The Pacific’s newest media watch group wrapped up its inaugural forum in Samoa earlier this month, but has vowed that it will not be challenging the long-established Pacific Islands News Association over press freedom issues.
“We arose out of the gaps in PINA,” says founding coordinator Lisa Williams-Lahari of the Pacific Freedom Forum.
But, rather than compete with the established parent organisation, PFF’s goal is to act as its media freedom arm.
“We’re part of the PINA family,” she says. “In July, at PINA’s forum in Vanuatu they will decide how to engage with us.”
More than 40 delegates from 12 Pacific nations gathered at the UNESCO-funded PFF meeting dubbed “Courage under fire” at Apia on May 6-8.
The forum drew up an outcomes statement, saying all Pacific people have the right to freedom of speech and access to a free media.
It identified a growing number of threats to media freedom in the region and called on governments to act on commitments to international agreements such as the Rarotonga Media Declaration of 1990 and Article 19 of the universal declaration of human rights.
The PFF wants to build strong relationships within the region, online and with the PINA.
Williams-Lahari says as an online forum the PFF has met the needs for monitoring abuses against journalists.
“It’s time to stand up. Journalists have human rights too."
It is raising the alarm on threats to media freedom, which is ultimately linked to the freedom of people.
PFF’s Project XIX was one of three Pacific media schemes approved for funding by UNESCO through the International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC).
“Only a handful of Pacific Island groups got funding. This paid for the conference.”
The PFF started off small, but Williams-Lahari says it quickly developed a following among experienced journalists. It has been a busy year and the next step is to apply for NGO status.
There is also talk of a name change.
Williams-Lahari says there is an attitude among Pacific Island journalists that the abuse and threats they sometimes face are part of the job.
“It’s time to stand up. Journalists have human rights too,” she says.
“We want to let the region know it’s not on. Let leaders know that for the development and growth of Pacific countries the media needs to be part of the process.”
There were many outcomes from the forum and Williams-Lahari says they felt a lot of solidarity from members that they were all on the right track.
She has been to a number of conferences in the past, but this one was different because while the issues were serious there was a lot of laughter.
“There was a lot of wisdom and experience,” she says. It was also a chance to put faces to some well-known names.
Williams-Lahari says one criticism of PINA is that is has not engaged with Pacific Island needs in New Zealand.
The PFF want to create ties with the New Zealand-based Pacific Islands Media Association (PIMA).
“They are another slice of the Pacific, but it’s a different media industry,” she says. “We’re keen to hook up with the Pacific Island network because we’re all on the same page.”
Williams-Lahari says they want to make sure all abuses, even the ones people think are small, are reported.
The next step for the PFF is training, continued advocacy and to make sure all countries are covered, from Hawai’i to Papua New Guinea.
“Doing what we’re doing now and doing it better,” she says.
Rights and safety
Deborah Muir, programme manager of the Asia-Pacific bureau of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) in Sydney, ran two days of workshops for the PFF.
The IFJ supports journalists and their unions and works against censorship, and for the rights and safety of journalists.
Muir says IFJ got involved when the PFF asked it to help with training on monitoring and reporting on media rights.
“We were invited to provide some expertise and give it a structure”.
According to Muir, there has been a vacuum of strong advocacy and freedom of expression in the Pacific.
“A lot of the problems in the Pacific Islands are similar. Fiji is an extreme example,” she says.
“Advocacy had been insufficient and the situation in Fiji brings this home,” she says. “In my understanding, the (PFF) members are requiring a much stronger advocacy approach.”
At the forum, delegates heard first hand stories of physical abuse and intimidation.
“Fiji sets such a bad example. We’re worried that other states may adopt their tactics,” she says.
Contempt for journalists
There is overt obstruction and intimidation of journalists as power holders seek to maintain control.
In the Pacific, there are difficulties with public perception and with the media itself. Muir says contempt for journalists is a common problem across the region and members of the public may object to the way the media reports issues.
The media also has weak procedures for dealing with complaints.
“At the moment it’s early days, but members are committed to setting up a system of reporting and advocacy,” she says.
“They’ve said they didn’t want to compete with PINA but fulfil the role missed by PINA. And that’s for Pacific Islands journalists to work out.”
Muir identifies a number of things that can be done to help repair the situation.
“The first step is strong advocacy and in the long term professional development and ethics.”
It is also important to network with similar associations.
Phil McGrath, a spokesman for PIMA, says “it’s a crucial time for media freedom”.
“Governments in the region are undertaking massive change in the way they work. Journalists and the public have the right to be informed,” he says.
McGrath says the situation in the Pacific is very delicate and it does not help that outside media are coming in with little understanding of the complexities.
“It’s good to have local people working together.”
He says PIMA members can help with training and engaging the community in New Zealand and in their home countries.
Associate professor David Robie, director of AUT University’s Pacific Media Centre, sees the forum as an enormous step forward and he hopes the centre will work closely with the PFF.
“There was a real buzz of energy and commitment about it,” he says. “I hope it continues.”
“It was an inspiring meeting. Many journalists who have suffered abuse were there to tell their stories.”
He agrees that PINA has not been meeting its obligations on media freedom issues, but says it is still the main media organisation in the region.
Dr Robie, present at the meeting as an observer for the NZ National Commission for UNESCO, is concerned the PFF will overlap with PINA and end up competing for limited funds.
Also, the PMC at AUT has been monitoring media freedom in the Pacific through the 13-year-old Pacific Media Watch news service and database started at the University of Papua New Guinea and Australian Centre for Independent Journalism.
The current PMW contributing editor, Josephine Latu, is a journalist from Tonga.
Media freedom organisations are generally independent, but there is a risk of PFF being compromised.
“Some journalists have either business or other media interests,” he says.
“There is a danger of people pushing their own barrow.
“It’s important that the Pacific is kept in perspective – it still largely a safe place for journalists and media freedom by comparison in global terms,” he says.
“There are none of the really serious threats and assaults, kidnappings or murders that journalists face in other countries such as Burma, Iraq, or even a democracy such as the Philippines.”
Dr Robie says ongoing issues for journalists in the region include cultural and political pressures, and the ease of inducements because Pacific journalists are poorly paid and often face poor work conditions.
This remains an ongoing threat.
Kara Segedin is a Graduate Diploma in Journalism student on the AUT Asia-Pacific Journalism course.