Coup leader George Speight holds court with the media.
Photo: Pacific Journalism Online
Fourth Estate column:
By David Robie
GUNMEN TERROR AND
BY ANY yardstick, the storming of Fiji's Parliament by businessman George
Speight and his goons last month was an outrageous act of terrorism. In
spite of two previous coups just 13 years ago, covering this insurrection
was a testing challenge for Fiji's mostly young journalists (median age
of 22 and median experience of 2.5 years).
While the journos generally came out with flying colours, there were
some flaws that ought to be examined. One was the readiness of some reporters
to give legitimacy to Speight's rebellion. Another was the failure of
the print media, in spite of the piles of newsprint covering the event,
to give insightful and critical analysis. Reporting of a major crisis
of this kind is generally accompanied by analysis in quality overseas
media. It is the one advantage that print media has over radio and television
- and is essential when news websites are providing this. It seems that
some journos weren't too sure about the legality of the would-be regime
on May 19 - the day the Speight gang seized the Chaudhry government at
May 20: The Fiji Times had no doubt. Its TAKEOVER AT GUNPOINT edition
next day was the first of consistently excellent reports and pictures.
We have witnessed how one moment of madness will set this country back
by decades," it said in an editorial.
"This illegal takeover must end. The democratically elected People's
Coalition has to be restored." However, the newspapers referred to
"self-proclaimed head of state" George Speight when clearly
there was only one legitimate President, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara.
Likewise, Ratu Timoci Silatolu was being called "interim prime minister".
Just because the elected government was being held hostage, it didn't
mean that it was no longer the legal government.
May 21: By day two, The Sunday Times focused on Ratu Mara's description
of the Speight mob as a "terrorist group" by splashing the headline
TERRORISTS. Editorially, the paper backed Ratu Mara's "chiefly ability
and wisdom". Ironically, this newspaper also published a two-page
interview with Chaudhry explaining his achievements after one year in
office, headed: REDUCING POVERTY IS OUR PRIORITY. This turned out to be
the most informative article about the Labour-led government and its achievements
in the local press all week.
The Fiji Times published the only profile about Speight's pyramid sales
and insurance career - written by a News Ltd journalist. But why wasn't
an in-depth local profile written, something matching the mahogany-and-Speight
piece in The Sydney Morning Herald by Marian Wilkinson?
May 24: An extraordinary fullpage statement by Opposition MP Jim Ah Koy
was run in all three dailies and read out in full on Fiji Television (like
a paid party election advertisement). The denial of any link with the
insurrection was fair enough. But what about the highly unethical and
unprofessional decision to run his bitter attack on Chaudhry and his government
when the hostage's lives were still at risk?
May 25: By day seven, The Fiji Sun was already calling the rebels the
"Taukei civilian government". Pacific Islands News Association
blasted some international "parachute journalists" and media
for "misreporting of the so-called coup" without being specific.
This was hypocrisy. It quite definitely was a coup bid - one that went
awry early on. But Speight still managed to achieve most demands. The
fact is that some journalists basked in the glow of coup master Speight
- something that couldn't happen in hostage situations in other countries.
And this raises ethical questions about how "cosy" the media
was with the terrorists. "They [rebels] feed us, give us a bathroom
and look after us. I like them," said one journalist.
May 28: Some of the best reporting was by Fiji Television's Riyaz Sayed-Khaiyum,
who at one stage did an early morning jogging interview with mediator
Sitiveni Rabuka. But Fiji TV was raided after a Close-Up programme which
"called Speight a Speight". Along with the wounded cameraman
and threats, this event abruptly ended journos' delusions. It was thanks
to international media that local journalists became more detached in
the reporting with the playback from abroad of terms like "coup",
"insurrection" and "rebellion". Whatever the pork-and-dalo
carnival atmosphere in Parliament grounds, the issues should be faced
honestly. This was about an act of terrorism with hostages' lives under
Indigenous chauvinism doesn't override human rights.