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PFF invites information secretary to meet with Pacific journalists to discuss media freedom

(PFF/IFEX) - Rarotonga, COOK ISLANDS - The regional media monitoring body the Pacific Freedom Forum (PFF) has challenged the Fiji regime to free its own media first as the best solution towards achieving its latest instruction to Fiji media to 'Think Fiji first.'

PFF responded to the Fiji regime's press conference this week featuring a statement by Information Secretary Sharon Smith-Johns calling on all journalists there to 'Think Fiji first' and report in a 'fair and balanced way.'

"The statement is ironic, coming from a regime which has basically done its best to ensure that our media colleagues are mostly only able to report what the regime -- not news editors -- deems as fair or balanced," says PFF's Susuve Laumaea.

"It's clear in Fiji's case that balance and fairness are defined as content which lets a leadership avoid scrutiny and debate over its decisions. Sadly, that's not unique to Fiji or the Pacific. Gaps in perceptions between political leaders and journalists over what a free media does and whom they serve will always be a key challenge for media freedom," says Laumaea, of Papua New Guinea.

He and PFF co-chair Monica Miller, of American Samoa, invited Smith-Johns and the regime leadership to consider allowing a team of Pacific journalists to visit Fiji and discuss these issues with colleagues and the regime.

"Such a group would be able to have a dialogue with the Ministry of Information on how the tools for journalism are better applied when the laws allow journalists to do their jobs and report freely and fairly," he says.

The 'Think Fiji first' call from the regime has come in the wake of reporting over the defection to Tonga by former regime and military insider Ratu Tevita Mara, son of the nation's founding Prime Minister.

The call follows other media developments in recent weeks which have shown how the Media Decree is taking its toll amongst Fiji's media ranks. The Fiji Times website, averaging three quarters of a million hits a month, went offline without explanation on April 18 and its Managing Editor, Fred Wesley, has only this week confirmed that the need to meet the requirements of the Media Decree had forced its suspension. Decree clauses on cross ownership are also casting more media jobs into uncertainty, with employees for Mai Life Magazine affected by the looming deadline by which founder Judith Ragg must relinquish her founding stake in the magazine because her husband Richard Broadbridge leads Mai TV.

"The cross ownership clauses have worrying implications for media convergence issues and raise more questions than answers, " says Miller. "Overall, the issue that's clearly emerging from all the confusion and uncertainty is that efforts to gag the media via decree, censorship, or constant press conferencing over controlling definitions of balance and fairness are not working. Fiji will once more come 'first' when its media are free -- there's no simpler way to say it."

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