IN PRAISE OF FIJI'S YOUNG JOURNALISTS

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'These 'kids' were talented, energetic, passionate, unflappable and ravenous to get news and deliver it to the nation.'

By Gil Griffin

SAN DIEGO, California (December 31, 2000 - PINA Nius Online)---We had gotten so used to the Suva routine.

Rising for steamy days and retiring in balmy, starry nights.

Brilliant sunsets over the harbor. Walking in the rain. Learning the proper way to hail taxis.

Asking not for "napkins" as we were so used to doing it in our home country, the United States, but for "serviettes," something we'd never heard of.

Catching the green-and-yellow "Vatuwaqa" bus each night, outside our two-bedroom flat, to take us to the Rabuka gym. Breathing in the blend of curry, sea air, exhaust fumes and fresh baked bread each morning.

Going to the Village Six Cinemas every Tuesday night to catch the latest movies. Shopping at Cost U Less. Drinking at Traps. Staying up until all hours of the night watching American professional wrestling and sports news and Australian football on television.

Being greeted by the gecko that always seemed to be crawling on our front door at Sarita Flats when we arrived at home at night.

Getting the Fiji 1 TV jingle forever seared in our consciousness - especially its cheery chorus, "There's always something good to come home to."

That phrase affirmed my fiancée's and my feelings about Suva, Fiji's capital, where we started in April a new - albeit temporary - life during a four-month journalism fellowship sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based International Center for Journalists (ICFJ).

I was attached to the Pacific Islands News Association's UNESCO/PINA Pacific Journalism Development Centre. Although I was scheduled to travel to do training in Samoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, Fiji was to be our home base.

But one chaotic day in May, that changed.

In the middle of a humid afternoon, across the Pacific in Samoa, a member of the Journalists Association of Western Samoa excitedly ran up to me in the lobby of the Kitano Tusitala Hotel. Sweating and out of breath, he exclaimed, "There's been a coup in Fiji!"

We were surprised, but not entirely shocked.

Before leaving for Samoa, I had been reading a book written about the two 1987 coups and how they transpired. Before the George Speight-led government takeover and hostage crisis, there had been signs of tension on Viti Levu, Fiji's biggest island.

Striking nurses marched through the streets of Suva. Newspaper editorials warned and pleaded with the country's first Indo-Fijian prime minister not to stir the collective ire of indigenous Fijian nationalists over the land issue.

Those nationalists spoke of more marches and Mahendra Chaudhry, the prime minister some considered arrogant, promised to stand tough.

But somehow the news seemed surreal.

I had just shaken hands with the president, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, in Levuka, after a ceremony hailing the expansion of a tuna cannery. I had just been photographed a week before with Lekh Ram Vayeshnoi, a junior minister in the Coalition government. A man who I later learned was one of the people taken hostage.

Catching BBC news reports whenever we could, we saw the same shops and buildings we had walked in and among in Suva, on fire.

And through phone calls to friends and news reports, I learned the saddest part: That the very same journalists I was training at the Daily Post, found themselves under siege, in the middle of the rioting. That compassionate indigenous Fijian staff members had to stash their Indo-Fijian colleagues into safe rooms at the newspaper as the mob looted outside.

These are the same people I had just enjoyed a barbecue and beers with, in the garage of the Daily Post, one Friday night.

I thought about the young men and women I had already been training and bonding with at the Daily Post, the Fiji Sun and at Islands Business. It didn't matter to me that they were indigenous Fijian, or Indo-Fijian, or Christian, Hindu or Muslim.

Most of the reporters, photographers and copy editors I was working with were in their early or mid-20s, some six-to-10 years younger than me. That's why, outside of work, with my fiancée I affectionately referred to them as "my kids."

Not at all to be condescending, but I used the term as one of admiration. These "kids" were talented, energetic, passionate, unflappable and ravenous to get news and deliver it to the nation.

I admire them for working under the enormous pressure of doing their jobs - for far longer hours and far lesser pay than their American counterparts - with a national audience reading. Not once did I ever hear a complaint from them about their work environment - about it being too hot, or computers being too slow, or anything else.

Put most American reporters in even the most comfortable newsrooms and I guarantee you there will be complaints.

Not in Fiji.

As May turned to June and we traveled from Samoa to American Samoa to Tonga, we hoped against hope that things in Fiji would change. That the hostages would be released, the curfew would be lifted, the soldiers would return to their barracks and that life would return to normal.

But the news only seemed to get worse.

Not only in Fiji, but suddenly, tensions in the Solomons resulted in a coup there. The instability there made it impossible to travel there, as originally planned.

ICFJ, growing increasingly concerned for my and my fiancée's safety, advised us against returning to Suva. Our embassy and state department issued statements saying they could not protect us, or any other American citizens, which naturally made our families frantic.

Our PINA hosts insisted there was nothing to fear if we returned to Suva. We were torn. We wanted to return to make sure our belongings were safe and then send them back to the U.S. We neither wanted to defy ICFJ nor offend PINA.

Having never been personally involved in this degree of turmoil at home, where an entire country's future was hanging in the balance, it all made for an incredibly stressful situation. We decided to return to Suva and were saddened and disappointed by what we saw.

What a difference a few weeks made. The last time we had been in Suva, we had spent a morning walking through the open-air market and visiting friends before taking the bus trek on the Queen's Road for the inevitable four-hour ride to Nadi, before catching our night flight to Apia.

This time, barbed wire checkpoints manned by armed soldiers awaited us. I couldn't close business at the Bank of Hawai‘i because it, like so many other businesses, was closing early because of rumors that more street violence would occur.

We had to leave Suva abruptly, under pressure, for Nadi in a van with our belongings. Our stay was cut several weeks short, as our trip to the Cook Islands was moved up. We thought of the lovo that Mesake Koroi had planned and invited us to, that would now not happen. We thought of the opportunities for post-work beers at Traps that would be deferred indefinitely.

The worst part of all was not having the time for saying the proper goodbyes to the friends we had made and to the city we had come to call – however briefly - home.

To this day, that haunts me.

Traveling to Samoa, Tonga, the Cooks and Papua New Guinea were all rewarding and eye opening and PINA's local hosts in each of those countries were incredibly gracious. The journalists in each of those countries were all equally dedicated to doing their jobs.

But I always felt like while I was enjoying those other countries, I was always looking over my shoulder at Fiji and what was happening there. As it turned out, we couldn't return.

The economic crisis brought about by Speight's takeover hit us directly, as Air Pacific canceled its flights to and from the Cooks - we had to hitch a ride on Air New Zealand to Auckland. We had planned to fly from there to Vanuatu to continue the training, but all flights there were booked, as holiday makers who canceled Fiji vacations, switched to Vanuatu.

So it came down to flying from New Zealand, overnighting with friends in Sydney, then flying via Brisbane to Papua New Guinea. There we spent about 10 days each in Port Moresby newsrooms of PINA members and at Divine Word University, Madang, also a PINA member.

Even now, from my desk at the San Diego Union-Tribune, the daily newspaper for which I'm a features writer, I feel pangs of sadness when I think of Fiji.

I peruse the Fiji web sites and wonder what Suva looks like these days. I wonder about the fate of the journalists I trained and befriended and their supervisors who welcomed me with open arms.

While I struggled sometimes with cultural and custom differences, I feel a bond with the Pacific Islands and Pacific Islanders - not only as a fellow journalist, but as a human being.

I still feel a sense of incompletion and of unfinished business.

We will one day return to Suva.

As that now bittersweet jingle plays through my mind now, it conveys a truth about Suva, Fiji and indeed all the Pacific Islands.

There's - still - always something good to come home to.

Gill Griffin, an award-winning American newspaper feature writer, spent four months as a Knight International Press Fellow working with the UNESCO/PINA Pacific Journalism Development Centre. He trained reporters and student journalists in Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Cook Islands, and Papua New Guinea.

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Website: http://www.pinanius.org 

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