KAPAI Julian Wilcox and his team over at Māori Television’s Native Affairs for their coverage on Fiji this week. And also a big kia orana to Radio NZ’s Pacific affairs reporter Richard Pamatatau. Their refreshing coverage of the troubled republic (dictatorship) run by the region’s pariah military regime was welcome for its insights and depth – contrasting sharply with much of the mainstream media’s stereotypical and culturally shallow reporting.
And it isn’t any accident that this Pacific reporting has come from tangata whenua media personalities Wilcox, a former lecturer in Māori studies at AUT University, and reporter Carmen Parahi, and also a Cook Islander in Pamatatau. While the Native Affairs team pulled off a minor coup with an interview with Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama during their “48 hours in the Pacific military zone” when he has been reluctant since the April putsch to do an interview with other New Zealand television outfits (in contrast to Sky and SBS in Australia), Pamatatau unobtrusively got out and about in rural villages and did a series of insightful radio reports on Fiji. Both Wilcox and Pamatatau also gave a lively and interesting account of the challenges they faced in a Media 7 session with Russell Brown this week.
Some critics have sniffed that Wilcox was too “soft” on the military strongman. But Māori Television’s package of the interview, an on-the-ground report with grassroots responses and a panel discussion dissecting Bainimarama’s views gave arguably the best NZ report on Fiji in the last six months. Wilcox impressed as somebody who was genuinely listening to the regime’s side of the story - which is generally drowned out in the Pakeha-centric NZ media by the ethno-nationalist lobby and supporters - while still getting in some of the hard questions.
Still, some things need to be put into perspective. Both the MT team and Pamatatau seemed to be overly influenced by the mood of paranoia that has infected the region's media ever since the expulsion of three expatriate publishers from Australia and three journalists - one from Australia and three from New Zealand. Many had a history of hostility to the regime without the degree of impartiality expected from independent media. And it was never mentioned in the Native Affairs interview that the leading daily newspaper in Fiji, The Fiji Times, is foreign-owned (by a subsidiary of Murdoch's News Corp) and with a particular agenda. For anybody who has worked as a journalist in countries where there are undeclared internal wars and where assassins work routinely against media with state backing (as I have in the Philippines, for example), Fiji is still a relatively peaceful and secure place to report as a journalist. Also, many in Fiji do sincerely believe that life under a military, authoritarian regime is better than the crazy times after the Speight putsch and living under the shadow of a constant threat of another ethno-nationalist coup.
As for the suggestion that poverty and squatter settlements have somehow emerged since Bainimarama's 2006 coup, that is another myth. Poverty has steadily grown since the original Rabuka coups in 1987 and markedly increased since the expiry of land leases and a flood of landless Indo-Fijian cane farmer families have been forced into squatter settlements. According to University of the South Pacific economics professor Wadan Narsey, in an analysis of Fiji Bureau of Statistics data in 2007, the national incidence of poverty in Fiji for 2002-03 was then about 34 per cent. (In 1991, it had been 29 percent).
But Narsey asked which groups were living in most poverty? More so the rural people, he concluded: Rural Indo-Fijians, 47 percent; rural others, 45 percent; rural Fijians, 39 percent; urban Indo-Fijians, 26 percent; urban Fijians, 23 percent; urban others 12 percent. Narsey added:
It is not surprising that rural Fiji-Indians were the most in poverty, given the decline of the sugar industry, the collapse of the garments industry, and the expiry of land-leases ...Julian Wilcox's interview scored a big tick from fellow Radio Waatea commentator Willie Jackson, who wrote in his Stuff column:
Fiji does not need poverty alleviation affirmative action based on race. It is, therefore, a national tragedy that our blind politicians act as if it is only "their own" ethnic group that deserves poverty alleviation, and not the others.
If you’ve been watching Native Affairs on Māori TV on a Monday night you’ll already be familiar with one of the country’s more talented interviewers, Julian Wilcox.
He is one of Māoridom’s finest talents, broadcasting in both Māori and English. I better declare that he also works at Radio Waatea, but it is on Native Affairs that he has recently excelled, showing his courtesy and skill many times.
But he’s been put to the test a couple of times.
This week there was his interview with Commodore Frank Bainimarama, who’s been calling all the shots in Fiji since the 2006 military coup.
He can be prickly, especially since he’s had any amount of unflattering attention from self-assured overseas journalists with little grasp of Fijian society and politics. But Wilcox had his guest speaking freely – and making sense too, except when he tried to explain press freedom these days in Fiji.
It seems as though it’s a freedom to present stories that don’t offend the military. That, you’d think, doesn’t quite amount to freedom of the press.
If Wilcox was bemused by Bainimarama’s explanation, he was courteous and sensible enough not to let it wreck the interview.