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By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (Dec. 17, 2000 – Agence France-Presse)---A row has broken out in Fiji over claims the news media may have helped cause the coup that bought down the country's government in May.

As befits a small country, it has quickly turned nasty, pitting David Robie, head of the University of the South Pacific's journalism program, against the lively local media headed by the Rupert Murdoch owned Fiji Times.

On May 19 plotters led by George Speight seized Parliament and held the government hostage for 58 days and only freed the hostages after the government had been deposed by the military. Unlike the 1986 coups in Fiji, the media this time had no controls imposed on them and even had full access to Speight and Parliament the whole time he held the hostages.

Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, Fiji's first ethnic Indian prime minister, had held office for just a year, marked by bad media relations.

It climaxed in October 1999 when Chaudhry asked whether the Times was "carrying the torch for people engaged in seditious activities?

"The newspaper needs to take a serious look at where it is headed. Is it not fanning the fires of sedition and communalism by giving undue prominence to stories that are really non-stories?"

Robie, a journalist originally from New Zealand, in a just published academic paper, said some sectors of the Fiji media waged a bitter campaign against the administration and its rollback of privatization.

(See: Coup-Coup Land: The Press And The Putsch In Fiji)

Chaudhry got off on the wrong foot with the media industry virtually from the day he took office, Robie says, appointing his son private secretary in a move that damaged his credibility.

But the Fiji Times "appeared to wage a relentless campaign against the fledgling government, both through its editorials and ‘slanted’ news columns."

Political commentator Jone Dakuvula, a member of former Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka's Soqosoqo Ni Vakavulewa Ni Taukei party, is quoted saying the Times was "blatantly antagonistic to the government and focused on highlighting allegations of corruption, nepotism and sexual indiscretions" against Chaudhry.

Robie says no journalist seriously analyzed the party's manifesto in order to help public understanding of what the government had pledged to do.

"The evidence suggests that The Fiji Times, in particular, had a hostile editorial stance towards the Chaudhry government.... The focus of news media coverage, particularly the Fiji Times, after the election was to play up conflict.... It tended to play to the agenda of politicians who wanted to inflame indigenous Fijians against the government."

Fiji Times publisher Alan Robinson says Robie's paper was academically and professionally dishonest.

"Out of the 106 editorials we ran on the Coalition Government, 54 were in favor and 52 against," he said.

Of the coup itself, Robie said the media "offered Speight a profile and credibility. It aided the rebel leader's propaganda war.

"The media, in fact, fueled the crisis and gave Speight a false idea about his importance and support. It gave him 'political fuel'."

Radio FM96 boss and the head of the Pacific Islands News Association, William Parkinson, accused Robie of "self aggrandizement."

Parkinson said the relationship pre-coup with Chaudhry had been an unfortunate one.

"But that was no fault of the media but the fault of the members of the government who did such an abysmal job of getting their message across and then tried to bully and threaten the media when they held them accountable," Parkinson said.

Fiji Radio news editor Vijay Narayan said he found Robie's paper offensive.

"We found it was our duty, whoever was in government, to report on whatever promises were being made. George Speight was part of the story. We had to have someone there to find out what was going on."

Jale Moala, was editor of the Post at the time of the coup, noted the argument that the coup situation "may not have deteriorated as quickly as it did if the media had played a more responsible role."

It underlined the dilemma of Pacific journalism: "People and events are usually so closely interwoven and related, they can affect the reporting."

Michael Field New Zealand/South Pacific Correspondent Agence France-Presse E-mail: afp.nz@clear.net.nz  Phone: (64 21) 688438 Fax: (64 21) 694035 Website: http://www.afp.com/english/ 

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