I started to compile a more comprehensive wrap on recent developments in Fiji – more attacks on unions, the media, the Methodist Church – but then things started moving so fast on several fronts that I gave up, and will get to the bits and pieces, with much more context, in due course.
Scroll down for material on More Fantasy and Nastiness in Fiji, traversing the latest round on the Fiji regime throttling the Methodist Church, more on how media freedom is also throttled in Fiji, how the University of the South Pacific throttles academic freedom, continuing raids on the Fiji National Provident Fund, and insights into Fiji’s justice system under the military dictatorship.
A long anticipated and exceptionally valuable study, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, by American scholars, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, has landed on my desk. This is formidable and very thorough scholarship of the very first order which assembles and analyses a vast amount of historical and contemporary data to show, about as conclusively as this kind of research can do, that nonviolent direct action is much more effective at removing dictators, supporting democracies, and challenging domination than armed resistance or terrorism. That’s a huge claim, to be sure, and their work deserves a very close read, which I’m doing now.
You can get a feel for the book from this article, published in Foreign Affairs by Erica Chenoweth on August 24, 2011, and this earlier article, by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict.” International Security 33, no. 1 (Summer 2008): 7-44 (172 k PDF).
As well, I’ve been watching an excellent documentary on the impacts of global warming on Kiribati, The Hungry Tide, which has added to my collection of material on this crucial issue, has been doing the rounds of Australia’s film festivals recently, and brought back acute memories of my trips to Tuvalu where I’ve seen, and reported upon, the same kinds of effects.
More recently, Australia Network Television’s Pacific correspondent, Sean Dorney, has been to Kiribati to report on frustrations experienced from global warming’s front lines as they try to access mitigation funding and assistance pledged after the Copenhagen conference. His reports, including this one on Radio National’s Correspondent’s Report for August 20, 2011, have been outstanding.
But, Memo to the always terrifying ABC Standing Committee on Spoken English (SCOSE) – Please come for Correspondent’s Report presenter, Elizabeth Jackson, for two broadcasting sins. Firstly, she mispronounced the name of the place ~ Kiri-bas ~ and not Kiri-bati. Secondly, she did so twice, in the introduction to the story, and again in the backannounce, clearly demonstrating she didn’t listen to the story she was presenting, in which the reporter pronounced the name correctly. Back in my days at the ABC, we’d be flogged in the car park for such gross violations of SCOSE directives!
Whenever I hear or read about global warming deniers doing their nit picking, selective science ransacking and citing, and all the other sleazy tricks they deploy to ‘spread doubt’, I think of my friends in Tuvalu, who daily endure global warming’s largely creeping and insidious impacts on their fragile home islands, and I keep hearing Te Vaka’s plea to the leaders of global warming causing countries to come and see what’s happening for themselves, Ke Ke Kitea (So You Can See) from Ke Mua (1999). (Music by Te Vaka and compiled vision on this You Tube video, Palagi or English lyrics on their site.)
Te Vaka (The Canoe) are the world’s leading Polynesian band. I’ve been a raging fan since 2000, snapped up all their CDs and DVDs, used their music, with their permission, to introduce talks and lectures about reporting on global warming in the Pacific, and I’ve seen them live in concert twice. Extraordinary outfit!
Their new album is out, called Havili, and I’m already totally knocked out, again, by Te Vaka’s astonishing work. Do yourself a huge favour ~ Buy Havili, and while you’re st their site, also order other CDs and both of their DVDs. I totally recommend Nukukehe (A Different Land, 2002) with its athemic song of praise and thinks to David McTaggart and Greenpeace, Sei Ma Le Losa (This Flower and this Rose), once you know the backstory to Loimata E Maligi (Let The Tears Fall Down) you’ll also be weeping – this song would also ‘speak’ to all those affected by the terrible Logan City house fire – and the livlier songs and log drumming will have you wanting to dance.
Now to the barmy, balmy isles…
More Fantasy and Nastiness from Fiji
The Sydney Morning Herald’s Philip Dorling has trawled the latest Wikileaks cables to add to material we already know about the United States’ diplomatic views on the 2006 coup and Cmdr Bainimarama’s state of mind: ‘In one cable sent to Washington shortly before the  coup, [then] US ambassador Larry Dinger observed that “a psychiatrist would have a field day with Bainimarama”‘.
I’ve never met Baimimarama, though I may have done so briefly way back in early 2001, when I went up to the military headquarters, the Queen Elizabeth II Barracks, in the Northern Suva suburb of Nabua, with other participants at some workshop I was attending down town. We’d been invited to a reception, or Friday evening drinks, or similar, because a couple of soldiers had been attending the workshop. Looking around the buildings, I could see how the damage done during the terrible military mutiny the previous November 2, was still being repaired.
But closely following events in Fiji from afar for years, closely analyzing Bainimarama’s changeable and often quite contradictory statements, closely studying pictures and even occasional longer video of him, and knowing something about the effects of traumatic events, such as being seriously shot at by people out to kill you (not that I’ve ever even had loaded guns pointed at me in anger, but I have read a lot by people who have, and talked at length with them, and I do know something about the effects of reporting on traumatic events on media workers, such as the awful tragedy south of Brisbane on Monday night, August 22, 2011, see also, Sean Dorney on Pacific Beat for August 25, 2011), that kind of experience can do serious damage to a person’s mind. I have also heard reliable reports about Bainimarama’s periodic, all night, alcoholic benders, which suggests to me he may well be self-medicating a serious mental disorder such as severe anxiety or even Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Only his treating doctor would know for sure, assuming Bainimarama firstly acknowledges he’s actually quite ill, and secondly, is serious about doing something about it, starting with getting right off the booze.
Plus, having pulled a coup, and then having installed himself as ‘prime minister’, really only having the military to rely upon to hold power and deal with dissent or resistance, which is kept loyal by, among other things, continuing raids on the Fiji National Provident Fund (FNPF, about which more, below), and simply having to try to manage the alarming array of portfolios he’s arrogated to himself, seems more than enough to string out even a genuinely talented, highly educated, workaholic person in the prime of their capacities. The Fiji regime’s web site lists his portfolios as: Prime Minister and Minister for Finance, Strategic Planning, National Development and Statistics; Public Service; People’s Charter for Change and Progress; Minister for Information, National Archives and Library Services of Fiji; Minister for I-Taukei [indigenous Fijian affairs]; Provincial Development and Multi-Ethnic Affairs and Sugar Industry, Acting Minister for Lands and Mineral Resources. Even supervising these portfolios conscientiously would send normal people crazy after a few months.
Bainimarama is not particularly well educated, is exclusively military trained, and, on several reliable accounts, isn’t outstandingly charismatic or obviously overly intelligent.
I probed all the foregoing in my lengthy Fiji backgrounder, published over a year ago, which does need an update as to developments, but not really with respect to the dynamics still very much in play in Fiji, with no endgame even remotely in sight.
(Setting to one side my profound cynicism about anybody being sufficiently motivated to do what needs to be done in any kind of polity who lusts after power, does what usually needs to be done to strive for power, get it, and keep and extend their power as suggesting narcissism, ego-mania, paranoia, borderline social-psychopathology, and similar diagnosable personality or even genuine mental disorders sufficient to have them permanently disqualified from holding any kind of public office. And also taking the very fullest account of the facts that I’m not a trained, qualified, or experienced psychologist or psychiatrist specializing in complex personality disorders, and remote ‘psychoanalysis’ is always highly unreliable, though it has been used by most government foreign affairs, defence, and intelligence communities to compile dossiers on overseas leaders, if only to equip those directly engaging with them to better do so.)
I did run some of the foregoing past a former, and very close, military associate of Bainamarama’s I met a couple of years ago, in a typically highly encoded conversation, the kind only extremely knowledgeable observers can have which can be entirely incomprehensible to general observers, and this person looked extremely thoughtful, and agreed there was almost certainly a lot in what I was saying.
Mr Dorling’s lengthy and very serviceable piece also draws on diplomatic reports of human rights abuses perpetrated by the Fiji military since 2006 which have been also raised in US State Department Human Rights Reports on Fiji.
His story starts and ends with the story of Fiji Methodist Church former President, now retired, Rev Josateki Koroi, receiving a most unwelcome visit from some Fiji military on Monday night, August 22, after he returned home from attending the cancelled Methodist Church conference in Suva.
Fairfax New Zealand’s Michael Field added that Rev Koroi had been head Fiji military chaplain, with the rank of major, and ministered to soldiers on UN peacekeeping duties in the Sinai and Lebanon, as well as some further background on who really seems to be calling the shots (grim pun partly intentional) in the regime’s throttling of the Methodists, Land Forces Commander, and fairly newly installed Fiji Rugby Union chair, Colonel Mosese Tikoitoga.
The ‘other religion’ in Fiji is rugby, the 2011 Rugby World Cup is soon to start in New Zealand, and Col Tikoitoga has been pressing the New Zealand Government on the issue of whether or not soldiers also chosen for the Flying Fijians squad would be allowed visas to compete. The response has been a firm ‘No‘.
These thugs really are craven cowards they way they sneak about in the dark to harass and intimidate their Master’s targets, particularly when their harassment focuses on an elderly retired pastor who used to minister to them overseas in potentially very dangerous situations.
I told them, I said no way that I want to attend to this, at this hour. I don’t see any urgency of any meeting at this time of the night. And I came back home now and was tired and wanted to have a rest after being away all day. I’m not as young as you to be able to sit up at night. Go and inform the commander or whoever sent you, that I will not come.
Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat reporter, Bruce Hill, who’s been doing some superb reporting on Fiji recently, later interviewed Rev Koroi about deeper problems within the Fiji Methodist Church.
For non-Christians, mentioning theology might seem irrelevant or a distraction but, as we learned, and had to learn, in Queensland, when pietistic Luthern, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, was premier, and drew a significant amount of support from Queensland’s so-called ‘Bible Belt’, if you don’t understand the ‘religious geography’ of a place like Queensland, or of any Pacific Islands country, where religion plays an often decisive, and always enormous, role in society, you simply don’t and cannot understand the place.
Developments during the week of August 22 – 26, 2011, surrounding the Methodists in Fiji deserve a much closer analysis, which I’ll attempt sometime, but the Uniting Church in Australia’s Bruce Mullan gave this excellent summation to Mr Hill on Friday, August 26, 2011. (Declaring an interest, I happened to be talking with Mr Mullan just before Mr Hill interviewed him, and he gave me much more informed, first hand, background than he gave Mr Hill. It all went into my mental tanoa (kava bowl), where I store all this stuff, stir it around, and peer into the murky brew as I try to make sense of what’s going on in Fiji.)
The bible said that we must submit to the authority of the day – the authority of the day the government of the day. We leaders of whatever denomination or whatever, we must submit according to the bible for those who are in leadership God promotes and God demotes. Whether they are of God or not of God that’s for none of us to judge them.
The New Methodist Church is a pentecostal spin-off from elements of the Methodist Church, as the editor’s note on the Pacific Islands Report republishing of a censored Fiji Times report from August 24, 2011, explains.
(I’ll e-mail Peter Wagner, editor of PIR, and suggest he do what I do whenever I cite or link to a Fiji media outlet’s story, pointing out that all Fiji media is still subject to active and intrusive regime censorship, as this latest effort, which I’ll get to, below, demonstrates.)
Anybody who’s genuinely theologically literate knows very well how to exegete the key passage in Romans 13: 1-7 from whence the New Methodist mouthpiece draws his heresy. I need only point to the excoriating theology of Walter Wink as just one brilliant theologian among many who demolishes any notion that the apostle Paul, under all circumstances and for all time, was calling on Christians to eagerly submit to and obey the secular authorities exercising domination over them. Anything but! Even a study of Romans as a whole, and even Romans 12 and the rest of Romans 13 would easily demolish the isogetical, proof-texting, heresy being pushed by outfits like the New Methodists in Fiji.
The New Methodists used to have enormous influence in the Fiji police force when the brother of their main pastor was the Police Commissioner, Captain Esala Teleni, after the 2006 coup, and the police were conducting a ‘Jesus Crusade against Crime’, with compulsory Bible studies and prayer meetings occurring throughout the force, even for Hindu and Muslim police officers. The influence, and farcical extent, of these kinds of antics were even too much for Bainimarama to tolerate, the then Commissioner was removed, and the influence of his relatives on the force declined. But they’re still around, and, unlike the Methodist Church, the New Methodists have no problems whatsoever holding their meetings and conferences.
It’s getting to the point where the Fiji Methodists might even need to get regime permission to hold meetings in the proverbial phone booth ~ Telecom Fiji doesn’t have phone booths, only open sided phone sites (try using one during one of Fiji’s common, drenching, tropical downpours) – and I have no doubt that regime spies attend their services to make sure their pastors ‘stick to the approved script’ and dutifully report back to their military masters. (Censored Fiji Times story, August 30, 2011.)
Given that, informed by the very best exegetical theology, the ‘core business’ of the Church, any Church which takes its mission and the Gospel seriously, is the prophetic ~ fore-telling and forth-telling ~ speaking of Truth to power, the regime’s throttling of the Fiji Methodists, with all the historical and even contemporary failings of the denomination accepted, is an assault on the genuinely fundamental principles and practice of properly, Biblically, informed, Christian faith.
And turning to theology in Fiji, I’d really like to know what Fiji’s leading theologian, Rev Dr Ilaitia Tuwere, himself a former president of the Methodist Church in the late 1990s, a former Principal of the Pacific Theological College, and currently with the Theological College of St John the Evangelist and Trinity Theological Methodist College in Auckland, would make of the religious situation in Fiji. His book, Vanua – Towards a Fijian Theology of Place, is essential reading for anybody interested in the role of religion in Fiji.
Greater insights, too, can be gleaned from Joseph E. Bush’s article, ‘Claiming a Christian State Where None Exists: Church and State in the Republic of Fiji’, Pasifika, Volume 12, Issue 1, 1999. Though this article deals with events and debates surrounding the Methodist Church’s position on the review of the Fijian Constitution in the latter 1990s, a close reading shows the relevance of those same debates today. USP’s Dr Lynda Newland adds further, contemporary, information in her chapter on ‘Religion and Politics: The Christian Churches and the 2006 Coup in Fiji‘ in the ANU book The 2006 Military Takeover in Fiji.
The ‘Taukei Movement at Prayer’ faction in the Church, now significantly waning in influence, versus a much more moderate and inclusive, contemporary, Church hierarchy. Significant public repentance does need to occur for the Church’s sins of the past, largely to do with its support for ethno-nationalism in 1987 and 2000, and its siding with the SDL Qarase Government in the lead-up to the 2006 coup, but it suits Bainimarama just fine to throttle the Methodists, still asserting that the Taukei faction holds sway when they don’t. (Taukei is Fijian for land owner, or indigenous Fijian, i-Taukei, and the term was appropriated by ethno-nationalists, Fijian racists, for their so-called ‘Taukei movement’, in 1987 and during the 2000 Fiji putsch.)
Turning, briefly, to the latest media freedom attack in Fiji…
During the week of August 22 – 26, 2011, a resistance outfit calling itself the Viti Revolutionary Forces was busy spraying anti-regime graffiti quite widely around Suva, and a slew of pictures of their efforts, including of soldiers equally busily trying to clean away the graffiti, was very widely circulated, including to some anti-regime Blogs.
I’m always divided about the uses of graffiti in nonviolent struggles. Cleverly, even humorously, defacing sexist or offensive billboards has a long and proud history; think of the Bugger Up campaigns against tobacco advertising billboards. Political graffiti is a significant tactic in many nonviolent campaigns as a public means of demonstrating resistance exists and is active, and transmitting messages, though this has been superseded by social media and mobile phones. Defacing public buildings always has some poor bastards having to clean the stuff up, and they’re usually among the least powerful and poorest of a regime’s agents, usually employed in city or local councils or public works departments, and thence the tax or rate payer eventually carries the costs. Plus the targeted regime would, no doubt, use the graffiti as yet another excuse for more repression, though potentially this can trigger Backfire.
In the Fiji case, it appears public works department workers were dispatched on some of the clean up jobs, while armed soldiers were photographed also engaged in cleaning duties.
What was also significant was the very widespread, overseas, distribution and publication of the slew of pictures of the graffiti postings around Suva, the most significant example of this kind of resistance evidence I’ve seen from Fiji since Easter, 2009.
Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat bought into the story, interviewing former Land Forces Commander, Ratu Tevita Mara, currently in exile in Tonga. (Therein lies yet another complicated story in which things don’t quite look as clear cut as some would make out they do, either pro- or con- the regime.)
Apparently, on Thursday morning, August 25, 2011, a local radio station in Suva, my suspicion being it was one of Communications Fiji Limited outlets, and on their web site – though I would appreciate being corrected on this – ran a report about the graffiti which slipped past the censors still installed in their newsroom.
Very soon thereafter, this e-mail was sent to all media outlets in Fiji from the Ministry of Information:
You are hereby requested to send in all news headlines to email@example.com at least half an hour before it is aired.
This will enable us to effectively monitor the coverage for each day.
Your cooperation will be appreciated.
Kalpana Prasad and Qilioani Ravunibola
Ministry of Information
Ph: 990 4956 and 990 8885
Coming from Fiji’s censors, this isn’t a ‘request’, it’s a demand, and if Fiji’s media didn’t comply, and perhaps if they didn’t comply with sufficient alacrity, deference, and eagerness, their outlet would be shut down under S 16 of the still enforced Public Emergency Regulations.
I’ve been in Fiji radio newsrooms prior to Easter, 2009, and I know all about their scrambles to have bulletins complied, in English, Fijian, and Fijian-Hindi, hourly, plus very regular web site updates as well. I also know a lot about broadcast journalism practices and copy flows in newsrooms large and small.
I’ve also talked with Fijian journalists about the extra layer of difficulty having active and intrusive censors since Easter, 2009, in their newsrooms has meant for them and how they now have to operate.
The genius who dreamed up this latest demand, and it would not have been made without the active involvement of the ‘permanent secretary’ of the Information Ministry, Ms Sharon Smith-Johns, clearly knows nothing about how radio newsrooms operate normally, or this was collective punishment on all media for one outlet’s attempt at pushing the boundaries or, more likely, an inadvertent stuff-up. These happen periodically in all newsrooms.
Later on Thursday, August 25, the Information Ministry sent around this e-mail:
Please ignore previous email regarding the emailing of all news headlines firstname.lastname@example.org half an hour before it is aired. Any inconvenience caused is regretted.
Thanking you in advance,
RNZI picked up on the story on Friday, August 26, 2011. Notice how Ms Smith-Johns had no comment to make to RNZI.
A Radio Australia Pacific Beat story from August 22, 2011, featuring Radio Fiji’s news editor, Stanley Simpson, responding to calls from the Fiji Trades Union Congress to stop just reporting the regime’s side of the continuing attempts by the regime to throttle the unions, also gives insights into how the media censorship operates.
This is the kind of nonsense that’s been plaguing Fiji’s journalists since Easter, 2009.
As I was finalizing this Post, Pacific Media Watch, out of Auckland University of Technology’s Pacific Media Centre, alerted me to this story from the censored Fiji Times on Saturday, August 27, 2011:
Aside from the story being a piece of specious waffle, Dr Edge is not a professor at USP. Even on his own web site, he describes himself as ‘…a Senior Lecturer and Head of Journalism at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji’.
USP follows the Anglophone practice of only according the title of Professor to very senior and usually very widely published and respected academics in their fields, such as Professor Wadan Narsey, about whom more soon.
Much more seriously, we read: ‘”Fiji has to tailor its regulations according to what it needs,” Professor Edge said in an Information Ministry statement (emphasis added).
This Fiji Times story is a piece of ‘shovel ware’, a regime media release tarted up as a legitimate news story with a journalist’s by-line added, as required by the Media Decree, and suggesting that the reporter, as a representative of the newspaper and thence its readers, was actually at the Parliament Complex to report on the annual media liaison officer’s meeting.
Here’s the original Information Ministry statement, dated August 26, 2011, and it is almost word for word what the Fiji Times ran.
The Fiji Times should be ashamed of itself, and its credibility worryingly diminished, even under the current, awful, media environment in Fiji.
There is, of course, another explanation.
The intrusive censors haunting the Fiji Times’ newsroom could have insisted that the MinInfo statement be shoveled into the paper and On Line, and the innocent reporter’s by-line added to give some superficial legitimacy to the piece, all done, perhaps, against the hopefully vigorous objections of the editor and page sub-editors who, I know, can be a very vituperative lot.
Falsely assigning the title of ‘Professor’ to Dr Edge also lends superficial legitimacy to the story, boosting the ‘credibility’ of the content; ‘Oh, a Professor’s saying this! It must be right’. The MinInfo statement might have done it for this reason, but the Fiji Times should have corrected it, assuming they were allowed to.
Keeping an eye on the censored Fiji Times over the subsequent couple of days, I have not seen any retraction or correction for the error, though I might have missed something and would appreciate any clarification on this
Were I Dr Edge, and had been ‘promoted’ to Professor in a published story, I’d have contacted the Times very promptly and firmly to publish a correction and apology, and I’d use the incident as an example of a media stuff-up, and how these are remedied, in my USP classes, also pointing to the credibility damaging effects of getting somebody’s professional title or role wrong.
On March 20, 2001, I was mis-titled in the Times, got on the phone, and pestered the paper to publish a correction, which they did by way of a letter to the editor I wrote, which clipped them around the ears for their error. I also set out what’s standard journalistic practice, or ought to be, when the starting point of a story is a media release.
Here’s the original e-mail I sent to Mr Netani Rika, the then Fiji Times editor, which they published on March 22, 2001:
I write to correct your article on the re-launch of the University of the South Pacific’s radio station, Radio Pasifik (Fiji Times, 20/3/01, P 8).
In the original media release from the USP Public Relations Office, I am correctly referred to as ‘radio journalism lecturer, Dr Mark Hayes’.
In your edited version of the same media release, I was demoted to being ‘a course tutor’.
When I spoke with some of the Fiji Times staff involved with the story, they seemed at a loss to explain why such an error occurred when all that was involved was the straightforward rewriting of a supplied media release.
What is also inexplicable is why nobody from The Fiji Times (or any other newspaper for that matter) bothered to do what any journalism student in the Journalism Program at USP would automatically do when using a media release as the starting point for a story: contact the person named or quoted in the release and interview them to get new, original quotes, or explore other angles in the story with the source.
Rewriting, or worse, just publishing a media release, and getting the major source’s position and title wrong isn’t journalism; it’s plain incompetence.
Dr Mark Hayes, PhD
Lecturer in Broadcast Journalism
The same standard practice should have been followed by the Fiji Times upon receipt of the MinInfo media release of August 26, 2011, but standard journalistic practices are nolonger allowed to apply or are followed in Fiji, though I know some beleaguered journalists are trying hard, sometimes at some risk, to uphold professional standards.
A reliable source – not based in Fiji – but very knowledgeable about the Fiji media, passed on this observation they received from a senior Fijian journalist: “We go through the motions, turn up for work and put our names to minfo releases etc. There is little or no real reporting as in contacting sources and checking information. The censors are all powerful. Our editor has no authority over content. Morale is non-existent”.
Also, ordinarily, of course, there’s nothing untoward at all about a university journalism lecturer sharing their knowledge and scholarship with government media liaison officers, or almost anybody else who seeks them out. Reputable universities encourage their academics to do this kind of consultancy and community engagement. I’ve done it myself.
But Fiji doesn’t have a government. It has a military dictatorship. Which rigorously censors the media and journalists.
So I really have severe misgivings about the head of the USP Journalism Programme lending their expertise to agents of the Pacific’s military dictatorship, some of whom, given the extensive militarization of the Fiji public service, could well be serving or seconded soldiers who may also be rotated through newsroom censorship duties, and who, as ‘government’ liaison officers, must actively promote the policies of their military masters.
I have e-mailed Dr Edge, alerted him to this Post, invited him to comment on it here, and promised him that any comment he might care to make will not be censored.
Dr Edge later replied to my e-mail, clarifying several points, but asked that his e-mail be Off the Record, a request that I will honor, congruent with standard journalistic practice. The offer to comment on this Post On the Record, without any censorship from me, remains open.
Aside from S 16 of the Public Emergency Regulations, and the later Media Decree, there are apparently no published guidelines about what the censors will or will not approve, or what might, or might not, result in a journalist and/or their editor being hauled in for a talking to by the police, or worse, summoned or dragged to the military HQ, often by a military snatch squad dispatched in the dead of night to their home, as was attempted on Monday night, August 22, on the 80 year old retired Methodist pastor.
That this latest hero successfully executed a Small Act of Resistance is to be celebrated.
Academic Freedom, Not, at the University of the South Pacific
The Intro to the Radio Australia Pacific Beat story on Tuesday, August 23, says it all:
Former University of the South Pacific economist Professor Wadan Narsey says he left his post because of pressure from the Fiji interim government on the university administration.
He says he left the USP by mutual agreement, because the interim government was threatening to withhold funds from the university because they were unhappy about him.
The outspoken academic has commented widely about the state of Fiji’s economy, and problems with the country’s superannuation find.
Professor Narsey, who’s currently on sabbatical in Japan, says the USP was being put in a difficult position, and his decision to step down was made in the best interests of the university.
The University of the South Pacific (USP), headquartered in Suva, receives about $34 million (unclear if this is FJ$, US$ equivalent, or what) in funding from the Fiji regime, plus significant fees and scholarships income from Fijian students attending the university. Another major funder of USP is the Australian taxpayer, through AUSAid grants and assistance. Quite a few Australian, New Zealand, EU, and other expatriates, plus leading Pacific Regional scholars, teach and research at USP’s three main campuses in Suva, Apia in Samoa, and Port Vila in Vanuatu.
But USP is also ‘owned’ by the other Pacific Islands countries who send students there to be educated, and whose governments thence have a significant stake in the operations of the place, and the quality education their nation’s best and brightest should receive there.
Apparently, earlier in 2011, regime agents approached the USP Vice-Chancellor, Rajesh Chandra, to voice their displeasure at Professor Narsey’s critiques of the regime’s administration of, and stealthy raids upon, the Fiji National Provident Fund (FNPF), and other aspects of the regime’s economic management.
As Prof Narsey continued his periodic, and excoriating, critiques, always with the disclaimer that his views were not necessarily those of his employing institution, pressure from the regime on USP also escalated to include the threat to withhold its share of funding of the institution and, as a review of scholarship funding for Fijian students was also underway, quite possibly refusing to fund scholarships to USP in favour of Fiji’s other two universities, the Lautoka-based University of Fiji, and the Fiji National University, also based in Suva.
Some of his articles were published by AUT’s Pacific Media Centre’s Associate Professor David Robie’s Cafe Pacific Blog, and none have been published in the censored Fiji media.
While Prof Narsey was, entirely legitimately, on approved sabbatical leave in Japan, he was recalled back to Suva and USP, summoned before VC Chandra, and was told he had to leave USP.
A somewhat face saving form of words was agreed, which Prof Narsey sketched out to Pacific Beat’s Bruce Hill:
The problem really was that the university told me, the management told me that they were financially jeopardised because the Fiji government’s contribution were being withheld by the military regime, and also on the back restructuring of government scholarships to USP and the other two national universities. So there was very clearly great risk in terms of damage to the university’s financial future because the military regime was extremely unhappy with me. I mean I would have thought it very, very unfair of the regime to think that, but it has been doing these kind of things. So the university management was really in a very, very hard place, between a rock and a hard place, they suggested to me it was in the wider interest of the university that I leave. And so I really had no option but to say ok, I will agree to leave and they will abide by their contractual obligations to me. So to be honest it was a tough judgement call on their part and they have to look after the interests of the university, whereas I as an academic just have my own academic objectives, which is far narrower than that of the responsibilities of university management.
But a sacking is a sacking is a sacking, and USP’s VC, Rajesh Chandra, clearly caved in to the military dictatorship, and sacked probably the Pacific Region’s leading economist. One wonders what USP’s Council made of this disgraceful move, a Council which includes the VC of Macquarie University.
Of course, VC Chandra has ‘form’ with this kind of thing. In late May, 2000, when Deputy Vice-Chancellor, he forced the USP Journalism Programme’s Web Site to close down, over strident objections from the USP staff association and with no consultation with then programme head, David Robie, out of fear that its publication of stories about the continuing and acute Fiji crisis could incite some of Speight’s thugs to swam across from the Parliament complex, which backs on to the USP Laucala Bay campus in Suva, and trash parts of USP, as they’d trashed Fiji TV. The Site, which was one of the most visited in Fiji during the crisis, was quickly re-hosted at UTS Journalism in Sydney and at Looking Glass Design.
In passing, the PER S 16 anticipated Fijian outlets and journalists publishing their uncensored copy overseas, perhaps a ‘real’ or uncensored Fiji Times or similar, in the same way USP Journalism got around the DVC’s closure of their site, by requiring authors of ‘inciteful’ journalism to prove the overseas publication was not compiled or sourced in Fiji.
One quite legitimately wonders, had USP shown some spine and politely told the regime to go away, if Prof Narsey would, upon his return to Fiji, have received the same treatment as ANU Professor Brij Lal, probably the Pacific’s leading historian and co-author of the 1997 Fiji Constitution (along with former New Zealand Governor-General, Sir Paul Reeves, who passed away recently).
In early November, 2009, while at his home in Suva, and conducting research for a forthcoming book, Prof Lal was all but kidnapped, carted to the Fiji military’s headquarters in Nabua, assaulted, and then deported.
The major point to note is, of course, the shattering of any pretense of academic freedom at USP.
If this is how USP supports its leading scholars, and upholds non-negotiable principles, and the practice, of academic freedom, then no reputable scholar can feel safe to conduct research, teach, or publish from USP lest they, too, earn the ire of the military dictatorship. A major problem is, to be sure, not knowing what might annoy a senior regime identity; you only find out when they come for you.
I have earlier noted how the USP Journalism Programme had to obey the Public Emergency Regulations, especially Section 16, and submit copy for its student newspaper, Wansolwara, to the Fiji regime’s censors for approval, and now it must also adhere to the requirements of the regime’s Media Decree. It might be a nice point, but if the Programme has secured an exemption from the Ministry of Information because its newspaper is published solely for educational purposes, then that, too, is intolerable, because it necessarily instills permanent self-censorship into its students, lest the Ministry withdraw its exemption.
And the editors and publishers of the USP-based academic journal Fijian Studies, had to look over their shoulders and at least worry about regime reactions or reprisals over their double issue (Vol. 6 Issues 1/2, dated 2008 but published much later, in 2009) on the Fiji media. Equally intolerable.
And now we learn that the fairly newly appointed head of USP Journalism, Canadian journalist and journalism academic, Dr Mark Edge, is, apparently, allowing himself to be quoted in Information Ministry statements, and is, reportedly, lending his expertise to the regime’s departmental media liaison officers.
The Samoan Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielelagaoi, quite rightly voiced his concerns about what regime pressure on USP means for the institution when it can get USP to sack one of the Region’s leading economists and a full professor of long standing.
And the Deputy President of the USP Student’s Association, Tevita Tuiloa, told RNZI on August 30, 2011, that Professor Narsey’s departure was a great loss to the students, saying, “[Prof Narsey] speaks his mind, he speaks the truth. That’s the role of all academics. That’s something that probably the university has always been stressing – the importance of developing students who can think critically”.
Replace ‘think critically’ with ‘think correctly’ in the current environment in Fiji.
In the current climate, one can also be forgiven for wondering whether or not somebody might be ‘encouraged’ to have another look at Mr Tuiloa’s grades and, if he’s not a Fijian citizen, the Immigration Department might have a closer look at his student visa, and if he’s an i-Taukei and/or is on a Fijian scholarship, ‘somebody’ might have a look at his funding too. Somebody else might arrange for him to receive a particularly unwelcome group of visitors in the dead of night, or an unexplained and then un-investigated face rearrangement passed off as just another student fight, or opportunistic mugging. The police wring their hands but don’t know ’nuffink…
They’re busy investigating a couple of police bure (grass roofed hut) fires over the weekend of August 27 – 28, 2011, near Sigatoka, on Viti Levu’s south coast, a story on which Fairfax New Zealand’s Michael Field has also reported.
(As a matter of practice, though I read several of them, I never cite or link to any of the Fiji Blogs, preferring to only link to or cite from sources I know for certain are reliable, as well as which have published practice and ethics standards.)
Continuing Raids on the Fiji National Provident Fund
Professor Narsey’s excoriating critiques of the Fiji regime’s administration of the largest single pot of money in the country, the Fiji National Provident Fund (FNPF) – here’s another one, from May, 2011 – have, among other things, fueled a fascinating court case being brought by a local pensioner, David Burness, whose lawyer, Dr Shaista Shameem, argues proposed changes to how the fund pays pensioners amount to a violation of her client’s human rights. (Another story from Pacific Beat, dated June 28, 2011.)
Very simply, setting to one side what are probably serious structural problems with the administration of the FNPF, such that it may actually be operating somewhat like a large and complicated Ponzi Scheme, the impacts of bad investments in some tourism schemes, and, like many similar national pension funds, it faces the looming retirement of ‘baby boomers’ over the next few decades, the FNPF is Fiji’s largest pension fund, all workers must have some of their pay deducted and paid into it, and it is contractually obligated to pay contributors their contracted pensions upon retirement.
In an August 2, 2011, Radio New Zealand International story about this court case, Prof Narsey said:
The bigger picture is that this military regime wants to keep on milking this cash cow, that’s been there for them for 40 years, and one of the ways they want to do it is to reduce the pensions to existing pensioners, which is illegal, and almost certainly, they will reduce the pensions to future pensioners.
The regime could, of course, issue another decree which would stop the Burness case in its tracks, as no appeals are allowed against regime decisions promulgated by way of decree. Of course, the censored Fiji media is severely constrained on how it can report on this case.
In addition to the impacts on the Fiji economy, and on FNPF pensioners and their families, the regime’s stealthy raids on the FNPF bring firmly to mind the plundering and failure of the National Bank of Fiji in the mid-1990s, an entirely avoidable catastrophe which, on my reading at least, laid down some of the grievances and frustrations, stoked by extreme nationalists in part to divert attention away from their roles in or benefiting from the NBF plundering, which erupted so terribly against the Chaudhry government on May 19, 2000. I’d be extremely keen to discuss this with Prof Narsey, not the least because, as the NBF was being plundered, he was a National Federation Party MP in the Fiji Parliament, and as Opposition Finance Spokesperson, was speaking forcefully about the financial disaster. (See, Grynberg, R. et.al. Crisis: The Collapse of the National Bank of Fiji, Suva: USP Book Centre, 2002.)
While on the state of Fiji justice and the courts system in general, Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat reporter, Bruce Hill, has really been earning his pay lately.
On August 16, 2011, Mr Hill broke the story about a former manager, legal, of the Fiji Independent Commission Against Corruption (FICAC) who alleged that the regime had leaned on FICAC to influence who they should prosecute.
In this story, Mr Hill also interviewed the former prominent Fiji human rights lawyer, now working in Manilla for the Asian Development Bank, Imrana Jalal, who, with her husband, Ratu Sakiusa Tuisolia, were pursued relentlessly by FICAC for the heinous and perfidious crime of operating a takeaway food outlet in Suva without a permit. Ratu Sakiusa was dismissed as the CEO of Airports Fiji Ltd by the then interim government in late 2006, and also pursued by FICAC for alleged corruption. The charges over the Hook and Chook cafe operation were of a kind which might, were they proven in a Magistrate’s Court, get offenders a modest fine. If Ms Jalal and Ratu Sakiusa had broken anything, it was a Suva City Council ordnance requiring they get a permit before opening their cafe. It’s highly likely the sclerotic City Council bureaucracy hadn’t gotten around to approving their permit application, so they opened on a nod and a wink that their formal permit would be, eventually, approved.
In August, 2010, all charges against Ms Jalal and Ratu Sakiusa were dismissed, though he has one outstanding corruption change.
FICAC was one of the first agencies the then interim government established after the December, 2006, coup, apparently to root out widespread corruption which, so the interim government asserted, flourished under the ousted Qarase Government. As its name suggests, FICAC was supposedly to operate in much the same ways as similar permanent commissions such as ICAC in New South Wales or the Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC) in Queensland.
Thanks to the smart sanctions installed by Australia and New Zealand against the then interim government, which continue, and prevent any travel to or through Australia and New Zealand by anybody involved with the regime, or related to anybody in the regime, or the Fiji military (though these are momentarily relaxed for humanitarian reasons, or to allow a regime identity to visit to meet senior officials for usually futile dialogue about an end game for Fiji), Australian, Kiwi, or most Commonwealth judges or senior lawyers have been dissuaded from taking up appointments in the Fiji courts or the regime’s legal apparatus. The regime has recruited some judges and lawyers from Sir Lanka, including the former FICAC official.
Of course, having an outfit like FICAC available, the temptation has to be extremely high to turn it into an inquisition, to be sooled upon any regime opponent or effective critic, if not to actually convict them of genuine corruption, then to, as the case against Ms Jalal and Ratu Sakiusa over their Suva cafe demonstrates, which they ran because both had lost all employment opportunities, harass and beggar them with legal fees; financial and legal bullying.
Given the very loud assertions of endemic corruption under Qarase partly justifying the 2006 coup, and highly publicised raids, netting boxes of suspicious documents soon after the 2006 coup, FICAC has, apparently, been a spectacular failure were it operating to achieve the same kinds and levels of ‘clean outs’ and high profile convictions as Queensland’s Fitzgerald Inquiry in the latter 1980s, or its creation, the CMC.
Mr Hill, entirely properly, also interviewed the the military dictatorship’s ‘attorney general’, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, who accused Mr Hill’s informant of lying because he lost his job at FICAC: “For reasons best known to him I assume maybe he’s applying for permanent residency in Australia, I don’t know, or maybe he’s been offered a job by ADB through Imrana Jalal, I’m not sure at all, for reasons best known to him. But the fact is that he has lied to you”.
This wasn’t sufficient for the International Commission of Jurists, whose Australian president, John Dowd, QC, expressed grave misgivings about the state of Fiji justice under the military dictatorship, as did two of the three Fiji Appeal Court judges who ruled on Maundy Thursday, 2009, that Bainimarama’s 2006 coup was illegal.
(I periodically award Mr Hill a Most Infuriating Interviewee Citation and it usually comes after another infuriating interview with either Sayed-Khaiyum or Fiji’s chief censor, Sharon Smith-Johns, whose cases of raging Group Think will require serious psychiatric assistance if or when Fiji eventually returns to genuine democratic rule. They really do believe, at an almost genetic level now, that the regime is the legitimate government of Fiji, and its legal governance architecture revolves around the Public Emergency Regulations. ‘This is the law now’ and if you object or resist, we’ll send soldiers around to your house at night. The Rule of Fists or Glock operates in Fiji.)
And I most certainly have not forgotten about Fiji’s trade unions, whose latest contretemps with the regime and its Essential Industries Decree has gotten the attention of the International Labour Organisation and drawn media freedom issues into the mix as well because the censored Fiji media is forbidden to report on the regime versus unions struggle. Also see the transcript of the Pacific Beat story from August 22, 2011, in which Radio Fiji’s news editor, Stanley Simpson, responds to a Fiji Trades Union Congress call for the media to stop only reporting the regime’s position on union affairs.
But the noise of David Crosby wailing in my head with his classic song, Deja Vu, is growing too loud ~ attacks on the churches, the unions, the media, suspension of generally accepted democratic principles and practices, significant though not murderous human rights abuses… I’ve been here before. I grew up in Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland.
More about all the foregoing in due course.