Saturday, July 30, 2016

Digital Buturaki . . . ex Fijileaks

Fijileaks was hacked following its publication of my paper Digital Buturaki, which was presented on July 16 at the World Journalism Education Congress in Auckland. Qorvis must be desperate to suppress it. I will thus reprint it on my blog. Hack this, Qorvis.
Digital buturaki: Government-sponsored blogs assail critics of Fiji’s military dictatorship






Marc Edge, Ph.D.
University Canada West
Vancouver









A PAPER PRESENTED TO THE WORLD JOURNALISM EDUCATION CONGRESS, JULY 14-16, 2016, AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND


A series of coups beset Fiji following its independence from Great Britain in 1970. Some blamed the press, segments of which had been critical of the government, for fomenting a coup in 2000 (Singh, T.R., 2011). According to Robie (2003: 104), ‘Many powerful institutions, such as the Methodist Church in Fiji, and politicians in the Pacific believe there is no place for a Western-style free media and it should be held in check by Government legislation’. Self-regulation of the press by the Fiji Media Council was criticized as ineffective (Robie, 2004). A clampdown on press freedom by the military, which took control of the country in a 2006 coup, saw a new type of publication emerge in response. Enabled by websites such as blogger.com which offered free software and hosting of personal diaries, web logs or ‘blogs’ became popular at the millennium. Pro-democracy blogs in post-coup Fiji were almost exclusively anonymous, however, as anyone caught spreading anti-government sentiment risked being arrested and beaten by the military. It detained several suspected bloggers and also put pressure on the country’s telecommunications provider Fintel to block blogger.com. In response, a group of bloggers from New Zealand offered to host Fijian blogs on their servers (Fiji Times, 2007). According to Foster, by cracking down on press freedom, the military ‘unleashed’ the blogs. The resulting ‘public relations nightmare’, she concluded, proved worse for the regime’s image than a free press would have.
The blogs’ no-holds-barred approach to military criticism picked holes in media coverage of the crisis, with blogs running stories detailing alleged military abuse as well as releasing several confidential documents (Foster, 2007: 47–48).
Not all political blogs in post-coup Fiji were anti-regime, however. In early 2009, New Zealand resident Crosbie Walsh began a blog he called Fiji: The Way it Was, Is and Can Be, partly in response to what he saw as biased reporting on Fiji in the mainstream media of his country. A retired professor from the University of the South Pacific (USP) in Fiji, Walsh also published a study in 2010 which catalogued 72 known political blogs in Fiji, of which 42 were active. ‘Fifty-three were anti [-government] 19 extremely so; 15 were more or less ‘neutral’, and three were pro-government’ (Walsh, 2010: 164). Walsh deemed his own blog ‘mildly pro-government’, compared to blogs such as Coup 4.5, which actively incited unrest. ‘The anti-government blogs, hailed by coup opponents as advocates of democracy, are little more than agents of uncritical dissent’ (Walsh, 2010: 174). Coup 4.5 was among the most popular blogs, noted Walsh, with a ‘staggering’ 60,000 visitors in November 2009 compared with 30,000 visitors to his own blog over a longer period (Walsh, 2010: 158).
In April 2009, Fiji’s Appeal Court ruled the 2006 coup unconstitutional, prompting the government to abrogate the constitution, sack the judiciary, declare martial law, and clamp down on civil rights. Several foreign journalists were deported and censors were installed in newsrooms to prevent negative news about the government being published. Blog activity spiked in an attempt to fill the news vacuum, prompting a renewed government crackdown. The pro-regime blog Real Fiji News published the names of several prominent Suva residents it claimed were behind the anti-government blog Raw Fiji News, including the editor of the Fiji Times and three Suva lawyers, who were arrested and detained briefly for questioning (Merritt, 2009). In 2010, the regime appointed former Fairfax Media advertising executive Sharon Smith Johns as Permanent Secretary for Information, making her admittedly the country’s ‘chief censor and media strategist’ (Davis, 2010). A Media Industry Development Decree (Media Decree) was enacted by the military government the same year. It provided for fines of up to F$1,000 for journalists found in contravention of its guidelines, which increased to F$25,000 for publishers or editors and F$100,000 for media organisations (Foster, 2010; Singh, S. 2010).
In February 2011, Australian journalist Graham Davis began a blog he called Grubsheet after his production company Grubstreet. It covered a range of topics for its first year, but by early 2012 it began to focus on Fiji politics almost exclusively. Davis, who was born in Fiji, began that focus with a blog entry that criticised Coup 4.5 for alleging that Muslims were ‘colonising’ Fiji at the behest of Bainimarama’s right-hand man, Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, who was a Muslim. ‘This grubby little offering isn’t just inflammatory but utterly false’, wrote Davis. ‘Simply put, Coup 4.5 – with this base offering – has become the local equivalent of a Nazi hate sheet’ (Davis, 2012a). The blog entry was reprinted in the pro-regime Fiji Sun newspaper, as well as on Auckland University of Technology’s Pacific Scoop and Pacific Media Centre websites, and on the blogs of Walsh and AUT journalism educator David Robie. ‘Who are these people?’ asked Davis of the contributors to Coup 4.5. A few wrote under their own names, he noted, including former Fiji Sun investigative reporter Victor Lal, who lived in England, and economist Wadan Narsey, who had been forced to resign his teaching position at the USP as a result of his outspoken opposition to the military government. Most, noted Davis, did not.
They’re always anonymous but are said to be a group of Fiji journalists running their site out of Auckland, with contributions from members of the deposed SDL government, ex civil servants and a hard core of anti-regime ‘human rights’ advocates. . . . The wonder is that some of 4.5’s content is written by respected journalists and academics who are Indo-Fijians to boot (Davis, 2012a).

Qorvis Communications
In October 2011, the Fiji regime contracted with U.S. public relations company Qorvis Communications at a cost of US$40,000 per month. According to Bainimarama (2011), the purpose was ‘to assist with training and support for our Ministry of Information – to ensure its operations take into account advances in social media, the Internet and best practices regarding the media’. New Zealand journalist Michael Field, who was among the journalists barred from Fiji for reporting critically on the regime, pointed out that Qorvis had a sinister reputation in other parts of the world where it operated. ‘Qorvis specialises in putting a spin on dictators like those of Tunisia and Egypt who resisted Arab Spring. . . . Hiring Washington spin-doctors is a well-walked road for dictators who work on their image in Washington and at the United Nations’ (Field, 2011). American journalist Anna Lenzer, who had been arrested on a recent assignment to Fiji, noted in the Huffington Post ‘the Fijian junta’s exploding internet and social media presence in the weeks since Qorvis began its work’ (Lenzer, 2011). The Huffington Post had earlier questioned the tactics employed by Qorvis on behalf of the dictatorship in Bahrain. ‘Beyond disappearing bloggers and rights activists, Bahrain also tries to disappear criticism’, it noted. ‘Most of the U.S.-based fake tweeting, fake blogging (flogging), and online manipulation is carried out from inside Qorvis Communication’s “Geo-Political Solutions” division’ (Halvorssen, 2011).
More so than intimidation, violence, and disappearances, the most important tool for dictatorships across the world is the discrediting of critics. . . . Oppressive governments are threatened by public exposure, and this means that it’s not just human rights defenders but also bloggers, opinion journalists, and civil society activists who are regularly and viciously maligned (Halvorssen, 2011).

The Huffington Post also reported in 2011 that an exodus of Qorvis operatives had taken place over the firm’s unsavoury tactics and clients. In a space of two months, it noted, more than a third of the partners at Qorvis had left the firm, partly because of its work on behalf of such clients as Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Equatorial Guinea. ‘I just have trouble working with despotic dictators killing their own people’, one former Qorvis insider said (Baram, 2011).
The Fiji regime lifted martial law in early 2012, which resulted in censors exiting the country’s newsrooms. Numerous decrees, however, impinged on press freedom in addition to the Media Decree. A TV Decree enacted in 2012 permitted the minister responsible for communication to revoke the licence of any television station found to have contravened the Media Decree. It was enacted shortly after Fiji TV aired interviews with two former prime ministers who questioned the need for another new constitution. The broadcaster was reportedly then warned by the regime that its soon-to-expire broadcasting licence might not be renewed as a result (Ashdown, 2012). It was, but for only six months at a time instead of the usual twelve years. Soon a campaign began against critics of the military dictatorship. Following is an analysis of issues focused on by pro-regime blogs in Fiji subsequent to the lifting of martial law in early 2012 until elections were held in September 2014.
1. Bruce Hill and Radio Australia
A favorite target of pro-regime blogs, especially Grubsheet, was reporting by Radio Australia, the foreign service of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), and its influential Pacific Beat programme. One regular target of Davis was Pacific Beat reporter Bruce Hill. When the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) controversially held its conference in Fiji in early 2012 despite the country’s restrictions on press freedom, Davis assailed Hill’s reports of dissension at the event. ‘It’s pretty clear in the minds of conference organisers that Hill came to PINA spoiling for a fight, or at least to pursue his favoured narrative of a Pacific media umbrella in tatters by continuing division over Fiji’, Davis wrote in a blog entry that was reprinted not only in the Fiji Sun but also in The Australian (Davis, 2012b). Hill interviewed a delegate from one South Pacific country who claimed it was not the job of journalists to oppose governments, then filed a story that highlighted the comment, which drew criticism from Davis.
The AUT’s David Robie observed that without Hill’s presence, there would have been little dissention at PINA.  Robie described the . . . fracas as a construct of ‘western-style conflict journalism’. Hill, he said, had set out to generate controversy by seeking a contentious opinion and then using it to generate more controversy (Davis, 2012b).

Davis lodged a formal complaint with the ABC in 2013 after Pacific Beat ignored what Davis called ‘the biggest change in Australian official attitude towards Fiji’ since the 2006 coup (Davis, 2013a). Deputy Leader of the Opposition Julie Bishop gave a speech that signaled a normalising of relations with Fiji if her party came to power in upcoming elections. ‘Here was the first significant change in official Australian attitudes towards Fiji in the six and a half years since Voreqe Bainimarama’s takeover’, blogged Davis. ‘But Radio Australia chose to ignore it. Instead, it ran two items highly critical of the Fijian Government, both by the same reporter, Bruce Hill’ (Davis, 2013a). Davis claimed that Radio Australia was trying to ‘subvert the political process in Australia’ by ignoring the Bishop speech.  ‘The Australian taxpayer is now entitled to know . . . by whose authority Hill, and the rest of the Radio Australia editorial team, chose to overlook a major shift in Australian attitude’ (Davis, 2013a).
It is more than a grave editorial lapse. It is also contrary to law. On the available evidence, it’s a case of the publicly funded broadcaster taking a partisan position in a manner that contravenes every aspect of the ABC’s Charter. This legally requires it – under an act of Parliament – to report without fear or favour in the interests of every Australian (Davis, 2013a).

In a subsequent blog entry, he called for an inquiry into the matter. ‘Bruce Hill needs to explain himself, as does the entire Radio Australia news team’, he wrote. ‘Because without a doubt, it is one of the most blatant instances of censorship and news manipulation Grubsheet has ever witnessed’ (Davis, 2013b). By this time, Davis had revealed he was working for Qorvis Communications on its Fiji account (Davis, 2012d). He spent much of his time in Suva working for Qorvis, he admitted, flying back and forth from his home in Sydney and staying at a leading local hotel. The admission came in September 2012, two weeks after Davis had been named host of the Southern Cross Austereo network’s weekly public affairs television programme The Great Divide (Jackson, 2012).
2. Yash Ghai and the Constitutional Review Commission
A Constitutional Review Commission that was tasked by the regime with drafting a new constitution for Fiji ran into difficulties throughout 2012. Yash Ghai, a University of Hong Kong law professor who headed the commission, first complained of interference from the head of the military government, then clashed dramatically with the regime at year’s end. In a November interview with Radio Australia’s Campbell Cooney, Ghai revealed there had been ‘massive interference’ by the regime with the commission’s work. ‘I get emails from the PM to do this or not to do that, and this is a kind of harassment’ (Radio Australia, 2012a). The situation came to a climax after the commission submitted its draft constitution to the government just before Christmas. Ghai ordered copies printed for distribution prior to it being considered by a special Constituent Assembly of citizens, which was planned to ratify it. Police seized the copies over Ghai’s objections, however, and incinerated several while he watched. ‘I have never been in a process where there has been such an attempt to hide the recommendations of a body which was set up by this very government’, Ghai told Hill in an interview (Radio Australia, 2012b). The regime at first denied the seizure and burning, but pictures of the incident were soon posted online. Davis was unusually silent on the issue, having recently informed readers of his blog that he was bowing out of the Fiji political fray because of his work for Qorvis. ‘I have a clear conflict of interest when it comes to commenting on political matters in Fiji, and especially partisan politics in the lead-up to the election,’ he wrote. ‘I am now spending much of my time in Suva working on the Qorvis account that services the Fijian Government’ (Davis, 2012e). Walsh accused Hill of ‘making a mountain out of a mole-hill’ and deconstructed his interview with Ghai line by line. ‘It shows how a supposedly neutral interviewer reveals his true colours’, wrote Walsh. ‘No one could possibly be in doubt about his feelings during the Yash Ghai interview. There was no attempt at neutrality’ (Walsh, 2012a). Walsh followed that with another blog entry two days later. ‘Government’s intention was never to prevent public discussion on the draft decree [sic.]’, he wrote. ‘The whole Ghai-police incident and its fallout is unfortunate, inflated, and has been largely misinterpreted, by the media mainly unintentionally, by anti-Government bloggers deliberately’ (Walsh, 2012b).
Walsh then speculated that the cause of the seizure was that the regime had lost confidence in the neutrality of the Commission. ‘There were so many stories of Yash Ghai socialising with known Government opponents. . . . I can well understand why government was concerned: a commission whose key member was no longer neutral was also no longer independent (Walsh, 2013a). The Fiji Sun then ran a front-page story under the screaming headline ‘ACCUSED: Neutrality Of Yash Ghai’s Commission Questioned’ (Bolatiki, 2013). It repeated Walsh’s speculation and outlined in detail the military government’s objections to the Ghai draft, including that it would restore the Great Council of Chiefs, which the regime had earlier abolished (Bolatiki, 2013). Walsh objected in a subsequent blog entry that the newspaper had been selective in reproducing his analysis. ‘The Sun did not misrepresent what I said but it only published half of it – the half sympathetic to Government’ (Walsh, 2013b).
By then the Ghai draft had been published on Fijileaks, a new blog by Victor Lal that specialized in publishing leaked documents à la Wikileaks (Fijileaks, 2012). In addition to restoring the Great Council of Chiefs, it would have repealed or rewritten decrees such as the Media Decree which restricted human rights, provided a role in Fiji politics for NGOs, and greatly reduced the role of the military. Despite his promise to refrain from commenting on Fiji politics, Davis charged that the Ghai draft was ‘a patently flawed formula’ for achieving democracy that required major revision. ‘If you dissect its provisions, Fiji would wind up with an elite of non-elected representatives and hereditary chiefs whose numbers would far exceed those directly chosen by the people. And what – pray tell – is democratic about that?’ (Davis, 2013c). Davis quoted an anonymous ‘friend’ of Ghai who speculated that his ‘emotions may well have got in the way of his better judgment’. Ghai had a ‘distinctly romantic notion about finally being able to resolve the intractable “Fiji Problem”’, according to this friend, and had come to believe that he could be ‘just as big a saviour as Frank Bainimarama’ (Davis, 2013c). According to Davis’ single anonymous source, Ghai was disappointed when he was initially criticised on anti-government blogs as a stooge of the military government and set about correcting that assumption by courting elements known to oppose the regime. Ghai then went over to their side, according to Davis, deciding to ‘go rogue’ and ‘thumb his nose at due process’ (Davis, 2013c). The Ghai draft was rejected out of hand by the regime, which wrote its own constitution that expressly permitted its restrictive decrees, excluded NGOs from the political process, and provided a continuing political role for the military. It then cancelled the Constituent Assembly that had been planned to ratify it (The Economist, 2013).
3. Participant observation
The author also became the subject of by attacks by pro-regime blogs starting in mid-2012 while Head of Journalism at the USP in Suva. In a Radio Australia interview with Hill in April of that year, I corroborated his account of dissention remaining within South Pacific media despite a lack of open conflict at the PINA conference. Davis, who along with the AUT’s David Robie had promoted a ‘Pacific media at peace’ meme following the conference, called the interview ‘the biggest crack at revisionism in recent Pacific media history’ (Davis, 2012c). His blog entry was reprinted in the Fiji Sun and on Walsh’s blog, and was the subject of a news story on AUT’s Pacific Scoop (2012). ‘Our recollections of what took place are so vastly at odds that I wonder if we were on the same planet’, he wrote, ‘let alone at the same venue in the same country’ (Davis, 2012c). The conference was boycotted by numerous delegates because PINA decided to hold it in media-managed Fiji. ‘Yes, there were people who stayed away from PINA because it was being held in Fiji’, admitted Davis. ‘Yes, a breakaway organisation, PasiMA, was formed after the debacle in Vanuatu of mainly Polynesian delegates opposed to Fiji’s coup. Yes, one or two delegates . . . made their displeasure felt’.
But for one of the region’s most prominent journalistic educators to seek to exacerbate that division when others are trying to build bridges speaks of a man who simply doesn’t grasp the subtleties and nuances of island relationships (Davis, 2012c).

In mid-2012, I started a blog called Fiji Media Wars. ‘It does seem like a bit of double jeopardy’, I blogged about the new TV Decree. ‘Not only are TV stations subject to fines for violating the Code of Ethics and to having their journalists thrown in prison, now they can be put out of business as well’ (Edge, 2012a). That brought a government complaint to USP, as a result of which I put Fiji Media Wars on hiatus for more than two months after posting only a few entries. In September 2012, I organised a two-day symposium at USP on Media and Democracy in the South Pacific. On the first day of the event, Davis posted a blog entry which referred to the event as ‘Edgefest’ and claimed it had caused official consternation across the region. ‘Dr Edge caused intense heartburn right from the start as he set about organising this conference’, he wrote (Davis, 2012e).
He appears to have set out to be deliberately provocative. In the first draft of the program placed on the USP’s internet website, the list of speakers included two journalists formally banned from Fiji. . . . There was also general astonishment when Dr Edge posted the following [Call for Papers] to the conference comparing certain Pacific countries to the repressive regimes in the Middle East that sparked the ‘Arab Spring’ (Davis, 2012e).

Davis claimed that Fiji, Samoa and Tonga had ‘formally complained to the University of the South Pacific. The USP subsequently ordered the posting withdrawn from its website. . . . Unfortunately for the USP, its funding comes from some of the countries Dr Edge appears to be targeting’ (Davis, 2012e). Subsequent to the symposium, I revived Fiji Media Wars to discuss some of the issues raised during the event, including journalistic standards and the problem of self-censorship by Fiji journalists working under the Media Decree (Edge, 2012b). Davis then posted a blog entry that claimed I was clinging to my job by my ‘fingernails’ after ‘official protests and open conflict with other academics’ during the symposium. ‘Grubsheet understands that the USP has triggered formal internal disciplinary proceedings that could lead to the dismissal of the Canadian-born academic. He has evidently been given a formal warning’. It was in an addendum to that blog entry that he admitted what many in the blogosphere had suspected: ‘Graham Davis is now a part-time advisor to Qorvis Communications’ (Davis, 2012f).
In November 2012 I posted a blog entry which summarized available information about Qorvis Communication. ‘The more I learn about these rascals’, I wrote, ‘the more I suspect that I have been a victim of their back ops’ (Edge, 2012c). A subsequent blog entry questioned Walsh’s ethics for accepting a trip to Fiji that was paid for by the regime and designed to provide material for his blog (Edge, 2012d). Another regime complaint to USP demanded that I remove the blog entry about Qorvis. I did so, but I was nonetheless stood down as Head of Journalism by USP administration. I remained at USP as a senior lecturer, however, and both Davis and Walsh repeatedly demanded that I be dismissed. ‘The School is said to be irrevocably split between the brainwashed first years who worship Dr Edge and senior students who think he is bordering on the certifiable’, wrote Davis, who also complained about a joke I made about Qorvis at the annual USP Journalism awards night. ‘He has brought the USP and its journalism school into disrepute and the sooner he departs these shores the better’ (Davis, 2012g).
Walsh took umbrage with my criticism of him for taking a trip to Fiji paid for by the regime. ‘The problems begin with him accepting what’s called a “junket” in the journalism world’, I wrote. ‘As any first-year journalism student knows (mine certainly do), you will not have any credibility if you do not maintain independence from those you write about’ (Edge, 2012d). Walsh claimed the criticism by myself and other bloggers was unwarranted and suggested that my work permit should be cancelled. ‘It says much for the tolerance of the government and the university that he is still able to publish partisan polemic exercises on his blog’, he wrote. ‘Others have their association with the university terminated, and their work permits cancelled, for less’ (Walsh, 2012c). 
Davis then leaked email correspondence between USP administrators which showed that my remaining at the university was the subject of disagreement among them. He also renewed his calls for my dismissal as a result of an email that I forwarded to students, which he reprinted and deemed ‘an abuse of office’ on my part. The email was part of a series of satirical missives written by an anonymous author that mocked Davis and Smith Johns and were widely circulated in Fiji. ‘It’s staggering that Dr Edge thinks that it is appropriate for a senior lecturer at USP to pass on this drivel to those he is meant to be schooling in the serious practice of Pacific journalism’, Davis wrote. ‘In our view, he is abusing his office and it’s high time that the USP brings this continuing farce to a halt’. (Davis, 2012g) As a result of these and other pressures placed on the university, I resigned my appointment just before the end of 2012.
After his August 2013 attack on Radio Australia, Davis blogged infrequently and not always on Fiji in the year leading up to the election, which saw Bainimarama returned in a landslide. In a December 2013 blog entry responding to my noting his months-long absence, Davis (2013e) wrote that he had ‘gone quiet primarily because my work is done. . . . Everything that I set out to achieve when I started Grubsheet at the beginning of 2011 and began highlighting the Bainimarama revolution’s achievements has been accomplished’. His absence from the Fiji blogging fray, however, may have instead been the result of a complaint I lodged with SCA CEO Rhys Holleran in mid-2013 about Davis simultaneously acting as a TV news host and a propagandist for a regional dictator.
Conclusions
Fiji suffered international opprobrium in early 2013 when a video surfaced online showing uniformed officers beating and burning with cigarettes two escaped prisoners, on whom they had also set dogs (Siegel, 2013). While not excusing the abuse, Davis (2013d) claimed it was widely supported in Fiji. ‘These individuals are violent, hardened criminals who had escaped from lawful custody and can hardly have expected to be garlanded when they were eventually tracked down’, he wrote. ‘Many law abiding Fijians actually like being ruled with an iron fist if it means being able to sleep soundly in their beds at night’ (Davis, 2013d). Such abuse was a widespread practice in Fiji, noted Davis. ‘It’s a fair bet that everyone in that clip was raised as a child to expect a “hiding” – the traditional form of discipline in most Fijian homes for even relatively minor infractions. . . . The buturaki – the premeditated beating – has always been the traditional method of enforcing order at village level’ (Davis, 2013d).
Political commentary in the U.S. has been likened to a ‘spin cycle’ or ‘echo chamber’ of like-minded pundits repeating and reinforcing pre-determined ‘talking points’ (Kurtz, 1998; Jamieson and Cappella, 2008). This case study shows the same phenomenon imported to Fiji. The fact that Qorvis Communications was a U.S.-based public relations was likely not coincidental to the Fiji regime adopting an American-style system of ‘attack’ commentary. A cycle of attacks on regime critics by regime-friendly blogs such as those published by Davis and Walsh was amplified by their frequent reprinting in the pro-regime Fiji Sun, not to mention on other blogs and on several websites associated with the AUT. This not only gave their commentary wider circulation but also greater legitimacy. The online treatment of regime critics by pro-government blogs, while typical of Qorvis operations elsewhere in the world, assumed in Fiji a vicious nature not unlike the beatings meted out to pro-democracy advocates and escaped prisoners. This ‘digital buturaki’, as with the real-life beatings, served as a form of social, political, media, and even academic control. It proved a powerful deterrent to anyone who would dare to criticize the regime and a key component of its hegemony.


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Singh, S. 2010, ‘Life under Decree No. 29 of 2010: The Fiji Media Development Decree’, Pacific Journalism Review vol. 16, no. 2: pp. 147–162.

Singh, T.R. 2011, ‘The 2000 Speight coup in Fiji: An analysis of the role of The Fiji Times and the impact of partisan media’, Master’s Thesis, Auckland University of Technology, http://aut.researchgateway.ac.nz/handle/10292/2554.

The Economist 2013, ‘Opportunity blown: Constitutional wrangles in Fiji’, 30 March: p. 41.

Walsh, C. 2010, ‘Political blogs on Fiji. A ‘cybernet democracy’ case study’, Pacific Journalism Review vol. 16, no. 1: pp. 154–177.

Walsh, C. 2012a, ‘Making a Mountain Out of a Mole-Hill’, Fiji: The Way it Was, Is and Can Be, 28 December, http://crosbiew.blogspot.ca/2012/12/making-mountain-out-of-mole-hill.html.

Walsh, C. 2012b, ‘Fallout from Draft Seizure and a Few Facts’, Fiji: The Way it Was, Is and Can Be, 28 December, http://crosbiew.blogspot.ca/2012/12/fallout-from-draft-seizure-and-few-facts.html.

Walsh, C. 2012c, ‘Of Pots and Kettles’, Fiji: The Way it Was, Is and Can Be, 6 November, http://crosbiew.blogspot.ca/2012/11/of-pots-and-kettles.html.

Walsh, C. 2013a, ‘Making Some Sense of Recent Developments’, Fiji: The Way it Was, Is and Can Be, 28 December, http://crosbiew.blogspot.ca/2013/01/making-some-sense-of-recent-developments.html.

Walsh, C. 2013b, ‘News and Comments Monday 7 January [sic.]’, 2013. Fiji: The Way it Was, Is and Can Be, 6 January, http://crosbiew.blogspot.ca/2013/01/news-and-comments-monday-7-january-2013.html.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

A permanent solution to the coup culture?

The election result was something of a foregone conclusion given the degree of control exercised by the erstwhile dictatorship over all aspects of political life. Draconian decrees restricting fundamental human rights such as freedom of association, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press meant that opposition voices would have trouble being heard. Control over the news media was especially important for Frank Bainimarama to gain legitimacy as elected prime minister, and it was assured by intimidation of both Fiji TV and the Fiji Times under the Media Decree. The Fiji Sun and FBC, meanwhile, could be counted on for shameless cheerleading on behalf of the regime.

Scottish writer Andrew Fletcher (1655-1716) observed that “if a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation.” That was back when ballads were the main means of spreading the news, which even 300 years ago was well understood as the key to forming public opinion. Now imagine if a politician could both control the news AND make all the laws of a nation. How would you like his chances at the polls? That was the situation in Fiji for almost eight years subsequent to Bainimarama’s 2006 coup. The only real surprise is that he didn’t take all 50 seats, as he boasted he would. That Sodelpa managed as many seats as it did speaks to the depth of indigenous outrage that will not be going away anytime soon.

The real question is whether Fiji could handle a genuine democracy with a free press, or if the country needs an über-authoritarian strongman like Bainimarama to keep control. Those who claim the latter is true point to the country’s history of coups dating back to 1987. Some blame the press for fomenting the 2000 coup, which on my reading of the record seems specious, at best. But the fact remains that Fiji’s two solitudes have shown they simply cannot play nicely enough together for a real democracy. Calls for an end to the “coup culture” that has bedeviled the country have perhaps been answered with a militarisation which has seen an elected government laced with army officers. Combined with restrictive decrees which amount to almost as much government control as during martial law, the result is perhaps a permanent state of coup which will indeed preclude future coups.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Let's make every day a blackout!

My two best days ever!

Election Day -1 = Thanksgiving?

In the classic 1997 Barry Levinson film Wag the Dog, a Washington, D.C. spin doctor played by Robert De Niro constructs a phony overseas entanglement just days before a national election in a bid to boost the re-election hopes of an incumbent president. The title of the film referred to something of secondary importance improperly taking on primary importance. In the study of political communication, this effect is known as priming. Intense media coverage of a subject can result in a candidate’s record in that area taking precedence in the minds of voters over more important issues, such as running the economy.

The evidence
Last week’s freeing of 45 peacekeepers held hostage in the Middle East was thus like manna from heaven for the Bainimarama regime, as their capture had fixated the nation almost more than the election. Could the junta’s Washington, D.C. spin doctor Qorvis Communications have had anything to do with the $20 million ransom reportedly paid by Qatar for their release? Qorvis has the bulk of its clients in the Middle East, including Qatar’s state broadcaster Al-Jazeera. A ransom of $20 million would be chump change to the oil-rich Qataris, and release of the Fijian peacekeepers would be of immense public relations value to the Fiji regime.

The junta thus blatantly milked its good fortune for all it was worth, declaring yesterday Thanksgiving in advance of today’s election. (Fiji time, of course.) As a 48-hour media blackout has supposedly descended on the nation in advance of polling, the news focus will thus have been on the ceremony at the national stadium. Nothing but warm fuzzy feelings will no doubt be felt toward the government, which could have been quite different had the peacekeepers not been released, or even worse been executed. Frank Bainimarama must feel doubly blessed, what with the apparently dismal performance of Sodelpa leader Ro Teimumu Kepa in the recent televised debate. Had the articulate NFP leader Biman Prasad been part of the proceedings, the outcome could have been considerably different. Expect Bainimarama to breeze to victory in the polls, but not quite by the unanimous margin he covets.

As for that media blackout, all is mostly quiet on the domestic front, if not on the blogs. Pacific Scoop reports that government broadcaster FBC ran ads for Fiji FIST within 48 hours of polling, in contravention of the Elections Decree, although they have now disappeared. “Several blogs, a Fiji news agency and many political parties have all apparently broken the rules online,” noted student journalist Thomas Carnegie from Auckland. “The potential breaches show the inability of the overwhelmed Fijian authorities to monitor the chaotic internet. They also raise questions about why the Elections Decree attempted to criminalise the online world over blackout breaches.”
Many blogs have also published commentaries that would seem to breach Section 118. Fiji Media Wars blogger Marc Edge posted a commentary yesterday heavily criticising Bainimarama. He wrote that Fijian authorities had little influence over the blogosphere. “The dictatorship thinks it can even prevent overseas media and blogs from reporting what it wants suppressed. This is proof that it can’t,” he added. FijiLeaks, published by investigative journalist Victor Lal, posted a comment that the media blackout was a “sinister ploy” to stop damaging information about Fiji First being revealed.
I’m not quite sure what Carnegie is referring to as “a commentary yesterday heavily criticising Bainimarama.” I instead posted two first-person accounts of beatings administered as part of what I described as “the regime’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy activists in the wake of military commander Frank Bainimarama seizing power in December 2006.” That’s hardly a political commentary. Perhaps they were referring to this bit of editorializing.
Events in Fiji have reached a point where many wish to speak out about what has gone on there for the past eight years. The climate of fear that has visited the country during Bainimarama’s reign of terror has prevented much of his abuse from going unreported. The question becomes, how much truth can come out in the next two days? 
That’s hardly political advocacy, however. I have never advocated for one party over another in Fiji. I take no position on Fiji politics. My only ambition is to give light to facts which have been suppressed. If those facts have political implications, then so be it. This is much different to New Zealand blogger Crosbie Walsh, who instead blatantly electioneered for Bainimarama yesterday in a clear breach of the Elections Decree. “I am saying vote FijiFirst and don’t waste your vote by voting for any any [sic.] of the minor parties,” wrote Croz, who obviously needs a copy editor. His update to a blog entry titled “What if I’m Wrong?”, which I and others pointed to as expressing doubts about the dictator, was defensive and obviously hurried, perhaps after a heated phone call from Suva. Croz even laced the comments section several times over with a further disclaimer.
To all discussants. Thank you for your comments. Several of you have said I expressed doubt about the Bainimrama goverment [sic.] and took this to mean I had changed my opinion. This is not correct. I am rarely, if ever, “certain” on any important issue, and often start from a position of doubt. I usually consider the likely motivations, causes and effects before making an assessment or judgment. Isn’t this what every intelligent person does? I wrote the UPDATE because the anti-Bainimarama blogs took what I consider to be an honest and upfront statement and ignored its main message which was vote FijiFirst. The only real alternative, SODELPA, will set Fiji back a decade.
Croz also deleted several of my comments to the effect that he was indeed wrong. Meanwhile he has left up vile threats such as this one: “Marc Edge, we are watching the arrivals into Fiji. Come if you dare. A wonderful welcome awaits you. You wont be able to sit down for a year. But then again, you will probably enjoy it. Just biding our time. Tick tick tick.” I guess that’s just proof that I’m on the right track and that the junta really is a vile, murderous lot. I have also been dropped from the Facebook group Friends of Fiji MEDIA for the crime of having posted links there to my latest blog entries. Group administrators are obviously concerned about penalties in the Elections Decree that provide for fines of up to $50,000 and prison sentences of up to 10 years in prison for violating the blackout. I havent been dropped from other Facebook groups, for some reason, such as the Fiji Democratic Forum or the Fiji Economic Forum, so I should be able to post a link to this blog entry in those groups. Does that mean economists and democrats are less concerned than media are about violating the Elections Decree? More likely it means there hasnt been the pressure applied to them that has obviously been applied to Fiji media.

Monday, September 15, 2014

And the hits just keep on comin'

Wow.

That’s the only way to describe traffic to Fiji Media Wars in the past 24 hours. While this blog usually gets 150-200 pageviews a day, my posts of yesterday and today have resulted in more than 1,600 pageviews in the 24 hours just ended. (Blogger uses GMT to start and end a day for analytics purposes.) The highest-ever total until now was the day I blogged about Hosanna Kabakoro, who suffered at the hands of the woman-bashing dictator’s son, Meli Bainimarama. That day saw more than 700 pageviews, so the past 24 hours have been more than double that.

It just goes to show the interest in stories that cannot be told in Fiji media due to the Draconian decrees the junta has imposed on news media there. The dictatorship thinks it can even prevent overseas media and blogs from reporting what it wants suppressed. This is proof that it can’t.

Laisa Digitaki’s story

One of the stories you won’t see in Fiji’s well-controlled media is the story of the regime’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy activists in the wake of military commander Frank Bainimarama seizing power in December 2006. Suva businesswoman Laisa Digitaki, who was pregnant at the time, converted her office building into a pro-democracy shrine in the wake of the coup, but it was demolished by gunmen, whom Digitaki accused of being military personnel, although she was not present at the time. Ground floor windows were shattered and a television satellite dish was damaged. According to Wikipedia, Digitaki and a number of others protesting outside the Great Council of Chiefs venue in Suva on 21 December 2006 were arrested by the Military, which claimed that they had no permit for a protest. They were released on bail pending a court appearance on 29 January 2007, but Digitaki never appeared. When the magistrate was told she was in hiding and heard the reasons why, he declined to issue a warrant for her arrest. She was subsequently granted UN protection. Following is Digitaki’s story about what happened to her at Christmas 2006. It is not new, having been posted first on Fiji Village in February 2007 (link broken) and then on other blogs, but it is worth repeating and corroborates the story of Peter Waqavonovono, which FMW published yesterday.
LAISA DIGITAKI’S STATEMENT & SEQUENCE OF EVENTS
RE – PRO-DEMOCRACY GROUP OF FIVE ROUNDING UP AND BASHING
BY THE RFMF ON DECEMBER 24th‑25th, 2006 
On Christmas Eve night of 24th December, 2006, a group of soldiers came to our home at 12 Kavika Place, Muanikau, Suva at around 11.20 pm in a rental car registration number LR627.
Members of the family who were at the property at that time were myself, Laisa Digitaki, my partner, Sitiveni Weleilakeba, our son, Mosese Qionibaravi (19), and three daughters, Susana Qionibaravi (17), Fiona Weleilakeba (13) and Natasha Weleilakeba (8). A security guard was also on duty. 
According to the guard, Marau Vakaloloma, of Matrix Security Company, the soldiers advised him through the closed electronic gate that they were there to take me to the camp. The guard told them to wait outside the gate so he could advise us. He rang the door bell which was answered and opened by our son Mosese. 
My partner Sitiveni, who was asleep with me heard the door chime and also went downstairs to the front door to check. 
He said the guard told him of the soldiers’ presence and he told our son to go back to his room and that he would talk to the soldiers. 
He walked over to the closed electronic gate and was informed by the soldiers that the order from their superior was to take me to the camp for interrogation. 
My partner then came back into the house, to our bedroom, and woke me up saying that a group of soldiers was outside waiting to take me away. 
I went downstairs in my sleeping gown and asked them why they wanted to take me at that ungodly hour. One of them said that I needed to be taken to the camp immediately. 
I told them that I needed to speak to my lawyers at Munro Leys as I wanted to be escorted by them too. 
The guy mentioned that I need not speak to my lawyers as it would only complicate matters and that they needed to take me peacefully and that I should not fear as they claimed that we were all related anyway. 
He also said that another group of soldiers was on their way and their job was to forcefully remove me from my home if I resisted. 
The gentleman who seemed to be their spokesman looked familiar to me as the SDL Nasinu Branch Secretary. I do not know his name. 
I asked their spokesman if I could change into decent clothes of which he said yes.
I went back to our bedroom and changed into a mustard Marcs three-quarter pants, a “Fiji Me” bright green round neck T‑Shirt, pink golf cap, and brown leather Hush Puppies slippers. 
Before I walked out of the house, I called my Munro Leys lawyer, Mr Richard Naidu, to advise him of what was happening. 
I then walked out peacefully and into the yellow rental car with the soldiers.
I was introduced by the spokesman to each of them and he mentioned that the one sitting on my left was from Vanuabalavu, Lau, and the one on my right was from Namosi. 
The Namosi lad looked like the person who headed the Namosi soldiers who presented an apology to Commodore Bainimarama for their part in the 2000 coup.
I do not know his name. 
The other two soldiers were calling him “Sir” so I can only assume that he is a high ranking officer. 
Their spokesperson did not elaborate on the driver, who was also an indigenous Fijian. 
They mentioned that they were also after Imrana Jalal, Virisila Buadromo and the rest of our pro-democracy youth group. 
Imrana’s home is two houses away from mine and I told them to leave her family alone and that there was no point in going to Imrana’s home since she was away overseas for business anyway. 
The four soldiers were very friendly and we were even cracking some jokes on our way to the camp. 
They said that most of the soldiers were SDL supporters and that I shouldn’t be afraid.
I told them that even-though I helped with the SDL election campaign, I was totally against most of the things they came up with soon after the election and that I was not supporting SDL but was doing what I was doing not for the restoration of the SDL government but for the restoration of democracy and law and order in Fiji. 
As we arrived at the camp, I was told to walk into a room situated on the left hand side of the main gate which I will call the guardhouse. 
The Namosi soldier gently requested that I hand over my cap, Sony Ericsson mobile phone and Raymond Weil watch, which I did. 
They told me to sit a while on a white plastic chair and after a few minutes, I was led into a passage way from where I was sitting and realised that they were cells. On my left, I noticed two young men asleep in the first cell in their underwear snoring and noticed another figure in the same cell but couldn't figure out whether it was a person as it was quite dark. 
On my right, I noticed my business partner, Imraz Iqbal, lying on his back on the cold cement in his red underwear. 
I greeted him before they locked me in the cell opposite Imraz’s. 
After a few minutes, they opened the cell again and led me further down to the last cell where they locked me up again. The cell was darker than the one before. An indigenous Fijian soldier in civilian clothing came to me and started accusing me of talking against the army takeover. 
He ordered that the mattress I was sitting on be removed so that I could sit on the cold cement floor. 
More indigenous Fijian soldiers walked over to my cell to peek with some saying their “bulas”' while the others did not utter a word. 
Overall, the soldiers at the guard house were pleasant and not intimidating except for that gentleman who was angry about my pro‑democracy stand. 
After about 20 minutes in the cell, the Namosi soldier came and freed me and asked if we could go together to get Pita Waqavonovono, another pro‑democracy advocate.