Matai Akauola isn’t the kind of guy to display emotion in public. Like most Fijian men, even when injured on the rugby field, he usually presents as being genial, even-tempered and calm. As a leading Fijian journalist, the News and Sports Director at the Fiji Broadcasting Corporation no less, he’s “been there, done and seen that” when it comes to Fiji’s periodic, self-inflicted, traumas.
Yet during a morning session on threats to media freedom in the Pacific at the 2007 Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Convention in Honiara, Solomon Islands, in late May, he was hunched over the table in tears as he related how his family was deeply divided by the continuing governance crisis in Fiji.
One of his sons is in the Fiji military, so when he comes home for Sunday lunch after church, the rest of the family have to be very careful with their conversations. Matai Akauola also told how he could no longer even trust his own staff, as the Fiji military has its spies and snouts scattered through every newsroom.
The News Director of Fiji TV, Netani Rika, also an extremely experienced Fijian journalist, looked at his colleague in sincere sympathy, and then proceeded to tell a harrowing tale of being summoned to the Fiji military camp in the northern Suva suburb of Nabua in April where he was severely admonished for a story Fiji TV had run about a death, allegedly caused by the military, on Fiji’s main northern island of Vanua Levu: one of at least three such deaths since last December’s coup.
Like Matai Akauola, Netani Rika’s a tough, experienced, operator who’s usually afraid of no one. He was expecting to be carried out of the camp on a stretcher after a beating, and felt lucky he was only verbally scared with a tongue lashing by a senior officer, well known to him, prominently wearing a hand gun.
A Solomon Islander senior journalist colleague drew wry, muted, laughs when he said he’d rather have a high powered weapon pointed at him by somebody supposedly trained to use it, like a Fijian soldier, than by a drunk or crazed Solomons militia thug who stole his machine gun from a looted police armoury, as occurred during the Solomon crisis.
Recalling how the Fiji media heroically faced down soldiers sent to occupy their newsrooms on the night of last December’s coup, I later asked Netani why the Fiji media hasn’t continued to exhibit industry solidarity when journos like him were seriously harassed, but rather had reverted to their usual extremely competitive ways. Surely they can’t be ignorant of the many tactics which can be deployed against coups? (I was one of several who scattered the Albert Einstein Institution’s PDF format Anti-Coup Handbook around NGO and media contacts in Suva just before and after the coup.) “Pigs might fly”, was Netani’s weary, somewhat exasperated, reply.
At least Matai and Netani were able to travel to Honiara to speak to PINA delegates.
The former boss of Fiji Broadcasting, Francis Herman - a widely respected senior regional media executive - when he was about to travel to an academic conference in Melbourne in early July where he was a scheduled keynote speaker - discovered he was on a travel ban list and is now the subject of an investigation into alleged corruption.
His former Board Chair spoke forcefully in Mr Herman’s defence. In response, the corruption investigators are taking their time to interrogate him while he languishes in Suva, unable to take up an AusAID-funded extended media consultancy in Vanuatu.
The Fiji media reported that corruption allegations against Mr Herman were made by a disgruntled former Radio Fiji employee. My suspicion is that Mr Herman’s travel ban is no more than payback for Radio Fiji’s occasionally “incorrect” reporting about the interim military regime’s “clean up campaign”: the campaign has yet to expose and charge a single person for serious, allegedly endemic, corruption and was one of the main justifications for the December, 2006, coup.
Public critics of the military regime, such as Fiji human rights leader, Shamima Ali, and former Law Society President, Graham Leung, have also been recently prevented from boarding their overseas flights as they lined up at the departure gates at Nadi airport. Given both were later cleared to travel, stopping them at the immigration counter at the airport was simply vindictive harassment. Other critics remain grounded in Fiji, their administrative or legal appeals being ignored or proceeding with all the alacrity of a non-existent Fijian glacier.