More strife for media as Fiji votes

Media monitoring made covering Fiji’s first election since the 2006 coup a farce, writes Claire Stewart. Photographs by Dominic Lorrimer.

There was a lot of huffiness in Fiji over election week, metaphorical foot-stamping and finger-wagging that was glorious and disturbing in equal parts.

I’d not previously witnessed a Pacific Island having a tantrum, but on the evening of Wednesday September 17, with the vote count for the country’s first poll since the 2006 coup slowly rolling in, the government’s media regulator came out swinging on national television. In his sights, what he saw as the international media beast.

“We need to contextualise and historicise the role of the media since 2006,” said Ashwin Raj, who is chairman of the Media Industry Development Authority (MIDA) and famous across Suva for his polysyllabic pronouncements.

Media Industry Development Authority chairman Ashwin Raj speaks to the media at the Vodafone Arena where votes are being counted on the 19th of September 2014. Photo DOminic Lorrimer

Media Industry Development Authority chairman Ashwin Raj speaks to the media at the Vodafone Arena where votes are being counted on the 19th of September 2014. Photo Dominic Lorrimer

“I am very apprehensive. As much as I am euphoric about the opening up of the [media] spaces, I am absolutely concerned about the level of discourse that has taken place in the last couple of months.”

Established four years ago by military commander Frank Bainimarama’s post-coup regime, MIDA was given significant and unencumbered investigation and prosecution powers under the Fiji Media Decree, which regulates ethics and content, and bans material that is against public order, public interest or national interest, or could create communal discord.

While Bainimarama has now permanently swapped his naval uniform for the business suit of a democratically elected Prime Minister, his media regulations are expected to stay.

The Friday before the vote, MIDA announced it would be imposing a media blackout. We hadn’t fully grasped how much the ban would curtail stories.

MIDA maintains it was put in place to “prevent or to protect the voter from incessant campaigning before polling so that the voter can decide without influence or undue press”.

The Observer Group flack said ABC and SBS were conferring about what exactly could and couldn’t be published. Local media had their stories vetted if there was any potential they could influence voters.

We took an educated guess, but erred on the safe side, refraining from detailing policies or quoting political opinions which MIDA could have easily, and unilaterally, decided were “designed to malign”. After all, contravention carries 10 years’ jail time. But it was awkwardly clear throughout that there was really only one person they didn’t want maligned.

Our election day instructions: No photographs within 300 metres; no talking to voters; no talking to politicians; no photos inside the polling booths unless it is of a politician and only while they are posting their vote; no turning up to random polling station unless you have rung the MIDA at least two hours earlier so that can notify (read: warn) the station that you’re coming. It went on.

A member of the local Fijian media takes photographs through a window of the Soldepa party leader Ro Teimumu Kepa as she casts her vote at the Rewa District School. The media were given guidelines before election day as to their access to polling booths. 17th of September 2014 Photo Dominic Lorrimer

A member of the local Fijian media takes photographs through a window of the Soldepa party leader Ro Teimumu Kepa as she casts her vote at the Rewa District School. The media were given guidelines before election day as to their access to polling booths. 17th of September 2014 Photo Dominic Lorrimer

I wanted to put up my hand at a briefing and get it out in the open: I know that you know that we know what all these shenanigans are about. But I didn’t. I was nervous. In Australia, I would have asked the question.

Here, in this sparse room under beating fluorescent lights being lectured by two men who were either too well paid to see the hypocrisy of what they were saying, or (astoundingly) believed they were acting for the good of the people and not just Frank Bainimarama, I held back.

Next time I won’t, because I’ve seen that much of the pressure on the international media was really just a game of posturing and turf marking. After all, they need international reporters perhaps more than we need them. Fiji, under Frank, has everything to prove.

Come Wednesday morning, my photographer and I found ourselves in a wooden canoe-like boat, cruising up the sandy blue waters of the Rewa River, just east of Suva. We were following our noses out to the polling station on an island where Ro Teimumu Kepa, the leader of the Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA), was voting.

So how exactly did you get allocated to come out here? a local reporter asked when she hitched a ride in the boat back from the island. We didn’t, I said. She looked baffled. We just wanted to have a look, so we drove out and walked in. Oh, she said. Right.

It struck me later just how deeply and systematically the pall of media monitoring must have damaged journalists here.

Getting in a rental car to find the village where the leader of the country’s most popular opposition party was voting that day seemed like the most ordinary thing a reporter could do. No bravery required, no deep investigative probing to find secret locations, no clandestine operation to reach nervous interviewees.

It was nothing more than winding the windows down for a short drive out of town in the morning sunshine, and a chat with the local boat driver as he ferried us to the island before guiding us through the villages, all enthusiasm and smiles.

But my Fijian colleague looked at me as if we’d done something extraordinary. And dangerous. All because the government hadn’t approved and allocated where and when we chose to report. If curiosity kills the cat, who kills curiosity?

The encounter affected me more as the day wore on. It’s easy for us to fly in for two weeks, cast aspersions, laugh about how ridiculous it all is, scoff at the hypocrisy and the patronising attitudes of the grandiloquent media regulators, then piss off back to a country where we can do or say almost anything, safe in the knowledge that any disputes will be resolved through a properly functioning judicial system.

Someone who, I later learned, was a notorious New Zealand blogger was interviewed as part of the Fiji Broadcasting Corporation’s live election coverage that night. He had bucket loads to say about how the international media had performed in a horrible, biased, ill informed, cynical and frankly embarrassing manner throughout the week.

He was right that we don’t necessarily have the depth of knowledge about Fiji that we would if we lived here. I still thought his comments were a bit much. He was grandstanding about how international reporters were wrong to arrive with preconceived ideas or to expect the same kind of access and coverage of an election in Fiji as we would in Australia or New Zealand.

Is that because the countries are inextricably different; because Fiji has been ruled by a military government verging dangerously close to operating as a dictatorship; because they are only just beginning to understand how this thing called public accountability works?

Even before the blackout, Fijians were wary of speaking about the election. Three out of three times, when I broached the subject during a casual chat on my first day in the country, I received an identical answer about why Bainimarama was good for Fiji. How much of that was good PR, and how much was a result of subconscious, or even conscious, censorship on their part is difficult to tell.

Ultimately, we took a gamble and did exactly what we would have done, had we been operating in a normal media environment.

It remains to be seen whether we’ll be chastised with anything more than a huff. I still have a vague (and most likely unfounded) concern we might yet be kicked out of the country. In which case, there’s always Nauru. Anyone want to pay $8000 for our media visas?

Claire Stewart is a former corporate lawyer turned reporter with the Australian Financial Review, and is now a Sydney based freelance correspondent working across the Middle East, Afghanistan and the Pacific. Check our her blog, or follow her on Twitter here.

Dominic Lorrimer’s photography portfolio site is well worth a look here.

Boat drivers wait at the Rewa River where they ferry people over to Rewa District School so they can vote. 17th of September 2014. Photo Dominic Lorrimer

Boat drivers wait at the Rewa River where they ferry people over to Rewa District School so they can vote. 17th of September 2014. Photo Dominic Lorrimer