David Robie also blogs at Café Pacific.
INTERESTING that the Indonesian news agency Antara should send one of its most senior journalists all the way from Jakarta to cover last week’s Pacific Journalism Review conference in Auckland, yet the local New Zealand media barely noticed the largest-ever local gathering of activists, media educators, journalists, documentary makers and newsmakers in one symposium.
Apart from a half-hour interview on Radio NZ’s Sunday with Max Stahl, the Timor-Leste film maker and investigative journalist world-famous for his live footage of the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre – images that ultimately led to the world’s first independence-by-video triumph some eight years later – and a couple of bulletins on RNZI, you would have hardly known the event was on.
But the conference was packed with compelling and newsworthy presentations by journalists and media educators. Topics ranged from asylum seekers to the emerging “secret state” in Australia; from climate change to the logging of “cloud forest’ on the island of Kolombangara; from post-elections Fiji to the political ecology of mining in New Caledonia.
All tremendously hard-hitting stuff and a refreshing reminder how parochial and insignificant the New Zealand media is when it comes to regional Asia-Pacific affairs.
New Zealand editors are more interested in the ISIS beheadings of Syria and Iraq than the horrendous human rights violations happening under their noses in their own Pacific “front yard”.
Take the 2009 Ampatuan massacre, for example, in the southern Philippines, where 58 people were killed in cold blood in an ambush of an electoral motorcade – 32 of them journalists. A candlelight vigil took place on the AUT city campus at PJR2014 to remember the victims.
Not a word in the local media.
One of the lively exchanges at the conference involved a clash of “truths” over alleged and persistent Indonesian human rights abuses in West Papua.
This was precisely why Antara’s Rahmad Nasution made the trip – to give the government spin to deflect any accusations and statements such as those made by West Papuan Media editor Nick Chesterfield, based in any “airport lounge”, and New Zealand-based Maire Leadbeater of the West Papuan Auckland Action group.
Nasution’s business card simply states “journalist” (although he is described as “chief executive” in other sources after a decade working with the agency) and he stayed in the back row of the auditorium for most of the conference. But he became instantly animated as soon as Indonesia came in for any criticism.
In one of the exchanges, Nasution condemned Chesterfield for his “very pessimistic” analysis of the Indonesian and West Papuan relationship in his paper “Overcoming media mythmaking, malignancies and dangerous conduct in West Papua reportage”.
Nasution pointed out that the new President, Joko Widodo, had singled out Papua to make his first visit to a “province’ during the election campaign: “There is a big hope in Indonesia that the new government will do its best to improve the situation there.”
“West Papua is 2000 miles from Jakarta – it is a long, long way,” replied Chesterfield. “When Jokowi surrounds himself in cabinet with unreformed human rights abusers, he has sent a message to the military as well that he is not going to challenge it.
“So – I had better be careful how I say this – but it is very much up to the way the Indonesian people hold Jokowi to his promises, and take action if he doesn’t fulfil his promises.
“I agree that Indonesian civil society is very much pro-peace in West Papua – not necessarily pro-independence – but it is certainly pro ‘Let’s sort this out, let’s have dialogue.’ This is a really positive sign [compared with] before.
“But at the end of the day, it is not up to the Indonesian people. It is up to the West Papuan people and their right to self-determination, and their right to organise their own media.”
Chesterfield shared the podium with two speakers from Fiji, Repúblika editor Ricardo Morris, who is also president of the Fijian Media Association, and senior journalism lecturer Shailendra Singh of the University of the South Pacific. Their insightful analyses deserved media coverage in New Zealand.
But no, the New Zealand media prefer to serve up continual myths and distortions.
Ironically, both Morris and Shailendra – and also Television New Zealand Pacific correspondent Barbara Dreaver – came in for some flak from Fijian authorities and the propaganda press (ie. the Fiji Sun). None of the criticism from Fiji Media Industry Authority chair Ashwin Raj was based on an actual reading of the speeches or observing the livestreaming feed.
Instead, he was reacting to a Pacific Media Watch headline “Fiji media still face ‘noose around neck’ challenges”. In fact, Morris was referring specifically to the “noose” around Fiji Television because of its six-monthly licence renewals. At any time, the licence could be revoked.
But let’s get real: the “noose” also applies to the whole of the Fiji media while the draconian Media Industry Development Decree remains in force. It needs to be repealed at the first available opportunity for real press freedom to return to Fiji.