Where are we now with VBTC?

Mr Francis Herman. Photo: gov.vu

The present Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Vanuatu Broadcasting and Television Corporation (VBTC) has described the situation of VBTC, when he inherited the public broadcaster, as “dire” and one of “financial insolvency”.

This was confirmed by a forensic audit dealing with the “mess” he found. The Australian Government financed “Vois Blong Yumi” project which had enabled such a study as early as July 2007. Much had “gone bad” within the national organization.

Recommendations of the financial audit were not implemented owing to a “lack of governance”. There was “a lack of transparency” in how the audit recommendations were processed. “These were not concerned with the people or staff involved, nor their welfare,” Francis Herman said.

“There was no planning. Everything was running wild.” VBTC was disfunctional. The major conclusion from the study was that 20% of staff had some experience, 80% had just little or none. The value of Vanumadia (Asian company brought in to assist VBTC) was not proven. Herman, as Vanuatu Media Regulator, was particularly concerned that this imported media advising company (also a manufacturer) had not done better to improve VBTC. VBTC was given exclusive rights to the FIFA World Cup broadcasting of 2018. No other television company was offered any rights involving income, something his regulatory rules really did not permit. Herman was concerned that all people involved with rights should have known this.

Earlier this year, I had been anxious to interview Herman about how he was coping with the problems of which he had been advised in Radio Vanuatu and Television Blong Vanuatu. I had learned what others thought of the new management and I had formed my own ideas (and noted some improvements after several months of absence from this country). But there seemed to be no easy answer as had become clearer when Francis Herman was interviewed by Rudi Hill on a previous departure from FBC Fiji back in 2012.

Francis Herman is going to Vanuatu to be a program adviser with that country’s national broadcaster, VBTC. His position will be funded by AusAid. Mr Herman says his decision to step down has nothing to do with Fiji’s latest military coup.

HERMAN: For personal reasons, I need to move on. I need to spend a little bit more time with my family, the challenge; it’s been a huge challenge working at the FBC as a journalist and a news director, then a general manager, commercial then now as Chief Executive. It’s been a huge challenge, and sometimes you need to just get some quality back into your life.

HILL: I have to ask the obvious question, is this anything to do with the military coup in Fiji? The circumstances that broadcasting has to operate under at the moment?

HERMAN: Bruce what I can say is that it’s been a challenge working under not just this coup but previous coups. This coup is different in nature; it’s placed some new challenges on the FBC and in particular the office of the chief executive. But really my main reason is that I need to take some time out, decide where I want to go, what I want to do in life again and again I said spend a bit of time with my family, my children, and hopefully come back in a couple of a years and help out again here.

HILL: This is now the third or rather the fourth coup in 20 years in Fiji. You’ve experienced a lot of these sort of challenges. Has Fiji broadcasting and Radio Fiji been able to meet these challenges? Is it better now than it was when you took over at the helm?

HERMAN: I think the message that we’ve sent out in recent years particularly is that we will fight hard to maintain our editorial independence, and I think any broadcast organisation worth its salt must always stand by the principles of free and a responsible media. I mean in ‘87 I was in parliament as a journalist there covering the elections, I mean the takeover, and then again in 2000 and now the coups have been of a totally different nature. FBC is in a very precarious position because it’s government owned so whoever’s in government obviously has the authority to call the tunes. So we’ve experienced different forms of pressure over the last 20 or so years from the various governments. I think it has to start from the top, if the board and executive management are firm in their commitment to media freedom and our independence as a public service broadcaster, then it just trickles down the line.

HILL: It’s all very well talking about principles of free speech but people like you and me have been saying this for many years and we still now have a third coup. Does it feel like a Sisyphean task, you roll the rock up to the top of the hill only to have it roll back down on you?

HERMAN: Yeah sometimes you feel like that Bruce, but you continue to pursue. I’m of the opinion that even the people in government today are human beings and if we constantly engage them in dialogue and discussions on issues that lie at the heart of our independence as a media organisation you can get a lot more done, as opposed to flying the flag and protesting and all of that. So how we’ve approached it since December last year is that instead of bragging about the number of times we’ve been taken in by the military we’ve sat down and discussed with them the importance of having a free media and the importance or where we’re coming from in regards to how we handle a story, why we did it this way, why we need to interview and balance and all of that. And I’ve found that you get a lot more done and a lot more progress adopting that position.

What Francis Herman was making clear to RNZI listeners those years ago was the need for adequate discussion with those listeners congratulating the media for its handling of issues whilst also making its stand clear to those criticising the coverage of the same issues.

My interview with Francis took place several months ago. Daily Post is still trying to answer the question as to progress of the national media personnel in handling issues of importance after criticism. We have had such issues and most notably with the latest censure attempts. Well, the answer lies with “Pacific media veteran” Herman.

He has been a Vanuatu media veteran behind the scenes since he left the Fiji national broadcaster, FBC, back in 2012. This was after their latest coup. Francis had been journalist and news director then CEO and he just wanted a break, and Australia was looking for someone to run their islands based broadcaster training programme and Francs Herman was available. He needed to re-establish a life of his own after 4 Fiji coups in 20 years. He’d experienced all the kinds of pressure any government could bring, and then here he was in Vanuatu and ready to help the region’s broadcasters. Many were given new skills and the programme touched all the island countries. It was a good one.

It was here that the Prime Minister’s Office through Johnson Naviti found Herman and he will certainly supply the trump card for getting VBTC back on the rails again.

I’m sure veteran broadcasters in Vanuatu will agree with me, and I’m sure they would all say that if anyone can reform VBTC in six months it is certainly Herman. Let all listeners wish him well.

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