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Making people smart by media decrees (edited version in Fiji Times 16 Nov. 2014)


Making people smart by media decrees (edited version in Fiji Times 16 Nov. 2014)
Professor Wadan Narsey

It must be quite reassuring for Fiji to be continuously told by the Bainimarama Government ministers such as the new Minister of Education (Dr Mahendra Reddy) that they are going to create a “smart” society in Fiji, and rightly so.

The remarkable progress of small countries like Singapore, which were on par with Fiji some seventy years ago, is a tribute to their people adopting “smart” strategies in education and economic growth.

While our children can become “smart” through our education system, probably as important, given the amount of time they spend in the classroom and outside, is the impact of our popular media such as television, radio, newspapers and mobile phones.

What is the media doing to make our people “smart”?  Or are they doing the opposite?

What is our government doing to encourage the popular media to help our people become “smart”? Or are they doing the opposite?

Should government be doing anything at all? Or should it just leave it to the free market and competition, and let the consumers and the media companies decide whatever the outcomes?

Or should government give financial incentives where the market fails?

The last eight years has seen an interesting array of government interventions in the media industry, some of which have not been questioned publicly at all, given the general climate created by media censorship.

The tragedy that our education authorities and educators have totally failed to engage in public debate on the role of Fiji’s media as a tool to make our people “smart”.

Monopoly to limited “competition”

Some eleven years ago, I wrote an article (The Fiji Times, 22 April 2003) “Fiji TV’s monopoly and the need for competition”.  Let me just quote a few lines from that article there (I use the word “Fijian” to describe indigenous Fijians. Those who agree with the Bainimarama Governments use of that word may use it in that sense as well):

“But, lagging behind in commerce and pressured by globalization, Fijians also urgently need programs that will educate them about where their world is going, nationally and globally- in business (especially relating to tourism, agriculture, fisheries, forestry), education, science and technology, politics, and the arts….

Fijians also need TV programs that will help preserve and strengthen Fijian language and culture, also rapidly eroded by globalization…..

For sixteen years, the fundamental institutions of our society- the government and the presidency, the judiciary, the policy and military- have been ripped apart.  But there are few program in Fijian or Hindi to educate our public who are not comfortable in English.  And the ignorance of our people allows demagogues to thrive. …

And pathetically, there continues to be a mere two minutes of news in Fijian and Hindi.”

I suspect that many of the issues raised in that article, are still relevant today, despite the fact that competition appears to have increased, for all the media, in terms of numbers of providers.

But is the competition improving the variety and quality of our programs towards making our society “smarter”??

Or is the competition leading the media in a “race to the bottom” with intellectually vacuous content that is as likely to make our people “smart” as cow dung in a paddock.

The many positives

Without doubt, in some areas, the competition has improved the quality of the media output.

There are excellent programs on rural development, such as Jharokha, but not in English or Fijian, nor focused on the debilitating problems of Fiji’s agriculture, which could do with something like ABC’s excellent Landline program.

There is an excellent business program called Talk Business, but not in Hindi or Fijian.

There is an excellent Fijian cultural program We Ni Yawa, compered by Manoa Rasigatale, but no similar one in English or Hindi.

There are excellent talk-back shows on radio and television focusing on development issues in all the three languages.

There are far more programs on cooking using local foods, with the objective of not just fostering our domestic agriculture but also better nutrition.

There are the old programs such as CloseUp which have unfortunately lost their bite and new ones yet to prove their political neutrality (such as 4 the Record)

There is now much greater diversity of international programming: Al Jazeera, DW, NZ TV, CCTV.

But much of this excellent international programming is only available at off-peak hours, such as the middle of the day, or from mid-night to morning when school children are not likely to be watching.

They are not available at peak viewing hours.

Entertainment versus education

Of course, media must entertain and we would all be bored silly if we had to watch educational programs all day long or even for hours on end.

But if any journalism student ever did an objective analysis of a time trend in the content of our print media (Fiji Times and Fiji Sun)) over the last thirty years, the most spectacular changes will be the incredible increase in the percentage devoted to entertainment and sports.

There are pages and pages devoted to Bollywood and Hollywood stars and their love affairs and other antics, intellectually as stimulating for our children and young people, as grazing cows in a paddock.

What is hardly discussed in Fiji by our social leaders is the enormous damage that this hero worship of mostly fair-skinned stars is doing to the self-esteem of our young people, mostly brown or black, many with frizzy hair and unique physical features, totally different from that of the movie stars.

Perhaps some creative university student will do some research on how much money is wasted by our people on trying to change their God-given physical features by artificial means, towards the looks of the Bollywood and Hollywood stars (read here for an article on racist skin whitening advertisements).

There are reams and reams devoted to sports of all kind, and the off-the-field antics of our sports heroes.

The radio stations are totally geared towards providing “popular” music of Hollywood and Bollywood, with a virtual absence of cultural diversity that existed thirty years ago.

You will not find any great amount of time devoted to classical music (English or Hindi) or folk music (English or Hindi).

Despite the suitability of television for popularizing the use of computers, Internet and mobile media, there are minimal programs on these on television or radio.

Yet there has never been greater need to educate especially our older folk on the great benefits of Internet skyping etc., which some have taken to, like ducks to water.

They will find some good educational programs, such as National Geographic, but only on the pay channels: i.e. rich parents can get their kids to watch good stuff, but the poor families will be denied because they cannot afford $500 per year for all the SKY channels.

Duplication by choice and decree

One of the extraordinary developments in recent years has been the enormous amount of program duplication that is going on.

On certain days and nights, there is only Bollywood to be seen on all television channels.

On Sundays, there are only religious programs, when there are many who do not wish to watch religious programs at all.

At certain times, some religious groups take out commercials which blast their version of the word of God at all and sundry.

At times there are hours and hours of commercials trying to sell equipment that allegedly develops your pectorals or flat stomachs, flawless skins etc. etc.

Then there has been duplication by decree where the Lords of the Universe claim that because they do not want anyone in Fiji to miss out on watching Rugby Sevens or some other such sports events, every single television station must screen the intellectually moronic events.

I don’t mind watching a good rugby sevens game, but there must be many who depend on “free to air” television, are forced to watch moronic rugby sevens, hour after hour, day after day, with no choice whatsoever.

I do not need to point out that there is a particular ethnic community whose schools have for decades over-emphasized sports and rugby especially, to the detriment of their academic advancement, although sports has also proven itself to be a very useful avenue for material advancement as well, for a small proportion of our young people.

Lack of a level playing field

It is commercially obvious that the ability of the media companies to provide socially useful programs of the type I am calling for, would usually sacrifice profits.

A “level playing field” is therefore an essential part of the development of a free, fair, competitive and transparent media industry.  Unfortunately, that does not exist, because of deliberate policies by the Bainimarama Government.

For instance, millions of dollars of tax-payers advertisement funds are channelled only to Fiji Sun without a fair proportion going to The Fiji Times.

Outright subsidies are being given to Fiji Broadcasting Corporation via government budget and government guarantees of loans from FDB, with no such subsidies given to either Fiji TV or the other radio broadcasters.

The private television stations’ scoops at obtaining rights to the broadcast of popular sports events such as FIFA World Cup and Sevens Rugby, are totally undermined by Government decree forcing them to share these programs with other broadcasters, on financial terms dictated by the Bainimarama Government rather than negotiated among themselves as a market transaction.

One would have thought that the “public broadcasters” who receive preferential taxpayer funds, ought at least to be providing a larger proportion of educational programs.  I doubt if that is the case.

Instead there are at least two powerful media companies (Fiji Sun and FBC) which are shameless propaganda arms for the Bainimarama Government, perpetually and deliberately asleep as “watchdogs on government”, according to any objective quantitative analysis of their media content.

Sadly, the Media Industry Development Authority (MIDA) is more of an oxymoron, clearly in primary service to the Bainimarama Government, while blatantly refusing to address serious concerns about the lack of a level playing field in the media industry (see here).

What should be done

Our journalism programs in the three universities (staff and students alike) need to do the objective analysis of media content, on which sound policy guidelines may be constructed.

Why they have not already done so could be due to a number of factors: fear of victimization if they discover (as they inevitably will) unpleasant facts; fear or reluctance to do quantitative analysis, when waffling by conjecture or secondary sources is so much easier; sheer inability to understand the power of objective facts; and perhaps just mediocre academics.

What is then needed is dialogue and discussion among the media providers, as to what should be minimal target contents in different areas.

Of course, MIDA can be involved, but merely to suggest guidelines.

This country does not need more social changes by dictatorial decree.


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