SYDNEY — FIJI'S expulsion last week of Pacnews, the South Pacific regional news service, highlights simmering tensions between governments and media in the region. Started four years ago, Pacnews has developed into a vital source of daily news (and journalism training) for Pacific islanders about island issues. The news service compiles radio reports from 13 Pacific island nations and reissues them as news bulletins. Its editors are indigenous islanders.
But on May 2, Pacnews was evicted from its headquarters in Suva, Fiji. The two West German managers/trainers (the service is funded by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation) have been ordered to leave by May 18. Pacnews plans to reestablish offices in Auckland, New Zealand.
Fiji officials (installed by the Fiji Army) say Pacnews broke its original agreement by expanding beyond a training program into a full-fledged news service. But Pacnews and other news organizations in Fiji have been in a feud with officials over news content since the military threw out the democratically elected government in two coups in 1987.
Intimidation by the Fiji military and licensing laws have compromised accuracy and produced self-censorship among local media, according to a report by the International Federation of Journalists. Fiji's Minister for Information Ratu Inoke Kubuabola said of the report: ``Freedom of the press is not threatened in Fiji; irresponsible journalism is.'' But recently, Fiji elevated libel to a criminal offense.
Few foreign journalists (except travel writers) have been allowed into the country in the last year. This also effectively denies media direct access to numerous regional institutions, such as the South Pacific Forum Secretariat (the administrative body for an annual gathering of Pacific island leaders) and the University of the South Pacific, based in Fiji.
``It seems the government in Fiji just wants to prolong the [current political] situation rather than push forward the [development of a new] constitution and elections,'' says Tavake Fusimalohi, chairman of the Pacific Islands Broadcasting Association, which established Pacnews.
But Fiji isn't alone on this issue. Concerns about press accuracy and freedom have grown over the past two decades as most Pacific island states have achieved independence. Few have populations or income to support local news enterprises. Often they are state-financed and run the risk of political interference. The scant coverage these nations get in the international media typically occurs during crises. Island leaders say the news reported is of ``negative'' events, is superficial, and lacks objectivity.
For example, sensational or erroneous reports about riots in Vanuatu or law-and-order problems in Papua New Guinea (PNG) have caused a sharp drop in tourism and foreign investment, which provide critical income for these aid-dependent island economies.
Last year PNG's foreign minister called for a code of conduct for journalists operating in the region. The issue was raised last July at the South Pacific Forum with the suggestion that foreign media guilty of misrepresentation be penalized. Australia and New Zealand protested the idea. But the forum suggested a media workshop be held.
The workshop, held in late February in the Cook Islands, has been hailed by both sides as a progressive step. ``For the first time government representatives and the media sat down together. This is an ongoing debate which will take some time to resolve. But the Cook Islands meeting could be the start of the process,'' says Jemima Garrette, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's South Pacific correspondent.
The workshop produced a series of recommendations including that governments should ease visa restrictions and set up a database of information for better cross-cultural understanding.
Just days before the workshop, Fiji officials decided not to attend.
Singularly, PNG has also made a concerted effort to address the ``foreign media problem.'' Late last year, Prime Minister Rabbie Namaliu and several ministers held a dinner in Sydney for senior editors of Australian and foreign media. The purpose was to discuss ways to reduce sensationalism and improve the accuracy of PNG coverage. One point of agreement was that faster and more frequent access to PNG would produce more informed coverage.
But in light of a secessionist war on Bougainville Island (which has produced reports of PNG Army human rights violations and an Australian journalist shot by rebels) Namaliu's government appears to be trying to manage foreign coverage.