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PACIFIC MEDIA WATCH Annandale, Australia Suva, Fiji Islands

SUVA, Fiji Islands (July 31, 1999 - Pacific Media Watch/Fiji Times/Pasifik Nius/Niuswire)---The Fiji Times, the major daily newspaper in the Fiji Islands, has defended its reporting of looting in the face of public complaints over its graphic coverage of an Air Fiji crash in which 17 people died.

The Brazilian-made Bandeirante crashed before dawn in dense jungle in the country's Naitasiri highlands on the main island of Viti Levu on July 24, 1999. Eight foreigners were among those who died.

A photographer and a journalist from the Fiji Times trekked through jungle-clad slopes for three hours from the nearest village to be among the first on the crash scene.

Reporter Margaret Wise's eye witness accounts of the carnage and of looting sparked angry public reactions and denials from villagers. Some critics claimed the stories were made up.

Other media also reported the looting, including Fiji Television. Channel Seven in Australia reportedly showed footage of a villager wearing a leather jacket which relatives claimed belonged to a Tongan who died in the crash.

Money and personal belongings were also taken. Police recovered some items and at least one person has been charged with larceny.

The Fiji Times on July 31 backed up the reporting by its staff with an editorial, saying some reactions implied that "the community should look the other way when crimes such as this are committed."

"As a community," said the paper, "we have to confront the fact that this happened, and that a few people are still demanding compensation for what should have been an act of human decency.

"The view expressed by at least one of the looters that he was only taking what was due to him for his efforts in clearing the ground will be abhorrent to the overwhelming majority of people in this country."

The newspaper also stressed that the majority of the villagers went to the crash scene to help -- some of them acting with "genuine heroism." It was only a small group of about 20 who were responsible for the "cruel greed."

In her report on the criticism of the media, Ms. Wise described what she saw: "One of the villagers said he had US$ 1,500, which he said was payment for clearing the site. He repeated this to journalists from the [government's] Television Unit, Fiji Television and Radio FM96 who arrived later that day.

"I was too stunned by the scene to give what he said a second thought. My mind was a complete blank.

"Peering down the slope we saw the villagers (it is still not clear which village they were from) opening suitcases and trying on tee-shirts. Some passed on to others clothing that did not fit them.

"What disturbed me most was the apparent lack of emotion.

"One villager asked another to help him free a man's body trapped in the wreckage because he had not been touched and would surely have something in his pocket. Another group kept tugging a female passenger tangled in the wreckage as they tried to examine the debris below.

"My thoughts were with the families who had lost their loved ones as I watched some of the villagers walk away with personal items like photographs, letters and other documents such as passports.

"Those defending the looters want us to turn a blind eye to the incident and instead thank the villagers for their extraordinary graciousness and generosity in taking mats to the site, clearing the bush and acting as guides for officials.

"Of course, everyone is grateful for those acts, but isn't this something any human society would do?"


Title -- 2258 FIJI ISLANDS: Fiji Times defends air crash looting reports Date -- 31 July 1999 Byline -- None Origin -- Pacific Media Watch Source -- PMW/Fiji Times, 31/7/99 Copyright -- PMW/FT Status -- Unabridged

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