Wansolwara News

Vol. 5 No. 2
June 2000


Coup leader George Speight holds court with the media.
Photo: Pacific Journalism Online

Fourth Estate column:
By David Robie

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 gunpoint.

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 threat.

Indigenous chauvinism doesn't override human rights.

File created: 3 June 2000
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