Fiji media monopoly: Why the silence of the institutional lambs?

Dr Wadan Narsey ... "I call on the 'people's parliament' to express their opinions on the Bainimarama government's advertising decision." Image: PMC

Report from Pacific Media Watch

Opinion by Professor Wadan Narsey in Suva

There should have been institutional protests a few weeks ago when the Bainimarama government announced that it had awarded the sole government (and public enterprise) advertising rights to the Fiji Sun.

The protests should have been even louder given that the government had called for expressions of interest according to an extensive list of criteria, which if followed, ought to have resulted in a decision in favour of The Fiji Times.

While I declare my interest as a regular columnist for this newspaper, I explain below that it would not be in the public interest to award sole advertising rights to The Fiji Times either and that the Fiji Sun should also be included.

Given the clear evidence (total dollar values of commercial advertising) that the private sector advertisers, on the basis of reach and cost effectiveness alone, favour The Fiji Times, then the Bainimarama government decision to select the Fiji Sun as sole print advertiser, amounts to gross misuse of taxpayers’ advertising money, which is not in the public interest.

The first protests at the government decision should therefore have come from the institutions which have been set up under the Fiji Constitution precisely to prevent the misuse of taxpayers’ money, ie the Office of the Auditor-General and the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament.

At the next level of constitutional responsibility, there should have been protests from institutions like the Commerce Commission, the Media Industry Development Authority, and the Consumer Council of Fiji.

Sadly, there has been total silence from all these institutions.

Dismaying silence
This silence utterly dismaying for good governance, given that the Bainimarama government decision is striking at the heart of a “level playing field” and fair competition for media organisations, and the constitutional basic human right of citizens of Fiji to have free access to all public interest information that a government disseminates using taxpayer funds.

It is totally abhorrent that there are a large number of public enterprises whose advertising decisions ought to be totally independent of the government of the day and based purely on commercial grounds alone, are also following the Government, indicating the utter spinelessness of their boards.

Advertised criteria

The Bainimarama government claimed it would be assessing tenders on the basis of stated criteria which included the following:

* evidence of circulation;

* evidence of national reach;

* commitment to educate and inform all Fijians with respect to development and government issues in an unbiased and responsible manner; and

* ability to accept urgent and last minute requests.

These four criteria would seem reasonable and commercially oriented.

But the advertisement also asked for evidence of commitment to:

* quality;

* national unity, national identity development and nation building;

* the development of the Fiji economy; and

* the welfare of all Fijians.

By no stretch of the imagination can criteria 5 to 8 be important considerations for any government to get its messages out to the people on matters that concern them, given that the actual vehicle for the advertisement is surely irrelevant.

Any media which had a solid commercial track record of reaching the largest set of citizens in Fiji, ought to have been selected as an avenue for government advertising, purely from the point of view of outreach of advertisements.

Common sense
While a good high school mathematics student could show the following arguments with a “Venn diagram”, common sense indicates the same.

* Only a small number of readers read both the Fiji Sun and The Fiji Times.

* The largest number read only The Fiji Times or only the Fiji Sun.

* Hence to reach the maximum number, government ought to advertise in both newspapers.

* As the largest customer, government could even demand the lowest fees compatible with reasonable profits for the newspapers.

Note that even if it is implied by the government’s call for tenders, The Fiji Times should also not be given sole rights to advertise, as there are many members of the public who, for whatever reason, read only the Fiji Sun, and they also should not be deprived of easy access to government advertisements.

But of course, the arguments could be couched in more technical language relevant to the formal responsibilities of the institutions.

Institutional duties
The Auditor-General (backed by the Public Accounts Committee) is duty bound to examine whether the Bainimarama gbovernment’s decision is on commercial grounds and, if not, whether it amounts to a gross misuse of taxpayer’s money. They are entitled to demand an immediate explanation from the Minister of Finance.

A principled Consumer Council of Fiji, whose executive is never reticent about appearing in the media on behalf of small groups of consumers, could have passionately informed the media that by giving ads only to one newspaper, government was depriving readers of the other more popular newspaper legitimate access to public information, as a basic human right as citizens and consumers of government services.

A principled MIDA chairman could have proactively pronounced (and he has done quite frequently on other matters of less national importance) that government was undermining fair competition in the media, which was against the public interest.

A principled Commerce Commission, which has often acted against private sector companies who are perceived to have exercised monopoly power, ought to have proactively explained to the Bainimarama government that it was against the public interest, to bestow by contract, monopoly power on the Fiji Sun as the “sole retailer” of government advertisements.

A principled Commerce Commission ought to also point out that the Fiji Sun was thereby also unfairly obtaining newspaper sales revenues because members of the public interested in government advertisements were being forced to buy the Fiji Sun, and thereby also giving Fiji Sun unfair advertising revenue from commercial advertisers attracted by the artificially added circulation.

A principled CEO of Transparency International could have reminded the Bainimarama government that it was not good governance to be unfairly granting subsidies to a media owner whose newspaper was not a good watchdog on Government.

But unfortunately, when it comes to contentious Bainimarama government policies or misdemeanours by companies close to them (such as a mobile company), it seems that these organisations have become institutional lambs, afraid to do their duty, for fear of slaughter.

Solution is easy
The Commerce Commission has been ever ready to set controlled prices for thousands of products and services in the Fiji economy, ranging from drugs, hardware items and even the rents charged for accommodation, wherever there is a hint of lack of competition.

The current government decision to award sole advertising rights to the Fiji Sun is a blatant example of creation of monopoly which is against the public interest, and which the Commerce Commission is duty bound to combat.

The Commerce Commission could quite legitimately and easily, with the support of the Consumer Council and MIDA, following the proper investigation, establish a regime of advertising charges system for government advertisements, fair to both taxpayers and the media companies, with both companies being asked to run all important advertisements.

What is so difficult about this solution?

The people of this country are ever ready to write Letters to the Editor (the people’s parliament) on rugby sevens, same sex marriages, Bollywood and Hollywood, the bad state of the roads, or the blunders in the education system.

I call on the “people’s parliament” to express their opinions on the Bainimarama government’s decision to advertise solely in the Fiji Sun.

Dr Wadan Narsey is a an independent economist and writer and also a former professor of economics at the University of the South Pacific.

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