Last week I was invited to go, at very short notice, to Suva as a guest of Air Pacific and Destination Suva.
The occasion was the re-opening of a direct Air Pacific link between Auckland and Suva which had been suspended three years ago. (There were issues over the runway, not a political reason behind the cessation of services.)
Over the years I had weighed up travel to Fiji and what the implications (on many levels, some personal) might be.
So I had to think again about the idea of going to Fiji to write about Suva, a city I have never been to.
I am sometimes made such offers and turn many of them down for various reasons – time, availability, whether or not a story might get published if I hate a place and say so – and I am always honest with those offering a travel opportunity.
I say as a freelance writer I can not guarantee publication (but of course it is my best interests to be published and therefore paid) and I approach editors in advance to test their interest (which may not be as great as mine).
The editors I speak with know that I will say what I found and not simply be driven by “selling the destination” – and so that can often mean a struggle after the fact.
My story about godawful BSB in Brunei – which I paid for myself to see – languished for a long time before it saw the light of day. (The expanded version is in The Idiot Boy Who Flew, see below)
Other “negative” stories have never been published even though I wrote them – and am thus out of pocket but satisfied I kept some degree of integrity. I pay for a lot of travel myself, incidentally.
Anyway, Suva: I thought about it and said I would approach travel editors and see what they said.
The first one said he would take a story about Suva from me.
But I also thought about it some more, asked a few other journalists their opinion (all of whom said “Go”) and even a couple of friends whose response was “Wow, cool”. When I pointed out the politics pertaining to Fiji they said, 'Oh yeah, right, But . . .”
Everyone, rather flatteringly, said they would be very interested to read what I made of the place.
And then the news broke about the new Media Industry Development Decree in Fiji which, among other things, gave news organisations (like the Fiji Times morning paper) three months to divest themselves of foreign monopoly ownership. The decree required 90 percent local ownership for media companies.
"Fiji Times, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Ltd, have been given three months to ensure they comply with the requirements of the media decree or cease operations altogether," said Mr Sayed-Khaiyum, head of Fiji's Attorney General's office.
Tim Pankhurst, secretary of the New Zealand Media Freedom Committee said the measures were part of a disturbing trend towards dictatorship, and another reason New Zealanders should boycott travelling to Fiji.
That of course made me pause and think again.
As someone who has had the privilege of working within one of the most unfettered media in the world, I reflexively support a free and unconstrained press.
But – and that “but” is not to qualify that position – I have sometimes thought the media jumps in with special pleading for itself when others, civilians, have suffered longer and worse than journalists.
I accept this new decree was emblematic of greater restrictions and not just about the rights of journalists or businesses – but I, like many New Zealand journalists, have been to places where I certainly didn't approve of the government or the constraints on the press.
I can well recall in '95 and '97 in Vietnam witnessing the most appalling shakedowns of locals by soldiers, police or stand-over goons from the Party. Which I later wrote about, either for the Herald or in my books.
I, again like many other journalists, have been to China (nope, not a junket to Bejing for the Olympics) and other such places where the human rights record is more than just worrying.
What I also know however are that the bold certainties of headlines and soundbites disappear with proximity to a situation. A headline written from a distance cannot account for nuance and subtlety, or even what might be the reality of life on the ground.
I have always tried to report that fairly, often through how politics impacts on ordinary people.
So I went to Suva on Friday – as did a couple of people from Campbell Live, a journalist from Radio Tarana, a guy from a travel trade organisation and a planeload of mostly Indian families. We were also joined by Fiji television (and possibly print, I didn't get a chance to ask) journalists.
At the airport the Fiji camera crews (but not Campbell Live) filmed the trio of guitarists singing Fijian songs at check-in, and John Banks who was there with Air Pacific CEO Dave Pflieger. (Pflieger flew up with us, in economy)
(The Air Pacific Group which includes the regional airline Pacific Sun is, incidentally, owned 51 percent by the Fiji government, 46.23 by Qantas, Air NZ 1.94 and the rest by the governments of Kiribati, Tonga, Samoa and Nauru.)
John Banks made a speech about the importance of ties between Auckland and Suva (population in the greater area of around 500,000 which rather surprised me) and, yes, he mentioned the Supercity. I would have been surprised had he not.
A little later the passengers in the transit lounge (predominantly Indian I remind you) applauded as Banks cut the ribbon (a woman behind me said “Amen”) and we went aboard as the band sang Isa Lei.
At the last minute I was given an upgrade and sat where the other journalists were.
On board Pflieger made a brief speech of welcome – he impressed me as a nice guy – and we took off.
When we reached Suva we circled for about 15 minutes, landed and then had to taxi back again – to allow dignitaries to arrive it transpired – and the enthusiastic television crews from Fiji bailed off first to get footage of the disembarking passengers who were met by Commodore Frank Bainimarama.
I, by chance, was the second person off and – after getting a shell necklace – inadvertently bypassed the handshakes and headed straight to Customs as usual . . . but after a few minutes standing there alone realised I should double back for the reception.
Most of the passengers were lining up shake Bainimarama's hand and have their photo taken with him.
In a reception room of the terminal where there were local business people and cabinet ministers, there were a couple more speeches and Bainimarama – in a casual shirt – spoke of the flight bringing smiles to Suva, and of the importance of tourism in the country's recovery strategy.
I scribbled a few notes – again, curiously, TV3 filmed nothing – and what I got was that Air Pacific has 950 employees, tourism is worth about $600 million and is 11 percent of Fiji's GDP, and that 68 percent of all tourists came through Air Pacific.
So this was an important day.
Bainimarama said he wanted us to know that Fiji was “as beautiful as ever and we welcome you to our shores”.
A lot of local heads nodded in agreement.
A minister (religious) was invited to give a blessing – as he stepped forward a champagne cork popped and the room dissolved into laughter – and among other things he thanked Bainimarama for his “wisdom”.
There was a speech by the willowy Miss South Pacific (whose name I didn't get) who may have been unprepared but was extremely eloquent.
Then we journalists headed for the minicab to take us in to Suva.
So I was in Fiji . . .
The question is: given the opportunity, would you have been?
(In the next post I will write about the Media Decree and its ramifications, then in the last I will offer a final and hopefully fair and honest overview of my experiences in and around Suva.)