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Asia-Pacific Network: 12 July 2002


In response to an article by Pacnews reporter Mat Oakley and circulated on the news service following a bitter attack by Islands Business publisher Robert Keith-Reid against the USP Journalism Programme and David Robie broadcast on RA's Pacific Beat, PINA distributed a defamatory propaganda sheet. Both Mat Oakley and David Robie responded on Pacific Islands Report and questioned the credibility of PINA's regional training planner Peter Lomas and the role of aid donors.

Feedback to the Toktok page

Open letter from Mat Oakley of Pacnews, 11 July 2002:


I hope you were all, as we were, entertained by the response from Peter Lomas of the Pacific Islands News Association to the PACNEWS interview with David Robie. Like all good fiction, it made for nice light reading.

As the reporter who wrote the story, I would like to address a number of issues raised by the interview and the subsequent flurry of activity by Peter Lomas, under the name of PINA.

Let's clear this up straight away, because this is at the crux of the misunderstandings over this story and the wider issues it raises. The argument, as I have already written to PINA President Johnson Honimae, is NOT against PINA as an organisation, any more than an argument against Dick Cheney, for example, is an argument with the entire population of the United States.

It is a story, mainly, about the conduct of one individual who seems to have an inordinate influence on the activities of PINA, and who appears to have been using PINA as a vehicle to protect his own interests and mount attacks on others that regularly stretch the boundaries of unethical journalism.

My story documented some of those attacks, and was also used as a test to gauge the reactions of those involved. So far the response has proceeded as expected, and fulfilled every prediction. History tends to repeat itself — let's see if it does here.

It is also wrong to read the article as one gunshot in the silly "war" between PINA and PIBA. The story was not written as an exercise in spiteful mudslinging, but in response to the continuous complaints I have heard over the conduct of this individual from many sources in the region. I have my own breathtaking examples, but this is not the place to relate them.

My story was an attempt to hear Mr. Robie's side of events, certainly, which have never been afforded the column inches devoted to those who have attacked him. But it was also backed up by a large pile of documented evidence from the archives of Fiji's three dailies, Islands Business magazine and interviews with USP students, staff and media workers who witnessed what was happening at the time attempts were being made by Mr. Robie's opponents to get him thrown out of Fiji.

A number of PINA members, current and former, were also interviewed for background, and they also confirmed that the activities of Mr. Lomas against David Robie were representative of the kind of underhanded manipulation that has been practised for many years. I mailed the PINA Secretariat several times during the compilation of the story and received one response, which was included in my story. Mr. Lomas chose not to answer my direct questions, though they were sent directly to him and "forwarded" them to Mr. Honimae, who would have had no knowledge of the events being written about except what he was told by his own Secretariat — Lomas. These correspondences have been sent to the Fiji Times as evidence (yes, that word "evidence" again).

If Mr. Lomas cares to cry "defamation," let him produce a list of facts that will stand up to scrutiny instead of a stream of baseless rhetoric.

No, the argument is not with PINA as an entity, or its members. The argument is against the destructive and dirty politics -- and indeed the bare-faced lying -- being practised by Mr. Lomas (and, in this case, others) to whip up sentiments against perceived "opponents."

In relation to Mr. Lomas' response, he did in fact send PACNEWS a lengthy letter, which he has now circulated, refuting the points raised in the David Robie story. The arguments are very passionate, as you have read, but they contain not one single demonstrable fact in "the interests of accuracy and fairness" (the irony!!). Unlike many others in his immediate circle, we are not in the business of cutting and pasting Mr. Lomas' writings and running them under someone else's name, or no name at all. Unfortunately, many seem to believe what he says without ever digging into the background.

Mr Lomas expressed his regret at the PACNEWS "standard of journalism," with no apparent sense of irony.

Let's perform a quick examination of the "standard" of the story that ran in the Fiji Times on Monday [July 8] and on the Pacific Islands Report website. It was run as a news item in the Fiji Times, with no byline and no attribution. While it attacks PACNEWS for failing to respond (I gave Mr. Lomas every opportunity to respond while I was writing the story) it does not seek a response itself.

As for "annually audited accounts," I have spoken to a PINA member who has been to almost every AGM and was involved with the PINA executive for many years. The individual says audited accounts were never produced as long as he was involved with them.

It then concludes with the kind of line that encapsulates perfectly the "standard of journalism" Mr. Lomas is happy to promote as long as it serves his interests: "Mr Robie could not be reached for comment."

Mr. Robie has several easily available e-mail addresses, a website updated daily that readers can contact online, and contacts easily available through USP. No attempt was made to contact Mr. Robie.

This kind of blatant lying and personally motivated propaganda should not be tolerated, especially by a newspaper like the Fiji Times, and it should certainly not be tolerated by donors who — in some cases with privately admitted knowledge of this conduct — continue to provide Mr. Lomas with considerable funds.

Mat Oakley

Letter from Robert Keith-Reid of Islands Business, 12 July 2002: PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT


I have not accessed your service for more than a week but I understand that it has carried a lengthy PACNEWS report concerning Mr. David Robie's view of PINA, Islands Business and myself, and also another piece giving yet further publicity to Mr. Robie.

[Pacific Media Watch: Fiji: USP Robie's Legacy Outlasts Critics:

David Robie And PINA:

David Robie And PINA: Fairness And Balance:]

I have no wish to bore your readers by replying point by point to the long recitation written by one Mr. Robie's friends (perhaps acolytes is a better word). PACNEWS claims it was "well researched." The author did not bother to contact me for my side of the story; Mr. Robie has obviously taught him well since utterly one-side accounts of one's personal view of the state of the world is Mr. Robie's hallmark.

The article purported to present " what appear to be the facts" or something to that effect.

I shall reply to only one of the lies, distortions, misrepresentations and adjustments of fact presented by PACNEWS (which ought to be thoroughly ashamed of itself for being so gullible in being used for Mr. Robie's incessant self-promotional and self-celebrating purposes).

The article claims that Islands Business was "forced" by Mr. Robie's lawyer to apologize to him following the publication by my magazine of an attack on him.

What a lot of rubbish. Having devoted quite some space to exposing Mr. Robie's devious nature why on earth should it apologize to him?

He has gone prematurely from the University of the South Pacific as he went prematurely from the University of Papua New Guinea. I wonder really why? I believe the USP was mightily relieved to get rid of him.

His movements meant that the self-acclaimed "center of excellence" moved from PNG to Suva to now Auckland. Poor Auckland.

It is not only at Islands Business that the name of David Robie has long been a joke.

Robert Keith-Reid
Islands Business

P.S. I have just read his letter to you published a couple of days ago. Really. How many screws loose are there in this person's character? The guy obviously suffers from deeply fixed persecution and conspiracy delusions in addition to the delusions of his 20-year propagation of himself as an infallible font of, er, something.

By the way. What happened to the libel writ he issued against Islands Business and myself?


DAVID ROBIE responds: Typical incoherent Keith-Reid nonsense! A simple reading of both the news articles by RA's James Panichi and Pacnews' Mat Oakley reveals that I made no personal attack on Robert Keith-Reid at all while he made a bitter personal attack on me in the Panichi radio interview. What I did do was focus on issues in the interviews. It is this sort of cheap shot personal attack that I have come to expect from PINA's Suva inner circle and its supporters. Keith-Reid has no professional qualification in journalism education and never visited the USP journalism programme in the past five years. His ignorance is beyond belief. If his memory is failing him, he should read his own magazine.

Letter from David Robie to Pacific Islands Report, 9 July 2002:


I refer to the statement carried on Pacific Islands Report yesterday [July 8] from the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) headlined "David Robie and PINA" in response to an independent article by a Pacnews journalist.

[SEE: David Robie And PINA:

and Pacific Media Watch: Fiji: USP Robie's Legacy Outlasts Critics:]

Would the real Pacific Islands News Association president Johnson Honimae please stand up? It doesn't surprise me that PINA training planner Peter Lomas should hide behind the coattails of Mr. Honimae, who undoubtedly was unaware of the Machiavellian activities of his colleagues in Fiji.

Over the past few years, I have become used to the hypocrisy and self-serving rhetoric coming out of the Gordon St. office of PINA claiming to "represent its members" in the region. I know from my own experience with members that the reality is something else.

The claim about PINA's role in the establishment of the USP journalism program is quite outrageous. Encouragement in the beginning in 1994 perhaps -- but that hasn't been evident in recent years. I recently conducted a series of interviews with previous USP journalism staff members and sifted the archives. Clearly the views on PINA were very unflattering.

Also I note that neither Mr. Honimae, nor his predecessor, William Parkinson, ever visited the two major journalism schools in the Pacific, the University of Papua New Guinea or USP, during my 10-year tenure. That speaks for itself.

Nor did Mr. Lomas and his Gordon St. clique colleagues ever visit the USP program in the past five years. They speak from ignorance and prejudice.

The claims of defamation are laughable. What was stated in the Pacnews article is on public record and, as anybody in the media industry knows, I have been defamed by them for almost 20 years.

Mr. Honimae and Mr. Parkinson's claim about the Pacific Journalists Association is a misrepresentation. The PJA was an initiative between 1989-1993 supported by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the world's main journalist body, through its local members — the Australian Journalists' Association and New Zealand's JAGPRO — to encourage the establishment of Pacific journalist unions.

PJA was driven by Pacific Islanders but bitterly opposed by PINA's white anti-unionists. The inaugural PJA president, Samoan Monica Miller, later became the first woman president of PINA. My PJA involvement was on the fringes as a member of JAGPRO.

Until PINA's Gordon St. media bureaucrats and donor manipulators can grasp that journalism is about honesty, fairness, balance and truth — not manipulation and deceit — the Fiji news media will not reach the standards of other countries such as Papua New Guinea, for example.

David Robie
New Zealand

PINA response to Mat Oakley's article, circulated to PINA members on its email listserve:


From: Johnson Honimae
Pacific Islands News Association (PINA)
General Manager
Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation (SIBC)

I have asked that the letter which follows be sent to you following a defamatory attack on PINA, some PINA members, and PINA's staff by New Zealander David Robie. Mr. Robie is a former coordinator of the University of the South Pacific journalism program who recently left the program before completing his current term. This one-sided report was distributed widely by the Pacific Islands Broadcasting Association (PIBA) through its Pacnews service.

[See: Pacific Media Watch: Fiji: USP Robie's Legacy Outlasts Critics:]

Despite our requests for an opportunity to respond Pacnews has refused.

In the interests of accuracy and fairness I have now asked that the letter which follows be sent to all our PINA members and PINA Nius Online recipients. It is from myself as PINA president and William Parkinson, managing director of leading broadcaster Communications Fiji Limited, as immediate past president.

We regret it is necessary to do this. We are disappointed by the refusal of Pacnews to carry our response and provide accuracy and fairness.

Regrettably, this is not the only time I have had to complain to Pacnews recently over the standard of its journalism.

With thanks for your time.

Johnson Honimae


Mr. Jese Sikivou
Chief Executive Officer
PIBA, and Editor

Dear Sir,

We are astonished by the seemingly endless "farewell" of New Zealander David Robie from the University of the South Pacific journalism program, and his continuing attacks on people in the regional news media.

His latest comments, carried by Pacnews, are defamatory. Because of this we request that Pacnews - in the interests of accuracy and fairness - distributes this response to all those outlets Pacnews sent the original Robie report.

Contrary to what was reported, Mr. Robie's hostility to PINA goes back to his involvement in unsuccessful efforts in the 1980s to form a rival to PINA, called the Pacific Journalists Association.

This, unlike PINA, was to be controlled from Australia and New Zealand rather than from within the Pacific Islands.

It failed totally because it was rejected within the Pacific Islands.

It was rejected the same way Mr. Robie's ceaseless self-promotion and attempts to impose his views on the Pacific Islands news media have been widely rejected. It was rejected in the same way Mr. Robie's involvement in attempts to prevent Sitiveni Rabuka speaking at the 1991 PINA convention were rejected by PINA's members.

These failures, we suggest, have helped shape Mr Robie's attitude towards PINA.

Mr Robie seems to be blinkered in his belief he knows what is best for the Pacific Islands news media. Rejection of his views has him searching for conspiracies everywhere.

There are no conspiracies. Just a lot of people in the Pacific Islands who do not see the world the same way Mr. Robie does.

For example, he tries to perpetrate the myth that PINA is opposed to the USP journalism program and entry-level journalism education. To support his conspiracy "theory" he totally ignores that the establishment of the USP journalism program was initiated by PINA.

Mr. Robie also perpetrates the myth that PINA opposed his appointment personally.

What PINA did was restate the position of its members from throughout the region's news media.

PINA members have said it is critically important that qualified Pacific Islands trainers and educators get the opportunity to train and teach in their own region.

That was PINA's position on the appointment of Mr. Robie and remains unchanged where Mr. Robie's successor is concerned.

PINA has worked constantly with people like UNESCO to develop and promote the pool of training and education expertise within the region, people who know, understand and have a long-term commitment to the Pacific Islands.

If there are many others in the Pacific Islands news media who in their own right disagree with Mr Robie and his work perhaps Mr Robie should look in a mirror.

Mr. Robie also attacks methods of training in the region and appears to think he is the only one who knows the "modern" way.

He typically ignores, for example, that PINA was heavily involved in establishing and launching the biggest online journalism training program in Asia-Pacific.

Journalists throughout the Pacific Islands have been taking continuing and innovative university-run courses via the Internet alongside colleagues from throughout Asia.

If this is not modern what is?

Mr. Robie also continues to promote his claim that short-form training, such as workshops, is a waste of time and money. PINA members — especially those who actually operate news media organisations — disagree.

They see short-form training also filling a critical role, in advanced journalism training and in training for the many areas of news media work other than journalism.

Unlike Mr. Robie, PINA members have to face the reality of daily operations, producing newspapers and magazines and operating radio and TV stations.

They believe all areas of a news media organization must be well trained, and strong, and not just the journalists. That is if news organizations are to have the resources and strength to do good journalism, and withstand the pressures this can bring.

PINA agrees that in some situations where short form training has been driven by outside interests and not driven by the needs of the Pacific it has been a waste. It is why PINA members feel strongly that more of this training should be conducted by trained Pacific Islands trainers.

Mr. Robie also makes much of transparency and accountability and claims this is lacking in PINA.

PINA is a democratic, transparent and representative organization.

Our members are radio and TV stations, newspapers, magazines, news agencies, journalism schools and national associations of news media practitioners from throughout the Pacific Islands.

PINA's officers are elected openly by these members in general meetings, according to the PINA constitution.

PINA's annual accounts are audited by one of the region's leading accountancy firms and distributed to all members.

PINA's views are shaped and mandated by its members.

Can the same be said of the so-called Pacific Media Watch organization Mr. Robie has self-created and now uses ceaselessly to try to promote his way of seeing the world?

Mr. Robie makes much of the appointment of staff to our very successful and productive regional secretariat.

We are appalled by Mr. Robie's bitter personal attack on the head of our secretariat, Nina Bolaitamana Ratulele.

Contrary to Mr. Robie's bizarre claims, Ms. Ratulele was appointed by the PINA executive board to head the PINA Secretariat. This was after the position was widely advertised and a short list of candidates personally interviewed by board members.

At the time of her recruitment by PINA, Ms. Ratulele was working for the region's biggest magazine publishing group, Islands Business International.

She was judged by the PINA executive board members to be highly qualified for the PINA Administrator's position. This was because of her administrative as well as journalistic skills and her wide knowledge and experience of the region PINA serves.

Contrary to Mr. Robie's claims, Ms. Ratulele has extensive experience as a journalist, including reporting for Pacnews long before any of the current Pacnews staff worked at Pacnews. She has also participated in a wide range of journalism training programs.

Her work running and developing the PINA Secretariat and as founding editor more recently of PINA Nius Online has been consistently recognized by PINA's members. This came most recently in October at the 2001 PINA convention in Madang, Papua New Guinea. Ms. Ratulele has also been honored internationally.

This has included being awarded the International Green Pen Award for Environmental Journalism; elected chairperson of the council of IFEX, the network of all the world's leading media freedom organizations; and deputy chairperson of both the Council of Asia-Pacific Press Institutes and Asia-Pacific Forum of Environmental Journalists.

Mr. Robie seems to have problems accepting that a Pacific Islander -- and a woman at that -- can be successful.

PINA has a dedicated and highly qualified team in its regional secretariat, which is headed and run by Ms. Ratulele.

Under the overall direction of PINA's elected executive board Ms. Ratulele and her team play a key daily role making PINA the most active and successful regional news media organization. They serve PINA's members throughout the region.

We hope Mr. Robie's endless "farewells" are now finally over and we can get on with getting ahead. We especially look forward to rebuilding a positive and mutually beneficial relationship with the USP journalism program.

We have been especially heartened by the efforts of Savenaca Siwatibau to strengthen links with the region's news media since his appointment as Vice Chancellor.

As for Mr. Robie, we wish him many happy years back in his homeland.

Johnson Honimae
Pacific Islands News Association
c/- Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation
Solomon Islands
William Parkinson,
Immediate past president
Pacific Islands News Association
c/- Communications Fiji Limited
Suva, Fiji Islands

Article on Radio Australia's Pacific Beat, 5 July 2002
(originally broadcast 17 June 2002)


Journalism standards in the Pacific are under fire, as an outspoken media lecturer leaves Fiji.

Since the early 1990s, the School of Journalism at Fiji’s University of the South Pacific (USP) has been one of the most important training grounds for aspiring reporters throughout the Pacific region.

The School's emphasis on investigative reporting and government accountability has produced almost a generation of journalists, now working at media outlets throughout the region.

But for the man behind the course, New Zealand journalist David Robie, it hasn't always been smooth sailing.

Particularly in Fiji, Mr. Robie's uncompromising approach to improving journalism standards has attracted fierce criticism from local media practitioners.

It's not surprising, therefore, that as Mr. Robie announced his decision to return to New Zealand, not everyone was sad to see him leave.

Pacific Beat’s JAMES PANICHI examines the clash of personalities in the training of Pacific journalists.


For five years, Mr. Robie has run — almost single-handedly — the USP's School of Journalism, acting as both lecturer and administrator of the program.

He also edited students' copy for the USP's newspaper, Wansolwara, which developed a reputation for fiercely independent reporting during Fiji’s May 2000 coup.

But Mr. Robie says the long hours at the university were ultimately responsible for his decision to leave the country to take up a teaching post at the Auckland University of Technology.

"I can't think of another situation anywhere in the world where you'd have a journalism course with nine core courses and one person essentially running that," Mr. Robie says.

"Of course it took a toll on my situation, my health, keeping the program running," he says.

Professional standards and media feuds

Mr. Robie never made any secret of the low esteem in which he held many of Fiji's journalists and often told his students they should be aiming much higher.

This abrasive style upset many local media practitioners, who formed the view that he was self-centered and interested in building up his own profile.

As the animosity towards him grew, the editors of some of the largest media organizations in Fiji began to turn down applications from graduates of the School of Journalism, claiming they were ill suited to work in the country.

Robert Keith-Reid, the publisher of the Pacific Magazine with Islands Business, is just one journalist who has been locked in a very bitter public stoush with the outspoken lecturer.

"He certainly works very hard, and is an industrious fellow," Mr. Keith-Reid says.

"But he has a high view of himself which, I'm afraid, I don't share, and I believe quite a number of other well-known journalists in the region don't share either."

But with many media outlets in Fiji — be it English-language, Hindi or Fijian — often falling short of internationally recognized standards of impartial and independent reporting, was Mr. Robie’s campaign to lift journalism levels justified?

"Well, there are quite a few people who, for a very long time, and in very different circumstances, have been trying to improve the standards of journalism in the Pacific islands," Mr. Keith-Reid says.

" He was by no means the only person in that field. But he liked to give the impression that he was. Certainly the only one that mattered."

Robie hits back

Mr. Robie puts most of the criticism he has attracted down to the sensitivity of local journalists who are, he believes, unwilling to acknowledge their own limitations.

"I think they're a very petty group of people ... who have had things their way for a very long time," Mr. Robie told Radio Australia.

"They are basically 15 or 20 years behind what's happening in the rest of the world for journalism education and training," he says.

"There are a number of factors in this.

"Journalists are paid appalling salaries in Fiji; 47 percent of journalists are totally untrained.

"So when a program like ours at USP began in 1994, there was a challenge to the old school," he says.

Of the 55 graduates who have trained at the USP School of Journalism since 1994, 49 of them have had Robie as a lecturer.

Of those graduates, Mr. Robie says two-thirds are now working with media organizations throughout the Pacific, while the rest are in media-related jobs.

But how have students been affected by the boycott of the course by some Fiji media outlets?

"I think it's a vote of no-confidence by the graduates in the particular media organizations that you're thinking of," Mr. Robie says.

"You look at organizations like Fiji Television, almost half of their staff are our graduates," he says.

"A program like ours offered a double major, which means journalists come out not only with a qualification in journalism, but they also come out with a qualification in economics, history, politics, management, sociology, tourism and so on, and they look for a career path.

"They're not going to be terribly interested in working for an organization which has a very negative attitude to education and training when they've actually got career choices."

The future of the School

Mr. Robie says that while he is sad to leave, the School of Journalism is now in safe hands, with the University committed to building new campus facilities and funding the courses.

"We've now got two very good people, broadcasting lecturer Steve Sharp and Shailendra Singh, who is a former editor of The Review news magazine here in Fiji," Mr. Robie says.

But Mr. Robie’s critics claim his departure will be enough to guarantee the future of journalism in the country.

"Now that he's gone, we will once more -- hopefully -- be able to establish good relations with the School of Journalism," says Mr. Keith-Reid.

"We could help steer it in a direction in which it can produce journalists which we can use, rather than the type of journalists that Mr. Robie thinks we can use."

Article by Mat Oakley of Pacnews on 28 June 2002:
(published in the Daily Post on 30 June 2002)


Published as a full page article in the Fiji Daily Post on 30 June 2002. Also distributed by Pacnews (Pacific Islands Broadcasting Association) news agency throughout the Pacific to radio stations and newspapers, 28 June 2002.

By Mat Oakley, of Pacnews

During his time at the University of the South Pacific, Journalism Coordinator David Robie endured numerous attacks from some senior sections of the Fiji press and one Pacific media organisation — PINA. What was behind it and why were they so intent on getting rid of him? Just before Robie left Fiji last Friday, he told his side of the story and why he believes personal agendas are corrupting media in the Pacific.

DAVID ROBIE, the University of the South Pacific's former journalism coordinator, left Fiji last week after five controversial years.

It's the end of an era of sorts for Pacific journalism education, an often stormy era in which Robie has been both praised and vilified for his efforts.

The bare facts would appear to speak for themselves.

For much of the time, Robie has been running the entire programme alone, away from his family in New Zealand: designing the course, teaching the course, supervising the students' newspaper Wansolwara, operating websites, and, as USP Vice Chancellor Savenaca Siwatibau said, "living in his office".

In between holding the programme together, he sat on committees overseeing media training in the Pacific, published books and articles and lobbied the university, eventually successfully, for funding to expand the programme.

Under his guidance, the student newspaper and website won 10 awards or citations in the regional Journalism Education Association's annual Ossie awards.

Robie says his work at USP has helped produce a cadre of journalists with a broad, and most importantly ethical, grounding in journalism across multiple media disciplines, something that, with the exception of Papua New Guinea, he says was previously lacking in the Pacific.

"In the region, mostly journalists have had minimal training and usually short-course training if they're lucky — many of them have not really had much training at all."

USP has produced 55 graduates from its journalism programme since its inception in 1994 — 49 of them under Robie's tutelage.

Two-thirds of those graduates are now working in the media industry itself, Robie says, and most of the others are in media related jobs with NGOs and other organisations.

Robie heads to New Zealand's Auckland University of Technology leaving the USP programme in much better health than he found it — though perhaps the legacy of routine 16-hour days and seven-day weeks has not been so kind to his personal health.

The university has just agreed to start work on a new F$250,000 building for the journalism school to replace the current "ad hoc" facilities. There are also two new full-time lecturers.

Vice Chancellor Savenaca Siwatibau told the student newspaper Wansolwara this month that "the beginning of the programme and the funding were on shaky grounds. It was David who ran with it and now, of course, it's working. We need to thank David for that".

Even though the programme is working, there is no doubt it has suffered to an extent from being, for the most part, a one-man show. Robie is not Superman and some students say certain modules of the course were under-taught.

Until now, attempts by USP to find colleagues for Robie have been short-lived. One student has put this down to personality clashes between lecturers, though Robie dismisses the suggestion.

But Robie sees the new building as a vote of confidence in his work and he seems to have repaid the confidence USP showed in him in the face of sustained attacks from specific quarters of Fiji-based media.

The latest attack came just last week in a story marking Robie's departure broadcast on Radio Australia's Pacific Beat programme.

In an interview with reporter James Panichi, Robert Keith-Reid, publisher of Pacific with Islands Business magazine, delivered a bitter assault on Robie.

The attack was largely personal and Keith-Reid did not offer any specific criticisms of Robie's work. But he did complain that before Robie came along, his company had enjoyed a good relationship with the USP programme.

That might seem strange, since there had only been six graduates out of USP Journalism before Robie arrived, but Robie himself said he was not entirely surprised by the tone of Keith-Reid's comments.

It's been no secret in Pacific media circles that Keith-Reid and other senior Islands Business staff, current and former, have been enemies of Robie since 1988, when Robie resigned as an Islands Business correspondent after Keith-Reid and editor Peter Lomas published an attack on him by New Caledonian right-winger David Los, who objected to Robie's perceived sympathy for the Kanak independence movement.

To Robie's dismay, Islands Business offered him no right of reply, and Robie's lawyer forced the magazine to publish an apology in the following issue. Islands Business then hired Los, a teacher with no experience in journalism, as a correspondent, which dismayed Robie enough for him to resign and join rival magazine Pacific Islands Monthly.

Robie then published a story criticising the personal agendas he believed were controlling regional Pacific media.

Islands Business was apparently deeply stung, as it reprinted the entire article in breach of copyright and ran three separate opinion pieces — from Keith-Reid, Los and Lomas — devoted to rubbishing Robie.

The entire exercise took up five pages. Pacific Islands Monthly labelled it "an embarrassing reflection on the state of Pacific media" and even former Islands Business editor John Richardson slammed it. Robie launched a F$135,000 defamation suit.

Indeed, what would appear to be a fierce vendetta against Robie on the part of Islands Business and the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) — which shared staff and still share the same central Suva building — has made Robie's tenure at USP much harder than it needed to be.

Robie was not allowed to come quietly. In late 1997, the Daily Post published a series of articles expressing alarm that USP was considering hiring Robie. In a turn of phrase implying a certain remoteness between the Post and PINA, the newspaper said PINA was "understood to support" another candidate, Sarita Singh, who had impressive qualifications but no experience running a university course.

The newspaper published lengthy devotions to Singh's CV, but offered only a clipped appraisal of Robie's achievements, which include three decades of work as journalist in the Pacific, Europe, Africa and Australia/New Zealand, plus a five-year stint running the journalism programme at the University of Papua New Guinea.

The articles painted Robie as a left-wing troublemaker opposed to the Rabuka Government.

One senior Daily Post staff member at the time has since told Robie the articles arrived through the newspaper's fax machine on PINA letterhead!

Editor of the Post at the time was Laisa Taga, who a few months later joined Islands Business. She was also treasurer of PINA.

Peter Lomas, who Robie believes is the orchestrator of the attacks on him, worked for both Islands Business and PINA.

USP refused to be bullied and went ahead with the appointments, but the Rabuka Government nevertheless delayed issuing the work permits for both Robie and fellow appointee Ingrid Leary, leading the Journalism Students Association to deliver a petition to Rabuka saying: "As students we are gravely concerned that the university's academic independence appears to be compromised by outside influences".

Though Robie eventually got his work permit, those "outside influences" apparently refused to give up. Later that year, the Fiji Times reported that the government was investigating "complaints" that Robie was breaching his work permit by publishing articles outside USP. It was referring to his website Café Pacific, which Robie had set up as an educational project at the University of Technology in Sydney in 1996 and continued to run as a hobby.

SVT senator Filipe Bole even raised the issue in the House and for a few weeks it was uncertain whether Robie and Leary's work permits would be revoked.

USP vigorously defended the pair, saying outside publication was part of their job descriptions and neither lecturer was being paid for their extra-curricular work.

Reporters Sans Frontieres, the international media freedom organisation, protested strongly to Bole. The New Zealand Journalists Training Organisation fired off a letter.

Pacific Media Watch and Tahiti Pacifique Magazine complained on Robie's behalf.

Even Jone Davukula, former press secretary to Rabuka, wrote to the Daily Post saying "local journalists were involved in these complaints, which seem to be based mainly on these persons' disagreement with either the views of David Robie or Ingrid Leary, or the fact that they have been lawfully employed by the USP.

"Where is the Fiji journalists' much vaunted Code of Ethics?" he concluded.

Already, the Fiji Journalism Institute and Fiji TV had complained about the attempt on the part of the same media organisation to block Robie's appointment.

Few within the industry seemed to be in any doubt over the real source of the campaign, even though Robie says his real enemies never came forward, preferring to work behind the scenes influencing others to attack him.

Phillip Cass, a former USP journalism lecturer from the UK, hinted at the curious source of the attacks in a letter to the Daily Post in February 1998 when he said: "That kind of antipathy towards us (Europeans) cannot be entirely because of the colour of our skin because, the last time I saw that critic, he was a great deal whiter than I am."

Ironically it was the Daily Post, now under the editorship of Jale Moala, which followed up with an editorial pointing a rather more direct finger at the alleged culprit. "The saddest thing is the deafening silence from the Pacific Islands News Association and the Fiji Media Council. By failing to support the rights of journalists - whether they be teachers or students or whatever - these organisations are helping to destroy the very freedom of expression they have so often said they protect," he wrote.

Robie was even more direct on the subject.

"You only have one or two people like that, who are mischievous, who make these false statements, and everybody else laps it up. Nobody actually investigates."

When contacted, Lomas would not comment, and referred all questions to current PINA president Johnson Honimae, of the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation, who was not in the post when the campaign against Robie was taking place. PINA did release a response though, attributed to Honimae.

"PINA members have said it is critically important that qualified Pacific Islands trainers and educators get the opportunity to train and teach in their own region. That was PINA's position on the appointment of Mr Robie and remains unchanged where Mr Robie's successor is concerned."

So what was the motive behind this campaign? The settling of old scores would not seem to account sufficiently for the venom of it, and Robie says PINA's "jobs for qualified Pacific Islanders" mantra is not credible, considering that the PINA secretariat is run by Lomas, a New Zealander who has taken a Fiji passport, and his common law wife Nina Ratulele, who was hired as PINA Nius editor and administrator without any experience in journalism.

Neither went through a transparent appointment process themselves, Robie says.

"Does it have something to do with attempts to corner the lion's share of journalism education and training funds for the South Pacific? Independent university courses don't fit comfortably with this grand scheme because they teach critical thinking as well as vocational skills," Robie wrote on his Cafe Pacific website in September 1998 in response to attempts to get his work permit revoked.

In an interview a few days before his departure, Robie said he is still baffled by the sheer malevolence of his critics, who he said inhabit "a whirling cesspool of intrigue and backstabbing", but believes their motives go beyond personal differences.

"I think there's a fundamental mindset among people in key positions in the media - editorial executives, management people - that is 15 to 20 years behind the times. Many seem to think that the world hasn't moved on and it's surprising in many respects because some of the people who have that mindset come from countries that have made some major changes to their whole approach to journalism training and education — Australia and New Zealand for example.

"But many in the most influential positions in the Pacific don't seem to have caught up with that. And I think that's because there's been a pattern of donor funding in the region, which is a very cosy sort of arrangement. For 25 years that's worked very well, but it's also created a dependency mentality in the media.

"[The attacks] were the result of petty jealousies and a sort of territorial thing. Some of the people that are behind these attacks fit into this cosy network and someone like me has different ideas. It's a very different approach than what these people are used to and I think they see it as a threat."

That threat may stem partly, he believes, from the possibility that the USP course's productivity throws a sharp light on a short course approach to training that he says is largely fruitless.

"There's a lot of misrepresentation of our programme. We use methods that are used very widely overseas. We use problem-based learning. A lot of our work is very much based on projects and the outcomes of those projects. It's very focused on practical outcomes and when you compare that to some of the short course training around the region, where there are no real outcomes and basically anyone just attends a course, we have a very structured system on assessing the progress and abilities of the people that go through our programme."

Donor funds are being routinely wasted in the Pacific on short course training, Robie said, and his attackers were possibly afraid that the USP course posed a threat to the steady stream of donor money on which they rely.

PINA disagree.

"PINA members also believe there is a place for both entry-level education and training and continuing training and education. PINA agrees that in some situations where short form training has been driven by outside interests and not driven by the needs of the Pacific it has been a waste ... this is why PINA is seeking more of a say in determining trainers. It is also why PINA members feel strongly that more of this training should be conducted by trained Pacific Islands trainers," PINA said in a statement.

Robie said this demand for "more of a say" amounts to political interference, and is convinced PINA's Suva bosses want a compliant face in the USP Journalism programme who will not pose a threat to the interests of its secretariat.

"There are many people who benefit from the short course gravy train and they're quite happy for that system to carry on.

"I've been on one of these major training advisory groups for six years and I leave it thinking it has not made much of a contribution to the region."

His critics are probably delighted that he has gone, but does that mean the ugly machinations will disappear? Sadly, probably not, for it seems that as long as there are personal fiefdoms to defend within the regional media — and donors willing to fund them — there will always be someone new to attack.

Pacific Media Watch's file

Sunday, 15 October 2006
Copyright © 2002 David Robie and Asia-Pacific Network. This document is for educational and research use. Please seek permission for publication.

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