15 Feb 2012

'Testing the waters' in post-PER Fiji

6:31 pm on 15 February 2012

News editors in Fiji say the regime's lifting last month of emergency law has brought its own set of challenges, as many of their reporters have never worked in a newsroom free of censors.

The journalists say they are still testing the waters after the lifting of Public Emergency Regulations, brought in three years ago.

Sally Round reports.

A day after emergency law was lifted, Fiji TV ran an interview with outspoken regime critic and union leader, Felix Anthony.

"It was a bit of a watershed moment for us also for Felix Anthony. If anything he was more glad than anyone else that he could get back on to mainstream media."

News and Current Affairs Editor at Fiji TV, Geoffrey Smith

We thought we'd test the ground early and since then we haven't had anything from government so obviously we assume so far that things are alright.

Geoffrey Smith says it's a relief not to have to scramble nightly for extra stories after censors struck their pen through those pieces deemed unacceptable.

But there are other issues to contend with.

Since he joined Fiji TV twelve years ago, there has been an outflow of experienced staff.

Journalists have basically got disenfranchised, demotivated. It's hard to get new young enthusiastic journalists who know nothing outside media censorship. Even our journalism graduates from the University of the South Pacific or Fiji National University, they have never operated in an environment post media censorship or in a free democratic society.

Journalists still operate under the threat of heavy fines or two years' in jail for defying the Media Decree.

It's been in force for nearly two years, aimed, the regime says, at ensuring accurate and balanced reporting.

Lisa Williams-Lahari of the media watchdog Pacific Freedom Forum says lifting of emergency rule makes no difference for general freedom of the media in Fiji..

The kind of self-censorship issues, the regime mentality that goes against the whole spirit of open and independent reporting is still entrenched so until they take away the media decree along with the PER, then I think a lot of media are still biding their time until things do become more free.

Editor in Chief at The Fiji Times, Fred Wesley, says self-censorship is the biggest danger facing Fiji media, and he says his paper remains constantly on guard, censors or no censors.

This was sort of like an enemy for us, the self-censorship issue so journalists were always told when you get an assignment, do the assignment. There is no question about whether it is going to go in or not going to go in, whether the censors will pull it out or not. Your job is to go out, get the story, make sure it's fair and balanced and put it into the system.

The once Murdoch-owned paper which was brought under Fiji shareholder control under the regime's new media ownership rules is currently facing contempt charges brought by the interim government last year.

With censors out, is the paper under any more pressure?

Since the lifting of the PER, we have not had any interference, no subtle pressure whatsoever. For us it is about testing the water so to speak and so far so good.

The independent organisation Fiji Media Watch monitors the Fiji Times and the Fiji Sun as well as radio and TV.

Executive Director, Agatha Ferei, says the Fiji media's focus on community news, development and achievements continues as under emergency rule but she has noticed a flowering of opinion on the Letters to the Editor pages.

They've had people sharing their own opinion on the decrees that the government have put out. Some are for, some against but they're able to publish that.

Her group fears the latest anti-defamation decree is a real blow for the media, and a public steeped in what the group calls a culture of silence.

The decree gives the regime leader and his cabinet as well as the media who publish their statements legal protection if anyone tries to take them on for slander.

It also disallows members of the public to share their opposing viewpoints openly and for us this is not in line with our Media Decree or our media Code of Ethics which calls for balanced, transparent, fair, just reporting.

Fred Wesley says the anti-defamation decree won't affect how the Fiji Times operates.

For us it's about making sure our reporters get both sides of the story, balanced, fair and that's just the way we're going to continue. I don't think it's going to force us to lean in a certain direction. No. It's business as usual for the Fiji Times.

Geoffrey Smith at Fiji TV says they've had to bring the lawyers in to ensure they don't fall foul of any new rules, but ultimately it's all about balance.

If they make a statement that seems defamatory, we have checks and balances in place in our newsroom, if it's too 'out there', we just won't cover it full stop and at least that way we're protecting ourselves, well before the issue gets out of hand.

Our correspondent in Fiji, Ricardo Morris, says despite the lifting of the PER, there remains a raft of media rules affecting the nations' newsrooms.

The landscape now compared to six years ago is vastly different from what it was then. I don't think there will be a flood of senior journalists going back into the industry just yet.

Over at Fiji TV Geoffrey Smith says he remains prepared for more surprises in the media environment in the run up to the general election, promised for 2014.