Guest Post – The Khaiyum interview exposed Fiji issues and a wanting NZ media

Thakur Ranjit SinghThakur Ranjit Singh writes:

Sean Plunket is a former Radio New Zealand broadcaster and one on New Zealand’s most celebrated, informed, seasoned and award-winning journalists known for his sharp and probing questions. He has many feathers in his journalism cap where he has ‘demolished’ many a politicians. He heads the current affairs programme, The Nation on TV 3 in New Zealand. Therefore when it was known that he was going to interview Aiyaz Saiyed-Khaiyum, Fiji’s controversial Attorney General, made famous by the utterances of former military fugitive Ratu Tevita Mara, it was anticipated that he was going to have another “killing” and another feather in his cap.

However those who saw the interview were pleasantly surprised at the performance of Aiyaz. Plunket appeared lost, rattled and defensive in front of a well-prepared and a composed Attorney General, who not only appeared to be at ease with the feared Plunket, but had occasions to even show smiles during the course of the interview.

When questioned about democracy devoid of fair and free elections, Khaiyum gave a third world lesson on democracy. “Hitler came to power through elections. What a government does after it is elected also matters. Just because it’s been elected it doesn’t mean you’re suddenly democratic; what they do with the power is essential, “he said.

When accused that Fiji was engaging more strongly or more proactively with countries like China, Khaiyum retorted that Fiji had not discriminated against any government.  “In fact we are fully engaging with anybody who wants to engage with us. Just treat us as equals. You need to understand what the Fijian situation is. We are engaging with all the countries in the world, except Australia and New Zealand from their side, but they’re not willing to listen to us. They don’t even want to sit down at the same table,” he complained.

A much awaited confirmation was the election date. Khaiyum announced that to be in or before September, 2014. Plunket did well to cover many diverse subjects in the fifteen minute segment from the ‘horse’s mouth’, so to speak, for New Zealand audience which had been starved of the information on Fiji. Aiyaz filled this vacuum on the election date, relations with China, Ratu Tevita Mara, corruption, Fiji’s judiciary, NZ Law Society allegations, military repression, emergency regulations, land and vision for Fiji.

Before Plunket could successfully accuse Fiji of any wrongdoing, Khaiyum has special ammunition reserved for New Zealand media. When questioned by Plunket whether Fiji or Fijians were sophisticated to live with the level of freedom and democracy that New Zealanders and other countries had, Khaiyum retorted with an attack on NZ media.

“I would argue that at the moment the way your journalism is taking place in your country, lacks sophistication. In fact it’s very rudimentary, the sort of questions we get asked, the sort of answers that are formulated even beforehand,” he said. It would appear the attack on media was not without reason. The panel selected by Plunket and TV3 to deliberate on the interview lacked proper understanding and appreciation on Fiji.

Matthew Hooton, National Business Review Columnist, echoed sentiments about double standards of New Zealand that had been earlier cited by this author. Hooton said that the problem in Fiji had been going on for some decades with little headway. This indicated that either New Zealand and Australian policies have been irrelevant or they have failed. “New Zealand deals with many countries that are not democratic and does not have free press; we have signed world’s first free trade agreement with China, we deal with Thailand as an economic partner in APEC. Thailand is a country where the military plays a very big role,” he said.

Simon Wilson, Editor of Metro Magazine supported a long-term stability in Fiji. “It is very hard to see how that can happen until there is a period of long-term democratic government.” The information that Simon appeared to lack is that Fiji had a long-term democracy for seventeen years after its independence in 1970 under the leadership of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara of the Alliance Party. No sooner had Mara’ Alliance Party and the eastern Chiefs lost power to Timoci Bavadra’s Labour Party in 1987, than it was declared by the Fijian nationalist elements that democracy was a foreign flower in Fiji. As long as Mara and the eastern Fijian Chiefs were in political control, the 1970 Constitution and democracy were acceptable. When they lost power, it became unsuitable and a ‘foreign’ imposition on the indigenous people. Fiji had lost the ultimate test of democracy: its inability to change leaders and governments in a democratic fashion. This deficiency was exposed both in 1987 and later in 2000.

Barry Soper, Political Editor of Newstalk ZB appeared equally misinformed on Fiji, by brandishing the race card. Twice in his comments he said that the reason coup was carried against Timoci Bavadra’s government in 1987 was that Bavadra had too many Indians in his Cabinet. What he failed to tell was that the party was led by a Fijian, had equal, if not majority ethnic representation but saw indigenous power shift to Western part of Fiji. The coup was meant to wrest political control and pass the power back to the “right” Fijian group, which ultimately eventuated, with Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara and the Eastern chiefs back in power.  The 1987 coup had more to do with intra-ethnic Fijian issues rather than inter Indian-Fijian issues. Soper again displays his lack of knowledge on Fiji by saying that it was Khaiyum who was pushing for one equal vote for everyone. “Timothy Bavadra included too many Indians in his cabinet and this man [Aiyaz Khaiyum], obviously an Indian; he says he wants one vote for everyone. That’s not gonna happen because the Fijians in the villages are not going to be happy with the Indians in control.”  This electoral change is the initiative of the indigenous Bainimarama and not the Indo-Fijian Khaiyum. Indo-Fijians comprise some 35 per cent of Fiji population. With military 99.5 % indigenous, and indigenous domination at all levels of government bureaucracy, it defies logic how Soper sees that Indo-Fijians would again be in control.

It appears TV3 need to realise that with lack of diversity in NZ media, any and all Anglo Saxon journalists are not necessarily experts in Fiji. Mere journalism degrees and NZ experience does not bestow that expertise. They need to pick those who understand the Pacific politics and history and are rooted in the Pacific, particularly in Fiji. All the commentators failed this bill though Matthew Hooton appeared to be the most logical and lateral thinker.

Such blinkered versions on Fiji echoed by the mainstream media, distorts Fiji’s understanding by the Kiwis, and its foreign policy appears to mirror the media commentators. Nevertheless, kudos to Sean Plunket and TV3 for this initiative in providing an interview that should be a lesson for NZ Foreign office on Fiji issues.

E-mail: thakurji[at]@xtra.co.nz

[Thakur Ranjit Singh is a political commentator and has been through Rabuka’s and Speight’s coups in 1987 and 2000 respectively. During the latter, he was the publisher of Fiji’s Daily Post newspaper. He was Auckland University of Technology/ Pacific Islands Media Association (AUT/PIMA) Pasifika postgraduate scholar in 2009/10]


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