To level the media playing field
Professor Wadan Narsey
(edited version in The Fiji Times, 11 July 2015)

At yesterday’s parliamentary sitting, the Leader of the National Federation Party (Professor Biman Prasad) moved a motion that any fair-minded member of the public would have thought was completely reasonable and should have been supported by both sides of the house, just as several government bills were, on the previous day.

The motion read: “That Parliament agrees that the Minister for Communication through Cabinet immediately review the decision of exclusivity in terms of advertising in one newspaper in conformity to Sections 17, 25, 26 & 32 of the Constitution”.

The motion essentially asked the Government to treat The Fiji Times on the same level playing field as it did the Fiji Sun by placing its advertisements equally in both newspapers.

During the debate, it was admitted by the Fiji Government that in recent years, the Fiji Government had made a decision (documented) to place all its advertisements in the Fiji Sun, and discourage any in TheFiji Times.

As a rough guess, this government bias annually directs more than $5 million to the Fiji Sun, even taking into account the few advertisements placed with the Fiji Times in the last few weeks.

The facts about the newspaper media are that: the Fiji Times and the Fiji Sun are both privately owned; the Fiji Times has as high a circulation if not more, than the Fiji Sun; most readers, and especially the poorer people, cannot and do not buy both newspapers.

The Opposition Arguments

Dr Prasad argued from several points of view, with full support from all Opposition parliamentarians.

First, it must be emphasized that the funds used by Government and public enterprises belong to all tax-payers, and not just those who supported Fiji First Party in the last elections.

Second, the public who read the Fiji Times, had the basic human right as guaranteed by the Constitution, to know what was contained in the advertisements put out by the government and the public enterprises, just as much as those who read the Fiji Sun.

To deny the Fiji Times readers this essential public service was a gross denial of their human rights.

It was also a gross example of callousness on the part of Government, that they refused to advertise with arguably the most popular newspaper and maximize their outreach to the taxpayers, because government wanted to penalize a newspaper which may have disagreed with government on some issues, as any free press is entitled to.

Third, the Fiji Times, as a private media company owned by Motibhai Patel, had the basic right to be treated on the same level playing field as the Fiji Sun, owned by CJ Patel, without favor or prejudice.

Fourth, the workers employed by the Fiji Times, had the same rights of protection of their jobs and incomes, by the government, as the workers employed by the Fiji Sun.

We might point out that not too long ago, the Bainimarama Government made a big song and dance about the rights of all rugby enthusiasts in Fiji to watch rugby sevens, and that therefore FBC TV must be given the feed, by decree if necessary, from Fiji TV.

All the often spouted principles about ‘level playing fields’ are not being applied to the Fiji Times and Fiji Sun.

The Bainimarama Government responses

It was extraordinary of the Attorney General to point out that the Fiji Times had not laid off any workers despite the discrimination against them in advertisements and revenue.

That is surely far more a reflection of the quality of the newspaper, its journalists and its content, than anything else.

[A little-known (or well-known depending on which circles you move in) is that even journalists working in government owned television and radio stations, prefer to read the Fiji Times than Fiji Sun, which is being given away for free throughout the country.]

The Fiji Times has survived, despite the significant revenue disadvantage (annually $5 millions) because of the denial of public sector advertisements.

It was extraordinary of the Attorney General to wave around a few Fiji Times papers to allege that the Fiji Government was not exclusively advertising with the Fiji Sun.

Sure, a few advertisements have been placed with the Fiji Times, but only in the last few weeks.

More importantly, the overall balance has been grossly in favor of the Fiji Sun, which probably receives fifty times more advertising revenue weekly than the Fiji Times.

It was an extraordinary red herring of the Attorney General, and a callous misuse of a recent brutal attack on a child, to bring into the debate, the fact that the Leader of the Opposition refuses to read theFiji Sun, and was not aware of the assault on a nine year old girl.

It was an extraordinary red herring of the Attorney General to tell parliament that one of the directors of the company owning Fiji Times was a ‘fugitive’ in Australia, facing criminal charges in Fiji, when that director has nothing whatsoever to do with the Fiji Times.

How extraordinary of the Attorney General to point out that the Fiji Times refused to give the Government free space to advertise the government’s proposed flag designs, as the Fiji Sun did.

But of course, the Fiji Sun could afford to be ‘generous’ and ‘act in the public interest’ given that it receives a preferential revenues of $5 million per year- of taxpayers funds.

The Attorney General and the Minister of Finance ought to know that it is totally wrong of the Fiji Government to ask a private company for ‘free services’ and then to penalize it when it does not agree.

Government must deal with all private companies at ‘arms length’ and in a totally transparent and accountable manner.

During the debate on this motion, there were very reasonable and passionate appeals by Opposition members such as the Hon. Professor Biman Prasad and the Hon. Viliame Gavoka, who pointed out how they had supported all the Government bills the previous day, on principle, and they pleaded with Government to treat this motion similarly.

To no avail.

Despite all the valid arguments supporting the motion, and all the hollow arguments from the Attorney General (the only speaker from the Government side speaking because of prior agreement in the Business Committee), the motion was defeated, 26 votes against to 17 for, with the Government side voting as a block.

It is has to be considered a day of shame for Government members of parliament, most of whom I suspect, would have liked to have supported the motion.

Wider lessons

There are many sad lessons raised by this motion, the debate and the final vote.

The motion listed 60 government departments and public enterprises, which for the last few years, have been advertising exclusively with the Fiji Sun, thereby denying the taxpayers their right to full information about what the government and public enterprises are doing.

Among them are any number whose total autonomy and work must never be compromised by any government of the day.

All public enterprises and government departments, must be totally free to communicate with the public through all available media, and not be limited by the government of the day, for purely party political reasons.

Outrageously on that list is the Commerce Commission of Fiji whose supine biased media policy makes a total mockery of their own charter, vision and mission statements, whose focus is ensuring fair competition throughout the economy, including the media.

What utter spinelessness of the public enterprises and corporations, who are supposed to operate efficiently and fairly in the interests of all taxpayers, yet have given in to the government’s biased media policy.

Also to be noted by the Fiji taxpayers, is that the MIDA Chairman (Ashwin Raj) who once upon a time not too long ago, was regularly pontificating  in the media, in obscure language, on the critical need for the regulation of the media, has been singularly silent on the rights of all media organisations to fair treatment by the government.

The Attorney General announced that Government was calling for expressions of interest from media companies so that government could rationalize and advertise more efficiently using tax payers’ funds.

Well and good.

As a major buyer in the market, government has a massive monopsony power to reduce its advertising costs through negotiation with all the media organizations.

But, and it is a big BUT,  a minimum policy must be that all large media organizations must receive government advertisements, and at the same rates, without favor or prejudice, either with respect to the volume of advertisements or the price paid.

Note that the Opposition Parties should now also consider introducing a similar motion regarding the fair use of tax-payer funds, as advertisements, subsidies, or loan guarantees, through television stations, and radio stations, whether they are owned by government or private interests.

The government financial bias towards government owned television and radio stations run by the totally pro-government brother (Riyaz Khaiyum) of the Attorney General (Aiyaz Khaiyum) is another scandal which will be uncovered in the fullness of time.

Freedom of the media and true democracy has a long way to go in the post-election Fiji.

The harsh lesson for Fiji’s ‘parliamentary democracy’

The voting results on this motion is also another bad news for the country and a portent of things to come, if FFP parliamentarians continue to make ethics subservient to party solidarity.

Whether the government MPs voted as a block on this Opposition motion was out of fear of their party bosses or because of single-minded devotion to party solidarity, it is bad news for the people of this country and for Fiji First Party supporters.

Given that the Opposition’s motion was completely in the interests of the nation by all the criteria listed in this article (citizens’ basic right to information, private company rights to equality of treatment, workers rights to jobs and incomes), the decision of the FFP parliamentarians to vote against the motion, indicates their willingness to sacrifice the nation’s interest for their own selfish interests.

This might be so given that the results of the 2014 elections indicated that only two of the FFP parliamentarians had more than ten thousand votes, and that nearly all the FFP parliamentarians owe their position in parliament purely to the support of Bainimarama, not due to their own personal support.

Many FFP parliamentarians currently very prominent (and brash) in the media, had less than 1,000 votes, and the last one to enter, a mere 814 votes.

The voters of Fiji should expect the FFP parliamentarians to show no spine or ethics on all future Opposition motions, regardless of their benefit to the country.

It is interesting that, on the flag issue, even well-known and admitted FFP supporters are begging Bainimarama to listen to the people of the country and have a referendum.