Table of Contents
Fiji’s media grew exponentially in the three decades following independence. With that growth and diversification came a radically altered relationship between the media and the government.
At independence the media consisted of The Fiji Times, then a reliably pro-establishment organ, and the government radio station, which, while nominally independent, could be relied upon not to rock the boat too much. By 2006, Fiji had three national dailies, a range of magazines, a flourishing independent radio industry and a monopoly television broadcaster. Per head of population Fiji had and continues to have among the greatest choice of local media in the world. This is highly unlikely to continue to be the case, of which more later.
It is likely that this increased diversity – and increased competition – pushed the media into a more independent, even adventurous, frame of mind, as each outlet fought fiercely to establish and/or maintain market share. In the media there is no more deadly executioner than a bored audience.
The friction between the media and the government perhaps reached its height in December 1996, when the Rabuka government first said it would approve my appointment as editor-in-chief of The Fiji Times. On the basis of this approval, I left my job on The Australian in Sydney and travelled to Suva – only to discover that the Fiji government had changed its mind. It took the joint intervention of Prime Minister Rabuka and Home Affairs Minister Paul Manueli to have my work permit approved. It was to become a depressingly familiar experience.
The Fiji Times had been perceived as anti-Rabuka-government (as opposed to anti-government) – which may well have been a fair assessment from the point of view of the cabinet. But The Fiji Times had quite rightly taken a very firm line on the National Bank of Fiji scandal, roasting the government mercilessly on what was arguably the worst and most expensive debacle in Fiji’s short history. Apart from the $220 million it cost the people of Fiji there was another, less immediately obvious, outcome. This was the propensity of this and successor governments to, often quite deliberately, confuse the national interest with the government’s interest. The affair also established a lasting atmosphere of tension between government and media. This tension, however, was, if anything, healthier for the national good than was the all-too-cosy relationship that had prevailed.
Perversely, when the media and the government were in something resembling an accord in the run-up to the 1999 election – with what was at the time described or perhaps hailed as the Rabuka-Reddy concordat – the people of Fiji overwhelmingly rejected the government, bringing the Fiji Labour Party (FLP)-led People’s Coalition to power with, by Fiji standards, a convincing election victory. The country’s first and so far only prime minister of Indian descent, Mahendra Chaudhry, rode a wave of multicultural goodwill and national optimism the like of which Rabuka and Reddy could not have imagined. Chaudhry, however, lost the general goodwill within a matter of months – and blamed the media. His justification – or the lack of it – in so apportioning culpability is less relevant here than the fact that Chaudhry became convinced of his own rhetoric – that the media had a ‘hidden agenda’ to unseat him. The media in general responded that the agenda was so well hidden that none of them could find it. The Fiji Times ventured so far as to say that Chaudhry had his own hidden agenda, which was to pick a fight with the media in order to concoct a reason to introduce harsh and government-imposed controls. In a particularly angry speech to the Pacific Islands News Association convention in Suva that year Chaudhry warned of legislation if the media did not mend its ways. Mahendra Chaudhry’s dislike (or worse) of the media was now in the public arena – and Chaudhry has never been one not to act on his dislikes or to refrain from settling scores, real or imagined.
In early 2000, The Fiji Times’ request to extend my work permit was declined and, after a judicial review upheld the Chaudhry government’s right to make that decision, I left Fiji on 3 May 2000 – Press Freedom Day – only to return on 12 August to the news (to me) that I was suspected by sections of the, by now media-paranoid, FLP of being in some way connected with the Speight coup that had toppled the Chaudhry government. Otherwise, it was suggested, why would I have come back? Of course, there was no connection whatsoever but the myth, as myths do, lived on.
The fact that the post-coup Qarase government fared no better with the media than had its predecessor made little impact on the closed minds of the myth-makers, and the voice of the FLP was unusually stilled as the nation’s fourth coup, in December 2006, drew ominously nearer. Despite their widespread opposition to the Qarase government’s overtly racist and divisive policies, the section of the media that routinely expresses editorial opinion, the daily newspapers, was unanimous in the view that another coup would be nothing short of catastrophic for Fiji. Thus was the stage set for a confrontation, the result of which is likely to be a much truncated and state-controlled media in Fiji.