Journalists in Workshop Hear Pleas for Reporting in the Vernacular

"Culture must be recognized as essential for sustainable development," Mr. Apisalome Tudreu, permanent secretary for Information in the Fiji Islands, told indigenous language journalists at the opening of a workshop in Suva, the Fiji Islands.

"We must not lose the valuable part our own way of life provides," Mr. Tudreu said in calling on the journalists to do more than translate the English language media into the vernacular. "It is important–in fact critical–that we in Fiji and the small island states of the Pacific can identify what is worth preserving."

The journalists often heard this plea for active, creative reporting in the languages of their readers, rather than the language of the colonial power, during the four-day workshop, held from November 2-5, 1998 and sponsored by the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) and the James. M. Cox Jr. Center for International Mass Communication Training and Research, a unit of the Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.

Eight journalists, representing Fijian and Hindi language newspapers, radio, television and the government information office participated in the workshop, which focused on basic journalistic skills needed by the indigenous language journalists. The workshop was the third on the topic jointly sponsored by PINA and the Cox Center.

Discussions at the workshop suggested at least two reasons for investment in the development of the indigenous language media. First, it is a way to reach audiences not facile in other languages. Second, it is a means of preserving culture.

"Language and culture are interrelated," Mr. Ashok Lingham, head of Hindi programming at Island Networks in Fiji, told the journalists. "If you lose your language, you lose your culture."

"I'm seeing a threat to the (Hindi) language (in Fiji)," Mr. Lingham said. "People cannot read the script, but they can understand it on radio." Mr. Lingham said the Indian community in Fiji should consider using the Roman script rather than the original script as one means of preserving the language.

Mr. Lingham said the media are more interested in using the vernacular than are government officials. He said government officials, when being interviewed, often refuse to speak in Hindi or Fijian.

Dr. Paul Geraghty, a linguist who heads a Fiji dictionary project sponsored by the government, said less than one percent of the people of Fiji speak English as a first language. The irony, he said, is that the bulk of the media are in English.

"We are still running our media in the colonial mode," Dr. Geraghty said. "Our media are colonial. They are run for the benefit of English speakers because those speakers are influential."

Dr. Geraghty said the decision to use English is based on what he termed a "bridging myth–that English is a bridge between Fijians and Indians."

"The obvious way for Fijians and Indians to understand each other is to learn each other's language, not to learn a third colonial language," Dr. Geraghty said.

The linguist gave two examples of how the indigenous language media translate and mirror coverage of the English language media, rather than cover the cultures themselves. First, he said the Fijian media report on the age of people in stories, as is common in western press stories, but "age is not important in the Fijian culture." Journalists should rather tell their audiences where the person is from and where the person's mother is from, because that is important in Fijian society.

Dr. Geraghty said journalists write routine stories about such western feasts as St. Valentine's day–in indigenous languages–rather than about feasts and ceremonies that mean something in the Fijian cultures.

Dr. Geraghty did offer a cautionary note to the journalists. "Culture is a living thing," he said. It changes all the time. If you preserve it, you kill it." Journalists need to understand cultural change and reflect it, he said.

Workshop instructors were Ms. Laisa Taga, regional trainer, PINA Pacific Journalism Development Center, Suva, Fiji, and Dr. Jim Richstad, visiting professor, School of Communication Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Dr. Richstad is a Pacific Islands media specialist who also was an instructor for the PINA/Cox Center indigenous language workshops in Tonga and Vanuatu.

The workshop opened with a review of the state of the indigenous language media in Fiji and moved to a discussion of the opportunities and problems of those media. Workshop participants then discussed how to handle sensitive stories, such as the coverage of chiefs, and how to conduct interviews with key members of the traditional communities.

The workshop was organized around coverage by the indigenous language press of the national elections in Fiji, scheduled for May of 1999. The elections include many new provisions, including selection of a large block of members of Parliament-at-large, rather than by ethnic groups, a ranking procedure for selection of candidates, and mandatory registration and voting.

Workshop participants learned about the new election laws and procedures and discussed ways they can communicate important aspects of the election to their audiences. The journalists, working individually, planned their election coverage and then presented their plans to the full group for discussion.

In addition, the workshop discussed techniques the indigenous language journalists can use to coach those who work for them in story development and argue within their news organizations for the resources they need to do their jobs.

As a final project, workshop participants developed plans to increase the visibility of their endeavors in the media community and to gain additional training opportunities. The journalists agreed to meet regularly as a group to continue their discussions of indigenous language journalism and to start work on a style book for indigenous language journalists in the Fiji Islands that would specify protocols to be used in doing stories on the Fijian, Indian and other ethnic groups in the country.

Cox Center Director Lee B. Becker thanked PINA officials and the workshop participants for their commitment to the workshop in his closing comments. Dr. Becker gave two books to PINA President William Parkinson for its library and University of Georgia baseball caps to trainer Ms. Taiga and PINA Administrator Ms. Nina Ratulele at the closing ceremonies. PINA gave Drs. Becker and Richstad Fijian war clubs, while the workshop participants brought each typical Fijian "bula" or welcoming shirts.

Ms. Taiga, Dr. Richstad and Dr. Becker gave each workshop participant a certificate of workshop completion at the closing ceremonies, which was attended by workshop speakers and area journalists.

Following the workshop, Dr. Becker spent a day visiting the University of the South Pacific campus in Suva. He visited Dr. Asesela Ravuvu, director of the Institute of Pacific Studies, Ms. Linda Crowl, publications coordinator in the Institute, Prof. Gerald Farkas, director of the University Media Center, and Ms. Ingrid Leary, lecturer in the journalism program within the School of Humanities.

The University of the Pacific serves Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and Western Samoa and has campuses in Western Samoa and Vanuatu in addition to the main campus in Fiji.