Nov 23, 2020 Last Updated 12:34 AM, Nov 23, 2020

Pacific governments face a crucial dilemma with social media. How they react will define our future.

The decision this week by Solomon Islands' cabinet to ban Facebook is wrong, of course. It represents an unwarranted restriction on fundamental human rights. The Solomon Islands Constitution is clear about the "freedom to receive ideas and information without interference, freedom to communicate ideas and information without interference and freedom from interference with his correspondence."

It seems clear the Facebook decision is neither defensible, nor likely to survive judicial scrutiny.

The argument made by the Prime Minister and his communications minister is that it's a platform for people to 'abuse political leaders'. I'd argue only half-jokingly that democracy is designed to be a platform to abuse political leaders.

But just because they reacted badly doesn't mean they shouldn't react at all.

Facebook is self-evidently a threat to democratic societies. This is not a controversial statement. Its role in mis- and disinformation is well understood, and its effects are becoming alarmingly clear.

It has been less responsive than other social media platforms to calls to curtail its influence, and despite a 14-year litany of 'do better' statements, it seldom actually does.

If Facebook can be such a corrosive influence on centuries-old democracies like the UK and the USA, how can the Pacific's fragile democracies be expected to cope?

Investigative work by Bellingcat and the Vanuatu Daily Post exposed an external influence operation similar to Cambridge Analytica's now-infamous role in changing opinions concerning Brexit. Hundreds of accounts were taken down as a result.

Another more recent Bellingcat investigation shows that efforts are still underway to influence opinion on West Papua and the Indonesian government's special autonomy policy. The report concludes that, this time at least, the effort has been largely unsuccessful.

More challenges await though. Governments everywhere are coping—often poorly—with a second tide of anti-vax invective. Left alone, these currents generally devolve into meme-fuelled rants about how Bill Gates is the anti-Christ or similar QAnon-related madness.

But the situation isn't hopeless. It just needs to be managed. As an informal experiment, I posted to a prominent Vanuatu Facebook group, asking people opposed to vaccination to help me understand their rationale. I put one condition on the conversation: No memes, no links, just their own words.

The result was as conversation that was informative, mostly respectful and vastly more nuanced than we normally see from Facebook. But it was only achieved by turning off the virality that is Facebook's special sauce. The thread generated lively interest. Notably, it received more comments than likes or other one-click reactions.

Evidently, social media can be a medium that allows Pacific democracies to engage and inform themselves. So why doesn't it?

Social media executives care about nothing more than engagement. As others have noted, users aren't the customers; they're the product. That's a pat and not very useful statement.

Elsewhere, I've observed that "Walled gardens are dangerous. They create a disparity of information, in which the platform knows everything about us, and we know next to nothing about the platform, or how it works."

This isn't my idea. It originates from a landmark essay in the Harvard Law Review by Neil M Richards, titled The Dangers of Surveillance.

Engagement, understood properly, is intelligence gathering. The more you engage with your social media platform, the more the company learns about you. Its ability to leverage what it knows about you is its stock in trade.

That's way too much power to trust to a single company—or government. It's simply too much power to be put in any one place.

So what's the way forward? Can Manasseh Sogavare and other Pacific leaders curtail both their own desire to control the conversation and Facebook's as well?

First, tackling Facebook alone won't work. It's legally discriminatory, constitutionally questionable, and likely to be ineffective. Censorship in the digital age is like squeezing a balloon. Putting pressure on one point simply moves everyone to the next. The most obvious alternatives to Facebook in Solomon Islands are Twitter, WeChat and to a lesser extent 'alternative' platforms like the right-wing funded Parler.

None of these are any more desirable than Facebook. Despite recent improvements, Twitter remains open to continued abuse by meme-driven rage posters, and the others are far too easy to leverage against their users to restrict speech and ideas. Some MPs may like that idea, but they should realise they're not likely to be the ones doing the restricting.

Pacific governments need to start a dialogue, not just with social media giants, but with other national regulators too. They need to learn from others' mistakes, and leverage others' successes.

The Pacific Islands Forum would be a useful platform for engagement, and would allow NZ and Australia to assist without imposing. Assuming they agree on an action plan, there is no reason why they couldn't jump to the forefront of the global conversation, just as they've done with fisheries and climate change.

Dan McGarry is an independent journalist living in Vanuatu. The Pacific Outlook series is an initiative of the Pacific Hub

This item was originally published as part of the Pacific Outlook collection of the Griffith Asia Insights blog at the Griffith Asia Institute" plus a link to the original post: https://blogs.griffith.edu.au/asiainsights/facebook-cant-live-with-it-cant-live-without-it/

Slowly but surely the once mighty Fiji Television Limited has started to crumble, taken apart from within by a combination of government pressure, acquiescent board members and questionable divestments.

Last month the company announced the resignation of CEO Karen Lobendahn and Manager Finance, Upendra Gounder. Lobendahn had been with Fiji TV for 24 years and CEO since May 2017; Gounder had been with Fiji TV for just nine months.

Fiji TV also released its audited financial statements 2020 at the end of August, and they make for sobering reading. Company Chairman, Deepak Rathod has attributed the company’s recent poor financial performance to the impacts of COVID-19. However since December 2006, the writing has been on the wall for this once blue-chip company, which has seen revenue fall from $FJD23.2 million in 2015 to $FJ9,076,306 in 2020 and net profits drop from $FJD1.63 million in 2016 to $262,544 in 2020.

How does a company lose so much over a relatively short period? Login to your account or subscribe today to read more.

McGarry barred from Vanuatu

Vanuatu Daily Post journalist Dan McGarry has been stopped from re-entering the country by Vanuatu immigration officials.

McGarry was until recently, the Media Director for the Daily Post. However the government earlier this month refused to approve his annual work permit renewal. He says this is due to the newspaper’s coverage of Vanuatu’s relationship with China.

Originally from Canada, McGarry is in the process of applying for dual Vanuatu citizenship.

He had been in Brisbane, Australia for a week with his partner. But when they tried to check in for a flight back to Port Vila on Saturday, they were told that Vanuatu Immigration had issued a notice barring the airline from uplifting him. His partner had to return home to their two children alone.

“Repeated attempts to obtain a copy of Vanuatu Immigration’s letter to the airlines were unsuccessful,” McGarry says. “How can I comply with Immigration’s demands if they won’t tell me what I need to do? I feel like a character in Catch 22.”

 “They’re doing what every guilty-minded government does when faced with inconvenient facts: they’d rather shut me up—and shut me out—than engage honestly with the public about the stories we report.”

Last week in a broad-ranging statement about the state of media freedoms and threats in the Pacific, the Melanesia Media Freedom Forum called on the Vanuatu government to uphold the appeal of the Daily Post against the rejection of McGarry’s work permit.

Fiji calls for media bids

by Anish Chand

Media organisations in Fiji which are to tender for government printing and broadcasting services have to show examples of commitment to national unity, national identity development and nation building.

Tenders for the publication and broadcast of government notices for the financial year 2018-2019 is now open.

The Fiji Sun newspaper was awarded the publication tender last year while the Fiji Broadcasting Corporation Limited won the broadcast tender.

The tender documents that are now available online also outline a number of stringent checks that media organisations have to provide.

“Please provide details of any contempt proceedings, litigation actions of claims regarding unfair, unbalanced and inaccurate reporting, defamation or any breach of the Media Industry Development Act 2016 in the past 6 years,” reads the tender document.

Part of the contract with the publishing media company will be the requirement that “the bidder shall arrange for the publication of corrections at its own cost in the next publication”

“If the service of the bidder is unsatisfactory, government reserves the right to terminate the contract at anytime without notice at its sole discretion,” the tender document states.

As part of the tender requirement, bidding newspapers are required to provide circulation numbers for each day per division.

Radio and TV stations are required to provide details of their frequency reach and coverage.

The tender closes on 15 August 2018.

A win for Fiji Times

Fiji’s High Court in a landmark decision last month cleared the Fiji Times of sedition charges and declared its three newspaper executives free men.

The fourth accused, a letter writer to the newspaper’s Fijian language weekly, Nai Lalakai was also acquitted.

Although the office of Fiji’s Director of Public Prosecutions wasted no time in announcing it was appealing, Justice Thushara Rajasinghe’s 27-page judgement does offers some clarity on what constitutes sedition and what does not.

He had relied on a 1992 Fiji Court of Appeal case between the state v Mua, at which the presiding judge panels of Fiji Court of Appeal President, Mr Justice Michael Helsham, Sir Moti Tikaram, and Mr Justice Gordon Ward elaborated on what sedition is.

“The purpose of the offence is to prevent any unlawful attacks on the tranquillity of the State but it is not intended to prevent legitimate political comment. Deeply held political convictions frequently provoke strong emotions but there is authority to show that even strong or intemperate words or actions may not demonstrate a seditious intention if done with the purpose of expressing legitimate disagreement with the government of the day in terms of paragraphs (a)-(d),” Judge Rajasinghe quoted from the Fiji Court of Appeal judgement.

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