A struggle for ‘truth’ and the NZ media myopic over Fiji, West Papua

By   /   December 4, 2014  /   4 Comments

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“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.” – West Papua Media’s Nick Chesterfield

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The vigil for 58 victims of the 2009 Ampatuan massacre – including 32 news people – at AUT University last week. Photo: © 2014 John Miller

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”.

Ampatuan massacre
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.

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Cartoonist Malcolm Evans’ view of journalists and ‘truth’. From the exhibition at PJR2014.

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.

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Antara’s Rahmad Nasution … government “spin”. Photo: Del Abcede/PMC

‘Pessimistic’ view
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”.

West Papua Media's Nick Chesterfield ... President Widodo surrounded by "unreformed human rights abusers". Photo: Del Abcede/PMC

West Papua Media’s Nick Chesterfield … President Widodo
surrounded by “unreformed human rights abusers”.
Photo: Del Abcede/PMC

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.

Papuan right
“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.

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Repúblika editor Ricardo Morris and USP’s Shailendra Singh … under fire from MIDA. Photo: Del Abcede/PMC

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.

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About the author

Dr David Robie

Professor at AUT University

Dr David Robie is professor of journalism and director of AUT University’s Pacific Media Centre. He is a strong advocate of independent media at the country’s journalism schools. David has published the media transparency blog Café Pacific since 2006. - See More

4 Comments

  1. Korakys says:

    I recently read Oceania: Neocolonialism, Nukes and Bones by Andre Vltchek which gave me a much broader appreciation of the problems in the Islands and New Zealand’s role in amplifying them.

    West Papua does seem to be the most important foreign policy issue for NZ (based on distance and seriousness) and yet nothing is ever said about it the mainstream media. Do you know of some good writing on the topic?

    Jokowi reminds me of Obama, both new to the establishment (relatively speaking) and seen as reformers who ultimately decided to surround themselves with establishment figures and didn’t achieve anywhere near what their supporters hoped. But maybe I’ll be wrong about Jokowi, after all no country is as resistant to change as the US.

  2. David Robie says:

    Korakys, I suggest you also read my recent book on the topic, Don’t Spoil My Beautiful Face: Media, Mayhem and Human Rights in the Pacific – it would give you plenty of background, and also my article on West Papua in the Media Asia journal.

  3. […] was a sobering and at times, painful lesson in how journalists are at the frontline of human rights and democracy movements within the Pacific and how often they pay the ultimate price for being an active fourth […]

  4. cleangreen says:

    David Robie

    Thanks for your insight and many articles that I will read as we go ahead.

    We need your many articles covered in the hollow dull minded MSM to advance the awareness you have shown me about our beautiful south pacific treasures under threat.

    I grew up when the blockbuster movie “South Pacific” came out in the 1950’s that enlightened all us to what treasures we had then.

    We need to reconnect with our region again and you are doing this with your journal. Great work, we applaud you.