PACIFIC REPORTERS PLAY BALANCING ACT BETWEEN CULTURE AND STORIES

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By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (April 3, 2001 – Agence France-Presse)---Getting the story is just half the trouble for Pacific journalists, the other half is figuring how to deal with the issues that might cause cultural offence.

There was the case of the Fiji woman senator who made a newsworthy speech, which a newspaper picked up and ran along with a file picture of her.

The problem that caused the major row was that the file photo showed her in a colorful dress. On the day she made the speech she was in mourning, wearing black out of respect for a dead relative. The newspaper had made her seem disrespectful.

The example comes from "The Pacific Journalist," a book published by Fiji’s University of the South Pacific.

Its publication was delayed by last year’s Fiji coup, an event the book makes clear has not only impacted upon the nation and its people, but caused enormous debate within the journalism community over how to deal with culture and conflict in the Pacific.

Veteran Fiji journalist Jale Moala, who has been a resident in New Zealand since the coup, provides a chapter on politics, which he describes as the assignment that provides Pacific journalists with their greatest challenge.

"This is so because politics in the region is so often mixed up with issues like culture and tribal loyalties that it can become difficult for reporters to maintain impartiality and direction, especially if they are themselves part of the cultural group involved," he writes.

"This does not mean that political reporters in the Pacific Islands are biased and lacked objectivity."

"It simply means that politics in the region presents greater challenges for journalists of the region than for journalists from outside."

Moala says in the Pacific cultural rules are forced upon political reporters to try to keep them in line within customary obligations he terms a burden on indigenous peoples.

"For political reporters such obligations are obstacles. Under pressure they can succumb to the demands of traditional loyalties."

Last May, Moala was editor of the Fiji Daily Post, at the time businessman George Speight staged his coup in the name of an indigenous cause, overthrowing Fiji’s first ethnic Indian Prime Minister, Mahendra Chaudhry.

Moala said for reporters it was not necessarily a problem of taking sides, but an inability to "function objectively under the pressures of the crisis."

He said reporters gave Speight the publicity he craved.

The Daily Post issued guidelines to staff, among them requiring that the word "coup" not be used.

"The newspaper believed that reporting Speight’s action as a coup would give it some justification in the minds of the indigenous Fijians."

The newspaper also declined to report Speight as a nationalist. "He was to be reported as Suva businessman George Speight, leader of the kidnappers or leaders of the terrorists," said Moala.

Academic and Fiji Times columnist Seona Smiles, quoted in the book, said that when foreign reporters are awkward they can be thrown out, but criticism is rarely spared in dealing with whistle-blowing local journalists.

"There are deep-rooted beliefs in South Pacific societies about respect for authority that can translate into a lack of accountability and transparency, coupled with a strongly disapproving attitude towards those who question, probe and publish. The Pacific is littered with instances of publishers and journalists being chastised and chased."

She wrote that it was a frightening prospect to consider "a predominately young, relatively inexperienced, sometimes politically naive and occasionally quite unjustifiably confident media corps" who was often having far-reaching effects on public opinion.

"It is perhaps self-evident that the media and the journalists who have the most respect in the region, who run the best stories, who get the scoops, are not the most conservative, but are certainly the most accurate, ethical and balanced," Smiles said.

"Virtue has its own reward... and people tend to trust them, even those who occasionally want to dissemble or conceal information."

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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