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).

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.