Yesterday was World Press Freedom Day, a date set aside by the UN to mark the importance of a free media to democracies the world over.
You might have missed it, because exactly nobody of note took the time to say or do anything about it. That’s not just a shame; it’s a problem.
The media are the proverbial canary in the coal mine. They sound the alarm before others know to listen for it. They break the ground that others later tread. They uncover the information that doesn’t want to come to light.
Protecting the right to speak the truth, to ask difficult questions, to call a spade a spade is not just nice. It’s compulsory in a democracy.
It’s our duty.
When ex-Speaker of Parliament Philip Boedoro testified before the Supreme Court during the bribery trial, he was asked why he sent a photograph of a stack of bribe money to the Daily Post. He said, ‘Because when people saw it, they would know it was true.’
It was that image, that pile of 5000 vatu notes, that set the country alight, and ended with the highest-profile corruption case in the nation’s history.
The trial became possible because the truth became unavoidable. But it still required the political will to go forward. And that political will became possible because the people saw the problem, and wanted it fixed. The reporters who withstood assaults, insults and brow-beating inside the court precinct kept coming back because of the thousands who stood the vigil outside the courthouse.
It’s a two-way street. The public values free speech in Vanuatu precisely because people like Marc Neil-Jones literally went to the mat to defend the right to challenge authority. It’s now normal to want disclosure and truth because others insisted on it.
We all enjoy the benefits. When we post a photo of a ‘G’ truck in a collision, complain on Facebook about preferential service at the store or the bank, counsel the neighbourhood lout to take his party home… all of these are acts of journalism.
With social media’s rise, a lot of people are asking why we have traditional media at all. It’s a good question, one we try to answer every day. You need us because we do the heavy lifting. We keep calling and calling until someone answers the phone. We winkle out the stories that would never see the light of day.
We also tell the truth. Something you don’t always see in social media, and sadly, something you don’t always get from people in power.
The publisher and editor of the Fiji Times are on trial because their newspaper tells the truth. While the Sun has descended into sycophancy, and broadcasters have been cowed into submission, the Times was big enough to go withstand the pressures that caused others to buckle.
And because they refuse to buckle, it appears the government of Fiji is willing to break them.
This is unconscionable. It’s unacceptable under any circumstances. The use of archaic, anti-democratic sedition law to do it is a sign of just how desperate the Fiji First government is to avoid transparency and accountability.
The only thing worse than this travesty of justice is the utter silence of Fiji’s neighbours.
Governments who claim to defend our interests, who just these last few weeks have tried to portray themselves as our benefactors, the ones we look to for leadership… they’re all missing in action.
They seem more enthused with clawing back media freedom in their own countries than defending it in ours. The problem is growing, and it’s everywhere. Governments just don’t realise how dangerous a captive press is to democracy.
If you want to talk about strategic priorities in the region, who our friends are and who they aren’t, you can start by publicly calling for an end to the persecution of the Fiji Times.