Sunday, 2 May 2010

Pacific media freedom soup: HIV/AIDS, media regionalism, and the right to know

Below is the text of a statement given on Sunday 2 May in Brisbane at the University of Queensland by Lisa Williams-Lahari, founding member and Projects leader of Pacific WAVE (Women Advancing a Vision of Empowerment) Media Network. Her presentation followed that of PNG’s Susuve Laumaea, Chair of the Pacific Freedom Forum. Fiji's Sophie Foster, of the Fiji Times, Samoa’s Savea Sano Malifa of the SONG (Samoa Observer Newspaper Group) and Vanuatu’s Marie-Noelle Ferrieux-Patterson, former Ombuds and President for TI (Transparency International) in Vanuatu also featured on the afternoon panel.


Kia Orana tatou katoatoa it e aroa maata o to tatou Atua, Talofa lava, I bid you warm Pacific greetings. This week last year, the inaugural meeting of a regional media freedom watchdog group, the Pacific Freedom Forum, was happening in Samoa. 12 months later, to the exact week, we are witnessing the inaugural meeting of a regional network of women in Pacific media, called WAVE. We have delegates from both groups here at this event, one a regional media freedom monitoring and advocacy body – the other a newly confirmed network of women working in news and media in the Pacific region. Together, both groups form a constituency of almost 400 online members spread across the Oceania region’s 22 countries and 9million people – not forgetting many millions of square kilometres of saltwater in all that. So we are excited to affirm our place at this key event.
I’m going to dive in to the overall theme of this session with an invitation to have some media freedom soup with me.
 I’ve spent the better part of the last year and a half as a founding member of the pacific island journalist’s online network, which gave birth to the pacific freedom forum, which gave birth to the Pacific WAVE media network. Like our founding coordinator Ulamila Wragg, this work; and most of my journalism, was able to be done from a computer set up to the internet from my kitchen. Many of my WAVE media sisters share the Pacific reality of juggling the hats of women balancing their unpaid work at home with the paid career in media work. I spice up my time with vast amounts of post-grad student, stir fried with the roles of activist, wife, mum, and freelancer. So welcome to my kitchen, and let’s get cooking.
The key ingredient which I’ll begin with is how we in Pacific media have approached coverage of HIV/AIDS. Yes, HIV/AIDS. What I have seen as a journalist, trainer and commentator is that HIV/AIDS, more than any other global trend for this part of the world, has created interesting parallels through which we can examine and better understand the main threats – and solutions, to media freedom in the Pacific.
The first key challenge which HIV/AIDS steps out for media freedom a la Pacific is that it can often give us in the media, the freedom to get it wrong. Throughout the late 80’s and into the following decade, pacific reportage of HIV/AIDS was geared towards a sense of it being someone else’s problem. Pacific media had reported it, but mainly along the lines of feeding misinformation that this was the death sentence delivered by God to gay men, adulterers and prostitutes. Of course, this situation was not exclusive to the media. It also highlighted the lack of media-friendly medical and development professionals able to break down what was also a new and emerging epidemic for the region; and the lack of quality statistics and surveillance data to draw on. It was creating all kinds of new questions around talking heads who were misinforming rather than informing the news agenda, and what reporting the truth in the public interest really is. It began to raise curly issues around objectivity, the credibility of traditional talking heads like church leaders and how we in our reportage were contributing – or not, to highly emotional issues. It underlined the lack of privacy and confidentiality in small islands communities, and the stigma, discrimination and fear which abound when people simply don’t have access to the information they need. And it was all gaining momentum as the key regional conference for Pacific media workers, called PINA, was hosted in French Polynesia at the end of 1998.
And it was at PINA, to a regional audience of Pacific journalists, that a young Journalism student by the name of Maire Bopp Dupont was to stand up in a plenary session, and declared her HIV-positive status. In asking her media colleagues to step back from fear mongering and get back to being journalists, Maire took a gamble and spiked a trend of new debate, thinking and reflection by Pacific colleagues in their work. Her stance also opened up spaces on the no go zones, the taboos around sexuality, culture and tradition, and our own attitudes and behaviours which inform the internal news-filters for us. Importantly too, it highlighted an issue which continues to define challenges around news practice to this day: given all the internal filters we face in gleaning what is news and how it is reported, how are all the commitments to ethics, accountability, truth and the public interest defined? Who monitors the notion of just how free, truthful and ‘independent’ independent journalists are? What about the language and words we use? And the gendered stereotypes and labelling we are dealing with? All these questions began to emerge, ticking the boxes –raised by the previous speaker, on media as partners in development, gender dimensions of media work, human rights and social justice issues.
In 1999, in recognition of her ‘breaking the silence’ on HIV and AIDS, Maire was awarded the PINA Media Freedom Award.
This takes me to my next key challenge: the need to respond to gaps and failures in order to address the challenges around media freedom work, FOI and the right to know.
Shortly after Maire’s wining of the Media Freedom Award, her journey as a pacific advocate and voice on HIV/AIDS was cemented. As an advocate she soon identified a regional gap that required a regional fix. A network of organisations and partners needed to work, and work effectively. Out of the absence of a regional entity for those with HIV/AIDS, the Pacific Islands AIDS Foundation formed, and got with addressing a problem. It had formed as a response to a clear need and has since become a secretariat for a regional coalition of partnering organisations, called the Pacific NGO Alliance on AIDS. It provides lessons at a critical time for us, of being responsive, current, owned by the pacific region we claim to represent, and transparent to our members.
Media freedom, free speech, the right to information and freedom of information – these challenges are a dynamic and changing set of issues, always changing, just as the PIAF organisation has done in approaching the HIV/AIDS crisis for our region.
I’m not alone in this room in knowing that Pacific media partnerships are now at the same crossroads where HIV/AIDS forced a regional, industry-led response that had to be strong, effective and transparent. Just as the most affected people got together and formed their own networks and chain of accountability, we as journalists and Pacific news and media organisations must do the same to ensure we remain true to the values and mission which are now no longer being met.
It’s at this point that our media freedom soup now comes to the boil. For a range of reasons, we have seen the relative lapse into silence and internal conflict of PINA, the regional media body which claims to represent our interests as a region. I say it’s a regional challenge of crisis proportions because any regional body which falls apart doesn’t do so silently, and we need to be honest and open about learning from failure. If there’s anything the global economic crash in recent years can teach us, it is that. I challenge us all, in truth and respect for the right to disagree, to urgently seek a space for mediation and most of all for transparency to resolve this situation. At this point in time, a fractured and poorly managed Pacific media regionalism is itself providing the biggest threat to media freedom and FOI. We will always have our dictators and tyrants to deal with; but we need to set our house in order. Some will have to decide if they even want a regional house to support our networking. Without a resourced and effective monitoring, advocacy and coordination effort owned and endorsed by all of us, from our different parts of the region, we will continue to remain in crisis mode. We will not be able to dream of excellence and standards outside of the ad-hoc pockets that do exist. We will not be able to hope to grow media literacy amongst our youth, leaders and communities so that the right to know is an accepted flip side to the right to ask the taboo questions.
As a last spoonful, I want to celebrate all the stirring with a dash of indigenous hope. I note the inclusion of another key forum at this WPFD event, that of indigenous voices and the need to close the gaps in ownership, participation, content creation, and diversity. Paying homage to the wisdom provided by our ocean-navigating ancestors, here’s a Cook Islands proverb often quoted by a former Cook Islands Prime Minister. His belief in the right of a free and independent media to exist meant he was accessible and accountable in ways that would put many current Pacific leaders to shame. It was the doors opened by Sir Geoffrey Henry in the early 90’s which helped pave the way for the Cook Islands to create history on FOI legislation more than 15 years later. The proverb goes like this: taraia to toki, ei toki tarai enua. Taraia to toki, ei toki tarai enua. Sharpen your adze, the adze to carve nations. In transforming that into the context of this session the toki, the adze, can be seen as the media. The right to know is the tool which keeps the adze strong and effective. When the toki is well prepared for its work, the impact on public debate and protection of media freedoms is strongest. The diversity of news outlets and talking heads in the public domain helps foster a sense of public participation; and ownership of the governance process. When the adze is blunted by lack of FOI legislation or media workers themselves pressuring for the public interest and the right to know, we have the deadening impacts many of us can attest to in our countries.
So, from the ancestors to us here today -- Taraia to toki, ei toki tarai enua: how sharp is your media freedom adze, and who is holding it? Is the adze sleeping in a corner somewhere, growing dull with lack of use? Has it left newsrooms and taken up residence in Ombuds offices, public auditing processes, or is it no longer to be found? I challenge us in this room today to reclaim the toki and locate it online, in digital spaces accessible for more of us, a toolkit for the future generations of Pacific journalists at events like this.

I hope you enjoyed that funky taste of Pacific media freedom soup; and I thank you.--ENDS

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