News Coverage of Fiji’s 2018 General Election Campaign: Insights from a Content Analysis of the National Print and Broadcast Media

Shailendra Singh, Nilesh Lal

    Research output: Other contribution


    This landmark study examines how Fiji’s national news media reported the 2018 Fiji election based on an analysis of the coverage of the six competing political parties: the incumbent FijiFirst party and the challenger parties — Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA), National Federation Party (NFP), Unity Fiji, Fiji Labour Party (FLP) and Humanity Opportunity Prosperity Equality (HOPE).1 The time frame of the study is from the issuance of the writ of elections to the start of the media blackout period 48 hours prior to election day (2 October to 12 November 2018). Combining quantitative and qualitative content analysis methods, this study was founded on the premise that in a healthy democracy, it is incumbent upon the national news media to provide citizens with an objective portrayal of public affairs, based on equitable coverage of all political contestants and parties. This is in keeping with a key component of a functioning democracy being a well-informed citizenry actively engaged in debates about governance, social and economic issues, and relevant government policies (Watson 2022). Towards this end, the media’s role in providing citizens timely information to formulate opinions and the means to communicate these opinions and concerns is critical (Watson 2022). It is part of the media’s watchdog role, premised on the theory of the fourth estate — the media as an independent entity keeping check on government and corporate power, for the sake of the people (Romano 2010). Consequently, research into how the media cover national issues is crucial for a critical understanding of news reporting trends, methods and outputs, both for the benefit of news consumers and for media organisations themselves. In Fiji this is pertinent due to frequent allegations of biased reporting and media selfcensorship, partly due to the punitive Media Industry Development Act 2010 (henceforth, Media Act). For instance, the Reporters Without Borders 2022 World Press Freedom Index states that Fiji journalists who are overly critical of the government are often subjected to intimidation, while the Multinational Observer Group (MOG) report on Fiji’s 2018 election highlighted the media’s preference to not test the boundaries of the Media Act due to its fines and jail terms (MOG 2018 election n.d.; Reporters Without Borders 2022). When it comes to content analysis of news coverage, the national elections in any country provide a good case study. Because of their reach and power, the media are an important stakeholder in the electoral process, conveying a diverse range of ideas in the public sphere. Therefore, the dominance of one or two media actors could easily lead to a monopoly (or duopoly) over the type of news that ultimately reaches the electorate. Indeed, the media often come into the spotlight for their role in creating an even (and at times, an uneven) electoral playing field. This is particularly the case in a relatively small Pacific Island country such as Fiji, where a limited number of news outlets exist, and the government and a few private enterprises dominate the advertising market. It exemplifies small media systems wherein media institutions tend to be more reliant on the government for advertising revenue and as a source of news, compared to counterparts in larger media systems (see Singh 2020; Sutton 2007). According to the MOG report on the 2014 election, some parties claimed that the campaign environment was restrictive and not a level playing field. The challenger parties protested about being unable to get their views into the media, with some media outlets allegedly favouring the incumbent FijiFirst party (Bhim 2015; Robie 2016). While the MOG observed some bias, it concluded that the parties had enough media access to enable voters to make an informed decision (MOG 2014 Election n.d.). This study on the 2018 election is timely given reports that the Fijian media are divided along ethnic and political lines, including alleged pro or antigovernment stances, especially since the 2006 coup (Morris 2015; Pareti 2009; Robie 2014; 2016). The election serves as an appropriate case study to test some of these claims, since debates about national issues are at their peak during campaigning, with 2 Discussion Paper 2022/2 Department of Pacific Affairs concentrated, round-the-clock media coverage. The analysis was based on how the media treated the different political parties and candidates in terms of space, air-time and tonality of news reporting. The crux is to what extent the country’s five major media organisations examined in this study — The Fiji Times, the Fiji Sun, the Fijian Broadcasting Corporation (FBC), Communications Fiji Limited/ (CFL) and Fiji Television Limited — attempted to provide political parties and candidates balanced, objective and equitable coverage. Social media was not included as this study is focused on mainstream media.2 The results indicate that of the six parties competing in the election, the incumbent FijiFirst party received not only the giant’s share of the coverage, but overwhelmingly positive coverage in five of the six media organisations, confirming opposition claims. The Fiji Times was the only exception in that it tended to favour the challenger parties. Besides the advantages of incumbency (see Lal 2021), it is moot whether the nature of the coverage gave FijiFirst an edge in the election, which it won by a narrow, 50.02 per cent margin under an Open List Proportional Representation system (although the margin of victory, the gap between the first and the second party in the race, was more than 10 per cent). The content analysis results raise questions not only about the impartiality of some Fiji media organisations, but also the professional capacity of the national media corps to fulfil their obligations to hold power to account, with a survey indicating that Fijian journalists are among the youngest and most inexperienced in the Pacific (Singh and Hanusch 2021). Another question is how the Media Act might have shaped the coverage given claims that its punitive measures had forced and forged a culture of self-censorship on the Fiji media. Dobell (11/4/2022) has written how ‘Fiji’s hacks have had to bend and bow and dodge and shade the strength of their daily effort to serve truth with the facts’. In some respects, the 2018 election coverage seems contrary to the basic journalistic tenets of fairness and impartiality — ethical norms that have been controversially turned into legal requirements under the Fiji Media Act. Under Schedule 1 (s 18(1)) clauses 1(a) and 1(d), media ‘shall report and interpret news and current affairs honestly’ and ‘Media organisations shall show fairness at all times, and impartiality and balance in news on political matters, current affairs and controversial questions’ (Government of Fiji 2010:36). Under section 24, breaches of the Act could result in a fine of up to FJ$100,000 for a media organisation, and up to FJ$25,000 for a publisher or editor, and/or imprisonment of up to two years; to date, no one has been charged (Government of Fiji 2010:11). The extent to which the Fijian news media conformed with the impartiality and balance requirements of the Media Act and whether the Act was a help or hinderance with regards to professional standards are among the issues that this research is attempting to address. Notably, while it is often assumed that one-sided media coverage is simply the product of biased journalists or biased owners, publishers and editorial managers of media organisations, the reality can be far more complex. In small media systems like that of Fiji, a multitude of other variables affect the quality of journalism. These include a small national economy and limited advertising revenue; resource constraints, including insufficient staffing and operating budgets; the political and economic domination of the national government; restrictive media legislation; and the comparative lack of training and education opportunities for journalists. While The University of the South Pacific and Fiji National University offer academic courses in journalism, research indicates that just about half (49.2 per cent) of Fijian journalists have completed a bachelor’s degree, which is not only lower than the global average, but also below that of smaller neighbouring countries such as Samoa (69.2 per cent) and the Solomon Islands (68 per cent) (Singh and Hanusch 2021). The diseconomies of scale in small media markets such as Fiji mean that journalists are generalists or ‘Jacks of all trades’ rather than specialists, which limits the opportunity to focus on and build expertise in specific areas such as politics or economics (Singh 21/9/2019). Writing in the context of Icelandic journalists, Ólafsson (2020) has stated that the lack of specialisation can seriously impair in-depth reporting on politics. He argued that it was ‘difficult for journalists to be critical gatekeepers if they know little about the areas in which they work’ (2020:153). This means that in small media markets, some factors that compromise journalistic quality are embedded in the broader macro-environment, such as small advertising markets and a limited revenue base, which not only hampers training and development, but can contribute to journalist attrition as well. These, and some other factors external to the media sector, are often beyond the control of media organisations or individual journalists, who normally face the brunt of criticism for alleged low journalistic standards (see Singh 2020). Because the news media do not usually conduct research into their own reporting, it is envisaged that this study provides an opportunity to reflect on the 2018 election coverage and identify possible measures to help improve news/election reporting. It is also expected that this study will inform the national authorities about possible actions to help the national media sector, be it media legislation reforms or assisting in training and development, rather than put the blame for any shortcomings solely on individual journalists and media organisations.
    Original languageEnglish
    Place of PublicationCanberra, Australia
    Publication statusPublished - 2022

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