Monday, July 6, 2009

Post-putsch Fiji journalism training under cloud

MIXED REPORTS seem to dog the AusAID-spawned journalism schools that have been springing up around the Pacific. In spite of the usually gushing puff pieces that get turned out by the technical institutes and the donor guardians, things don’t seem to be as rosy as they’re portrayed. Given the climate of censorship and media paranoia in post-putsch Fiji, there should be a lot more scrutiny about their activities and progress. In the light of many jaundiced messages from media old hands around the region, Café Pacific wonders how rigorous these new schools are – certainly compared to the transparent and thorough practices in the universities.

On the one hand, it is good to be providing more entry-level opportunities for both students and media practitioners to develop their professional skills, However, many oldtime professional educators are troubled about the “bypassing of establishing teaching institutions” and the undermining of the sustainable institutions in the region offering journalism programmes – the University of Papua New Guinea (j-school founded in 1975), Divine Word University at Madang, PNG (1982) and the University of the South Pacific (1987). Journalism being taught with a bunch of skills but without critical studies (the training of the ability to think and question) is rather pointless for a serious Fourth Estate role. And the universities are out on their own in this regard.

Some old hands are questioning the value of the Fiji Institute of Technology j-school, for example, describing it as “poorly thought out and implemented in a jiffy”. According to some media education and training critics:
Many courses are under-taught, poorly taught or not taught at all. Attendance by both lecturers and students are poor.

But somehow students are still graduating.
Students are voting with their feet … and they have some horror stories to tell.

The TVets were supposed to have become self-funding. But this has not happened. Recently AusAID pumped another $190,000 into the FIT programme to stop it becoming yet another failed Pacific media aid project and an embarrassment.
Café Pacific wonders whether it was also to avoid uncomfortable questions from taxpayers. How much longer will AusAID continue propping up these schools. What happens when AusAID eventually bails out? And why is that there is virtually no critique of standards? Not just in Fiji, but in the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and elsewhere as well. For years, the university courses encountered flak from some industry quarters when in fact time and again they demonstrated value – by winning awards against international, competition in Australia and New Zealand, for example.

Where is the independent media being produced by these TVet programmes? All the university j-schools have run their own media for years – newspapers, television programmes, radio stations etc. This is the hallmark of good and challenging journalism programmes overseas. Yet the TVet outputs are almost invisible. Merely producing fodder for industry at a time when critical, independent journalism needs to be nurtured more than ever. And where are the transparent audits of these virtual courses? If a flourishing Fourth Estate across the Pacific is what they really had in mind, the AusAID moguls must be regretting their investment.

PM Sikua supports new journalism school
UNESCO supports new approach to journalism training

Friday, July 3, 2009

Timorese PM under fire in food contract scandal

By Matt Crook in Dili

PRESSURE to resign is mounting on East Timor's Prime Minster, Xanana Gusmão, amid claims that he misused authority when he signed-off on a multimillion dollar government contract last year to a company his daughter has ties with.

Fernanda Borges, leader of the opposition National Unity Party, has demanded that Gusmão be held accountable for his role in the awarding of a contract to import subsidised rice worth US$3.5 million* to Prima Food, a company his daughter Zenilda Gusmão owns a stake in.

"Did Zenilda Gusmão have a business before her father became important? No. Does Zenilda Gusmão have the right to a government contract? No," she said. "That's not why Mr Gusmão was elected."

Under East Timorese parliamentary law, the prime minister is required to sign off on all government contracts above $1 million, and government tenders cannot be awarded to companies in which close family members of government officials, including the prime minister, have a stake exceeding 10 percent.

Money for the rice contract came from the country's Economic Stabilisation Fund, which functions partly to ensure food prices are kept under control. The opposition is raising questions about whether the rice in question was even imported.

"Did the rice come in? Where is the rice? People out in the districts, a lot of them have not received any rice or had the opportunity of buying cheap rice from the government. So where did all that rice go or did it ever come in? We don't have proof," Borges said.

But the government refutes the allegation.

Deputy Prime Minister Mario Carrascalao says the contract being signed off may have simply been an oversight.

"OK, he signed that without going through and examining it," he said. "[The government] distributed money to [16] enterprises. In one of those enterprises there is the daughter of the prime minister, but she is not alone. The enterprise called Prima Food is not just her enterprise. She is one of the associated members, so I don't think the prime minister did anything wrong when he signed it."

Backing for PM
The prime minister also has the backing of the East Timorese President José Ramos-Horta.

"Just because someone became president, became prime minister, became a minister, does not mean his family all have to go into unemployment, all have to sell their business and stop," he told Radio Australia.

However, the opposition isn't buying the explanation.

"My worry is if he stays and he thinks that, especially with all this denial and weird interpretation of our Constitution and existing laws, that [the government] can give families contracts," Borges said. "What are we building here? A state for [their] families?"

Arsenio Bano, an opposition MP from the Fretilin party, demands that the prime minister step down.

"The rice contract is one of the biggest scandals. It is demonstrating nepotism. We will keep pushing for [Xanana Gusmão] to be accountable and even to resign as prime minister," he said.

"He can't sign under the law a contract with a company that his own daughter is in."

East Timor became independent in 2002 three years after an overwhelming majority of the population voted in favour of separation from Indonesia after a brutal 24-year occupation. If opposition protests grow louder, this scandal could pose a real threat to the stability of this new democracy.

But Christopher Samson, a campaigner from Lalenok Ba Ema Hotu, a Dili-based anti-corruption watchdog, cautions that it is a bit too early to jump to conclusions.

"[The] law did not say that families of ministers or the prime minister or members of government should not participate in business," he said. "I feel there should be an investigation before we speak about this process."

Matt Crook is a correspondent of the Inter Press Service (IPS). Image source: Timor Lorosae News

* East Timor's currency is US dollars.

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