Don't Spoil My Beautiful Face by David Robie, Little Island Press, 362pp, $40, ISBN 9781877484254. Mail order from the publisher here
SOMETIMES, to make sense of chaos in our world today, we look back at the chaos of yesteryear.
It can give context, remind us which paths have been taken, where mistakes have been made.
Similarly, it’s sometimes not until we look at what’s happening elsewhere in our region that we get a gist of what’s happening in our own individual countries.
But what happens when access to that context is impaired, or missing in action? Stories remain hidden. Abuses are repeated, failures accumulate.
The need for independent media to ensure stories which affect our region aren’t simply buried in spin, or pushed to our blindspot, is something David Robie has been banging on about long before his latest book came out.
Don't Spoil My Beautiful Face - Media, Mayhem and Human Rights in the Pacific, published by Little Island Press, continues to flesh out that idea as the New Zealand-based independent journalist and media educator recounts some of the major instances of tumult in the Pacific region over the past few decades.
As this book clearly shows, Robie has had a knack of popping up at the Pacific’s points of upheaval.
There he is reporting in Suva as Fiji’s 1987 coup is brewing; being harassed and arrested by French security forces in New Caledonia for reporting on the flashpoints with the indigenous Kanaks in the late 1980s; venturing into the “no man’s land” of the Java and Kawerong river valleys during the Bougainville civil war; or, my favourite, a snapshot of him hanging out over drinks with leading Maori politicians and a Vanuatu government official onboard the Rainbow Warrior at the Auckland wharf the very night before the Greenpeace flagship was blown up by French state-sponsored terrorists.
The list goes on. His various scrapes with history leave Robie well placed to provide context for the events which have shaped the region, referencing his own extensive articles from the time throughout this book.
As well as the Pacific islands region, the book makes forays as widely as Philippines and Canada where indigenous people’s rights have been abused in ways not uncommon to Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia, particularly where resource development conflicts exist.
We find Robie often probing problems imposed on the region from the outside, ranging from stories about the bloody legacy of colonialism in East Timor, West Papua and New Caledonia to insights to the “biopiracy” affair of the Hagahai people in PNG’s Madang province. All too often, from a regional perspective, these stories are about forgotten wars and conflicts.
As Robie points out, the Bougainville war “was a story largely untold in the New Zealand media” until he reported on it in 1989. (He would continue to facilitate reporting on it as the head of University PNG’s journalism program in the 1990s)
Yet it’s a reflection of New Zealand’s media shortcomings, and Euro-centric world view, that few of the mainstream outlets have ever kept much of an eye on Bougainville, or PNG for that matter. It seems strange also that despite the feather in New Zealand’s cap for its role in brokering peace in the conflict, the country knows so little of Bougainville.
The same could be said of West Papua, which remains a huge blindspot for much of the mainstream media in our region.
Although Indonesia has long set extreme restrictions on access to West Papua for regional journalists, there is much more that the media in neighbouring countries could be doing to explore the region’s longest running conflict.
For example, PNG’s mainstream media has barely placed any scrutiny on joint efforts between the national government and Jakarta on “developing” the common border area, something which Peter O’Neill has described as the best way to solve the issues at the heart of the problem about West Papuan self-determination.
But as Robie muses, many mainstream media editors “have a blind mindset” over issues relating to West Papua and East Timor despite the atrocities taking place. Self-censorship, he points out, is a pervasive practice around the region.
Robie devotes a section of this book to media education, which includes exploring the idea of “development journalism”. But it seems timely, with democracy under acute threat in various parts of the Pacific, that this section of the book identifies common problems around the region like media monopolies and impartiality.
He quotes the Solomon Islands academic Tarcissius Kabutaulaka in questioning who controls or owns the media?
“Whose interests do they represent? In the world of globalisation and with the advent of the internet we must realise that a variety of media does not mean a variety of sources.”
He wonders whether Pacific media delivers “adequate information that will enhance democracy… It is not an impartial medium. Rather, many (in the media) also have vested interests.”
As Robie asserts, “any journalists worth their salt should be resisting any attempts by governments to hinder the media”.
If there’s a story of our age, it’s probably climate change, an issue for all peoples in our region.
While those small, low lying islands may be on the frontline as the first victims of sea-level rise, those big city societies belching gas and driving the problem cannot feel immune from its impacts.
The need for context is perennial. Robie visits the devastation of climate change in the case of the Carteret and Taku islands, where he sees “strong resonance” with the plight of refugees from nuclear testing in the Pacific.
Years before, he had been on the Rainbow Warrior for a humanitarian voyage to the region, including a harrowing job of transporting the entire population of Rongelap Atoll to another part of the Marshall Islands to flee the toxic health and social legacy of US nuclear testing on Bikini Atoll.
As with the fight for a nuclear free region, Pacific Islanders are reluctant to accept the media’s portrayal of them as helpless victims of climate change. Instead they’re fighting to protect their way of life, and increasingly are leading the way in pursuing more sustainable forms of energy.
How many Papua New Guineans are tired of being described as cannibals by Western media focused only on the worst, most sensational stories they can find?
Why does Vanuatu continue to be viewed by the likes of the World Bank as an impoverished nation when it’s regularly rated one of the happiest countries on earth?
How can Tonga’s feudal system be routinely dismissed by metropolitan powers as backwards when many Tongans seem to support this culture?
The answer would seem to stem from a lack of understanding.
That’s why this book is refreshing. Robie has never shirked from getting among Pacific peoples and close to the grubby coalface of regional issues in order to shed light on the real stories at play.
In this age of media saturation, despite the many new avenues for information delivery which digital platforms offer us, we still lack this kind of independent journalism which fosters understanding.