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The Heroes of Team Fiji Times (ed. in FT 6 October 2018)

06/10/2018

The Heroes of Team Fiji Times (ed. in FT 6 October 2018)

Professor Wadan Narsey

Would you as a mere employee, happily go to work every morning knowing that if you did perform with total honesty and ethics, you were personally likely to face huge fines and prison?    Yet that is what Team Fiji Times has done for several years now. Which probably explains why the Editor-in-Chief of The Fiji Times, Fred Wesley was recently announced as the inaugural recipient of the News Media Executive of the Year at the 2018 PANPA Awards at the Hilton in Sydney.

The PANPA Awards supposedly recognize and celebrate news media advertising and marketing campaigns in Australia, New Zealand, the South Pacific and Asia.

But readers must ask themselves, why would Fred Wesley and Fiji Times be singled out from the dozens of editors of newspapers around the South Pacific and Asia, with far bigger circulation and far better financed than The Fiji Times? Indeed why not any of the other news media in Fiji?

Wesley hinted at the reasons when he also acknowledged his fellow Fiji Times journalists: “We have had to live through tough times since 2009. This certainly is a positive reflection of the work being churned out in The Fiji Times newsroom”.

But just as the Rugby World Cup cannot be won without a “team effort”, so also dedicated professional Fiji Times journalists could not do their tough jobs without the support and guidance of an equally dedicated and equally vulnerable publisher (Hank Arts) and the strong support of financially vulnerable media owners (Motibhai Group of Companies).

Let me first outline my understanding of good media and good journalism, against which the Fiji public can measure not just The Fiji Times, but all of Fiji’s media outlets, their journalists, publishers and owners.

I suggest to good curious journalism students (and the journalists themselves) have a table of these criteria down the LHS and the other media as columns, and tick the boxes to get in one snapshot the state of the media in Fiji.

Remember: “you don’t know what you have got till it is gone”.

The ideal media in a democracy

The media can have three powerful roles in relation to the government of the day and the public: they may  protect the public interest by acting as a watchdog on both government and people; they can undermine governments in the interests of powerful lobby groups, or they can be a propaganda arm of  the government itself.

According to (http://pmintegrity.com/pm_docs/PrinciplesofPublicMedia.pdf) one must ask whether a particular media organization enables the public to:

(a) have full and free access to public information relevant to their lives, especially in monitoring government activities with the tax-payers’ funds

(b) ask questions, provide answers, share viewpoints, and extend public education

(c) ensure an informed and engaged public that enables a strong and effective democracy

(d) produce original cultural material that strengthens local communities and their culture.

Clearly, The Fiji Times scores quite well on the first three criteria, which probably also explains its occasional unpopularity with powerful governments.

But the above requires journalists to adhere to highest of standards as set out by the US Society of Professional Journalists (read here: http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp).  Good ethical journalists

* seek truth and report it;

* are honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information;

* support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant;

* give voice to the voiceless;

* recognize a special obligation to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection;

* act independently and be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.

* be accountable by encouraging the public to voice grievances against the news media, admit mistakes and correct them promptly,

* and even expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media, and abide by the same high standards to which they hold others.

To their great credit, the Fiji Times journalists have tried to satisfy these objectives (read Viliame Keteca’s Letter to the Editor, in the box) despite the perpetual threat of personal fines and jail sentences, given that all news stories must now carry the personal bylines of journalists.

Readers should remember that there are far easier ways to earn your living than the tough jobs that are done by good poorly paid journalists today: is it any surprise that many good journalists move on to better paying public relations jobs with commercial organizations without the trauma that good journalists face daily?

The tough times for Fiji media

The public well knows that The Fiji Times has been in hot water with various governments precisely because of their attempt to be a watchdog on government.

And they have paid the price: media publishers (like Russel Hunter and others) have been expelled from Fiji; former Fiji Times editor (Netani Rika) had his  home firebombed; the Fiji Times has been heavily fined and its editor given a suspended jail sentence for republishing an opinion already published overseas.

Just recently, The Fiji Times owners and directors, its publisher (Hank Arts), and its Editor in Chief (Fred Wesley) have been in court over an allegedly seditious letter published in the Fijian language newspaper. While they were ultimately found not guilty by the courts, the case dragged on for more than two years, inflicting great psychological harm and trauma on those who were charged.

There is little doubt that during the unaccountable military dictatorship and especially after the 2009 abrogation of the 1997 Constitution, the Fiji Times had no option but to practice severe censorship of critical views if it was to survive.

My own personal Fiji Times articles declined from 94 between 2000 and 2009 to a mere 11 between 2010 and 2011 and then to a big fat zero between 2012 to 2014.

But keep in mind a bit of wisdom attributed to Martin Luther King Jr.: one only knows the ultimate measure of a person  not where he/she stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he/she stands at times of challenge and controversy.

Or more the more common version attributed sometimes to John F. Kennedy “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”.

Team Fiji Times, and especially those hidden persons behind the scenes, the publisher and the owners, did rise to the occasion.

The Publisher Hank Arts

I personally know for a fact that the Editor and journalists of The Fiji Times have had the active support and guidance of the publisher, Hank Arts, who readers have seen in photos of those appearing in court recently.

I remind, he is an elderly white haired man who, at his age could have been thinking of peaceful retirement instead of going  into painful crusades fighting for principles of good media and journalism, at great personal risk, just as his editor and journalists were doing.

Not for nothing was Hank Arts also targeted with prosecution these last few years and he has personally suffered.

He was not allowed to travel abroad to attend the wedding of his step-daughter in NZ, despite excellent surety offered by thoroughly reputable Fiji citizens.

He had massive fines and jail sentences hanging over his head, for essentially for being a dedicated publisher, true to his profession and ethics.

Nevertheless, just prior to the 2014 Elections, publisher Hank Arts courageously requested me, at great risk to himself,  to write articles explaining tot the Fiji public what I though were the relevant issues for voters and I did so.

What the public do not know is that virtually every one of my articles had to be referred to expensive Fiji Times lawyers to ensure that there was not a single word, phrase or sentence, however innocuous, which could be used to prosecute the Fiji Times, its publisher, its editor and me (as recently done over a letter to the Editor in the Na Lalakai.

Tongue in cheek I had even asked the publisher for a mere half the fee they paid the lawyers for putting a red line through a few phrases! But students please note this interesting economics lesson:

These large lawyers’ fees accurately reflected not necessarily the value of my article or even the Fiji Times’ wish to avoid even larger fines, but ultimately the extent to which the newspaper owners (Motibhai Group of Companies) were committed to their newspaper honestly fulfilling the wider watchdog role on government.

The courageous owners, Motibhai Group

When Motibhai Group of Companies took over the ownership of Fiji Times by buying out Murdoch, I had grave doubts about their ability or even their inclination to operate the newspaper as a good media organization, given that they were not a dedicated media company but had a massive portfolio of commercial assets which could be vulnerable to discretionary government policies.

Fiji public please remember: for this extremely enterprising and successful Gujarati company, there are far easier ways to make money than owning a national newspaper which could  be a real source of terrible woes for their family.

Remember that one of the Motibhai’s senior directors had not too long ago faced severe legal sanctions (including a prison sentence) for “irregularities” arising from his voluntary chairmanship of a public enterprise board and despite paying millions in taxes.

Motibhai’s had already lost market share in their very profitable Nadi airport duty free business and they have many more business interests in Fiji financially vulnerable  to discretionary government policies.

Indeed, Fiji Times, despite being the most popular newspaper in Fiji, had for several years been quite unfairly denied tax-payer funded advertisements (worth more than five  million) from government and most public enterprises, giving an extraordinary financial advantage amounting to its competitors.

I had originally feared that the need to protect their wider financial interests might encourage Motibhai’s to caution, request or require publisher Hank Arts to tone down the Fiji Times watchdog role.

But Motibhai’s Group of Companies has allowed their publisher and journalists to follow the highest of journalism standards, and against all the odds, Fiji Times has remained financially successful and indeed increased its circulation.

It was therefore extremely heartening to read the recent statements by Fiji Times Board Chairman, Kirit Patel (FT 28 September 2018) who not only gave credit to Fred Wesley for his PANPA award but

“thanked the editorial staff for reporting news without fear or favour… to defend ideals of good journalism .. making positive contribution to people’s lives.. society and the nation… [and promised] to stand behind the staff and provide a path to strong ethics”.

History will record that this is one rare Gujarati company that has contributed on the positive side of the national ledger of corporate responsibility in Fiji, with the brave and courageous support of the publisher (Hank Arts), Editor (Fred Wesley) and the many other Fiji Times journalists.

I urge you all to read the words of an avid Fiji Times reader, Kiniviliami Keteca (Nausori), who reflects the sentiments of all Fiji who appreciate today the value of a good newspaper like The Fiji Times.

Team Fiji Times: take a bow.

I present here for a box to go with my Fiji Times article, the slightly rearranged words of FT reader, Viliame Keteca

“Despite the many challenges, you have remained steadfast in your calling.

 You have been the voice of the voiceless

 You have stood up to regimes and critics who wished that you be silenced.

 You have highlighted the plight of many, the underprivileged, the poor, the disenfranchised

 You have spoken out when it was so easy to look the other way and not report at all.

 You brought to the fore and raised questions when some of our citizens suffered at the hands of those who should be protecting them.

You chose not to look the other way.

You also celebrated the success stories of many.

You shared the dreams of our sportspeople and administrators.

You shared the achievements of farmers, fishermen and entrepreneurs.

You reported on the devastation of cyclones and floods.

Your reporters were out in the cold when they could have remained indoors in the comforts of their beds.

You spoke out on the need to protect our fragile environment and biodiversity like the kawakawa and other species in the seas.

You reported on crimes and the criminal justice system

You highlighted the successes and achievements of governments and their officials.

You did not shirk in your duties to question government expenditure of public funds.

You promoted racial equality when some quarters of our society sought elitism.

You had the courage to speak out and demonstrated your freedom from fear.

The Fiji Times has indeed remained true to its original goals of “maintaining the liberty of the press and the rights of all men”.

The Fiji Times is now a public good; a practical, useful and honest medium for the support of honour, truth and right.

And so say all of us.

 

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