Storytellers of the Pacific challenge old power elites, traditions

Traditional Tongan ngatu (tapa cloth) ... a wealth of knowledge through storytelling. Image: Kateni Sau/NewsWire

By Kateni Sau in Wellington

“I realised that the thinking of a society is greatly influenced by what they read, listen to, and watch — for better or worse.” Kalafi Moala’s Pacific voice and commitment comes through loud and clear in our email interview between Nuku’alofa and Wellington.

For me, these words summarise my passion for journalism and my goal of bringing knowledge to our people here in New Zealand about the Pacific through the art of storytelling.

For centuries, our ancestors have passed down a wealth of knowledge through storytelling. Growing up as a Pacific Islander, there was always a story to be told, whether it be around the kava bowl, in church, in our communities or at home. I remember listening to the words that were spoken, soaking up every detail, and going away with my own thinking and understanding of the stories told.

Media has taken storytelling to a whole other level giving us an opportunity to hear and tell stories at any given moment through the convenience of social media.

So, why aren’t there more Pacific journalists?

In 2013, a Statistics New Zealand census summary reported that 7.4 percent of New Zealand’s population identified with one or more Pacific ethnic groups.

However, in 2015, a survey of journalists in New Zealand showed that Pacific people were still underrepresented in newsrooms making up only 1.8 percent of the journalism workforce.

Opened the Pacific doors
Twenty-eight years ago Kalafi Moala changed the Tongan media and opened the doors for Pacific journalists, but at a cost.

Kalafi Moala, editor and founder of Taimi ‘o Tonga. Image: Melemanu Fiu/NewsWire

As a popular newspaper publisher, he became a threat to the Tongan government.

“At that time only government and church owned newpapers published newspapers. Most governments continue to try and control media, by violating media’s ethics. Either by threat and bribe, rendering media ineffective in its role.”

In 1996 he was forced to put his newspaper on the line in a thrilling pursuit to release the media from the bondages of the Constitution.

He became the first voice to dare to criticise the Tongan system in the mid 1990s with his now famous publication Taimi ‘o Tonga.

In the Pacific, cultural beliefs and values often clash with the practice of journalism.

Power in the Pacific doesn’t usually come from a gun like most countries. Instead it comes from the social structures which Moala says are “hierarchical and rooted in status”.

Kalafi Moala explains that in Tongan society and many Pacific cultures, it is forbidden to criticise those in authority and exposing any weakness or corruption was seen as criticism. Some things have changed, but some have not since Kalafi Moala’s actions 28 years ago.

Moala’s actions cost him a 30-day sentence in jail for contempt of Parliament, but that did not stop him from smuggling out editorials written on toilet paper.

‘Truth covered up’
“Truth is often covered up in order to maintain a false image about that person in leadership and anyone who tries to expose that often becomes the enemy of the ruling elite,” he says.

He was physically threatened, harassed and jailed by the government, and banned from Tonga for a period of time.

However, Moala’s courageous actions opened doors for a new generation journalists from all over the Pacific to follow.

“For others to aspire to what you are doing you have to inspire them and inspiration comes through life actions, not just persuasion by words. Nothing will ever be achieved if people only look at journalism as a job, instead of a tool for change and improvement. I look at journalism as a ‘call’, a destiny so to speak, for those of us so deeply involved.”

For me, journalism was an unexpected calling which I stumbled across when a family member took on journalism. That person is my brother Isileli Sau, whose stories at home of studying journalism first sparked my interest.

Isi Sau at his graduation from the Army camp in Waiouru. Image: Viliami Sau/NewsWire

Before the interview started for this feature, things were already awkward because we weren’t used to talking to each other on a personal level. It’s a Tongan thing.

Growing up in a Tongan household we were taught the pillars of Tongan society that have been practised by my parents and those before them in Tonga. Those core values are Ofa (love), Faka’apa’apa (respect), Anga fakato ki lalo (humility) and Tauhi Vaha’a (gratitude).

So, for example, an aspect of faka’apa’apa is traditional brother-sister avoidance. This meant never discussing personal issues with each other, or doing activities together such as watching television. So for my brother and I this interview was a huge cultural hurdle.

Dinner table discussions
But growing up there were some exceptions which was dinner time, when we would all gather around the table and discuss how school was going. As my brother discussed how school was, I became fascinated by his stories, but mostly by how he got the opportunity to voice the stories of our Pacific people which were rare for us growing up.

Journalism wasn’t his first pick. His first choice was to join the army, but after school he decided to give studying one last shot. “I picked journalism because I enjoyed writing and English was a favourite subject of mine,” he says.

He clears his throat, takes a deep breath and slowly begins to reveal things I had not been aware of in his struggle as a Pacific journalist in training. “I knew it was pretty random and interesting that someone with my heritage and background would choose this path.”

When I asked if he faced difficulties, he shifts his seating position, and I know it is our ingrained faka’apa’apa he is negotiating with these personal questions

He pauses, and says quietly: “I just wasn’t used to the environment and not having a good knowledge of things.” But the volume in his voice begins to louden as he continues to speak. “I was over being in an environment I wasn’t familiar with,” he says with a staunch tone.

So he joined the army

He assures me that the path he chose was a great experience. “I just needed more life experience before committing to journalism.”

Lack of career path knowledge
Why does he think there are not many Pacific people in journalism in New Zealand? “They think they aren’t capable, which isn’t true. Some just lack knowledge of the career path and where it can lead,” he says with a slight grin which suggests he is talking about himself.

Editor of Asia-Pacific Report Professor David Robie … “go for the challenges”. Image: Alyson Young/AUT

Editor of Asia-Pacific Report and director of the Pacific Media Centre Professor David Robie knows a lot about Pacific students’ capabilities, and the challenges they face, having taught journalism in Papua New Guinea and Fiji before joining AUT University in Auckland. Asia Pacific Report was launched as a platform for AUT’s Asia-Pacific student journalism in the “real world” competing with other mainstream media. It not only publishes their own students’ work, but articles and multimedia by students all across the Pacific and articles by academics.

In 2000, David Robie recounts the story of his young media students at the University of the South Pacific being in the front line for one of the strangest coups in Fiji.

In a 2010 Pacific Journalism Review article Dr Robie and his students explain how the day unfolded.

May 19 was the day it started. Students reported protests in downtown Suva, the capital, which was a diversion while the actual coup was happening at Parliament. Another student, on internship for Radio Fiji, reported the actual coup from a cassava patch outside Parliament.

Deputy Prime Minister Dr Tupeni Baba was speaking at the time and then, just like that, everything turned into an unforgettable dream. In the 2010 Pacific Journalism Review paper, Dr Robie quotes one of his students at the time: “We heard somebody yelling and telling people to remain seated in Parliament and gunshots fired”.

George Speight, a mixed race and bankrupt businessman seized Parliament and the elected government at gunpoint. Everyone in the Radio Fiji newsroom couldn’t believe what was going on so “we left everything and moved closer to the radio and then the lines were cut,” says the student.

Published ‘in defiance’
The USP journalism website was then forced to shut down for no apparent reason. David explains “the journalism programme was still publishing its newspaper and its website” in defiance. By that time the students had posted 109 stories, dozens of soundbites and scores of digital photographs, and the University of Technology Sydney journalism programme began publishing their stories.

He says the university authorities considered their actions as a risk, but as a journalist a good story is sometimes worth the risk. “I thought well this is an opportunity that students only have once in a blue moon sort of thing. So I wasn’t going to deny them the opportunity,” he says with a firm tone.

David used the coup as an example of the cultural challenges Pacific people face overseas as journalists, which are rarer here in New Zealand. “The first 10 days of the coup was really risky. The government was being held at gunpoint in Parliament in Fiji and now students were going in every day,” says David.

Students wandered blindly through the first day, in some cases speechless over what was unfolding in front of their very eyes. “There were some that had a problem and realised that journalism really wasn’t their field.”

Fiji’s worst nightmare soon came to an end 10 weeks later, on July 26, when Speight and many of his followers were arrested by Fiji’s army.

As our conversation comes to an end, I asked David one last question on how Pacific people can overcome difficult situations they will have to endure as a Pacific journalists and his answer was quite simple. “Don’t be afraid of the difficulties — go for it and take on as many challenges as you can.”

In New Zealand, one of those challenges is Pacific role models, because of the lack of visibility.

It is not common to see or hear a Pacific journalist on mainstream media or radio.

No consistent coverage
In a 95bFM podcast interview published this month, E-Tangata online magazine founder Gary Wilson says mainstream media here in New Zealand doesn’t have consistent coverage on the Pacific population. “With all the media platforms there are now it is still very much a niche thing,” says Wilson, who focused on Māori and Pacific when he was involved in journalism training decades ago. “They don’t get as much viewers as mainstream media.” he says.

Being a journalist has its challenges, and Kalafi Moala, Isi Sau and David Robie it’s how we tackle those challenges that will define the future of Pacific journalists.

For me being a Pacific journalist in training has been a difficult process as I wasn’t used to people being so open about things that are quite personal to them, and for me having to ask the tough questions. As a Pacific islander we are raised in an environment that doesn’t really allow space for heart to heart talks or questioning the action of those in authority, whether it is in church, government and family.

Cultural values and beliefs will always be the main struggle for those planning to take on the journalism industry, but if we don’t overcome that fear we will never achieve anything sitting in silence.

If we want more Pacific people in the journalism industry it has to start with us.

As Kalafi Moala says: “The best motivation for Pacific people to join the journalism industry is for practising journalists to carry out their job the best possible way, and to make a difference.”

Kateni Sau is a student journalist at New Zealand’s Whitireia Community Polytechnic Journalism School, Wellington.This article was originally published by NewsWire and has been republished here with permission.

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