Asia Pacific Network: 6 December 2000
MEDIA: COUP COUP LAND: THE PRESS AND THE PUTSCH IN FIJI
On 19 May 2000, an insurrection led by failed businessman George Speight and seven renegade members of the e´lite 1st Meridian Squadron special forces engulfed the Fiji Islands in turmoil for the next three months. Speight and his armed co-conspirators stormed Parliament and seized the Labour-led Mahendra Chaudhry Government hostage for 56 days. After the Muanikau Accord was signed, Speight and his followers left Parliament but continued to terrorise the nation. They were finally arrested in a series of military raids and 17 were charged with treason. On Chaudhry's release from captivity, he partly blamed the media for the overthrow of his government. Some sectors of the media waged a bitter campaign against the administration and its rollback of privatisation. In the early weeks of the insurrection, the media enjoyed an unusually close relationship with Speight and the hostage-takers, raising ethical questions. This paper examines the reportage of the putsch and the media controversy leading to the insurrection.
By DAVID ROBIE
Background and international reaction
George Speight (left) and media minder Jo Nata.
Photo: Pacific Journalism Online (USP).
Is The Fiji Times carrying the torch for people engaged in seditious activities? The newspaper needs to take a serious look at where it is headed. Is it not fanning the fires of sedition and communalism by giving undue prominence to stories that are really non-stories?
Mahendra Chaudhry, speech as Prime Minister at the launching of the Fiji Media Council Code of Ethics, 26 October 1999.
For the past six months, Chaudhry has been escalating his attacks on the media - in particular the country's most successful news organisation, The Fiji Times - in an effort to create a climate in which the public would be softened up for his draconian legislation.
The Fiji Times editorial, 30 October 1999.
THE GOVERNMENT of kidnapped Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, Fiji's only Indo-Fijian prime minister in thirty years of independence, had achieved a modest economic success in its first year in office. Indo-Fijians make up 44 percent of the islands' 800,000 population. But on Friday, 19 May 2000, failed businessman and kailoma (part-Fijian) George Speight, along with seven renegade soldiers from the e´lite 1st Meridian Squadron forces stormed Parliament and took the Chaudhry Government hostage in the name of "indigenous Fijian supremacy". "We're not going to apologise to anybody and we're not going to step back, and we're not going to be daunted by accusations of racism, or one-sidedness," Speight declared. "At the end of the day, it is about the supreme rights of our indigenous people in Fiji, the desire that it be returned - wholesome and preserved for the future." (Robie, 2000a: 19)
Many of Speight's group, like their leader, had dubious reputations: only five days before the coup, Speight appeared in Suva's High Court on charges of extortion. He also had a grievance against Chaudhry's government for his dismissal as chief executive from Fiji Hardwood Corporation Ltd, and also from Fiji Pine Ltd. Fiji Hardwood stood to lose lucrative timber deals were Chaudhry to remain in office.
However, Speight achieved his aims, before releasing his key hostages: purported abrogation of the multiracial 1997 Constitution, written after the coup of 1987 and the 1990 Constitution which enshrined "Fijian paramountcy" (but kept Fiji excluded from the Commonwealth); the defacto resignation of the 80-year-old President, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara; a non-elected indigenous administration; and an amnesty for the kidnappers, who risked the death penalty. Meanwhile, the country descended into chaos: one month into the coup, some 4500 people had lost their jobs (this climbed to an estimated 16,000 unemployed after six months) after tourism collapsed; thousands more had their pay packets slashed; and local schools closed Fiji was partially suspended from the Commonwealth and European Union aid was in doubt.
Fiji is not the only Pacific country in crisis. In the Solomon Islands, the people of Guadalcanal have been attempting to push immigrant Malaitans off their island, a campaign that has forced an estimated 20,000 people - almost a quarter of the Malaitan population - to flee. The conflict is spearheaded by the Guadalcanal Revolutionary Army and the Isatabu Freedom Movement against various Malaitan groups. Both sides have carved out a small-scale but effective campaign of terror which has killed more than 100 people and stirred riots in the capital, Honiara. Like Indians in Fiji, the Malaitans are the most successful group in the Solomon Islands and this stirs resentment. Ousted Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa'alu, the target of the coup, is a Malaitan.
"The idea that coups d'état could spread like a virus in the Pacific should be taken seriously," says Samoa Observer editor Savea Sano Malifa. "From Fiji to the Solomons, political uprising is now feared to be spilling over into Papua New Guinea and possibly Vanuatu" (Ibid). Preoccupied with resolving a decade of secessionist war on the copper-rich island of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea has preferred to keep a low-profile on troubles in other Pacific states. But one former prime minister, Sir Julius Chan, warns against such a casual attitude: "We seem to have applied the Melanesian approach. You sit back, chew betel nut, look into the sky and wait to see what happens" (Ibid).
Chan was forced out of office over the aborted Sandline affair in 1997, when South African-led mercenaries were recruited for an operation against the Bougainville Revolutionary Army rebels. As prime minister in 1980, Chan had responded to a call from the late Vanuatu leader, Father Walter Lini, to quell a rebellion on the island of Espiritu Santo. Ever since, he has been an advocate for a regional peacekeeping force with Papua New Guinea playing a pivotal role. As the Solomon Islands struggled to find peace and Fijians haggled over power, however, many questioned the future of the South Pacific Forum and the Melanesian Spearhead Group over their failure to broker peace deals in either country.
For some Pacific leaders, democracy is seen as a "foreign flower" that hasn't transplanted well; others argue that democratic constitutions are ill-suited to cope with the problems of national unity and intercommunal rivalry. Demagogues in Fiji have long "whipped up the chimera of Indian dominance" to fan the fears of cultural insecurity. But Father David Arms, a Catholic priest and constitutional authority for the Fiji Citizens' Constitutional Forum (CCF), believes the 1997 Constitution is a progressive document which safeguarded rights for the 51 percent indigenous population (of a total population of 800,000) which had 57 percent overall control of both house of Parliament.
Political commentator Jone Dakuvula argues that because Speight's supporters justified their act of treason on the basis of indigenous rights, this does not give the current beneficiaries the right to throw the 1997 Constitution and the 1999 election result "into the dustbin of history". (Dakuvula, 2000a) It does not also free those who abused other people's human rights of legal and moral responsibility for their actions.
When Chaudhry was released from captivity on July 14, he partly blamed the media for the overthrow of his Government. Some sectors of the media were alleged to have waged a bitter campaign against the Coalition Government and its rollback of privatisation in the year after the Fiji Labour Party-led coalition was elected on a landslide victory in May 1999 (see PJR, 2000). In the early weeks of the insurrection, the media enjoyed an unusually close relationship with Speight and the hostage-takers, raising ethical questions. (see Robie, 2000b)
This paper examines the media controversy leading up to the putsch, the coverage of the crisis itself and examines the role of the media as a factor in the upheaval. It also considers the political affiliations and sympathies of journalists, media organisations and the role of media accountability and freedom agencies. The paper follows an earlier one which dealt in more detail with the actual coverage of the six-week period following the putsch. (Ibid.)
Fiji Islands and the media
Fiji has a highly developed media industry compared with most other Pacific countries. Until recently it had four major monthly or bimonthly news magazine groups, Islands Business International, Pacific Islands Monthly (Murdoch), The Review and Fiji First. However, Fiji First has faded from the public eye and PIM, the region's oldest and for many years the most influential magazine, announced its closure in June 2000. The three daily newspapers are the Murdoch-owned Fiji Times (circulation up to 55,000 during the Fiji crisis) and the struggling Fiji government-owned Daily Post, with a third daily, The Fiji Sun, which was launched in September 1999. (The Sun is owned by a consortium of Indo-Fijian importers, C J Patel and Co Ltd and Vinod Patel and Co Ltd, and the flagship company of Fiji's interim régime, Fijian Holdings Ltd.) Both the latter two dailies do not have audited sales. Broadcasters are Fiji Television Ltd, which has one free-to-air channel and two pay channels; the private Communications (Fiji) Ltd (FM96) radio group, which began broadcasting in the year of the 1987 military coups; and the state-owned Fiji Broadcasting Corporation (previously Island Networks Ltd). The Daily Post and The Review news magazine share a website, FijiLive, while the Fiji Times is still establishing a website of its own.
Both Fiji Television, whose exclusive broadcasting licence ends in December 2000, and the state Radio Fiji group, with its public broadcasting mandate up for tender, currently face some uncertainty over the future.
During the last coup period, the news media faced far more grave threats to their independence and integrity than during the Speight putsch. On 14 May 1987, Rabuka assured news media executives that they could rely on a "censorship free press", but he warned against inflammatory reporting. (Robie, 1989: 221) He was to regret this pledge. A smuggled broadcast for Radio Fiji by the Governor-General, Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau, denouncing the coup was broadcast on the rival station FM96.
Both The Fiji Times and The Fiji Sun bitterly condemned Rabuka and the coup in an editorial next morning. "What of the blow to the national psyche?" asked the 131-year-old Fiji Times, the South Pacific's longest-established newspaper. "We plead with Colonel Rabuka to stop this coup that is tearing out the heart of this nation" (Ibid: 222). The Fiji Sun, jointly owned by the Hongkong-based Sally Aw Sian publishing empire and New Zealand publisher Philip Harkness was even harsher. It ridiculed Rabuka's justifications for the coup in an editorial entitled: DICTATORSHIP OR DEMOCRACY?
Rabuka's regime ordered the two newspapers to stop publishing indefinitely while armed troops and police occupied the two offices. The next day, May 16, became the first time (apart from once during a hurricane in January 1986) in more than a century that The Fiji Times was not published. The military regime began a purge of political critics and opponents by arresting them without charge.
There was an exodus of quality journalists from Fiji after the first coups. Today the bulk of Fiji journalists are young, untrained and with limited experience. The median age of journalists in a Fiji newsrooms survey conducted in February-March 1999 was 22, ranging between the youngest at 18 and the oldest at 50. There was also a large bulge in the 21-25 age group. Almost half of the Fiji journalists (47 percent) surveyed had no professional or educational qualifications at all, and the median experience was 2.5 years. (Robie, 1999a)
Chaudhry and the media
In May 1999, the Fiji Labour Party won the largest electoral mandate since the country became independent in 1970. The People's Coalition commanded 62 percent of the indigenous Fijian vote in the election, 58 per cent of the Indo-Fijian vote, and 52 percent of general voters (or mixed-race "fruit salads", as they are affectionately called in Fiji). After more than a decade as a significant opposition leader and robust trade union leader, and a seemingly good working relationship with journalists, Mahendra Chaudhry got off on the wrong foot with the media industry virtually from the day he took office. The appointment of his son, Rajendra, as his Private Secretary deeply damaged the relationship and also public credibility. According to National Planning Minister Dr Ganesh Chand, an economist and former academic at the University of the South Pacific:
Significantly, it started on almost the first day - Wednesday, May 19 - when Fiji TV started questioning why wasn't a Fijian MP made prime minister. The interviewer was Riyaz Sayed-Khaiyum. The newly elected PM and Sayed-Khaiyum had a bout at the media conference that evening. Riyaz whose dad had just lost the election (1), seems to have taken it personally, and he continued to misreport for months - really until almost October when he came to an even keel. (Chand, 2000)
Dakuvula agrees that the Coalition Government was on the defensive from day one: "There was no honeymoon period" (Dakuvula, 2000b). But far more worrying for Chaudhry and the People's Coalition than Fiji Television was the Murdoch-owned Fiji Times, arguably the country's most influential news organisation. Over the next few months, The Fiji Times appeared to wage a relentless campaign against the fledgling Government, both through its editorials and "slanted" news columns. In Chand's view:
One of their lines was that we were not delivering our manifesto immediately; numerous editorials were written on this, and the general tenor of the articles, the locations, the pictures, focus, and most of all, the inaccuracies, all were anti-government. I complained to the [Fiji] Media Council numerous times and judgements against The Fiji Times began coming out.
In one case I lodged a complaint - shortly before the terrorists took over - about the reporting on the debate in Parliament on the Government guarantee for a Housing Authority loan. The motion was passed unanimously while The Fiji Times article led with something like the Opposition voting against it ... When I talked to the journalist who covered it, she said that the article was totally twisted from what she had written and that the headline was given by a member of the senior editorial staff. There are many other examples, most of which we did not report to the Media Council. (Ibid.)
According to researcher Nwomye Obini of USP's Centre for Development Studies, who conducted a content analysis of Fiji Times coverage on the Chaudhry Government's year in office and the coup, the newspaper wasted no time in "bombarding" the prime minister with problems in both editorials and news reports in contrast to previous governments. (Obini, 2000) Contentious issues included fulfilling election promises over the lifting of value added tax on staple food items, and reinstatement or airport and shipyard workers sacked because of privatisation restructuring under the Rabuka Government; appointment of Chaudhry's son as his private secretary; land reforms involving the Agricultural Landlord and Tenants Act (ALTA) and compensation for evicted tenant farmers, mainly Indo-Fijian; the so-called tea lady affair involving the transfer of a staff person reported to have "seen something she was not meant to see" (Ibid.: 41); divisions within the disparate Coalition; renovations to the Prime Minister's home; the future of the mahogany industry; a national strike by mainly indigenous nurses; and the revival and destabilisation by the nationalist Taukei Movement. As the date of the coup approached,
The tension grew day by day. Nurses kept making threats, and finally went on strike on May 12, a week before the coup. Even some [sugar cane] farmers made threats to boycott harvest if they were not paid some money due them. A lot of things were happening. Even the Christian Democrats, who were supposed to be working with Chaudhry, joined the SVT march to protest against the Government. A rift was even reported between the Commissioner of Police and the Prime Minister. (Ibid,: 15)
Obini argues that The Fiji Times should have "helped to educate people on the need to exercise restraint", given the fact that the Chaudhry Government had been in office only one year after three decades of conservative indigenous party rule: "The newspaper should have encouraged the nurses not to go on strike as the People's Coalition Government was prepared to address their case, which did not start when Chaudhry came to power; the problem of low wages and long working hours had been there". (Ibid.: 16)
According to Michael Field, a veteran Pacific Affairs reporter for Agence France-Presse news agency, a number of events were covered with a "fixed" approach which encouraged an unfair negative impression of the Coalition.
One was the infamous tea lady incident which helped create an air, I suppose, of corruption or immorality in the newly elected government. My own view of this was that it was something of a set up job in which the media went along for the ride, and may have, in the longer run, helped to destabilise the government within the context of the wider community it had to operate in. There was something peculiar about the story itself and the media simply did not follow up on it. (Field, 2000a)
Like many other commentators, Dakuvula found the reporting of Chaudhry's relationship with a leading news agency reporter distasteful and unethical: "It was not a matter of public interest. It reflected the low state to which the Government's relationship with the news media had deteriorated". (Dakuvula, 2000b)
Field also made the point that the election result was "remarkably clear but the media, or elements of it, were reluctant to accept it". In other words, there seemed to be an element which was "arrogantly anti-democratic, practising a we-know-best approach to democracy". Much of the journalistic decision-making was personal. Seeing the media in action in which everybody has a wider part in the community, it was apparent that writing and editorial stances were frequently based on the journalist's race and own political views.
In essence , everybody in Fiji is biased (and perhaps in the world as a whole) but there are not enough people to balance out the various biased individuals who get control of opinion forming processes. (Ibid.)
Dakuvula is far more scathing on this point. In his view, The Fiji Times was an example of a newspaper which was "blatantly anatagonistic to the Government and focussed on highlighting allegations of corruption, nepotism and sexual indiscretions" against Chaudhry. He believes the newspaper had a clear and negative editorial strategy:
The agenda of The Fiji Times was to delegitimise the elected Government by creating a climate of scandal, loathing and fear so the Fiji Labour Party, at least, would not be able to effectively implement its manifesto. (Dakuvula, 2000b)
Nevertheless, part of the blame lay with the Coalition Government itself. There was no evidence that the administration developed a clear media strategy to develop positive relationships with journalists and to use modern "spin" techniques to get the message about its planned and actual reforms across to the public. While Chaudhry himself held the information portfolio, Assistant Minister Lekh Ram Vayeshnoi, a farmer by background, was a public relations disaster for the Government by becoming locked in petty squabbles with the media rather than pursuing a proactive communications policy. Sociologist Dr Sitiveni Ratuva argues that there was nothing unique about the Chaudhry Government's poor relationship with the media. In fact, it shared this weakness with the previous Rabuka administration.
Both governments had information ministers who did not know how to handle public relations matters, especially how to deal with the media. They were both confrontational. The media's response also took the same line - confrontational. The media portrayed Rabuka and co. as corrupt and inefficient and Chaudhry as arrogant and anti-Fijian. (Ratuva, 2000)
According to Ratuva, the portrayal of Chaudhry this way basically fed into the rising tide of ethno-nationalist mobilisation. The media did not, in his view, create the conditions for the ethno-nationalist upsurge. This was already there anyway, but it did provide the nationalists with the "legitimacy" to roll on.
For sociologist Premila Devi, this was nothing new. In a paper almost a decade earlier, analysing the 1992 general election campaign, she had found that both daily newspapers of the period, The Fiji Times and the Daily Post, had a "bias towards a certain ideology":
It is the same ideology that is shared by the [Great] Council of Chiefs, the military, the Soqosoqo ni Vakavulewa ni Taukei (SVT) and large segments of the ethnic Fijian population. That putting this ideology in practice relegates a half of Fiji's population to a third-class citizenry did not matter. (Devi, 1992: 35)
Devi argued that "self-censorship of things that went against the grain of this belief proved to be the order of the day for the dailies".
Decisions by the Chaudhry Government to not renew the work permit for reappointed Fiji Times editor-in-chief, Russell Hunter, an Australian of Scottish decent, and to block Canadian Ken Clark's work permit after he was appointed new chief executive of Fiji Television Ltd - both cases leading to legal action - also alienated the media from the Government (2).
Another important factor was the commercial interests of the large businesses, the heavy advertisers and the corporate opponents of the Coalition Government's efforts at preventing the privatisation policies adopted by the previous Rabuka Government. Coverage given to Hari Punja's group from about October 1999 by The Fiji Times is an example, and also pressure from such companies on coverage.
As the Government's relationship with the media became more strained, "payback" time finally came for the press. Chaudhry chose an invitation by the Media Council to launch the Fiji General Media Code of Ethics and Practice on 26 October 2000 to deliver an extraordinary speech damning the Fiji news media generally, and prominent individual journalists in particular. In the weeks leading up to this incident, The Fiji Sun, the country's newest daily, had suffered a lambasting over its credibility, with frequent mistakes over front page and other stories, a fine of $F3000 for contempt of court over a production "dummy" story about an alleged paedophile on trial, and finally the resignation of its chief editor.
But faced with a harsh attack by Chaudhry against most news media, the Sun's Jese Temo summed up the issue accurately: "The media got a taste of its own medicine as the Prime Minister slammed the lack of professionalism among some local journalists and then warned them of new regulatory measures."
There was nervous laughter from the floor and tension mounted as those used to criticising were themselves criticised. (Fiji Sun, 1999b)
Chaudhry indicated that his Government was considering establishing a "swift justice" media tribunal to provide remedies in defamation cases. [Separate news reports also suggested that a motion would be tabled in the November session of Parliament calling for the licensing of foreign-owned media. The licences were reportedly to be reviewed annually with an annual licence fee of $20,000. Currently the only foreign-owned news organisation is Rupert Murdoch's The Fiji Times group.] (Ibid.)
The tribunal proposal, in particular, stung Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) president William Parkinson into saying: "[Chaudhry's] attacks against the media were draconian to say the least. We have not had those threats made since the military government in 1987" (Ibid.) Parkinson, who is managing director of Communications (Fiji) Ltd, owners of FM96 in Fiji and stakeholders in radio stations in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, said that as a member of the Fiji media, he was seriously concerned.
Chaudhry introduced his speech - substantially rewritten from a draft submitted by his ministry - with an overview of international media and local media during which he questioned whether it was suffering a "crisis of ethics" and falling credibility.
Fiji is not isolated from these [international] developments. The media in Fiji needs to take stock of how it is behaving and whether it is facing a crisis of ethics. Since taking office, my Government has had occasion to be extremely disgusted by the antics of some elements in the media who have used the medium of the newspaper and television to further their own personal agendas to discredit the Government.
When day after day a particular reporter writes nothing but anti-government stories with facts manipulated and distorted to discredit and embarrass the Government, one is left in little doubt as to what the agenda of the particular reporter is. (Chaudhry, 1999)
Senior political reporter Margaret Wise, who has close links with the party founded by Rabuka, Soqosoqo Ni Vakavulewa Ni Taukei (SVT), was clearly the journalist Chaudhry had in mind and, later in his speech, he openly named her. Wise has been in the past questioned over her style of journalism, partisan beliefs, alleged "skirt journalism" tactics (3), and close ties with former coup leader and prime minister Sitiveni Rabuka. (The phrase skirt journalism was made particularly notorious by Weekend newspaper publisher Josefa Nata over a series of exposés about the women in coup leader Sitiveni Rabuka's life when another prominent journalist was named.) In 1998, Wise was alleged to have been party to a biased campaign against two expatriate journalism academics at the University of the South Pacific. (see Robie, 2000c) Hinting that the newspaper was breaching the Public Order Act, Chaudhry said:
The matter is even more serious than a breach of media ethics and my Government is quite concerned at what is happening. Is The Fiji Times carrying the torch for people engaged in seditious activities? The newspaper needs to take a serious look at where it is headed. Is it not fanning the fires of sedition and communalism by giving undue prominence to stories that are really non-stories? (Chaudhry, 1999)
Turning to prominent coverage by the newspaper of a nationalist accused of frittering away $F4 million of union membership funds, Taniela Tabu, while he was "breathing fire and brimstone" along racial lines, and making wild allegations, Chaudhry asked:
How come the only reporter present was Margaret Wise of The Fiji Times since none of the other media reported anything on this meeting? It makes one wonder whether there is not a conspiracy at work here between that particular reporter and these anti-government elements.
Citing examples of alleged fabrication and distortion of stories, Chaudhry condemned The Fiji Times for "sheer cowardice, bullying tactics" and a failure to grant space for a right of reply. The prime minister also accused deputy editor Netani Rika of repeatedly breaching the code of ethics in his weekly Sunday Times column. Chaudhry also attacked the regional news magazine Islands Business of "disinformation" and employing journalists who were "too lazy to do their research".
News media reaction focused on extraordinarily defensive statements from a range of media spokespeople, but with no initial publication of the speech in full so that readers could make their own judgements. Nor did it canvas any civil society opinions. Eventually, the Government advertised in both The Fiji Sun and the Daily Post at taxpayers' expense costing $16,000 with eight-page statements with the theme GOVERNMENT RESPONDS TO MEDIA HYSTERIA, including the speech (Fiji Sun, 2000). The Fiji Times published Chaudhry's speech speech voluntarily after four days, and responded with a two-page editorial describing the speech as a "rambling diatribe riddled with contradictions, half truths and untruths". It added that this was precisely what many in the media industry had expected. The editorial said:
Chaudhry has been escalating his attacks on the media - in particular the country's most successful news organisation, The Fiji Times - in an effort to create a climate in which the public would be softened up for his draconian legislation.
Most of his statements consisted of sweeping generalisations or statements of opinion dressed up as fact - ironically, the very sin of which he accused the media. Few, if any, of Chaudhry's statements and accusations were supported by facts. (Fiji Times, 1999)
Islands Business publisher Keith-Reid also responded, in an editorial in the November edition of his magazine, saying: "In view of [Chaudhry's] dictatorial assertions and virulently anti-media attitudes so nakedly displayed at such an early stage of his prime ministership, a question to ask now is: has he already blown it?" (Islands Business, 1999)
The self-interest of the responses by the media did not go unnoticed by the president of the Fiji chapter of Transparency International, Ikbal Jannif: "It seems to me that media wants accountability - for everyone except itself." (Jannif, 1999: 164)
The coup coverage
After putschist Speight and his gunmen kidnapped the Coalition Government on 19 May 2000 and held them hostage, it was astonishing how "captive the journalists were to Speight" (see Robie, 2000b, 2000d; Parkinson; Woodley; Field 2000b). In a sense they were hostages too, even providing a human shield at times of confrontation between the rebel group and the military at checkpoints. The media contingent in Fiji was mostly dominated by Australians and New Zealanders. However, there was a liberal sprinkling of Britons, two Japanese crews, a couple of Americans, a correspondent for Le Monde, and a handful of Filipinos. All three major international newsagencies - Agence France-Presse, Associated Press and Reuters - were reporting too.
The media pack offered Speight a profile and credibility - it aided the rebel leader's propaganda war. The media, in fact, fuelled the crisis and gave Speight a false idea about his importance and support - it gave him "political fuel". (Robie, 2000b)
Even though essentially it was a struggle for power within the indigenous Fijian community, and a conflict between tradition and modernity, the inevitable polarisation of races had an influence on the objectivity of the media coverage. It was apparent to Daily Post editor Jale Moala, like other reflective journalists, that many local reporters had become "confused by the heightened emotion at the time, the use of emotive language and the pleadings of the opposing forces", as they were drawn into different sides. (Moala, 2000) This was true of both indigenous Fijian and Indo-Fijian reporters alike, he recalls.
Fear may have also played a role. As a result, the perpetrators of the terrorist action, led by George Speight, received publicity that at the time seemed to legitimise their actions and their existence. Some argue that the situation may not have deteriorated as quickly as it did if the media had played a more responsible role.
But therein lies one of the dilemmas of Pacific Islands political journalism: the extended family system, the tribal and chiefly system and customary obligations may blur the view of the journalist, especially if he or she is indigenous. (Moala, 2001: 125-126)
Moala draws a parallel with Tonga where journalists reporting on the political situation and exposing the lack of transparency have been vilified: "Outdated draconian laws were dragged out of the closet and used against them." (Ibid.: 126) Journalists such as Times of Tonga editor Kalafi Moala and pro-democracy parliamentarian and former broadcaster 'Akilisi Pohiva were jailed for contempt of Parliament in October 1996. (PJR, 1996)
In Fiji, according to Moala, the vakaturaga practice is often used to try to bring indigenous Fijian political reporters in line with the so-called Taukei mainstream. Fijian anthropologist Professor Asesela Ravuvu described vakaturaga in his book The Fijian Ethos as
The most important concept depicting the ideal behaviour among indigenous Fijians. It refers primarily to actions and personal characteritistics which befits the actions of a person of high status, such as a chief or his representatives or counterparts ... by adhering to the vakaturaga, the need for maintaining order is generally contained; and this is generally related to the need to maintain a common identity. (cited by Moala, 2001: 126)
Moala points to an example involving Josefa Nata, an investigative journalist who "cut his teeth" at the original Fiji Sun newspaper and who later gained notoriety as Speight's media "spin doctor" and is now on Nukulau prison isle awaiting trial for treason (4). As Moala backgrounds the case:
On returning from studies in Britain in 1986, Nata was [assigned] to do a report on the business connections of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, who at the time had been Fiji's prime Minister since independence from Britain in 1970. Titled THE MARA MILLIONS, the article, which was published in the Fiji Sun, explained the business dealings of Ratu Mara and members of his family. The report was not malicious. But in the vakaturaga custom it was seen as breaching the sacred boundary that kept commoners and chiefs apart.
The scrutiny attracted hostile reactions from people traditionally close to Ratu Mara, the paramount chief of the politically influential Lau group of islands. Nata, who came from the same island as Ratu Mara, was subsequently criticised, even by members of his own family and threatened. For a long time he stayed away from traditional gatherings of the clans. He was treated as an outcast. (Ibid.: 127)
For Moala, the problem that arose after the coup was not so much one of reporters taking sides. Rather, it was the inability of many of the young and inexperienced reporters to "function objectively under the pressures of the crisis". Moala sees lack of leadership in the newsrooms as being a significant factor in this. He cites state-owned Radio Fiji as one news organisation, in particular, "which seemed to suffer from a combination of confusion over who was in power, or who was going to end up in power, and the lack of discipline and leadership, especially in the first two days of the hostage crisis". He points out:
The station allowed supporters of George Speight to make inflammatory statements live on radio, first trying to legitimise the events that had taken place, and later to call for support to move into the parliamentary complex. (Ibid.)
One extraordinary editorial lapse of judgment was made by Fiji Television in giving Opposition MP Jim Ah Koy, accused in some quarters of being behind the coup, free air time five days after the coup to make a political statement denying his involvement and castigating the Chaudhry Government while still being held hostage. His statement was also published as fullpage advertisements in The Fiji Times, Fiji Sun and Daily Post the next day. (Ah Koy, 2000) USP media academic Patrick Craddock complained in a letter to The Fiji Times, saying that the broadcast and advertisements breached the Emergency regulations:
Did any of these media outlets look at the ethical issues involved? I know journalists are tired and stressed but surely this statement deserves an interview with some hard questions being put to Mr Ah Koy, such as: "What political gain will you achieve from this action and when?"
At the time of the release of Mr Ah Koy's statement, Mr Chaudhry and many other legally elected representatives of government are hostages to gangsters with guns.
Observed Michael Field, perhaps it is too soon to say, "but I left [Fiji, after two months, and as the longest-serving foreign reporter] wondering how much of the coup and its twists and turns was the product of the media itself". (Field, 2000c) Like Moala, many other senior Fiji journalists highlight the youth and inexperience of the country's media corps. This was also apparent to the international journalists. According to The Australian's Brian Woodley:
They got on with reporting the story, a corps of dedicated youngsters with hardly a gram of experience among them. Most are not long out of high school ... They're comically awry with their grammar and shy - a cultural trait - about asking the tough questions. Few have the confidence to dig into the story and provide analysis. They are awed by the aggression and technology of the foreign media and hang back, watching, absorbing, patiently learning, at press conferences. (Woodley, 2000)
Nevertheless, there was an extraordinarily steep learning curve for many Fiji journalists with many showing remarkable courage and commitment. Clearly it was a harrowing and testing time for Fiji journalists. As Radio Fiji's general manager (public broadcasting) Francis Herman said: "Our journalists have been threatened, abused, beaten, had stones thrown at them - it goes with the job". (Herman, 2000) But it was also a time when professionalism needed to rise another notch. Moala considered some reporters stayed too long in the parliamentary complex, "making the outside world believe they were enjoying the hospitality of the terrorists and becoming too familiar with them and their side of the story" (op cit, 2001: 129.
The dilemmas for the Fiji journalists were far more complex than during the 1987 coups. "The Fijian media, at the moment, is made up of young journalists, and [in 1987] it was a different situation," explained FM96 radio journalist Vijay Narayan. "This was a very complex situation. You had a guy who had taken over Parliament saying he's in charge, but he was not in charge; the President was still in office, so we had to make sure that we had all the correct information before we go on air". (ABC Media Report, 2000) Radio New Zealand's Shona Geary was struck by how "media-savvy" Speight and his advisers were, and asked: "Were we manipulated?" But rather than blaming the media, she considers the authorities carried the responsibility.
During the many deadlocks in negotiations, the rebels talked through the media to the military authorities. Speight has freedom of movement, he claims to represent a groundswell of grassroots feeling about the indigenous cause and he had many of his demands met.
The military, not the media , defined his status from the outset. He is not only a hostage-taker but a key political player in shaping Fiji's future. We could not censure the story by not talking to him. At times, there was competitive peer pressure. We couldn't reach unanimous decision to boycott the rebels. (Geary, 2000)
At times, there was strong sympathy among some journalists for the "cause", even among editorial senior executives. There was a tension between the role of "objective" journalist and an instinctive feeling about what was desired to unfold in the country. Radio Fiji's Herman candidly admits:
Personally, I believe that indigenous Fijians should run the country. It's their land, they should have the ownership, they should never be deprived of it. They need help. We should not deny the fact that the Indians, Chinese or Europeans have really helped this country. (Herman, 2000)
However, at least one local newspaper did not opt out of the responsibility of drafting a policy to cope with the dilemmas. The state-owned Daily Post covered the putsch with perhaps greater caution than other local media. In the early stages, the newspaper established guidelines for reporters, photographers and subeditors. Along with the guidelines, it sought greater emphasis on the "effects" of the crisis on the people and the economy and downplayed the events inside the parliamentary complex. The guidelines were not formally written down, in case they got into the hands of the rebels and became a source of threats or reprisals as happened to Fiji Television (see Appendix: Attacks against the press). According to Moala (2001: 131), the guidelines were:
- The newspaper would not use the word "coup" in its coverage.
- The events of May 19 would be reported as a kidnapping and hostage crisis; George Speight was to be reported as either the leader of the kidnappers, the gunmen or the hostage takers, but never as "coup leader" to avoid giving him legitimacy in the minds of indigenous Fijians.
- The group who stormed Parliament were to be described as "gunmen", "terrorists" and "kidnappers".
- Use of photographs of George Speight and his supporters inside the parliamentary complex were to be restricted to avoid giving them too much publicity.
- George Speight was never to be described as a nationalist working for indigenous Fijian interests; he was to be reported as Suva businessman George Speight, leader of the kidnappers, or leader of the terrorists.
In addition, the Daily Post regularly switched reporters covering events inside the parliamentary complex to prevent them getting too close to the rebels.
But in spite of the precautions taken by several news media organisations to defend their integrity - FM96 ran editorial policy notices on air, effectively saying "trust us" - news media credibility has been eroded. An example of this was the detention of a senior executive and two news staff of Radio Fiji by the military on October 20 in an attempt to intimidate them into revealing their sources about a major split in the military. Although the highly sensitive news story itself was well-sourced - a mutiny two weeks later on November 2 which claimed the lives of eight soldiers seemed to bear this out - it lacked balance and was broadcast on air by a different reporter from the one who compiled the story.
In another incident, former minister Dr Ganesh Chand accused The Fiji Times in a press release of (a) destabilising the Coalition Government during its one year in office before being deposed by "waging a war" through articles and courts when the Government refused to extend editor-in-chief Russell Hunter's work permit; (b) losing most complaints lodged by his Government with the Fiji Media Council; (c) deputy chief-of-staff Margaret Wise of having "a long affair" with two prominent political personalities; (d) Wise of bearing a child from one of the rebel leaders being detained on Nukulau on treason charges; and (e) and northern reporter Ruci Mafi of "riding around with rebels" at Labasa on Vanua Levu Island. (Coalition, 2000) In a reply in The Fiji Times, publisher Alan Robinson described the attack as "grossly defamatory' and that the allegations "contained not the tiniest grain of truth". (Fiji Times, 2000a)
The following day, The Fiji Times published a front page lead story written by Margaret Wise, headlined CHAND FACES THEFT PROBE, alleging that police were investigating the "stripping" of Government-owned furniture and other household goods from Chand's state home. (Fiji Times, 2000b) Like other cabinet members held hostage, Chand claims rightful occupancy of the state house as a member of the legitimate government of Fiji and he filed a defamation writ against The Fiji Times. (High Court, 2000) The police investigation was later dropped.
The most recent incident has been the arrest and charging of two journalists, including Mafi, based in Labasa. Mafi and Radio Fiji's northern correspondent Theresa Ralogaivau were charged on November 13 for unlawful assembly and unlawful use of a motor vehicle over the seizure of a military barracks by rebel soldiers and were due to appear in court on December 4. (Pacific Media Watch, 2000) [Their case was remanded until January 8]. The pair were accused of "mingling with rebels" who took over Sukanaivalu barracks at Labasa as well as riding in their vehicles during the crisis between July 4 and August 3. But they have been publicly defended by their editors as simply doing their job.
How the media fared
These were the main media covering the Fiji crisis and how they stood editorially:
The Fiji Times
Fiji's Daily Post
The Fiji Sun
Fiji Village www.fijivillage.com
Pacific Journalism Online (USP) www.usp.ac.fj/journ/
Sympathetic to the Chaudhry-led Government, but not in a particularly partisan way. After the coup and following the departure of the editor Jale Moala for New Zealand, the paper became closer to the Fiji Military Forces and the Interim Administration. Current acting editor Mesake Koroi is closely related to interim Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase. However, the newspaper remained open to a pluralistic range of views and was the only paper out of the three dailies which encouraged such a wide range of debate. Koroi's politics column is arguably the most popular, although increasingly indentified with Qarase.
This website, using the resources of the Daily Post as well as its own Review reporting team, became the international media face of crisis developments in Fiji, especially in the two weeks after the putsch. During that period it was a remarkable success and established itself as the leading monitoring site on developments in Fiji for international news media. The phrase "internet coup" was coined out of its success. However, while the website was strong on "hot" news, it was perhaps rather weak on analysis. The magazine has a close rapport with interim Information and Communication Minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola.
Opposed to the Coalition Government when it first began publishing, but became more independent after the putsch. It encouraged some debate, especially through its "Hard Talk" column, but it lacked reliable analysis. The paper has suffered from a variable quality in its writing and subediting.
It lacked the incisive and investigative reports that are the hallmark of good television stations overseas. After Dakuvula appeared on the controversial Close-Up programme on November 28, which led to a riot and raid on the station, CCF and other pro-democracy views tended to be shunned for a period. Nevertheless, some of the best local reporting was done by senior journalist Riyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, one of the outstanding journalists of Fiji. The Close-Up series on Sunday evenings has become the most successful involvement of the civil society by a Fiji media organisation.
Apparently very partisan against the Coalition Government. Less partisan after the coup, but openly favouring the interim regime and satisfied with the status quo. Little reporting and analysis of the restored privatisation policies even though the regime had no mandate for major economic policies (see previous section for details).
Heavily biased towards George Speight supporters, the military and the interim Administration in their reporting after the coup. However. [Nai Lalakai] did publish most of the pro-democracy statements and letters by the Citizens' Constitutional Forum (CCF) because it was open to presenting a different perspective.
This station generally provided a clearer and fairer picture of events as they unfolded, and made the public aware of its editorial policy and guidelines with on-air statements. However, it was criticised for allowing its reporters to spend too much time at the parliamentary complex. Breakfast show host Tukini Cama was also alleged to be too close to the rebels and was at one stage offloaded from a boat to Nukulau prison island while posing as a relative of one of the rebels. Cama shrugged off the allegations: "We were there [in Parliament] to tell the story. In Fiji, you are connected to anybody because [the country] is so small; you know them either through blood or through circumstances" (Wansolwara, 2000).
Pacific Journalism Online:
The University of the South Pacific's journalism training website. This carved out a niche international audience and while it provided a comprehensive overall coverage, its major strength, compared with other news sources, was its incisive analysis and "colour" pieces about the impact of the crisis on the people and human rights. It won the Dr Charles Stuart Prize of the Journalism Education Association (JEA) in December 2000 for its coup coverage.
As a regional news cooperative, this service was not required to report in great volume on the events, but tended to report in greater depth on the issues and developments than with other running stories from the Pacnews newsroom. It provided a useful check and balance for the other news services. Pacnews also excellent efforts to break news stories during the crisis.
The national broadcaster was never used effectively by the Coalition Government. However, after the putsch, Speight supporters capitalised on the station. It tended to report mainly the "official" version of the insurrection, ie the military and interim administration perspective, and less news about pro-democracy or civil society views. For example, during the six months after the coup, Radio Fiji never once interviewed either the executive director, Reverend Akuila Yabaki , or researcher, Jone Dakuvula, of the independent CCF.
The media climate after the general election in May 1999 was largely responsible for misconceptions about the People's Coalition Government in Fiji. No journalist seriously analysed the manifesto of the Fiji Labour Party in order to help public understanding of what the Government had pledged to do. It had been the intention of the Coalition Government to publish a special supplement in The Fiji Times marking its achievements after one year in office. However, the supplement was dated May 20 and the day before it was due to be published the putsch took place. In the event, the only analysis of the deposed Government's performance was written by The Fiji Times features editor, Bernadette Hussain - but it was published not in The Fiji Times, or any other daily newspaper. It was published in a USP journalism programme training newspaper (Wansolwara, 2000b) and matched by Agence France-Presse.
Hussain concluded that the Coalition Government had been seriously misrepresented. Outlining many of the achievements - such as scholarships and an integrated village development project totalling $12 million for affirmative action; reducing the cost of living for poor people of all races by removing customs duty and value added tax for essential food items such as rice, flour, cooking oil, tinned fish, powdered milk and tea; and increasing welfare allocations for the disadvantaged from $3.3 million to $11 million - she said it was clear that the Government was "genuinely concerned about the plight" of ordinary citizens. "Outlining his achievement, Chaudhry had said then that he wanted a Fiji free of racism, positive economic growth, a land of equal opportunities and a much improved lifestyle for indigenous and grassroots people," Hussain wrote three months after the putsch. "Now, the interim Government claims to be seeking the same things, its indigenous initiatives pretty much along similar lines". (Ibid.)
The evidence suggests that The Fiji Times, in particular, had a hostile editorial stance towards the Chaudhry Government. In spite of its claims to the contrary, that it treated all governments of the day similarly, the newspaper was "blatantly antagonistic", as Dakuvula and others put it, and arrogant. The focus of news media coverage, particularly The Fiji Times, after the election was to play up conflict. Politics were portrayed as an arena of conflict between the new multiracial Government, the first administration headed by an Indo-Fijian in the three decades since independence in 1970, and the Opposition - particularly indigenous. Politics and the debate about policy issues were seen through the media as a conflict between prominent individuals and parties with racial interests and agendas. The media did not independently and critically assess political issues that it reported on, to assist the civil society and the public in developing a better understanding. It tended to play to the agenda of politicians who wanted to inflame indigenous Fijians against the Government.
The highlighted allegations of corruption, nepotism and sexual indiscretions, even when there was little substance, was driven as an anti-Chaudhry campaign. By delegitimising the elected Government through whipping up a climate of "scandal, loathing and fear" over policies such as land reform, the Fiji Labour Party was stripped of the capacity to effectively implement its manifesto.
Reporting by The Fiji Times was spearheaded by a journalist with close ties with the opposition and radical indigenous nationalists. The journalist, Margaret Wise, was also responsible for reporting about Chaudhry's personal affairs. She had links with the SVT party and with the Permanent Secretary at the Prime Minister's Office, Joji Kotobalavu, who was apparently often a source of inside information for her, even when former coup leader Sitiveni Rabuka was Prime Minister. But an estimated 70 percent of the civil service was opposed to the Coalition Government, including Kotobalavu. Considering this reality about the newspaper's leading political reporter, balance in the newsroom was lacking, The Fiji Times effectively became a willing mouthpiece of the Opposition.
While the news media was fairly diligent, and at times courageous, while reporting hard news developments, and the views of prominent politicians, the communities and political parties during the conflict, it was not so effective at adequately covering the civil society's perspectives. As Dakuvula put it: "What we lack in Fiji are journalists who can provide more in-depth, sensitive and balanced articles and commentaries. The in-depth commentaries have been mainly provided by non-journalists, and the better quality foreign journalists who had the experience to dig deep behind the current news". (Dakuvula, 2000b)
The People's Coalition may have made some mistakes, acknowledges Obini, "but fair and objective criticisms would have helped to put things right. To stir a coup or any form of unrest is a setback to any country, and the Fiji body politic and the media should be aware of this". (Obini, 59)
The challenge for Fiji's news media now is to assist the transition back to constitutional democracy. The fact that Justice Anthony Gates has made an authoritative and clear ruling on the law, on the 1997 Constitution still being the supreme law, and the illegality of the military-installed interim régime, provides the basis for independent reporting. The news media has the potential to play a positive role. It needs to investigate more, scrutinise the impact of the economic policies more closely, highlight the personal effects of the crisis on grassroots people, and to emphasise positive events, such as examples of reconciliation.
1. Saiyad Khaiyum was defeated in the May 1999 election by Tevita Momoedonu in the Vudu Open Constituency and later became Labour Minister in the Coalition Government. But after the Government was seized hostage by Speight and his rebels, Momoedonu allowed himself to be sworn in as "prime minister" for five minutes to allow President Mara to "sack" the kidnapped Government. For his convenient role, he was given the labour portfolio in the military-installed interim régime.
2. Ken Clark was eventually granted a two-year work permit, although he was on a three-year contract; Russell Hunter was given a further three-year-contract after he appealed to the interim authorities after the Chaudhry government had been seized hostage in May 2000.
3. Margaret Wise is one of several female journalists in Fiji who have no formal journalism qualifications ,and who have been accused of "skirt journalism" - a term peculiar to Fiji for describing the use of sexual relations to gain privileged information from politicians. Her newspaper rejects these allegations. For earlier accounts of arguably the most notorious example of "skirt journalism" in Fiji - the affair of Wainikiti Waqa (also a Fiji Times journalist at the time) with Prime Minister and former coup leader Sitiveni Rabuka, see Jo Nata (1994), "Why we did not publish: The other woman", The Weekender; and Pacific Journalism Review (1994), "Rabuka and the Reporter," 1(1):20-22.
4. Jo Nata was also the last coordinator of the Fiji Journalism Institute, the training arm of the Fiji Islands Media Association (FIMA), the local affiliate of the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA), which has been defunct since 1998 amid allegations over accountability over its donor-provided funds. The institute was evicted from its Suva office in October and a scathing Fiji Times editorial called for it to "clean up the mess". In 1993, UNESCO'S International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC) granted US$45,000 (F$100,000) for the institute. But a further grant pledged in 1998 has been put on hold until the institute provides audited accounts. See FJI IN LIMBO OVER 'FINANCIAL MESS', Wansolwara (USP), November 2000.
ABC Media Report (2000). "The Fiji ordeal". December 1.
Ah Koy, J. (2000). "Full text of the [James M. Ah Koy] press statement to Fiji TV One", May 22; published in The Fiji Times, Fiji Sun, Daily Post on May 24.
City Voice (2000). "Fiji: The Internet Coup," June 8, p 8.
Chand, G. (2000). Email interview with the author, November 27.
Chaudhry, M. (1999), "Fiji news media faces crisis of ethics?", in "Chaudhry and the Fiji Media", Pacific Journalism Review, January 2000, 6(1)134-146.
Coalition (2000). Press release: "Journalists implicated in terrorism", August 21.
Dakuvula, J. (2000a), "Barrett and lessons of May 19". Fiji's Daily Post, November 30, p5.
- (2000b), Interview with the author, November 17.
Devi, P. (1992). Print Media in Fiji: Fostering Democracy or Ethnocracy? Fiji Institute of Applied Studies, Research Report No 2.
Field, M. (2000a). Email interview with the author, November 26.
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- (2000c)). "Farewell to coup coup land," The Fiji Times, August 8, p7.
Fiji Sun, The (1999a). "Media under fire," October 27, p1.
Fiji Sun, The (1999b). "Government responds to Media Hysteria (advertisement), October 30.
Fiji Times, The (1999). "The Fiji Times hits back", October 30, republished in Pacific Journalism Review, 6(1):147-153.
Fiji Times, The (2000a). "Chand blames Times for regime's fall", August 25, p. 3.
Fiji Times, The (2000b). "Chand faces theft probe", August 26, p. 3.
Geary, S. (2000). "The madness of King George", Listener, reprinted in Noted, September, pp3-4.
Herman, F. (2000). Unpublished interview with Phil Thornton, June 11.
Jannif, I. (1999). "Transparency and the Fiji news media,"
in Pacific Journalism Review, 2000, 6:1:158-164.
Obini, N. (2000). "Coup 2000: Responsible Journalism: The Fiji Times?", Unpublished research paper, 63pp.
Pacific Journalism Review (2000). "Chaudhry and the Fiji media", in the "Blood on the Cross" edition. 6(1).
- (1996). "The contempt case of the 'Tongan Three'," 3(2):10-19.
High Court of Fiji (2000). Writ of Summons, "Chand v Fiji Times Ltd and Margaret Wise", September 20.
Islands Business (1999). Editorial, November.
Moala, J. (2000). Email interview with the author, November 13.
- (2001). "Political reporting and editorial balance," in Robie, D. (ed) The Pacific Journalist: A Practical Guide. Suva: Journalism Programme, University of the South Pacific, pp 125-144.
Pacific Media Watch (2000). "3108: Journalists charged for 'associating with rebels'," November 14.
Parkinson, T. (2000). "Pens ready, Speight's army shoots to thrill," The Age, June 3.
Revington, M. (2000). "Guns and money," Listener, August 5, pp 30-31.
Ratuva, S. (2000). Email interview with the author, December 13.
Robie, D. (1989). Blood on their Banner: Nationalist Struggles in the South Pacific. Zed Books, London.
- (1999a). "Campus newsrooms in the Pacific: Some comparisons between Fiji and Papua New Guinea", Australian Studies in Journalism, No 8.
- (1999b). "Payback time for news critics,' on Café Pacific website, October 29.
- (2000a), "Melanesian dominoes." Index on Censorship: No 4, pp 19-21.
- (2000b), "Taukei Takeover: The Media Anatomy of a Coup." Australian Journalism Review, 22(2):1-16.
- (2000c), "Café Pacific and online censorship in Fiji," Pacific Journalism Review, 6(1):86-101.
- (2000d). "Fiji coup: Why the media were also Speight's hostages," The Independent (NZ), July 12, p16.
Wansolwara (2000a). "Journalists deny links with rebels," September 2000, p14.
Wansolwara (2000b) "The Coalition's vision," September, p 9.
Woodley, B. (2000). "Courage under fire," The Weekend Australian, Media section, June 8-14, p 6.
Appendix: Attacks against the press
May 27: Jerry Harmer, a cameraman for Associated Press television News, was shot in the arm while he taped an armed confrontation between about 150 coup supporters and about a dozen Government troops. Harmer reported that a rebel soldier had pointed his gun at a group of journalists before firing once and hitting him. Harmer was treated at Colonial War Memorial Hospital in Suva, then flown to Australia for recuperation. In this case, Speight denied responsibility for the media's safety, saying journalists were there "at their own risk".
May 28: Coup supporters led a rampage through Suva, including a siege of the headquarters of Fiji Television. Fiji TV staff fled the building, while rebels destroyed an estimated $300,000 worth of equipment. The station remained off the air for almost 48 hours while Government troops secured the premises. The attack followed a Close-Up current affairs programme which featured PINA president William Parkinson and political commentator Jone Dakuvula, who described Speight as a "two-day wonder" who did not enjoy general support among most of the 400,000 indigenous Fijians.
May 29: Administrators at the University of the South Pacific shut down Pacific Journalism Online (PJO), the website of USP's journalism students. Vice-Chancellor Esekia Solofa explained the decision as a security measure. The last item posted on PJO in May was a transcript of Fiji TV's Close-Up. The University of Technology, Sydney, journalism website played host to PJO for three months, hosting the Fiji news after the PJO site was restored on June 28.
June 28: Ten foreign and six local journalists were detained by George Speight after a press conference. Involuntarily held included staff from The Fiji Times, The Fiji Sun, Fiji TV, FM96 Radio, Agence France Presse, Sydney Morning Herald, Reuters TV, Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Radio New Zealand. Speight told the journalists that he could not guarantee their safety outside Parliament, and that military leaders had ordered their soldiers to shoot-to-kill. They were freed after being held for two hours.
July 4: Sitiveni Moce, a photojournalist with The Fiji Sun, was detained, threatened and beaten by Speight supporters. When Moce arrived for a press conference at Parliament, armed rebels accused him of photographing other rebels. Moce denied the charges, but was confined by the rebels, interrogated and threatened with physical harm. Eventually they agreed they had mistaken Moce for someone else and he was released. But as Moce was leaving the parliamentary complex about 30 Speight supporters attacked him and robbed him of his camera equipment.
October 20: Two senior editorial management staff and a journalist working for state-owned Radio Fiji were detained for questioning for more than seven hours about an early morning news bulletin. The three people - acting chief executive Francis Herman, news director Vasiti Waqa and reporter Maca Lutunauga -were threatened with charges under the Emergency Powers Act, although this was unclear, when they refused to reveal their sources over a radio news broadcast about a split within the military. They had been detained and taken away from the radio station by armed soldiers about 11am and held until being handed over to the police.
November 13: Police arrested and charged Fiji Times Labasa-based reporter Ruci Mafi, and Radio Fiji's northern correspondent Theresa Ralogaivau with unlawful assembly and unlawful use of a motor vehicle over the seizure of a military barracks by rebel soldiers and were remanded until January 8. The pair were accused of "mingling with rebels" who took over Sukanaivalu barracks at Labasa. They have been defended by their editors.
Sources: Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Pacific Media Watch (PMW).
Mr Robie is senior lecturer and journalism coordinator of the University of the South Pacific, Fiji Islands. Previously, he coordinated the University of Papua New Guinea journalism program. He covered the 1987 Fiji coups and his book covering this period was Blood on their Banner: Nationalist Struggles in the South Pacific (Zed Books, London, 1989). A version of this article was originally presented as a paper at the Journalism Education Association (JEA) conference, Mooloolaba, Queensland, 5-8 December 2000.