IT’S NOT JUST A FANCY SLOGAN››
Media freedom is your freedom
AS a joint enterprise, human rights and media are crucial issues in any country at any given time. Achieving human rights is a constant struggle because they cover a wide field and the issues at stake can be quite complex.
Media are a core part of the human rights movement and journalists are human rights defenders.
Whether it is a newspaper, television or radio, you are bound to come across human rights-related stories on a frequent basis.
Journalists may not fully understand the technicalities of human rights as a human rights expert might, but we cover them nonetheless, even if we don’t always identify or recognise something as a human rights subject matter.
Media leverage human rights through their reach and power to inform and influence the masses. We supply oxygen to human rights by creating awareness and inspiring action.
For example, the Tongan media were a major part of the national democracy movement. Without the media, the road to democracy would have been far more difficult.
So “media freedom is your freedom” is not just a fancy slogan.
The major rights that media uphold are free speech and the right to be seen and heard. If one is not seen or heard, one is rendered invisible and insignificant.
One major challenge for the media is the bewildering array of human rights breaches that are happening.
What to cover, and how, when there are so many other urgent priorities in any given day—when time is limited and resources stretched?
I would start by identifying the most pressing human rights breaches in my country.
For example, violence against women has been described as “the most pervasive, yet least recognised human rights abuse in the world”.
What is the situation in Fiji and the Pacific?
Report after report shows that the Pacific has the world’s worst domestic violence rates. It is quite widespread, but is this reflected in our news media or not? We don’t know for sure.
What we do notice is a surge in coverage when a woman dies or suffers gruesome injuries. Then that coverage dissipates back to normal.
Generally, media report domestic violence as crime stories, through police and court reports. Such stories can be useful as a deterrent, but they have their limitations when it comes to a deeper understanding of domestic violence and how to deal with it.
Besides retrospective coverage, we need introspective and preemptive coverage.
For instance, we should not overlook institution-building as one of the best ways to protect and uphold human rights.
The Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre is a shining example of a strong institution that is a beacon for helpless women. Besides a powerful voice, it is shelter for brutalised women.
The question is, are the media paying enough attention to institution building or focusing on one-off incidents?
This is where human rights workshops targeting journalists are crucial: as I was saying earlier, we journalists are not human rights experts in the technical sense.
In the Pacific journalists are jacks of all trades by necessity.
But, we do not need to be experts—we just have to talk to the experts.
Much of the research and writing on human rights has already been done by the experts in the field.
Our job is to convert these reports into strong news stories and compelling feature articles, to be disseminated as far and wide as possible. That is our specialty.
For example, yet another recent report exposed the terrifying scale of domestic violence in the region.
How much coverage did it get? Talking of institutions, the Human Rights Measurement Initiative is a unique collaborative venture between human rights practitioners, researchers and academics based in Wellington, New Zealand.
Under the leadership of cofounders Anne-Marie Brook and Chad Clay, they produce metrics for the full range of rights in the International Bill of Human Rights.
Did their report on Fiji get sufficient coverage?
So far we have looked at media as the upholders of human rights.
But the media, which are sworn to uphold rights, can also be the violators of human rights through neglectful and/or unethical coverage.
There were many appalling ethical and legal violations in the reporting of the killings of Fiji Red Cross Society director-general John Scott and his partner, Gregory Scrivener, in 2001.
In Samoa, there was public revulsion against a national newspaper that published a photo of a dead transgender woman who had committed suicide on the front page.
But most of the media transgressions are not intentional. They are usually committed by inexperienced journalists who lack training.
In the Samoa case, it was found that there were no clear guidelines for reporting suicides or transgender issues.
Some Pacific media treat suicide like crime reporting, with full details. They can also fuel homophobia by airing bigoted views without rebuttals.
Given the lack of training opportunities for Pacific journalists, these types of human rights workshops are crucial, and I commend the Pacific Community’s Regional Rights Resource Team for organising it.
Such training, if held on a consistent basis, is sure to improve human rights coverage in the Pacific. Former The Fiji Times journalist, Dr Shailendra Singh, is the head of the University of the South Pacific Journalism Program in Suva. This column is based on a presentation at the Pacific Community’s Regional Rights Resource Team “Cultivating Media Relationships Lunch” on September 13, 2019 in Suva. The views expressed in this column are not necessarily shared by the USP or this newspaper.
The Fiji Times editor-in-chief Fred Wesley speaks at a panel discussion during the World Press Freedom Day forum at the Suva Business Centre on May 3 this year.