Media freedom is not absolute, says Chaudhry

  • 5th May 2008
  • 2008
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Media must be responsible and play by the rules as set out in the Media Code of Ethics, Labour Leader Mahendra Chaudhry said in his Media Freedom Day message:

Media freedom is a precious commodity which places on all of us onerous responsibilities to protect, preserve and nurture it.

But media freedom is not absolute or unfettered. The media enjoys enormous power – this in turn places rigorous responsibilities on it to be fair, accurate, balanced and impartial.

It is also accountable to the Media Code of Ethics, and, equally accountable to the people. The public has every right to question and criticise the media without being accused of trampling on media rights.

In other words, the media must play by the rules. It is not a law unto itself.

As we celebrate Media Freedom Day today, it is fair to ask whether the media in Fiji plays by the rules in its coverage of news and statements from various stakeholders.

The FLP says it does not. Certain media organisations are now showing a distinct political agenda in the way they censor news, run them selectively or distort and manipulate them. The FLP is a victim of this political bias, and so is the interim government.

Some serious concerns:

  •  Public’s right to information: the public has a right to accurate information but this right is denied if the media reports selectively or censors news, government statements and reports as is frequently happening now.
  •  The right of reply – is guaranteed under the Media Code of Ethics requiring “prompt and prominent” coverage. Running a reply three weeks later buried in the inside pages, publishing three short paragraphs or simply ignoring it, prevents the message getting through.
  •  The editor’s right of discretion: is not absolute. It must be exercised within the ambit of the Media Code of Ethics. When the Editor decides where in the paper a news story, a statement or a letter is placed or the length of coverage it is given, is this decision taken in adherence to strict guidelines or is it based on the whim and personal likes and dislikes of the Editor?

Fiji today stands at a very delicate and critical stage of its development. Fundamental issues of significance to our people and to the future of our nation are currently being determined and discussed.

Unless these issues are allowed to be expressed and debated openly in the public arena with all sides given fair, balanced and equal coverage, the people of Fiji will not be able to make informed decisions on issues affecting their lives and future.

The Media plays a crucial role in this aspect of nation building by ensuring fair, accurate, balanced and impartial reporting at all times.

The government has an equally important role to ensure that the media disseminates news and information to the people of Fiji accurately, fairly and without political or personal bias.

When this does not happen, it becomes incumbent on the government to take steps to ensure that the media complies with its code of ethics. As the Anthony Report states, it is then time for “wise restraints” to be put in place.

Such restraints are not an assault on media freedom. It is ensuring that the media plays by the rules and is held accountable and responsible in a fragile society still struggling to achieve national unity and progress.