It was a comment that caused the Chinese to slam shut the door to Western media. Now, almost two decades on and in a much smaller pond, Murdoch is being invited to back up his words with deeds.
Can a bunch of internet-enabled freedom fighters or radio pirates bring down a dictator?
This is the question facing Usaia Waqatairewa, the Sydney-based president of the Fiji Democracy and Freedom Movement, who has asked for support from News Limited, the Australian arm of Murdoch’s global News Corporation (publisher of The Australian.) He wants to take the fight for democracy up to Fiji’s military dictatorship, headed by Commodore Frank Bainimarama.
Bainimarama has issued a decree that orders News to sell down its 100 per cent ownership of the 141-year-old Fiji Times newspaper to no more than 10 per cent. His decree stipulates that 90 per cent of ownership of media properties must be in the hands of indigenous Fijians, resident in Fiji.
News was given a three-month deadline to comply. It has described the decree as “appalling”, “outrageous” and “a terrible blow to the fragile economy of Fiji” but has been otherwise measured in its response, calling in international accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers to advise on values, potential for buyers and the like.
This approach is designed to provide the maximum possible protection to the 180 staff of the Times — editors, journalists and sales people who have already felt the hot breath of censorship and military intimidation for the past two years.
Bainimarama’s thugs have been censoring news since they took power in 2006, roughing up reporters and other staff, and ordering the deportation of two successive managing directors appointed from Australia. They also kicked out Australia’s acting high commissioner last week.
I can fully appreciate the need for a steady hand here, but Bainimarama’s actions invite some instinctive reactions: freedom of the press is paramount; dictators must never be allowed to get away with their self-serving censorship; and if there is a choice between kowtowing to their demands and standing up and fighting, a fight it must be.
It seems to me there’s little use in News looking for a Fijian national to buy 90 per cent of the Fiji Times. I’d guess a PwC valuation of the business would be in the region of $100 million, and not many locals would fit the bill on that basis. But even if there were a local buyer, that would mean the paper would have to live within the rules set down by the dictatorship — bending the news, giving in to the slice of the censor’s knife and abandoning its duty to its audience. It’s either that or the owner faces years of imprisonment. It could be argued that, in the event of a sale, this would not be News’s worry. But if the company were to put the future of press freedom, the future of Fiji’s democracy, and the wellbeing of the Fiji people before all else, it could embrace a more dramatic response: stop the presses, close the business and establish an off-shore internet-based reporting operation dedicated to exposing the dictatorship’s activities.
The internet has already been shown as one of democracy’s greatest assets, a point made by Murdoch with his “unambiguous threat” speech of 1993. Anyone connected anywhere can search for information at myriad levels. It is the ultimate tool of transparency, and transparency is the greatest fear of dictators.
Usaia Waqatairewa is a Fijian expat living in Sydney. He knows Bainimarama well, coming from a neighbouring village. He says the Fijian people have been feeling the increasing pain of the dictatorship for the past three years; the middle class is fleeing and the ruling clique is open to do business with international crime and terror organisations.
He wishes the Australian government would apply more pressure on Bainimarama by discouraging tourists from holidaying on the island, pressuring airlines to cut services and encouraging Australian shippers and banks to resist the government. “With political will, the Australian government could help us.”
Waqatairewa says the censorship of news in print, TV and radio is like revisiting the 1970s world of the eastern bloc, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or North Korea. “It’s gloves off between me and Frank Bainimarama,” he declares.
Waqatairewa has had talks with News Limited since the sell-or-else decree. “I would be very happy if such a giant global corporation could support us in our opposition to this tin-pot dictatorship,” he says. “The last thing they want is a free press commenting on everything they do.
“Our movement has branches in Sydney, Melbourne, Townsville, New Zealand, the US west coast and among the Fiji underground. We have journalists under cover and moles in the public service. We know how to access vital documents that are hidden from the public.
“We could, with a little help, establish a web news service aimed at keeping the people of Fiji informed about their illegal government.”
Waqatairewa agrees there may be some limits to this approach, as the internet is not yet ubiquitous in Fiji. “I told News that even better than a website would be to put a boat into international waters near Fiji and broadcast our message against the government on AM and FM because in every home, in every village, there is a radio.
“Sure, the dictatorship might try to jam us, but we would simply move frequencies. The ship need only be a floating transmitter, because we could send the signal from Australia on a live stream over the net. It would not be difficult to do.”
Waqatairewa says he raised the idea with News but has not had a response. That’s not surprising given the fluid situation, the ticklish diplomatic issues and concerns for the Times staff.
But if democracy and the freedom of the press are to mean anything, Bainimarama’s actions cannot be ignored or appeased. In the old days, we might have sent a gunboat. The idea of a pirate radio ship roaming the South Seas is far more appealing.
Unfortunately, these days the pirates are in government house, instead of at sea, or in a radio station.
God bless Fiji