By Kalafi Moala
26 September 2020: MEDIA is a tool, a powerful tool that by the very nature of its existence, it inevitably engages in the process of social change either negatively or positively. Politicians, historians, and anthropologists are usually the ones who give judgement as to the kind of impact media has on a society. But it’s the people, the consumers of media, who must make the final judgement on the quality of media they choose to consume. Unfortunately journalists and media practitioners are too often trained to do their job without being responsible to the kind of social outcome their performance produces.
The attitude is like, “I’m not responsible to how people respond to my message and method of delivery. I toss it out there, and people do with it what they want.” But in the same way that a wave can be harnessed to produce electricity to help people, yet at the same time can become a tidal wave that destroys villages, so is the creative or destructive influence inherent in media.
Media is not an indifferent and ambiguous tool without any defined purpose and links to all the other sectors and spheres of society. It is an inevitable part of that society. It can be a partner in achieving the socio-development goals of a society, or it can be a pest that eats away the strengths and morale in that society. It often depends on media leadership and the political alliances chosen.
We watch with mental trepidation nowadays the ongoing battles between two media giants of American media – CNN and FOX. CNN is the fanatical opposition of Donald Trump, and advocate of leftist policies; and Fox is the conservative advocate, not just of Trump but of the Republican Party. There is a Presidential election coming up in the United States in November, and neither CNN or Fox is being balanced in their news coverage.
Purpose of tools
Tools are created for a purpose. All tools are mechanisms of purpose, to perform a task outside itself. That’s what tools are for. We create tools for eating, for transportation, for communication, and other functions. And media is a tool created for information delivery, and essentially the nature of the message and method of delivery either aid or hamper social development.
The destructive or constructive force of media essentially depends on its primary purpose for existence. But the purpose for any particular media is dependent on that which is designed or set by ownership, which is why media ownership is an important issue in the Pacific today, and Tonga in particular. Whoever owns the media is ultimately responsible for the performance of that media.
If the primary reason or purpose of a media is to make money, then the content and how its message is delivered is going to be geared to that purpose, to make money. This kind of media is ‘mercenary’ in nature. Impact, whether negative or positive on society is not an issue. They are hired to do a job, wholly motivated by what they are paid. This is dangerous and destructive media, yet because of beliefs in the value of media freedom, their rights to disseminate information must be protected; yet subject to codes of ethical behavior, and laws relating to libel.
Media with social development objectives tells the stories of people, of the events affecting their lives, and of the issues that arise from those events. The real stories we must tell are the stories about the human condition, about the environment, and what is being done to improve human condition, spiritually, socially, economically, and environmentally.
Our problem in the Pacific region is that media has had parallel development with the democracy everyone seem to love like it’s the god that will satisfy all our needs. I contend that democracy has been wrongly touted in our region as the panacea that will solve all our problems. We engage in media taking on the form and format of westernization that is pinned to this ideology and practice we call democracy. It is said that Western media practice is the oil that drives democracy.
But democracy has often been practiced in oppositional political frames, where the existence of conflict is a necessary battleground where the will of the majority is given the victory. We fail however to recognize that more things get done for a society when there is consensus politics, an alternative we fail to adopt in our island nations; and we do not develop media as a tool for creating peace rather than conflict.
We think if the outcome of our service to society is peace, then we must be doing something wrong, because we only know how to report and propagate conflict. If the other party likes ice cream, for example, then we must hate it, for that would be the politically correct thing to do. It does not really matter whether ice cream is good for us or not; we must create a conflict by taking the opposite position. That is “oppositional politics” and thus we also have “oppositional media.” We hardly report about resolving of conflicts, and follow-up to solutions discovered, because we are too busy looking for the next conflict.
Looking back to when we became more democratic
The story of media in Tonga needs to be told in parallel to the story of our development into a more democratic system of governance. The first elections after the Constitutional amendment of 2010 was that of 2010 and 2014. There was a high turn out, and tremendously peaceful and orderly. After the first two nights of our “honeymoon” in this supposedly “great victory for the people” and for democracy, we’ve begun to realize that we’ve just changed from the rule of one minority group to another minority group, a group we call “the people” – not all the people, just some of the people.
It’s like changing partner. You were sleeping with one person the night before, and then you had a democratic election. You wake up the morning after and you are on the same bed, same room, but you now have a group in bed with you. They start telling you that they can do you better than the guy you’ve lived with all these years. And don’t worry, they’ve amended the Constitution to make it legal.
What was also amazing was the way foreign media were celebratory in their reporting of Tonga, at least this one time. They say that now Tonga’s problem is solved. Tonga have finally joined all the “free nations of the world.” We are now a democracy. Most of them came to Tonga with stories already written; scripts in place, and they were just looking for some kind of evidence to fill in the gaps of their stories. If they cannot find the evidence, they can always get a friendly islander to say something… give him a can of coke or a kilo of mutton flaps, and he will tell you what you want to hear.
Often the perspective created overseas is quite contradictory to the reality on the ground in Tonga. This is the nature of the destructive force in media. Here is an example. One prominent New Zealand newspaper got its facts really wrong. In one of its lead reports about the Tongan election of 2010, they incorrectly say that the Democratic Friendly Islands Party led by ‘Akilisi Pohiva won 70% of the votes. They falsely created an expectation, and in fact demand, that the next Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers should come from the Pohiva group.
This was a gross inaccuracy. Mr. Pohiva and his colleagues only won 31% of the votes. The other 69% voted against Pohiva and his pro-democrats. The voter turn out was over 90%. In other words the majority of Tongans voted for independent candidates; its just there were too many of them and they split the votes every which way among themselves, leaving 11 of the 17 people’s representative seats to be won by pro-democrats.
But what foreign journalists also failed to recognize was that there were also 9 noble representatives elected to Parliament. That means the 9 nobles in Parliament together with the 6 independents had the majority to choose the Prime Minister, and thus the next Government, which is why a noble became the first Prime Minister in the new democratic Tonga.
Another foreign reporter claimed Tonga to be a Roman Catholic country, and that I had a conversation with the King of Tonga, and he was the one making tea for me, a commoner. Tonga is a Methodist country, and I’ve never had tea with the King of Tonga. Trouble is when I tried to correct these inaccuracies, this reporter’s lawyer wrote me a letter claiming I had defamed the reporter by trying to correct “her facts.”
Inaccuracies are not easy to correct, and harder to correct is the agenda, hidden or otherwise, that media organizations and journalists have.
Individual journalists may also have their own egotistical agenda, wanting to make a name for themselves as “oppositional journalists.” Many have also used the cloak of media freedom to hide behind in their hate-journalism and paternalistic view of Pacific Island countries.
There is a key lesson we can learn from our Tonga situation. Media freedom and purpose-driven journalism are not opposed to each other. They are part and parcel of the same package. Freedom is not the unrestricted ability to do whatever you want, but it is the unrestricted ability to do what is right. And what is right is always good for society. What is right always build up rather than tear down.