Dev Nadkarni: Fiji's isolation must not be ignored by Pacific leaders

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The presence of military Government delegates casts a shadow over the Pina meeting. Photo / Supplied
The presence of military Government delegates casts a shadow over the Pina meeting. Photo / Supplied

Fiji is far too important to be left out of the Pacific Islands equation. This week's Pacific Forum leaders' annual meeting in Cairns has regional trade and the global financial crisis on its main agenda. Fiji - which has dominated the past two forum meetings - is rather determinedly relegated to the margins, but its shadow is bound to creep over the deliberations.

Like it did at last week's biannual media summit of the Pacific Island News Association (Pina) in Vanuatu.

Fiji was the elephant in the room. As panel discussions on topics ranging from media freedom to "shooting the messenger" proceeded, it proved increasingly harder for the delegates to ignore the looming presence of two representatives of Fiji's interim military Administration's Ministry of Information in the room.

Attended by nearly 200 delegates from all over the Pacific Islands, Australia and New Zealand drawn from the media, Government and regional and international aid agencies, discussions on the state of the media in Fiji were widely expected at this year's event.

Some of the topics for the panel were clearly aimed at discussing the issue threadbare.

At one of the sessions editorial staff at Rupert Murdoch's News Limited owned Fiji Times - which celebrates 140 years of publishing next month - described what it was like to work in the presence of censors in the newsroom and instances when journalists were hauled up for questioning.

Soon after the emergency regulations began to be enforced, the paper left blank spaces in its editorial pages in protest, which, too, was seen as a breach of the regulations by the Information Ministry.

At question time, Pacific Island media representatives bluntly asked why representatives of an organisation that had clamped down on the media so drastically were allowed to attend the proceedings.

They wanted to know if they were spying. The atmosphere turned tense when some delegates demanded that the two military personnel be asked to leave the room.

Unbeknown to the delegates though, the media summit organisers had managed their own coup of sorts to put the military's representatives on the spot. They had convinced one of them, Lance Corporal Taleij Tora, to sit on the panel titled "shooting the messenger" to which she had agreed. The other panelist was the editor of the Fiji Times, Netani Rika.

While bemoaning the clampdown on the media, Mr Rika also criticised anonymous bloggers who further vitiated the atmosphere by giving credence to rumour and challenged them to reveal their identities. He requested the audience to treat the military personnel present there with respect for the duration of the convention, but left the panel after his presentation, saying he could not share the dais with them.

Lance Corporal Tora, who studied at the University of the South Pacific's Journalism Programme and is a former radio broadcaster, said the military had every right to be at the convention on account of being a paid member of the news association and that it was up to the Pina board to expel the Government as a member.

She said she was a civil servant and had a job to do and pointed to a number of cases of inaccurate reporting (for several of which media outlets have since apologised).

The questions flew thick and fast: Would she and her colleague be reporting the proceedings to their military bosses? Would the emergency regulations apply to Fiji journalists now they were in a different country? Would they be liable to action? Tora stood her ground and answered questions with confidence, although she used her comparatively junior rank to express inability to comment on the more sensitive matters.

Meanwhile, the strong demand to move the Pina secretariat away from Fiji that had been gathering momentum over the past few months has been rejected by the new board elected at the convention. Pina has been criticised by its own members for not reacting strongly and soon enough at the military action on Fiji journalists and news outlets.

The rationale for moving the secretariat out of Fiji was because Pina has refrained from including news originating from Fiji in the three-times-a-day Pacific news bulletins it puts out to its members and subscribers through its Pacnews service since the emergency regulations were enforced.

At this week's leaders' forum in Cairns, Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi is expected to table a motion for a similar long-standing demand to move the Pacific Island Forum Secretariat away from Fiji, especially now Fiji has been suspended from its membership.

It is unlikely to gain traction simply because of the sheer logistics and costs involved - which, if undertaken, will fall on the forum's wealthier members - New Zealand and Australia.

As one senior adviser to the Pacific Forum said recently, the forum needs Fiji far more than Fiji needs the forum.

* Dev Nadkarni is publisher of He is based in Auckland.

- NZ Herald

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