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“Fiji Times not on a level playing field” (ed. in FT 26/9/2020)

26/09/2020

“Fiji Times not on a level playing field” (ed. in FT 26/1/2020)

All good governments try to ensure that markets for products and producers in their jurisdiction are competitive, to ensure not just efficient allocation of resources, but also some degree of fairness to consumers and firms.

Fiji has had over the years many organizations formally charged with that duty, with the latest being the Fijian Competition & Consumer Commission for the economy as a whole, and for the media specifically, the Media Industry Development Authority.

Nevertheless, for several years now, the members of the Fiji public who value media freedom have publicly complained that the Fiji Times has not been getting “a fair go” from the Bainimarama Government, relative to its competitors.

Not only has Fiji Times been unfairly denied government ads paid by taxpayers’ money, but its staff have faced prosecution over criminal charges which arguably would not be considered in our developed neighbors Australia and NZ. One case involving a letter writer and the FT publisher has been dragged on for years now (severely imposing material and psychological harm on them) and is still ongoing (that against the vernacular and English language editors were dropped after years).

While pro-Government voices have dismissed these complaints as being inspired by the Opposition political parties, that cannot be said of a former Bainimarama Government speech-writer (Graham Davis) who for many years, until recently, was responsible for writing of brilliant speeches for the Prime Minister via his employer Qorvis, an American public relations company.

But since Davis and Qorvis parted company, he has been waging a frenetic campaign on his blog (Grubsheet Feejee) to encourage Prime Minister Bainimarama (who he still supports passionately) to eject Minister X from his Fiji First Government, arguing that this was the only way for FFP to win the next election.

This article does not delve into the dynamics of the complex relationships between Davis, Prime Minister Bainimarama, Minister X and the shadowy but unspecified “Military Council” nor into the substance of the debates and tensions, fascinating as they are.

I focus here only on the “collateral revelations” by former insider Graham Davis, about the blatantly pro-government media and their senior journalists, their relationship to the Bainimarama Government and their preferential treatment in the media industry, all of which clearly breach the laws of fair competition in Fiji.

This in turn requires the Fiji public to demand what the FCCC and MIDA are doing in allowing this state of affairs to continue, and perhaps even on the role of FICAC in exercising, however indirectly, a negative influence on the freedom of the media, all there organizations funded by scarce taxpayers’ money.

 The start of the fracas

To bring unaware readers up to speed, these revelations by Graham Davis appeared in his personal blog, Grubsheet Feejee, revived after a six year layoff when he became employed by Qorvis for the Government.

I do not discuss and make no judgement on the substance of Davis’ arguments, extraordinary as they are, but merely quote from the blog (in italics). In his Grubsheet post “The Military’s secret blueprint for change” (10 Sep. 2020), Davis writes

Following the near defeat in the 2018 Elections, the shocked Prime Minister (Frank Bainimarama)

 “summoned the people he trusts most – his military colleagues who helped him seize power in 2006 and who are still the ultimate authority in Fiji. They are the members of the Military Council – senior military officers still in uniform plus those who’ve officially retired and entered the government as ministers in the Bainimarama cabinet, become permanent secretaries or taken over as the heads of such institutions as the police…. Despite the return to parliamentary rule in 2014, the military remains all powerful in Fiji. As the 2013 Constitution puts it: “It shall be the overall responsibility of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces to ensure at all times the security, defence and well-being of Fiji and all Fijians”.”

 The Military Council apparently placed all responsibility for the near defeat of the FFP at the 2018 Elections at the door of Minister X.

So what did the Military Council call for as the solution, according to Davis?

 First and foremost, the Military Council document calls for the removal of Minister X… [and for him] o be stripped of his other portfolios… Too many portfolios under one minister has created a perception that Miniser X has full control of Government”, the document states.”

In the next post, Davis stated that Bainimarama’s successor was to be another former RFMF officer, a Minister in the Bainimarama Government, and not Minister X, clearly the most powerful and influential Minister in the Bainimarama Government.

Bainimarama reacts

The Fiji public became fully aware of the sensitive Greubsheet revelations when the Fiji Sun headlined (20 September 2020)  “PM HITS BACK AT DAVIS’ GOSSIP”.  Graham Davis reported the PM’s response as follows:

 “Stung by successive Grubsheet articles revealing how the military wants changes to the government and also revealing the name of his designated successor, Frank Bainimarama has made an astonishing personal attack on me on the front page of the government-controlled Fiji Sun newspaper and on the government-controlled Fijian Broadcasting Corporation.”

 Graham Davis also quoted directly exactly what PM Bainimarama had to say about him, as reported in the media (which I do not discuss, however interesting) and his own rebuttal of the PM’s words (again, very interesting).

But the comments on the pro-Government media become sharper with Davis’ next post highly critical of the Fiji Sun reporting on the contents of a Fiji Sun opinion poll.

The Fiji Sun/Western Force Research Poll

Following its sponsored opinion poll by Western Force Research, the Fiji Sun had a lead story by its senior journalist Nemani Delaibatiki  “Labour Big Winners in New Poll” which Graham Davis described as “the relatively unremarkable news” when “the truly big news is the collapse of the government’s vote, along with a 10 per cent fall in personal support for the Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama.

The Sun article stated that the poll results indicated that according to the 1000 persons interviewed (of unknown representation), some 41% thought that SODELPA would win the 2022 elections, while FFP had slipped to 37%. The same poll results indicated that support for Bainimarama as Prime Minister had also fallen from 43% to 33%.

But the other comments and words used by Graham Davis in criticizing the Sun’s reluctance to highlight the decreasing popularity of the Bainimarama Government and Prime Minister Bainimarama personally, are more relevant to the topic of this article.

Davis noted:

 True to form, the Fiji Sun has tried to please its political masters in government… In an “analysis” piece that reeks of the customary Fiji Sun spin…”.

 Wow. “customary Fiji Sun spin”. These are strong words indeed, coming from a former Qorvis operative.

On the Fiji Sun interpretation of the PM’s comments on his post, Graham Davis noted

 Yes, Nemani. Anything you say. Correction. Anything the Prime Minister and his Attorney General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, tell you to say…. It’s just that you are not a journalist but a government propagandist. And the difference between you and me is this: When I was at Qorvis, everyone knew it. But with you, it’s clandestine – the dirtiest secret in the Fijian media.”

Not really a secret, it it?

But Graham Davis went on:

 “Your paper receives money in the form of exclusive government advertising and in return, has surrendered control of its editorial pages to the AG. … That, Nemani, is corruption and a breach of even the most basic journalistic ethics. And you and your fellow “journalists” should hang your heads in shame.”

But these Graham Davis comments on the supposed lack of independence of some parts of the media are not isolated.

In an earlier Grubsheet post (“As I was saying”. 11 August 2020), Graham Davis noted:

 “Under (Minister X’s) leadership, some of the most important institutions of state have been weakened or manipulated to the government’s advantage. One of the most striking aspects is the prevailing nepotism that allows his brother to simultaneously run the national broadcaster and play a key role in the FijiFirst election campaign….. But by far the worst aspect for me is the creeping acceptance of what would once have been unacceptable and what Frank Bainimarama partly mounted his 2006 takeover to root out – corruption”.

What is not mentioned here is that the same national broadcaster is totally government owned and receives government guarantees of its considerable loans, without the public being made aware of the exact amount of subsidies or indeed its overall state of finances.

Wherefore art thou: FCCC, MIDA and FICAC?

Given that this former Government insider and former award-winning Australian journalist is clearly brutally critical of the Fiji Sun and FBC of not media free of government control and bias, where are the regulating agencies FCCC and MIDA, which are formally charged with ensuring that the media industry is not distorted by lack of competition.

Common sense would indicate that if the purpose of government ads (and it would seem the ads of nearly all the public enterprises) is to reach the largest numbers in the Fiji public, then it should go by competitive tender, perhaps to the largest print outlet, in this case the Fiji Times.

Or more sensibly, the government ads should be placed in all the major news outlets that could reach the public.

So clearly, the awarding of government ads exclusively to Fiji Sun is a blatant breach of fair competition principles, that the FCCC is supposed to espouse and diligently strengthen, while eliminating any anti-competitive behavior, if necessary by prosecution through the DPP or FICAC.

But FCCC is nowhere to be seen or heard on the anticompetitive behavior in the media industry.

If the words of MIDA (Media Industry Development Authority) are to be believed, this institution ought to be devoted to the media industry’s “development” which should include at least the objective of fairly encouraging the most competitive media outlets, on a level playing field with all other competitors.

There should not be any preferential treatment of any media outlet, and certainly not for political gain, such as blind support of the government in its policies and attacks on perceived political opponents.

But MIDA (and its once vociferous Chairman) are nowhere to be seen or heard, on the government’s preferential support of some media in return for pro-government reporting of news, all contrary to the real long term interests of taxpayers and voters of Fiji.

One could also ask why a government organization like FICAC has spent massive sums of taxpayers’ money pursuing a former Fiji Times employee (its former publisher and two editors) and a mere Letter Writer to the vernacular language newspaper, on what 99.99% of the Fiji public would say is a trivial criminal charge, when daily there are media reports of far more substantial cases of real corruption.

Indeed, Graham Davis states that the Military Council itself called for the removal of one of the key functionaries in FICAC, on grounds of perceived religious bias this article will not discuss either, however fascinating they are in the public discourse.

One can indeed ask, is there no better use of taxpayers’ money by FICAC than all the trivial cases that it has pursued, many fizzling out for lack of evidence of any corruption.  While blatant multi-million dollar cases of corruption have occurred and continued without a single tweet from FICAC staff.

One of the tragedies of this era for many taxpayer funded civil servants in high places like FCCC or MIDA or FICAC is that hitching their wagons to a political Master and his political objectives has inevitably encouraged the once honest civil servants to sacrifice all adherence to ethics and morals, and dragged their personal reputations into the mud and the smelly dustbins of history. Readers can name them all.

Graham Davis opines, and on which there can be general agreement from many in the public, there has been a sad deterioration of governance standards in Fiji despite the 2006 coup supposedly being a “clean-up” campaign.

But what can be, and will be debated till the cows come home, is Graham Davis’ allegation that all of the current problems of the Bainimarama Government are to be laid at the door of just one Minister (who may not be named, a la Harry Potter), whose ejection from the corridors of power will supposedly make everything hunky dory for the Prime Minister who Graham Davis hopes will thereby win the 2022 Election.

Hmmmm.

 

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