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“MIDA Chairman changes his tune”. 19 Nov. 2014.

19/11/2014

MIDA Chairman changes his tune (19 November 2014)
Professor Wadan Narsey

The Media Industry Development Authority was established by the Bainimarama Government in 2010, supposedly to regulate the media industry for the public good.

Yet MIDA’s ready condemnation of journalists from Fiji, ABC and NZRI for alleged biases (read here ), its ready condemnation of local media for running alleged “hate speeches” (read here), and its reluctance to subject the Bainimarama Government to the same scrutiny (read here), might suggest that MIDA is being used more to regulate the media in the interests of the Bainimarama Government,

When the current MIDA Chairman (Ashwin Raj) was appointed, he announced his intention to tackle media censorship on a principled basis, and immediately demanded accountability from the media on their editorial policies for opinion articles and Letters to the Editor.

Much of the content of the censored articles and letters to the editor, could have influenced voters in the September 2014 elections.

Following the September 2014 elections and the victory of Fiji First Party (FFP) and Bainimarama, however, there has been a complete reversal in attitude of the MIDA Chairman.

The MIDA Chairman seems to suffer amnesia of the last six years history of the Fiji media being intimidated by the Bainimarama Government, and its biased treatment of different media.

The MIDA Chairman is currently achieving international prominence and status in the defense of the Bainimarama Government on its record on human rights.

It is quite unlikely that the MIDA Chairman will play any significant part in bringing about greater media freedom, and a level playing field for all media interests.

This article is based on my personal experience.

The media censorship and MIDA

From 2009, with the Bainimarama Government tightening its media censorship, Fiji’s print media stopped publishing my critical articles and opinion pieces on public policy matters.

I resorted to writing Letters to the Editor, but found that even these were being censored (see this page on my personal blog, NarseyOnFiji for evidence) https://narseyonfiji.wordpress.com/z4-censored-letters-to-editor/.

One after another, two professors of literature (Satendra Nandan and Subramani) were appointed as Chairmen of MIDA, only to distinguish themselves by their calculated silence on the ongoing media censorship.

I was more hopeful when an articulate USP administrator, Ashwin Raj, was appointed Chairman of MIDA and I began cc’ing him my Letters to the Editor so that he could see, at first hand, the censorship that was being practiced.

Apparently sympathetic, the MIDA Chairman asked the media to reveal their editorial policies on their decisions to publish or not publish opinion pieces and Letters to the Editor.

With no response from the media, I addressed specific queries to the MIDA Chairman outlining the factors undermining the even development of the media industry (letter of 3 July 2014, edited here for space):

Dear Mr Raj

  1. Earlier in the year, you gave a commitment at the World Press Freedom Day panel that you had written to the editors of the newspapers, seeking clarification of their policies on what letters to publish and not.

 (a)        Could you please tell the public what has been their response and whether MIDA is comfortable with their position.

 (b)        Could you also please ask all the television and radio stations what their policy is on interviewing experts on public policy issues in various fields (for example, the humble field of economics which all political parties, candidates and voters are focused on currently)?

2       As a “level playing field” is an essential part of the development of a free, fair, competitive and transparent media industry, could you please inform the public what is your position on:

 (a)    taxpayers advertisement funds being channelled by the Bainimarama Government only to Fiji Sun with The Fiji Times, the oldest Fijian newspaper, being totally denied

 (b) outright subsidies given to FBC via government budget and government guarantees of loans from FDB, with no such subsidies given to either Fiji TV or the other radio broadcasters, Communications Fiji Ltd.

 (c)  the clearly intimidating renewal of the license for Fiji TV on a six monthly basis, while FBC TV suffers from no such restriction

 (g) While Fiji TV’s accounts are available to the shareholders, FBC accounts are not available at all to the taxpayers who supposedly own FBC.

 (e) Mai TV’s “scoop” at obtaining rights to the broadcast of FIFA World Cup (a legitimate entrepreneurial transaction admired in the business world) being forcibly shared by decree amongs the other broadcasters, on financial terms dictated by the Bainimarama Government rather than negotiated amongst themselves as a market transaction.
 

  1. Given that you (and the PS Ministry of Information Sharon Smith Johns) have often publicly admonished journalists to be “robust” and “boldly investigative” in their work, did you query Fiji TV and the owners Fijian Holdings Limited why respected senior journalist and administrator Mr Anish Chand was sacked from Fiji TV on this year’s World Press Freedom day, because of complaints from the Bainimarama Government (as was related to you during the World Press Freedom Day panel at USP).

Yours sincerely
Professor Wadan Narsey

 

There was no response from the MIDA Chairman.

 

Another letter to the MIDA Chairman (and the editors of the print media) on 16 July 2014 asked again why the print media were not publishing my Letters to the Editor which were calling on the Bainimarama Government to reveal the salaries of ministers between 2010 and 2013, and why the Bainimarama Government was not releasing the Auditor General’s Reports from 2007 to 2013.  Both issues were of importance in the elections.

 

Ashwin Raj then cc’d to me a 19 July 2014 letter he wrote to Matai Akauola (CEO of MIDA).

 

Dear Matai,

You will attest to the fact that on several occasions, I have requested the mainstream media to disclose their in-house editorial policy. In the interest of transparency, the public should know exactly the rationale behind the publishing of select articles, opinion pieces, letters to the editor, to the exclusion of others. ….

 the onus is really on the media to substantiate their claim that they have in place an in-house editorial policy that ensures that the media is balanced, that they are committed to ensuring  access and equity and are transparent at all times….. to date, I have received nothing from the media houses. I am now requiring the media to disclose this.  

 Appreciate it if you can circulate this e mail to the media. Can we convene an editors’ roundtable soon please?   Regards, Ashwin. 

 

The media still did not respond.

 

I sent another letter to the MIDA Chairman on 27 July 2014, and also to the print media as Letter to Editor, reminding him that he had not replied to my previous queries.

 

On the 28 July, the MIDA Chairman, clearly irritate by now, replied:

 

“While I acknowledge your contribution to public discourse on matters germane to national interest, it is imperative that I am not openly (or otherwise) copied in the quotidian nature your correspondence with the media.  ….  this act of openly copying me each time you request the media to publish your letters and opinion pieces can be construed as an act of coercion.”

 But he reiterated that he was still pursuing the media for their editorial policy.

 “You might also be aware from my press conference this week that I am requiring all media outlets to disclose their in-house editorial policy. The public or any other concerned entity has the right to know why some letters, articles and opinion pieces get published to the exclusion of others.”

Just prior to the elections I sent another letter on 20 August 2014 to the MIDA Chairman pointing out that with just a month to go to the elections, the evidence indicated that the media journalists who were interviewing political candidates, and MIDA itself did not appear to be neutral.

One Fiji Broadcasting Corporation journalist, Veena Bhatnagar, soon after showing her pro-Bainimarama bias when hosting an FBC hosted debate between two political candidates (Professor Biman Prasad of NFP and Aiyaz Khaiyum of FFP), became a candidate for FFP.   So also did the MIDA Chairman (Matai Akauola) become a candidate for FFP.

I asked the MIDA Chairman to explain when exactly his CEO began discussions with the FFP to stand as their candidate, and to ask the FBC CEO (Riyaz Khaiyum) when he was informed by his journalist Veena Bhatnagar that she was having discussions with Fiji First Party to stand as  a candidate for them.

There was no reply from the MIDA Chairman.

The September 2014 Elections took place, Bainimarama was appointed as a democratically elected Prime Minister.

 

The MIDA Chairman then replied on 27 October 2014 with a clear reversal of attitude:

 

“Please note that the media has the freedom to publish and can equally exercise their right not to publish your letter and MIDA will not interfere in this process. Should you feel that there is a systemic exclusion of your letters, please lodge an official complaint with MIDA”.

 

How extraordinary that a MIDA Chairman who comes out all guns blazing at a call from Bainimarama, ignores a complaint in an email, and demands a “formal complaint” before he will take action.

 

The MIDA Chairman also declines to be proactive about the refusal of the Fiji Sun to publish a Letter to the Editor complaining about an attack on me by its journalist Jyoti Pratibha, thereby breaching one of the fundamental principles of media freedom- that correspondents should be given a right to reply to attacks by the media.

 

The MIDA Chairman and media intimidation

 

The MIDA Chairman, who easily remembers the wrong doings of British colonialism in Fiji a hundred years, has not been able to take heed of all the intimidation of the Fiji media over the last six years (which largely explains the self-censorship that is taking place currently) and which the public easily forgets as well.

 

In February 2008, Fiji Sun publisher, Russel Hunter was deported in the middle of the night, despite a High Court injunction against the deportation.  The Bainimarama Government ridiculously claimed that “Mr Hunter was conducting himself in a manner prejudicial to the peace, defence, public safety, public order, security and stability of the sovereign state of the Fiji Islands.”  The facts indicate otherwise.

 

Russel Hunter stated that he was deported because the Fiji Sun published articles by brilliant investigative journalist, Victor Lal, on the interim Finance Minister’s failure to pay his taxes on time and maintaining large secret bank accounts overseas.  The Finance Minister then was Mahendra Chaudhry who was recently convicted by the Bainimarama Government on other charges relating to the same bank accounts.   Does the MIDA Chairman Ashwin Raj see as relevant to the current media climate that both Victor Lal and Russel Hunter remain prohibited immigrants from Fiji, essentially for revealing the truth as dedicated investigative and analytical journalists that Aiyaz Khaiyum claimed to want all journalists to be?

 

In May 2008, Fiji Times published Evan Hannah was deported as was his successor, Rex Gardner, in 2009.

 

In 2010, outspoken editor of Fiji Times (Netani Rika) and Deputy Editor (Sophie Foster) resigned, “in the interests of the newspaper”, when their “crime” was that their principled refusal to formally recognize an illegal government which had taken power using a military coup.

 

In 2013, the Fiji Times was fined $300,000, publisher Brian O’Flaherty received a six months suspended sentence, and its Editor, Fred Wesley given a two year suspended jail sentence (running out in February 2015) for the republishing of a NZ media item that would not be considered a crime in Australia or NZ.

 

Does the MIDA Chairman care at all that the media and the journalists have been intimidated, and that he has a serious role to play in protecting the media and journalists so that they can be the responsible watchdogs on governments they should be?

 

To understand Ashwin Raj’s back-down from his earlier position, it is useful to understand his meteoric rise to power during the Bainimarama reign, both at USP and nationally.

 

The rise and rise of Ashwin Raj

 

Just four years ago, Ashwin Raj was a temporary junior staff member at The University of the South Pacific, struggling to find a foothold as a permanent academic.  With a remarkable ability to recognize and fill intellectual power vacuums, Raj soon  rapidly rose in status there.

 

He also made powerful connections with the Bainimarama Regime and was appointed Chairman of MIDA.

 

He has not criticized the USP management for curbing academic freedom by removing a speaker from a USP program on World Press Freedom Day nor criticized them for the lack of academic debate at USP on matters of good governance.

 

The MIDA Chairman has just been part of a large team led to Geneva by the Attorney General to present to the UN, the Fiji Government defense on human rights, including media freedom.

 

In Geneva, the MIDA Chairman did not raise the many issues of media freedom, media censorship and lack of a level playing field for media companies, that have all been publicly raised with him as Chairman of MIDA, nor did he give any hint of his attempt and failure to obtain the editorial policy accountability he has publicly demanded from the media.

 

Instead, Raj helped to put a gloss on the Bainimarama record on human rights and media freedom, while berating the international donors and international media for their alleged “neo-colonial” practices, as he has done quite frequently.

 

As the correspondence above indicates, the MIDA Chairman now refuses to be proactively tackle media censorship, government discrimination against some media in the use of tax-payers funds , penalization of critical journalists, the political bias and lack of objectivity of some media and their journalists, and the state’s intimidation of the media through fines, jail terms and insecurity of business licenses.

 

All these areas ought to be of central concern to a MIDA Chairman  whose official remit it is to regulate the media industry in the public good.

 

The MIDA Chairman is silent on the current failure of some media to inform the public about the damaging contents of the Auditor General Reports from 2007 to 2013, shrewdly released by the Bainimarama Government after the elections, and whose contents clearly substantiate many of the concerns raised by Opposition parties, and critical Letters to the Editor, all censored by the media.

 

Ashwin Raj is yet another in a long line of intellectuals who have materialized in post-2006 coup Fiji, to fill the propaganda power vacuum in the service of the Bainimarama Government.  The public can only wait with bated breath (and a dictionary in hand) to see what further powerful roles he will enjoy in today’s Fiji, which is little different from the military dictatorship we have had for eight years.

 

Postscript

The Bainimarama Government is apparently in the process of ensuring complete control of the television media in Fiji by quietly designing and forcing a transition from analog TV to digital TV, in which the final outcome will be virtual control by Fiji Broadcasting Corporation and the total subservience of the other media companies.

 

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