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“How effective are the Watchdogs? The Commerce Commission, Media Authority and media ownership in Fiji. Islands Business 5 April 2013.

05/04/2013

The Commerce Commission of Fiji (CCOF) is charged with fostering competition in the Fiji economy and discouraging non-competitive behavior or the abuse of “substantial market power”.

A few years ago, the CCOF (under another Chairman) did  nothing when Carlton Brewery (a beer manufacturer) took over the only rum distillery in Fiji, thereby monopolizing the local protected alcohol industry (later called Fosters Pacific).

The activities of the Commerce Commission since Dr Mahendra Reddy took over as Chairman also raise the eyebrows of economists.

The CCOF has zeroed in on many sectors and products, such as pharmaceuticals, hardware or bread, where one would have thought there is adequate competition, while ignoring the retail prices of the telecommunication giants, especially the mobile companies.

I have written about it previously:

https://narseyonfiji.wordpress.com/2012/03/18/commerce-commission-helping-or-harming-the-poor-professor-wadan-narsey/

The Commerce Commission saw no cause for concern when Coca Cola Amatil (the most dominant player in the Fiji soft drinks market) recently took over Fosters Pacific, thereby acquiring substantial market power over both the soft-drinks and the alcohol market.

Fijian Holdings Limited and Fiji TV

In recent months, there has been another acquisition- that of Fiji TV by Fijian Holdings Limited- which has also not led to any great discussion in the Fiji media.

This may not be strange given the continuing climate of media self-censorship.

Yet this acquisition also has the effect of concentrating “substantial market power” in the media industry in another kind of way which the Fiji public need to be aware of and discuss.

In a recent article, I have pointed out the damaging consequences on media freedom of having the major media outlets in print and radio, owned by large businesses who are vulnerable to discretionary government policies of one kind or another.

https://narseyonfiji.wordpress.com/2013/02/07/fiji-media-moguls-squashing-media-independence-7-feb-2013/

The impact of such large business ownership (of Fiji Sun and The Fiji Times), combined with the effect of the Fiji Government owning and controlling Fiji Broadcasting Corporation (radio and TV) was a significant reduction of the media’s role as “watchdog on Government”.

The only redeeming feature was that Fiji TV was still relatively privately owned, although it also faced continuous intimidation because the Regime only grants it a six-monthly license instead of the normal long term license.

Well, the Fiji Government may no longer have to bother with using the license as a lever.

One may expect now that the Bainimarama Government will be able to exercise control and direction of Fiji TV in the same way that they exercise control and direction of FBC.

Both the television channels will therefore now be subject to effective government control- an exercise of substantial market power” by one entity over the Fiji TV media.

FHL is also a corporate giant in the Fiji economy, and it has wide commercial interests which are far more valuable than profits from Fiji TV, and many of which also depend on government’s discretionary policy such as duty protection (eg cement).

My previous comments on Motibhai Patel’s ownership of The Fiji Times and CJ Patel’s ownership of the Fiji Sun not being good for media freedom and its watchdog role, apply equally here.

Fijian Holdings Limited will not want to jeopardize any of its substantial commercial interests in the Fiji economy, by taking the risk of annoying the Fiji Government through any kind of genuine watchdog role.

Did the Commerce Commission express any concerns over the FHL acquisition of Fiji TV?

The Still Slumbering Media Authority?

The Media Industry Development Decree 2010 (which many have criticized) requires the Media Authority to “facilitate the provision of a quality range of media services which serves the national interest; to ensure that media services in Fiji are maintained at a high standard in all respects and, in particular, in respect of the quality, balance, fair judgment and range of subject-matter of their content”.

Internationally, the role of “watch-dog over government in the public interest” is considered to be one of the corner stones of media freedom and societal relevance.

Increasing Fiji government control over the Fiji media goes directly and explicitly against this role and “balance”.

Yet the Media Authority and its Chairman (Professor Subramani) make no public statements despite the many criticisms of media censorship in Fiji and unhealthy patterns of media ownership.

Did the slumbering Media Authority (and Professor Subramani) express any concern over the acquisition of Fiji TV by Fijian Holdings Limited?

It would be interesting to find out if members of the Fiji public have expressed their concern through letters to the editor, which have just not been printed.

Need for public oversight

In Australia, there is an excellent ABC TV program which weekly puts the microscope on the media,  including programs by ABC itself.  You can watch it here:  http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/

You can also read the scintillating columns by the host of this TV program (Jonathan Holmes).
http://www.abc.net.au/news/thedrum/jonathan-holmes/167140

Holmes has been a journalist for 35 years and brings incisive and balanced, but humorous  views on media misdemeanors and unfairness- in print, radio or television.

It would seem that Fiji has a long way to go before such a critical and publicly useful program can ever be aired (on TV or radio) or such critical columns that protect the public and private interests, see the light of day in the print media.

In the meantime, it might help if the statutory authorities charged with these responsibilities, Commerce Commission and the Media Authority, were to take their responsibilities seriously. That is not happening as well as it should.

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