship of local media, ejected foreign correspondents, closed down ABC re-transmitters and threatened Internet usage.
These measures have been rigorously enforced by the army, with military censors in newsrooms and armed soldiers overseeing the arrest and questioning of local and overseas journalists. Bainimarama certainly isn’t winning the battle of ideas or the public relations campaign either at home or internationally, but he is well ahead on the psychological warfare front and to a soldier – especially one who was running out of patience with persistent criticism and legal setbacks from civilians – that might satisfy him until something better comes along.
The media for their part - as with a growing proportion of Fiji’s civil society – are at present only able to fight rearguard actions.
They tried leaving blank spaces in newspapers or cancelling news bulletins which had been censored, but the regime speedily banned these practices. Editors made formal objections and local journalists tried to get their stories out to overseas media, only to be hauled in for “questioning”.
In the end, the best they could do to-date was impose their own ban on reporting politics, both pro- and anti-government. As a demonstration that they still had some control over content and that their objectivity could not be suborned, they captured the moral high ground, though thus far it has been largely ineffectual on the regime’s behaviour.
One of the problems with tit-for-tat wars of attrition is that carrying out a threat means the threat itself has failed as a tactic.
The Fiji media could, of course, go the whole hog and shut down voluntarily until the restrictions are lifted, though whether this would break the cycle or simply enrage the regime’s hardliners is difficult to gauge.
To threaten the schoolyard bullies that you’ll go home makes sense when they are armed with assault rifles, but it is only postponing the inevitable – either a physical clash or the bullies back down.
And a military backdown is what must inevitably happen in Fiji.
Bainimarama’s frustrations are leading him down a defile it is pointless fighting his way through because there is nothing at the other end other than what already exists in Fiji – a free-speech democracy and a society which will never return to the old authoritarian ways of chiefs and fiefdoms.
The Fiji media are at the forefront of the battle with Bainimarama largely because they represent modern democratic Fiji, not through foreign-owned press and broadcasters but because of Fijian journalists themselves.
A whole generation of talented and energetic journalists committed to some of the basic principles of the profession often lost in more advanced and cynical societies – principles such as fairness, fearlessness, objectivity and hunting down the truth – simply have nowhere else to go and nothing else to do even if Bainimarama could permanently close down the media – which he patently cannot do.
While much of the rest of the free world has grown jaded and disbelieving of their media, they are beacons across the Pacific Islands region.
Since the major decolonisations of the 1960s and 1970s, educated young Pacific islanders have been passing through cadetships and a handful of journalism training schools in countries such as Papua New Guinea and Fiji to enter the rough and tumble work of nation-building largely unencumbered by the cynical old hacks and time-servers who have clogged newsrooms in many more developed countries.
The burdens of localisation which hindered development 30 years ago, when bright young men and women were forced into jobs beyond their skills, have since transmogrified to deliver experienced journalists and media managers who are now – in general – battle-hardened, hopeful and still youthful enough to remember the ideals inculcated in their training days.
The outpouring of support for Fiji’s journalists from their colleagues internationally has been remarkable. Leader writers in Australia, New Zealand and throughout the region have condemned the media suppression, as have media unions, academics and organisations such as the International Federation of Journalists and Reporters Without Borders, supported by people and politicians all the way from The Lodge to the White House.
In the end, though, it will not be international condemnation or even sanctions that will end the stand-off, but the resistance of the media and people of Fiji themselves.
Bainimarama and his troops have built a reputation – certainly in their own eyes – as hard men keeping peace in Lebanon, Iraq and East Timor by force of arms, but even they know that cannot work back home for any length of time. While Fiji has suffered four military take-overs in 20 years, the troops have hitherto always had to return to barracks and let the civilians govern again. This time will be no different and Bainimarama is already hinting at an end-date to the current repression. He may keep his word and Fiji will muddle through to democracy again, but his long-term concern should also be whether he manages to handle the retreat with enough grace and humanity as to leave some honour in his people’s memory of him. He clearly wants his legacy to be as a man who tried to fight discrimination and implement reform, but he should be aware the Fijian people’s remembrance of him will be shaped largely by the very journalists he is bullying now.
You can read more on some of the practical and ethical aspects of practising journalism under oppressive regimes in Chapter 58: Pressures on journalists in The News Manual.
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