July 05, 2012

Radio Australia: NY Times article focuses on Fiji politics

Updated 4 July 2012, 10:28 AEST

Fiji has made the pages of the New York Times.

An article about the country's recent past, entitled A Detour on the Road to Democracy, has just been published in America's leading newspaper, and its overseas edition, the International Herald-Tribune.

The Times's regional reporter, Matt Siegel, was in Fiji for two weeks and says he had open access to the interim government's leadership.

But he says it was clear there were serious challenges for democracy, and his 12 hundred word Times article makes that very clear.

Matt Siegel describes to Bruce Hill how the Times article came to be written.

Presenter: Bruce Hill
Speaker:New York Times reporter Matt Siegel

SIEGEL: Well it's quite funny actually. I had phoned in to the Ministry of Information I think in January when the public emergency regulations were lifted to get a comment about the story, and the phone was answered by somebody with an American accent who actually works for Qorvis Communications, the PR firm that the regime has hired to handle the image in the west. And that immediately peaked my interest, I was wondering how exactly this came to pass that there were Americans working in the Ministry of Information answering the phones. So I think that there was a mutual interest, they were quite interested in having the Times be interested in them, and I was interested myself, my interest was raised even higher by this occurrence. So almost immediately I think, in the first phone call the rep from Qorvis raised the question of whether or not I would be willing and able to come out and how they could make that come about. So it was just a matter of logistics from there, finding a time that we were open to go out there.

HILL: Well when you got to Fiji how were you treated? Were you able to get interviews with all the people in the regime that you wanted to speak to?

SIEGEL: Absolutely, I couldn't sort of speak more highly about their openness, willingness to talk, there were no subjects that were off limits. I was able to speak with Bainimarama, I was able to speak with the Attorney General, and they were long frank interviews, no pun intended, I really couldn't speak more highly about …

HILL: How did those interviews go? Were there any sort of disagreements at all?

SIEGEL: There were points of contention I suppose more than disagreements. I think that perhaps because of the nature of the media in Fiji over the last six years since the last coup, they're not perhaps used to getting pointed questions from journalists or being challenged by journalists in the kind of way that I would do and the way that I work.

HILL: You had a bit of a confrontation I think with the Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum when he said that you didn't understand the law, and you actually pulled out the decrees and you actually underlined the pieces that you were quoting from I understand?

SIEGEL: Yeah that was a little bit of a tense moment. Although actually sort of helped to defuse the argument that we were having because I think it became quite clear that I did know. And I think that that's probably a sort of pat answer of his, when he's speaking with journalists because he considers himself and he is obviously an expert in Fijian law, I think he sort of assumes perhaps quite often that journalists either haven't put in the work or are unfamiliar with law, simply just don't know what they're talking about. But that helped to defuse the situation, not that we necessarily saw eye to eye on the points of law that we were debating at that point. But it was a good and interesting moment certainly, both of our hearts were probably pounding a bit faster than they were at the beginning of the interview.

HILL: Well Mr Siegel you've been a journalist in some of the worst dictatorships in the world; in central Asia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, you know dictatorships, one of the things that people in Fiji say is, whatever else you may disagree with what we've done, it's not a dictatorship in that sense, we're nowhere near as bad as other parts in the world. What was your impression, where does Fiji fit into this on the scale of things?

SIEGEL: Yeah I mean that's certainly a point that was raised to me and a point that was made, and you have to agree to a certain extent. I mean it's not Turkmenistan, there are not statues to Bainimarama everywhere, it's not Uzbekistan, there aren't huge numbers of people disappearing and that kind of propaganda. Now having said that, there is the rule of law and there is a commitment to the rule of law and I think that that's the underpinning of any stable society. And I think that the difficulties that Fiji has had probably stem from the points at which they have gone away from that and international norms. So I wouldn't want to compare them, I'm not sure it's constructive to compare them to the extreme aberrations like Turkmenistan. I think that it would be more constructive to compare where they want to be and how they see themselves.

HILL: You particularly mention the role of the media in this sense, and there's one thing that you were telling me that particularly struck you about this and that's the attitude of the journalists there in Fiji when it came to actually speaking to you on the record?

SIEGEL: Yeah that's right, and I think that in any country the role of the media and the way in which the media responds to outside scrutiny will tell you a lot about freedom in the country and the state of freedom in the country. And in Fiji I was quite surprised that no one from any of the major media outlets was willing to speak with me for attribution. I did have, as I wrote in the article, one journalist who was willing to speak with me for attribution, who then a couple of days later wrote me back and said look I'm really not comfortable with this anymore and now that I've had a chance to think about it. And I think when you have a situation in which journalists are unwilling or feel unable to speak freely, that says a lot about the state of press freedoms in the country. If these journalists aren't free to speak to a visiting journalist, why should we assume that they're free to speak freely within their own press.

HILL: I suppose you were going to run into the same problem if you come to a country like say Fiji and you haven't been there before, if you write things that are laudatory of the government, the government will say ah you're a very astute observer, look at this, read this article, it's fantastic. And if you don't, they'll say well he's just a parachute, he doesn't know anything. Were you aware of that potential problem going in there, that depending on what you said you might be accused of ignorance or bias or simply not understanding the complex history of the place?

SIEGEL: Absolutely, and I'm sure that will be the case, I'm sure that people who are supporters of the regime, who felt that I was being unfair will use just those arguments, that he's a parachute journalist and doesn't understand the historical nuances, doesn't understand … indeed that's sort of the underpinnings of a lot of the government's arguments for why military rule is necessary, was complex history of ethnic tensions, political tensions that to an outsider perhaps are too complex to understand. And it's something that I'm certainly aware of going into a situation which is why I spend the amount of time and I was able to spend nearly two weeks in Fiji meeting with people, travelling all over the country. Ultimately it is the job, one would hope local journalists are able to write freely about their own country, and they're perhaps able to do the day-to-day more keeping the government honest kind of reporting, where an outside journalist is never going to be able to do the same things. It's unfortunate in a situation like this that clearly local journalists don't feel comfortable to do that kind of reporting. And so it falls on the outside, the foreign reporters to come in and of course we are always working from behind in a sense to catch up. Although I did feel quite comfortable after the amount of time that I spent and the weeks and months of research that I did ahead of time, that I was able to at least come in on comfortable footing. But it is a difficult situation, it always is a difficult situation when you come into a country like this with a complex history.

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