FIJI: Researchers call for deeper understanding from coup reporters

Researchers publish findings in Pacific Journalism Review 20 years after the first coup

By David Robie
AsiaMedia Contributing Writer

Monday, May 14, 2007

An Australian media researcher has found that many journalists covering the first three Fiji coups in 1987 and 2000 were too reliant on elite sources to provide a good understanding of the complex crises.

This reliance increased the likelihood of reinforcing the status quo and provided a "limited version of reality," reports the latest Pacific Journalism Review.

Anthony Mason, a doctoral candidate from Canberra University, wrote his analysis in a review paper for the journal edition marking the 20th anniversary of the original coup by Lieutenant-Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka on May 14, 1987.

Mason said it was critical that Australia and New Zealand gain a deeper understanding of troubled societies "on our doorstep" such as Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Tonga.

"The media can definitely contribute to improving the broader level of understanding," Mason said. "The front line journalists have a lot of freedom to cover the story the way they want to, but the impact of their stories -- of their expertise, their understanding and their contacts -- is swamped by the coverage from home and elsewhere."

Mason reported on some of his findings from interviews with 15 Australian and New Zealand journalists and a content analysis of three broadsheet newspapers -- The Australian, the Canberra Times and the Sydney Morning Herald.

"Half the stories studied here were written by journalists in Australia, and of the 128 journalists who had stories about the coups attributed to them, 57 percent wrote just one story and 18 percent wrote two stories.

"Clearly, a more committed and focussed interest in reporting of the Pacific by the media organisations would be required if any significant improvements were to be made.

"If nothing else, they need to commit to giving journalists more time on the ground in places like Fiji -- time to get to know the social and political structures -- and not just send in crews in times of crisis."

The findings of another researcher, Fiji-born Christine Gounder of New Zealand's AUT University, who is now a reporter for Niu FM-Pacific Radio News and covered the fourth coup last December, were also published in the Pacific Journalism Review.

Gounder, who focused on coverage of the 2000 coup, wrote that it was difficult for many Fijian journalists to remain professional in their jobs because of strong cultural ties with the supporters of failed businessman George Speight's coup.

Speight is now imprisoned for treason and a controversial draft law that could have granted him an amnesty was a factor leading to the fourth coup last December.

Gounder, who interviewed 13 Fiji journalists and four foreign reporters, said many Fijian journalists suffered from the so-called Stockholm syndrome -- where captives identify with their captors.

These were reporters who stayed for long periods in Parliament with the rebels where they held with Indo-Fijian prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry and his multiracial cabinet at gunpoint for 56 days.

"Many experienced journalists and editors have migrated, taking with them the institutional knowledge and leaving behind a mostly inexperienced and young newsroom," said Gounder.

She was also critical of "parachute journalists" from abroad who did not understand the "complexities of Fiji's political situation."

David Robie is the director of the Pacific Media Centre at AUT University in New Zealand and is the founding editor of the Pacific Journalism Review.