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[Pacific Island Report] Media Education In The South Pacific: Problems Facing The Industry

By Greg Asciutto

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Well-established in New Zealand and Australia, the media industry is continuously evolving to meet the challenges of national development and political instability throughout the Pacific Islands.

Across the board, insufficient resources, government restrictions and a deficiency of formally trained journalists plague regional media.

“Criticism in the region focuses on lack of professional training of journalists, poor educational standards, lack of knowledge of the political and social institutions, cultural insensitivities, and a questionable grasp of ethical issues,” wrote Professor David Robie, director of the Pacific Media Centre at AUT University in an overview of journalism education in his book South Pacific Islands Communication.

In the delicate political environments of the region, professionally trained and reliable journalists are vital to the success of national growth.

“The role of journalism in the community, in terms of fledgling democracies, is critically important,” says Dr Alan Cocker, head of AUT’s School of Communication Studies.

“I tend to think journalism is as essential to a modern democracy as engineering and medicine.”

In the past decade, South Pacific media agencies, international aid organisations and academics have shown an increased desire to provide resources for the development and sustainability of tertiary level educational programmes for aspiring and working journalists.

The Pacific Media Education Mapping Project, completed by the Pacific Media Centre in 2012, composed a list of regional schools offering media and journalism courses.

Three long-running institutions — the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, the University of Papua New Guinea and Divine Word University in PNG — offer the only journalism degree programmes in the South Pacific outside of New Zealand and Australia.

Five other polytechnic schools — at Fiji National University, the National University of Samoa, the Solomon Islands College for Higher Education, the Tonga Institute for Higher Education and the Vanuatu Institute of Technology — have certificate or diploma courses in media education.

Despite differences in curriculum and funding, the media programmes at both the university and polytechnic institutions face a number of difficulties.

As they try to improve the quality and value of professional journalism throughout the region, four key issues inhibit their efforts: insufficient resources, government restrictions, institutional instability and transitioning graduates into the media industry.

Insufficient resources

The lack of equipment and financial resources available to journalism schools is problematic in South Pacific nations.

In Tonga, a major equipment donation from AUT’s School of Communication Studies is aimed at boosting the media education department at the Tonga Institute for Higher Education.

After an upgrade to their own facilities, AUT sent $15,000 worth of recorders, cameras and television monitors to TIHE last May.

“It’s not linked into any larger infrastructure, so TIHE would probably be struggling more than most tertiary institutions in the Pacific,” says Dr Cocker.

Josephine Latu, who taught at TIHE from 2010 to 2011 and is formerly from the Pacific Media Centre, says one of the biggest issues facing the programme is a lack of basic educational and reporting resources.

“I would have to pay out of my own pocket for the printing, for my own laptop, for anything — markers, dusters,” she says.

Before the AUT equipment donation, cameras and computers were considered a luxury to both students and educators.

“At one stage when I was there in the computer room, they had suddenly disallowed people from accessing the internet,” Latu says.

“It’s like, come on — we need the internet for journalism courses.”

The National University of Samoa journalism programme has recently received major equipment donations as well.

“We were able to secure funds from UNESCO to set up our radio station which covers the range of a 5-mile radius from campus,” says journalism lecturer Misa Vicky Lepou.

An additional donation of WST$120,000 (NZ$64,000) from AusAID’s Pacific Media Assistance Scheme came in the form professional video cameras, computers, televisions and microphones.

“It’s still a long way to go for us — we are still catching up with the rest of the world,” says Lepou.

With only basic equipment at their disposal, regional journalism schools struggle to prepare their students for careers in the media industry.

At Divine Word University, approximately 75 students are spread across the four-year Bachelor of Communication Arts (Journalism) programme.

“We have limited lab space and time for students to access layout and design programmes and [they] never get adequate practical time to hone their skills,” says lecturer Patrick Matbob.

According to Matbob, both lecturers and students rely on outdated and pirated software programmes that often fail to run on school-provided laptops.

Lack of proper facilities is also a pressing issue, he says.

“Since the newsroom for journalism students was removed in 2006 in favor of a shared general lab with other departments and faculties, students do not even get enough writing and editing practice.

“We are graduating students with the most basic journalism skills, and the results are obvious in the field.”

Press restrictions

The South Pacific is viewed as a relatively stable environment for press freedom, though some regional media schools are forced to work under repressive political conditions.

Such is the case in Fiji, where the 2010 Media Industry Development Decree has ushered in a period of self-censorship and government hostility toward the press.

At the Suva-based regional University of the South Pacific, educators must confront the challenges of teaching journalism in an era of media restrictions.

“The biggest challenge is providing a balanced view of the idea of Fiji moving toward a democracy and the role of media in a democratic structure with free press,” says Dr Ian Weber, who became head of the journalism programme in February.

“The realities of the situation in which there is censorship, there are regulations which hinder that process, there is self-censorship — although it’s almost impossible to prove — we teach right across the framework of what this is.

“We teach about free media, what that will look like and how it functions, but we also teach about development journalism as well, because that’s the reality of the situation in which [the students] are going to be embedded in the future.”

School of Language, Arts and Media head Sudesh Mishra says the tense relationship between the government and media provides students an excellent educational opportunity.

“Restrictions to press freedom are there obliquely if not directly, and there is little point in denying this fact.

“One hopes that this in itself constitutes the topic of vibrant discussion among our students.”

According to Maryann Lockington, a second-year student pursuing a BA of Journalism, the 2010 Decree was what inspired her to study journalism.

“We’ve lost people’s trust in the news, and we need to bring the media back into people’s lives — no one is outspoken in the media because of the censorships,” she says.

Lockington, who is the legal beat editor for the independent student newspaper Wansolwara, has touched the subject of Fiji press restrictions on her personal blog.

“I know that I have to watch what I say, but — you have to say it.

“If we’re going to let them stop us from talking, that’s when we lose.”

Institutional instability

Finding trained, dedicated and reliable faculty to teach journalism and media courses has been another major problem for regional institutions.

Matbob says: “At the moment, our students do not have a suitably qualified radio lecturer and the chances of finding one is slim as the university seems reluctant to recruit one.”

“This will soon extend to television training as we are currently benefiting from the services of a volunteer.

“The lack of qualified lecturers will mean that there will be significant gaps in our students’ training.”

In 2006, UNESCO partnered with AusAID’s Pacific Media Communications Facility to both develop the diploma and certificate-level courses at regional polytechnic schools and train lecturers to teach at those institutions.

The success of the latter endeavor has been questioned by some critics.

“The industry-backed courses have been plagued with a shortage of suitably qualified and skilled staff (mostly journalist guest tutors), questionable standards and absenteeism among working journalists on the courses,” wrote Professor Robie in his analysis of media education.

According to Latu, the state of the TIHE journalism programme in her tenure reflected the accuracy of Dr Robie’s comments.

Lecturers, those affiliated in some capacity with the national media industry, signed up to teach classes, typically during nights and weekends, that were compatible with their work schedules.

Poor compensation and lack of incentive, however, frequently led to the cancellation of classes.

“Journalists, like anywhere, work really hard, really late, [receive] low pay and then have to go and teach a class,” Latu says.

“It really depended on people who wanted to promote media and were willing to give back.”

Latu also says the TIHE journalism programme outline, developed in collaboration with the PMCF, did not account for Tonga’s specific cultural and political conditions.

“The material sometimes wasn’t localised, so I would have to make up the local examples from my own experience,” she says.

“That’s the best we could do, so we took it and we tried to make it as tied to our own situation as much as we could.”

Institutional mergers have also set back the development of journalism programmes in the South Pacific.

In 2010, along with five other state-funded schools, the Fiji Institute of Technology and its journalism curriculum became part of Fiji National University.

According to Lance Polu, founder and managing editor of Talamua Media in Samoa, a similar merger in 2006 between Samoa Polytechnic and the National University of Samoa proved to be a problematic transition for the country’s media education programme.

“It took not only the journalism programme but all the other courses time to be absorbed and developed, then they ran into difficulties,” he says.

“They had to look for personnel, even look for space for the classes to be taught in.”

Transitioning students to workforce

For both media educators and news agencies in the region, ensuring that student journalists actually pursue jobs in the industry is a major challenge.

The low wages and long hours that accompany professional journalism have pushed many with university degrees toward more financially rewarding occupations.

“Many of our graduates have worked their way through the media and are now in the better-paying fields, leaving gaps in the profession,” says Br Michael McManus, head of communication arts at DWU.

“We are simply not coping with the demand from the media for beginning journalists to fill these positions.”

According to Matbob, it is unsurprising that many DWU journalism graduates go on to work in the high-paying field of public relations.

“The facts show that few of our students are actually interested in journalism,” he says.

“The working conditions — especially the low wages and the difficulty to find accommodation in Port Moresby where all the media organisations are concentrated — also make it unattractive, even for those we believe should be working as journalists.”

Milka Akane, a first-year student pursuing a Bachelor of Communication Arts at DWU, says despite her desire to work as a journalist in Papua New Guinea, financial concerns are forcing her to consider other options.

“When you have family problems, you need to find a secure job that pays well so you can own a house — that has really come between my love for journalism and my family responsibilities,” she says.

“Whatever happens, I might do a few years in public relations after I graduate and then later go back to the mainstream media when my family has settled.”

In Fiji, professional journalism is an unattractive industry to many young graduates because of poor salaries and government restrictions.

Dr Weber says: “Most of those students could probably go and not be journalists, but work for the government which is better-paying.

“They’ll work for NGOs, they’ll work for other kinds of organisations rather than mainstream journalism — that’s a major problem for us to keep them in journalism.”

Need for journalists

In the South Pacific, industry experts say the need for journalists with professional training is as high as it has ever been.

“It’s a struggle to get the qualified people to work in the industry,” says Polu.

“As all other things develop in our economy we, the university and the media, see the real need for people who are trained to present information in such a way that is useful to the overall development of Samoa.”

Across newsrooms in Fiji, veteran reporters have disappeared, leaving room for young journalists to enter the industry.

“We’ve lost more than a generation of experienced reporters to migration as a result of the wave of coups since 1987 and consequent pressures on the news media and those working in it,” says Fiji Sun chief executive Peter Lomas.

The company now requires job applicants to have a minimum of an undergraduate degree, and is actively encouraging its staff to pursue additional educational opportunities.

“We have a graduate trainee programme operating in our newsrooms in Suva, the West (Nadi) and North (Labasa),” Lomas says.

“We also have three of our journalists in Indian universities at the moment studying on Indian government scholarships.”

According to Latu, it is vital for young journalists in Tonga to receive proper media training in order to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors.

“If you have a guy who learned on the job and had a lot of years of experience, doing something wrong for 20 years will never make it right,” she says.

“Once that guy leaves and the young person takes over in that editor position, they’re going to start writing like that — that’s the way they were taught.”

Future of media education

Despite the problems surrounding tertiary level journalism education in the region, there is optimism surrounding its future.

Last May, the Pacific Media Assistance Scheme (PACMAS) approved an initiative to support Pacific Technical and Vocational Education Training, which will focus on improving the certificate and diploma-level operations at regional institutions.

Currently, the organisation is processing a comprehensive report of recommendations to strengthen these programmes which will be published later this year.

At the National University of Samoa, a close collaboration between educators and industry experts has led to an overhaul of a journalism programme that only produced two graduates last year.

Polu says: “There were all these problems, but I think they’re behind now.”

“We are focusing on pursuing the vision we had right from the beginning — having a close, working relationship between the media industry and the university in delivering the course.”

According to Polu, the university aims to develop its journalism diploma into a degree programme within the next few years.

Plans for expansion are underway at the University of the South Pacific as well, says Dr Weber.

“We’re looking at expanding to a master’s programme which will incorporate, hopefully, more professional development to attract more people from the media industry.”

Greg Asciutto is a journalist studying at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Greg, who has previously worked in Latin America and the South Pacific, specializes in reporting on global issues of human rights and social welfare.

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