“The People’s Parliament: Letters to the Editor”. (edited version in The Fiji Times, 7 Feb. 2015
The People’s Parliament: Letters to the Editor (The Fiji Times, 7 Feb. 2015)
Professor Wadan Narsey
Every military coup in Fiji has removed the parliament through which peoples’ elected representatives could publicly raise legitimate concerns.
The worst period was the seven years between December 2006 and September 2014, when no Auditor General Reports were released to the public because they allegedly had to be “tabled in Parliament first”.
The situation was made worse by media censorship.
But one very fruitful avenue is often ignored: the “Letters to the Editor” columns of the newspapers and magazines allow anyone to publicise any issues they desire.
The Fiji Times, for instance, prints dozens of Letters to the Editor on weekends, on a huge variety of topics.
The public are now quite used to some names: Allen Lockington, Rajend Naidu, Praneet Singh, Sukha Singh, Floyd Robinson, Nardeo Mishra, Lawrence Narayan, Kirti Patel, and even Frank Eggers from Albuquerque (USA), all writing on their pet topics.
The Fiji Times strengthens democracy by allowing ordinary citizens openly and responsibly publicizing their concerns, often concerning public policy and taxpayer funds.
Effectively, the “Letters to the Editor” columns are “People’s Parliaments”, publicly recording the issues for all to see, just as “Hansard” does for the proceedings in parliament.
The Fiji Times, to its great credit, also promptly posts these letters online, instantly giving national and global exposure.
The readers can also see if those wielding authority, such as Government Ministers or university Vice Chancellors, respond or do not respond to these publicly aired concerns and questions, easily demonstrating the extent of their accountability to the public whose funds they control.
But for this democratic mechanism to exist and be effective, the media must publish all legitimate Letters to the Editor, without any censorship.
Unfortunately, some letters are not published for various reasons.
The impact of any censorship of Letters is worse if it comes on top of censorship of opinion articles.
My personal experience
In one of my complaints to the Chairman of the Media Industry Development Authority (MIDA), Mr Ashwin Raj, I had pointed out the great decline in the numbers of my feature articles published by the newspapers following the promulgation of the 2010 Media Decree:
Years Articles published
2012- Mar 2014 0
I also complained to MIDA that even some of my Letters to the Editor were not being published, despite their public policy content.
The MIDA Chairman gave a public assurance on the 2014 World Press Freedom Day that newspaper editors must explain to him and publicly, their editorial policies on Letters to the Editor.
But he soon changed tack and informed the newspaper editors they that were perfectly free to publish or not publish, and with mind-blowing logic, asserted:
“any interference by MIDA in this process would ordinarily be deemed as an assault on the independence of the media by Wadan Narsey amongst others…. The matter is now closed.”
The MIDA Chairman had originally given a commitment that he would ask for the editorial policies, not that he would interfere with their decision, although he might well have ruled afterwards in some cases that newspapers would be required to publish some Letters to the Editor.
This matter will remain dictatorially “closed” unless the public demand greater accountability from the newspapers and MIDA, and push the lawful boundaries with Letters to the Editor.
[From April 2014, The Fiji Times itself requested cautious public policy articles from me in the run-up to the national elections, and some have continued since then.]
Citizens’ personal responsibility
It is understandable that under a military dictatorship, citizens can be discouraged from voicing criticisms of government policy, or asking awkward questions of Ministers and civil servants.
Even the Auditor General’s Reports were not released for seven years and the Public Accounts Committee will have great difficulty in addressing the revealed cases of the past misuse and abuse of funds, as the Ministers and civil servants concerned may have “moved on”.
The public must bear some responsibility for this sorry state of affairs as they abjectly failed to publicly protest even in the media available to them such as Letters to the Editor.
Of course, with a parliament in place now, the public can expect their issues to be raised by their elected representatives, in both the Opposition AND government.
But it is the moral responsibility of the knowledgeable citizens to educate the public on the emerging issues through the Letters to the Editor columns, so that pressure may be applied on parliamentarians.
Unfortunately, the current content of most Letters to the Editor indicates that the public minds are more occupied by sports trivia than the far more serious governance issues that are undermining our society.
The bottom line is that if the ordinary people do not raise their voices through the media channels that are available to them, then they will get the society they deserve.
What issues can be raised?
I give below the broad subject contents of my own Letters to the Editor over the last two years alone:
MIDA, Media freedom and censorship 5
2014 Elections and Electoral System 11
Economy and Public Policy 8
Governance, and Accountability 19
These letters are all on my website (“NarseyOnFiji”), and the sprinkling of labels “NOT PUBLISHED” give a good perspective on the nature of media censorship in existence then. These Letters may be seen collectively on this page:
My website also shows how a freely available website management system such as WordPress, allows anyone to freely publicize their views within Fiji and globally, despite any media censorship.
Journalism students could write major theses analysing the content of Letters to the Editor columns of our two daily newspapers, over the last ten years.
They could also ask newspaper editors and frequent writers for information on Letters to the Editor that they have not published and why not. That would be quite interesting, wouldn’t it?
I am quite encouraged sometimes to find many sensible and perceptive Letters to the Editor.
The newspapers which do not censor their Letters to the Editor, might even find it worthwhile to give an annual set of awards and cash prizes (perhaps worth $50 each) for the most sensible Letters to the Editor in a variety of fields in which social welfare is enhanced by the content of the Letters.
They could be in different popular categories as Public Policy, Politics, Religion, Sports, Education, Environment, etc.
That might go some way towards improving the quality of what is sent to the newspapers.