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Atu Emberson’s film of Vatukoula Gold Mine Workers’ strike: silenced by the gold [The Fiji Times, 15 January 2002]

28/03/2012

Defenders of media freedom are usually quick to respond, if a newspaper,  radio or TV station gives rise to unfair censorship.

But a recent somewhat heavy-handed bit of film censorship has gone virtually unchallenged by the usual defenders of media freedom.

Emperor Gold Mine stopped a film screening

A few weeks ago, the lawyers acting for the Emperor Gold Mines at Vatukoula, pressured Village Six cinemas, to drop the screening of a locally produced film, “Na Ma’e! Na Ma’e!.  We stand until we die”.

The film is about the 1992 strike by workers at Emperor Gold Mines.

It has already been screened elsewhere inFijiand in other parts of the world.  You can watch it at the USP Library, and no doubt at any library in the world, with an interest in industrial disputes, gold mining industries, the Pacific, and labour conditions in general.

Why were the ordinaryFijipublic denied the right to view the film?

Whatever may have been their legal rights, the Village Six proprietors probably did not wish to tangle with a large corporate company like Emperor Gold Mines.

Emperor Gold Mines may think that the film is not fair to them, the employers.   But, even if true,  is that reason enough to stop the screening of the film?

Emberson is a reputable academic

The producer of the film is Dr Atu Emberson-Bain, who received her doctorate degree fromAustralianNationalUniversity, for her historical thesis onFiji’s gold mining industry.

Her thesis was also published (in 1994) as a book (Labour and Gold inFiji) by the internationally reputable Cambridge University Press.

Why is Dr Bain’s book and film unusual?

Usually, historical studies have focused on rulers- the kings, rajahs, presidents, prime ministers, ratus, popes, and the powerful few in society.

But in recent years there has been a legitimate shift towards recording history from the point of view of the common men and women, the workers and peasants, who form the largest part of society, who do the bulk of work, and without whom civilisations would not exist.

Book and film on labour history of the downtrodden

And Dr Bain’s film is certainly focussed on the workers’ perceptions of their problems at the Emperor Gold Mines, at the time the film was made (in 1992).

The film presents a picture of low wages, unhealthy workplaces, unsafe work practices, extremely poor living conditions, and polluted environments- which the Emperor Gold Mines may be disputing.  The film also highlights the company’s racial policies in employment, its vehement opposition to trade unions and the sacking of unionized workers.

The film argues that the Government (of the day) was reluctant to recognise the workers’ strike as a legitimate industrial dispute,  police and nearby village workers were used to intimidate the strikers; and that the mining company effectively manipulated its government and political connections, to suppress workers’ claims.

The film saw it as ironic that indigenous Fijian governments consistently failed to support the interests of indigenous Fijian gold-mine workers, apparently even granting further mining rights without the knowledge of the relevant land-owners.

Similar issues are all alive and relevant in today’sFiji, as disputes all over the country testify.

But the intelligent viewer of the film is left to ponder:  why were working and living conditions for workers so poor at the Emperor Gold Mines?

Could the unpleasant and conditions have been justified because of low world market prices for gold?  Were the union demands giving rise to inefficiencies and lower productivity, thereby making theFijimine uncompetitive in the world markets?

We do not know.

Certainly, Dr Bain’s film does not delve into the company’s justification for their wages policies, or their failure to improve the working and living environments (although her book gives a much greater in-depth analysis).

What is hinted at in the film is that the company has often made good profits, received numerous tax benefits from the Fiji Government, and indeed even given cash grants at taxpayer expense, supposedly at times of financial difficulties.

The film implies that Emperor Gold Mines could well have afforded to accept unionisation, pay better wages, and improve the working and living conditions for the workers.

The film implies that the company chose not to do so, in order to boost their already healthy levels of profit, by exploiting the workers.

Are these implications true?

On the basis of the information supplied by the film, again, all we can say is “we do not know”.

The Emperor Gold Mines itself has never produced data to the public to show that they were in such financial difficulties that they could not improve wages, and working and living conditions, if they were to remain economically viable.

Currently, the world market price for gold remains low, but the company is still surviving, and presumably making some profits (otherwise they would close down).

Logically, when world gold market prices were higher (as has often been the case over the last four decades), the company was probably earning much higher profits.  Or so we must assume, unless the company produces facts to the contrary.

Company produced no answer: but used brute force to stop the screening

But no. The Emperor Gold Mines does not produce any facts to counter the allegations in Dr Bain’s film.  They did not issue any statement rebutting the film in any of  the aspects they disagreed with.

They simply used their corporate power and their lawyers, to squash the screening of the film inFiji’s capital city,Suva.

Fiji must not accept media censorship?

Which is a pity. The Fiji public, and indeed viewers all over the world, will now ask:  if the company can virtually bully a Suva cinema operator in not showing a film which is being shown elsewhere in the world, could it also have been similarly guilty of being unfair towards its workers in a “company town”, as the film alleges?

The strike by some of the original workers continues, many will say futilely, with no hope of success.

Especially in an era of labour market deregulation, the worker David does not often win against the corporate Goliaths.  Corporate giants will always find it easy to finance political parties and influence governments, for their corporate interests.

But, as is the nature of human spirit,  everywhere in the world, Davids keep battling Goliaths, and win the hearts of the ordinary public. InFiji, the Goliath mining company, by squashing the screening of the film, has certainly not won the hearts and minds of the public.

The current Minister of Labour needs to remember his roots and advise the current Minister of  Information to ensure that Village Six is able to screen Dr Atu Bain’s film, without duress from corporate giants.

If the Emperor Gold Mines disagrees with the content of the film, they are free to present their own views, in print or through another film.

TheFijipublic needs to protect media freedom for our locally produced films, even if some do not agree with the content.

Do we have media freedom or not?

 

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