Behind the News: A call for needed change – Call made to ‘scrap’ or ‘reform’ media laws in Fiji

There was a call made this week to “scrap” or “reform” media laws in Fiji. This call was one of the recommendations of the “National Media Reporting Of The 2018 Fijian General Elections” report launched by Dialogue Fiji in Suva. Picture: FILE

There was a call made this week to “scrap” or “reform” media laws in Fiji.

This call was one of the recommendations of the “National Media Reporting Of The 2018 Fijian General Elections” report launched by Dialogue Fiji in Suva yesterday.

During its launch, co-author and University of the South Pacific Journalism coordinator Dr Shailendra Singh said the media law was supposed to promote professionalism in journalism.

“But the Act does nothing for training and development or journalist attrition, which are key to improving professional standards,” he said.

“In fact, the Act may be exacerbating attribution.”

This week’s call was not the first time.

Many similar pronouncements have been made before.

In May, the Fijian Media Association reminded those in power of the need to review and remove sections in the Media Industry Development Authority Act that “imposed harsh penalties on the media”.

The argument was, that members of the Fijian media have been doing their best to be bold and free and at the same time be responsible and abide by the law.

One of the FMA’s concerns has been over “harsh penalties”.

“The fines are too excessive and designed to be vindictive and punish the media rather than encourage better reporting standards and be corrective,” said FMA secretary Stanley Simpson.

“Media organisations in Fiji are almost unanimous in seeking the removal of the harsh fines and penalties and a review of the (MIDA) Act.”

Simpson said the MIDA Act was dangerous for media freedom now and also in the future and had done little to nothing to raise media standards.

Various media advocacy groups have unified behind the notion that the Act has had a “chilling effect” on journalism and fostered a culture of media self-censorship.

Some experts believe over the past few years, threats to media freedom have not been the visible and dramatic ones such as the killing and jailing of journalists common under authoritarian regimes.

The new way is to threaten media independence through “subtle” and “nuanced” means.

International watchdog, Freedom House, says common methods used by governments include “state-backed ownership changes, regulatory pressure, and public denunciations” of media organisations and their journalists.

It says governments have also offered proactive support to “friendly outlets” through measures such as exclusive and “lucrative state contracts, favourable regulatory decisions, and preferential access to State information”.

The goals of these “subtle” actions are to make the press serve those in power rather than the public and create an uneven playing field that puts independent media outlets that often speak out against the government, at a disadvantage.

Using policies to instil professionalism (accuracy, impartiality and responsibility) among journalists and in the conduct of media coverage and activities is a good thing.

However, using penalties as part of a policy strategy to enhance them seems to have a contradicting effect.

The degree of professionalism among journalists and media organisations comes about through sustained training, mentoring, financial support and experience, among others; where journalists are allowed to grow and gain many years of work based on passion.

This takes time and cannot be rushed. Moreover, it cannot take place in a restrictive and limiting environment.

ACE Electoral Knowledge Network says that usually, journalists in a country that has a restrictive political system will “lack many of the skills and professional standards” of their counterparts in a country with a long history of media freedom.

It adds that journalists who have experience in investigating and publishing sensitive stories would also have these developed professional skills.

In Simpson’s address in May, he said sections in the MIDA Act that contained harsh and unfair penalties include those on breaches on content deemed against the public interest or order, against national interest, or create communal discord, or even if the media did not include a byline for articles exceeding 50 words.

He said the fines for any of the abovementioned breaches were up to $100,000 for media organisations or in the case of a publisher or editor, a fine up to $25,000, or up to two years, imprisonment and these were unjustifiably excessive.

Generally, while harsh penalties and restrictions may be effective deterrents, they have negative consequences.

For journalists, they create unease and worry, and interfere with media professionals’ ability to work without fear or prejudice, which in turn goes against the ideals of an independent and free media and a thriving democracy.

Today, professional standards in the media have been affected by many outside influences and not so much from within “newsrooms”.

Journalists have to continuously deal with powerful external forces such as governments, and political and financial influences.

Also, where these pressures exist, including fear and anxiety over retribution, facts can be easily skewered and accuracy and objectivity affected.

In other words, we cannot expect journalists to produce objective, in-depth and insightful stories and hold officials, politicians and institutions accountable if they fear of being punished over
their heads.

Ultimately, the space for free media and independent journalism will be reduced, much to the detriment of democracy and the people who support it and depend on it.

As Fiji approaches another general election, the role of the media not only becomes increasingly important, but also the existence of a media landscape that is conducive for free and fair election and media freedom becomes equally vital.

We know that independent journalism all over the world are struggling to make headway in a world that is increasingly becoming polarised, controlled and influenced by social media.

However, the role of journalists and the media they represent remain paramount and relevant.

Without a doubt, the media will continue to be relied upon as the main source of reliable and verified information used to both empower citizens and hold public figures to account.

This is important now more than ever before.

Every right-minded citizen must demand that those in positions of power should enable journalists to carry out their work without fear or favour, and spaces must be available for the existence of an independent and free media where editorial independence and professionalism thrive.

On that note, at least, a review of the MIDA Act based on genuine consultation and dialogue between all key stakeholders, including media practitioners themselves, should be a good starting point.

Only then will Fijian journalists feel they genuinely have the space and environment to grow professionally.

Until we meet on this same page same time next week, stay blessed, stay healthy and stay safe.

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