Two decades on from 9/11 and a Pacific newsroom sense of dread

9/11 from Suva
Reflections on 9/11 from a Fiji newsroom ... warnings about scapegoats and the media. Image: Al Jazeera screenshot APR

FLASHBACK: By David Robie

When I arrived at my office at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji on the morning of 12 September 2001 (9/11, NY Time), I was oblivious to reality.

I had dragged myself home to bed a few hours earlier at 2am as usual, after another long day working on our students’ Wansolwara Online website providing coverage of the Fiji general election.

One day after being sworn in as the country’s fifth real (elected) prime minister, it seemed that Laisenia Qarase was playing another dirty trick on Mahendra Chaudhry’s Labour Party, which had earned the constitutional right to be included in the multi-party government supposed to lead the country back to democracy.

Stepping into my office, I encountered a colleague. He looked wild-eyed and said: “It’s the end of the world.”

Naively, I replied, thinking of the 1987 military coups,  “Yes, how can legality and constitutionality be cast aside so blatantly yet again?”

“No, not Fiji politics,” he said. “That’s nothing. I mean New York. Terrorists have destroyed the financial heart of the Western world.”

It was a chilling moment, comparable to how I had felt as a 17-year-old forestry science trainee in a logging camp at Kaingaroa Forest the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated — 22 November 1963.

Wansolwara newsroom
Over the next few hours, it seemed that half the Laucala campus descended on our Wansolwara newsroom to watch the latest BBC, TVNZ one and Fiji TV One coverage of the shocking and devastating tragedy.

While a handful of student journalists struggled to provide coverage of local angles — such as the tightening of security around the US Embassy in Suva and shock among the Laucala intelligentsia — most students remained glued to the TV, stunned into immobility by the suicide jetliner terrorists.

Inevitably, global jingoism and xenophobia followed, the assaults on Sikhs merely because they an “Arab look”, the attacks on mosques — in Fiji copies of the Koran were burned — and the abuse directed towards Afghan refugees were par for the course.

Freedom of speech in the United States also quickly became a casualty of this new “war on terrorism”. Columnists were fired for their critical views, television host Bill Maher was denounced by the White House, Doonesbury cartoonist Gary Trudeau dropped his “featherweight Bush” cartoons and so-called “unpatriotic” songs were dropped from radio playlists. Wrote Maureen Dowd of The New York Times:

Even as the White House preaches tolerance toward Muslims and Sikhs, it is practising intolerance, signalling that anyone who challenges the leaders of embattled America is cynical, political and – isn’t this the subtext? – unpatriotic.

But while much of the West lined up as political parrots alongside the United States, ready to exact a terrible vengeance, contrasting perspectives were apparent in many developing nations.

In the Pacific, for example, while people empathised with the survivors of the terrible toll — 2977 people were killed (including the 125 at the Pentagon), 19 hijackers committed murder-suicide, and more than 6000 people injured — there was often a more critical view of the consequences of American foreign policy and a sense of dread about the future.

Twin Towers reflections
Less than a week after the Twin Towers tragedy, I asked my final-year students to compile some notes recalling the circumstances of when they heard the news of the four aircraft slamming into the World Trade Centre Twin Towers and the Pentagon (one plane was taken over by the passengers and it dived into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania) and their responses.

One, a mature age student from Fiji who had worked for several years as a radio journalist, said:

I was in bed and woke up about 2.30am. I have a habit of having the BBC running on radio and, half-asleep, I caught the news being broadcast. I pulled myself out of bed and tuned into BBC on Sky TV. The second plane had just hit the second tower, and I ended staying up the rest of the night to watch the unfolding events.

On his impressions, he warned about scapegoats and the media:

The relevance to us here in the Pacific is that terrorists can strike anywhere to get revenge. This conflict could evolve into war, and wars affect everyone. Americans already think Osama bin Laden is the terrorist. Where is the evidence? Americans are looking to get someone quickly, and the media is leading the way.

Another student wrote:

Good, they [US] paid dearly for trying to intervene in Muslim countries … Bin Laden is portrayed as the culprit even though it is not clear who did it. The media is portraying the whole Muslim world as responsible, but actually this is not the case.

A practical joke?
Recalled one:

I was sleeping and my mother woke me up at 6.30am to tell me the news. I was shocked and, still sleepy, I thought my mother was doing one of her practical jokes to get me out of bed … If there is World War Three, it will have a big impact on the Pacific.

America still has some form of control over various Pacific Island countries, and once again it will recruit Pacific Islanders. Pacific Islands are relatively weak and still trying to be developed. Another hiccup could send our economies to the dogs.

Yet another:

I was at home having breakfast, listening to the news on Bula 100FM. My first reaction was disbelief, horror … Ethically, there is a need to remember the people involved and the amount of bloodshed and death. It would be necessary to censor material that would be emotionally upsetting.

One student was

really surprised to see TVNZ instead of the usual Chinese CCTV. The sound was mute so I couldn’t really get what was being said. I was about to turn it off when they showed the South Tower of the World Trade Centre collapse. I thought it was a short piece from the movie Independence Day.

Sad, it may seem, but the first thing I thought about as a journalist was that reporters will have a field day … Phrases such as “historical day the world over” and “America under siege” popped up in my head as possible headlines.

I got out my notebook and began writing down the number of people estimated to have died, the extent of the damage, an excerpts from President Bush’s speech. Practically anything that involves the US also affects many people throughout the world.

Inevitably, some commentators began drawing parallels between the terrorism in New York in mid-September 2001 at one end of the continuum of hate and rogue businessman and George Speight’s brief terrorist rule in Fiji during mid-2000 at the other end.

Terrorism as a political tool
Politics associate professor Scott MacWilliam, for example, highlighted how terrorism becomes a political tool deployed by a nation state to support its foreign and domestic policy objectives. He pointed out that many of the fundamentalist groups which now carried out terrorism were “nurtured, trained, financed and incorporated” into the Western security apparatus.

One might ask what had this terrible urban graveyard created by fanaticism got to do with the South Pacific. In a sense, there is a disturbing relationship.

Politics in the region, especially at that time, was increasingly being determined by terrorism, particularly in Melanesia, and much of it by the state. And with this situation comes a greater demand on the region’s media and journalists, for more training and professionalism.

At the time of  the 9/11 tragedy, Dr David Robie was head of journalism at the University of the South Pacific. This article has been extracted from a keynote speech that he made at the inaugural conference of the Pacific Islands Media Association (PIMA), “Navigating the Future”, at Auckland University of Technology on 5-6 October 2001. The full address was published by Pacific Journalism Review, No. 8.

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