Random Play by Graham Reid


Fiji #2: The Times, they are a-changing

At the end of last week a few letters started appearing in the Fiji Times: the writers were saying it would be a shame if the paper (founded in 1869) were to close because of the Media Decree announced earlier in the week.

There had been no suggestion in the Times that I could see that it would close – indeed there had been no editorial comment on the Decree and its impact in the days following its announcement – but that may well be the result. Or not.

With Fiji it is sometimes hard to predict anything, as we know.

But the new Media Decree – all 37 pages available on-line here – certainly has provisions which make life difficult, if not impossible, for journalists to do their work in a free and unhindered way.

Which some would say is the intention.

Briefly I will outline some of the most important points here.

But would also note that while the Herald here editorialised strongly against these changes here , the Fiji government website link to the Decree had only received 123 hits as of the time of this writing – and the Decree was announced in a week ago.

I have to also observe that although I tried to engage a number of people in conversation about it while in the country, people were hardly exercised or excited by it.

And by-the-by, although I also invited Public Address readers to discuss whether they would travel to Fiji if they had the opportunity, fewer than 20 have entered the discussion thread.

People in New Zealand seem about as concerned as most Fijians, I guess. Or as my wife suggested, it is school holidays so maybe all Public Address readers are in Fiji on holiday with the kids.

Anyway . . .

The first point about the Media Decree is the one which received the most coverage here on announcement: that media organisations had to have 90 percent local ownership – which would mean the Fiji Times divesting itself (or being divested of) the controlling ownership by Rupert Murdoch.

When I mentioned this to some people in Suva – educated business people of all persuasions – they shrugged, and a couple noted that there were local business people rich enough to buy the Times (whether they would want to in the current climate – political, impact of the internet etc – remains a moot point). Another pointed out that people in most countries would prefer local ownership of their media organisations.

This latter point is true – Lord knows I remember many journalists bemoaning the “Irish owners” of the Herald – but of course there is a great difference between wanting and compulsion.

That is a serious issue for the Fiji Times.

But there are other matters equally significant.

Anyone holding an interest in more than one media organisation has a year to dispose of an interest in excess of 5 percent (non-voting) held in a different medium. (Internet providers, AV companies and telcom service providers are excepted).

There are other regulations, some of which directly affect how journalists can do their jobs. Or can not.

When the new Decree comes into effect (in fewer than three months) journalists must reveal to interviewees whether others will be interviewed in connection with the article. Those interviewed must know when the article will be printed or broadcast, whether it may be edited and whether only part or none of the interview will be used.

I guess that gets rid of sub-editors and editing suites, huh?

That actually seems unworkable. But again, some would say that is the point.

The Decree also says, “The presentation and editing of an interview must not distort or misrepresent the views of the interviewee or give a false impression of dialogue . . .”

Our gut response might be to agree with that . . . but distortion and misrepresentation are hard to define and will be in the eye of the beholder, or interviewee. Or, most likely, lawyers.

The Decree also gives to the Media Industry Development Authority the power to ask for documents or information from the media organisations it investigates. (The media may however withhold the identities of sources if the information relates to corruption or abuse of office by a public official.)

Media organisations or individuals not cooperating with the Authority when obliged to are liable for hefty fines (Fiji$10,000 or two years imprisonment; rule of thumb here, the Fiji dollar is about 75% of the Kiwi so you do the maths.)

There is more . . . but those are the main points for those who can't wade through those pages on the Fiji government website.

If there was largely silence – or at least the discussion was barely audible in many circles – the Consumer Council welcomed the provisions covering advertising to children: no realistic toy weapons which could be confused with the real thing; nothing encouraging anti-social behaviour; no ads showing kids urging parents to buy them products; no suggesting a child who doesn't have a product is inferior . . .

Let me mention the backdrop into which this Decree was announced.

The Decree was announced on Monday last week, the revised Budget was announced on Friday morning (the same day as the Decree was gazetted).

And the Budget, again as far as I could tell by conversations whenever I could and from published comments, was very well received.

Yes, airport departure tax went up 25% (tourism operators and airlines said it wouldn't affect travel) and there was 12.5% VAT imposed on general insurance except medical and worker's compensation (again, a shrug . . . and the acknowledgment that insurers will just pass it on as always.)

But duty on cars not exceeding 1500cc was reduced from 32% to 15% (to get newer and more economic cars and taxis on the road), and duty on buses dropped from 32% to 5% (to get the battered fume-spewing clunkers of the road and newer replacements).

People were pretty happy with that.

Jet-ski duty also went down from 32% to 5% and adventure tourism and resort people smiled.

Imported fresh and chilled veggies however went way up: from 5% to 15% and this was to encourage people to grow more produce locally. Many people thought that was a good idea – and everyone observed it wasn't like there was a shortage of useful land. Hell, shove it in the ground and it grows.

There was a reduction in corporate tax and the threshold for income tax moved from $8000 to $15,000.

Elsewhere education, health and the Ministry of Women, Poverty Alleviation and Social Welfare budgets were cut – these are revisions down from the previous budget – but the Ministry of Works had more money because of donors.

And most interesting – because people on all sides of the political opinion on Fiji will read into this what they will – 300 more staff came under defence and Fiji Military Forces were given an $8.6 million increase because of higher operating expenses.

The police budget went down $800,000.

By and large people – from Indian shopkeepers to business people I spoke to, and those speaking in the media over the following days – thought it a sensible, mature and workable budget.

I mentioned the increase in the military budget to some people over drinks and they grumbled a little, then one said, “Yes, but remember when there was flooding and the army moved in, they cleaned up Suva in a day”.

There was much nodding.

I said I often wished our military would respond to civil emergencies.

Wouldn't like the idea of more noisy jet-skis though.

In a footnote here: On the New Zealand government travel advisory website it says Fiji is “some risk” (minuscule in my experience, unless you count drivers who work at minimum tolerance level to pedestrians in Suva) and that “Media are now subject to censorship and a police presence is being maintained in major media outlets.”

I have no doubt of the censorship, it's the law, but as to the later . . .

Last Friday I walked into the office of the Fiji Times on Victoria Parade in search of a week of back-copies to get myself up to speed.

I had come in at the advertising entrance but they buzzed me in through the door to the main floor where I ambled around looking for the circulation department, asking a couple of people who cheerfully pointed me onward, until I finally came to the other entrance. There was a security guy there I walked past because I could see the circulation “office” (one man, an old computer and stacks of papers).

I saw no police presence – not to say it wasn't there but I did have a leisurely walk around.

Of course I guess they aren't looking over my shoulder but that of a reporter?

I don't know.

On Monday I called the Fiji Times to see if I could meet the editor (out of the country) and twice called to ask for the deputy editor (in meetings). Then I had to leave.

(Next and final Fiji post soon: an observational overview – and not from a poolside bar in a resort.)

Graham Reid is the author of the book 'The Idiot Boy Who Flew'.

(Click here to find out more)

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