SHAILENDRA SINGH | Pacific Media Centre | University of the South Pacific | Edited
SUVA - The University of the South Pacific’s recent 50th anniversary also marked 30 years of existence for its regional journalism program.
In an eventful journey, the program has weathered military coups, overcome financial hardships and shrugged off academic snobbery.
Funded by the Commonwealth, the program started in Suva in 1988 with a handful of students. Since then it has produced more than 200 graduates serving the Pacific and beyond in various media and communication roles.
USP journalism graduates have won awards, started their own media companies and taken over positions once reserved for expatriates in regional organisations.
The beginning was hardly auspicious. Founding coordinator the late Murray Masterton recalled that from the outset some academics felt journalism was a vocational course with no place in a university.
Such disdain turned out to be the least of Dr Masterton’s problems: plans to offer certificate-level courses in 1987 were almost derailed by Lieutenant Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka’s coups – the South Pacific’s first military takeover of a nation.
Masterton persevered in the face of this political earthquake and after some delays he got the program off the ground. It was a significant development in a region where journalists had little opportunity to attain formal qualifications.
It was not without irony that the Pacific’s first regional journalism program was introduced in a climate of great media repression in Fiji.
A few years later, the program’s future came under another cloud when Commonwealth sponsorship ran out. An injection of French government funds in 1993 provided a new lease of life, with the program upgraded to a BA double-major degree.
The three-year grant was supervised by François Turmel, former BBC World Service editor in London. During those lean years, Turmel often dug into his pockets to fund activities.
Then, when French funding ended in 1996, USP took over the program, appointing New Zealander David Robie as coordinator. Robie was head of the University of Papua New Guinea journalism program and a former international journalist.
During his term from 1998–2002, Robie made major curriculum changes by integrating the student training newspaper, Wansolwara, into assessment and introducing professional work attachments with news media organisations.
He was also the first journalism educator to gain a PhD in New Zealand and the Pacific, returning to Suva to graduate in 2003. He tells the story of the early decades of Pacific journalism education in his 2004 book Mekim Nius: South Pacific media, politics and education.
In 2001, I joined the USP journalism program as the first full-time local assistant lecturer. I was already a Fiji and Pacific news media professional and I went on to become the first local to head the journalism program.
After graduating with my PhD from the University of Queensland in 2016, I would become the first local PhD to teach journalism at USP. I saw to the expansion of the program with a boost in enrolments and improved facilities to cater for the new demand, including the recruitment of two local teaching assistants.
Under my watch, Wansolwara, continued to win major awards for excellence in journalism. The newspaper, founded in 1996 by lecturer Philip Cass and a number of students, became well-established as the program’s flagship publication.
Wansolwara literally means “one ocean one people” and for founding student editor Stanley Simpson, the paper was a creation of young minds who “wanted to do things their way”.
Student training newspapers are regarded as important strategic assets, and Wansolwara has certainly played crucial roles at crucial times.
The paper came to prominence for its coverage of the May 2000 nationalist coup and the ensuing hostage crisis in parliament when the deposed Chaudhry government was held in captivity for 56 days.
Professor Robie has described the 2000 coup coverage as “one of the most challenging” examples of campus-based journalism. The students’ reporting put the overseas parachute journalists to shame. As recounted by Dr Cass:
“Much of the outside coverage seemed to be done by people who were just taking the plotters’ statements at face value or else were writing their reports beside the swimming pool at the Travelodge, so the students were giving an alternative view that in many cases was much closer to what was going on.”
Not everyone appreciated the coverage. Certain USP academics, concerned about security, felt that student journalists should practice “simulated journalism”. The smashing-up of the nearby Fiji Television studios by rampaging coup supporters was the last straw for USP, which shut down the Wansolwara news website, Pacific Journalism Online.
However, Dr Robie was able to arrange for a “mirror” site at the University of Technology Sydney to allow coverage to continue. Wansolwara won the Journalism Education Association of Australia ‘best publication in the region’ award for its efforts.
It was one in a long line of awards for excellence in journalism. Such honours, along with a healthy research output, has long since silenced gibes about USP journalism’s fitness as an academic course.
In the post-2006 Bainimarama coup years and as media restrictions tightened, Wansolwara, as a student newspaper, was able to remain under the radar and operate more freely than the mainstream media.
Student reporting in the face of risks was exemplary. The April 2009 issue, which included a four-page critique of the coup, was still at press when the punitive Public Emergency Regulations were introduced.
The Solomon Islands student editor at the time, Leni Dalavera, phoned me in the dead of night, concerned that the students risked arrest. Delavera was assured that the authorities were highly unlikely to move against the students and that the lecturers were responsible for the publication.
The thrills of coup coverage aside, student journalists are also challenged in major ways during their regular beats. A 2016 Pacific Journalism Review journal article by Singh and Eliki Drugunalevu, examined how USP student journalists deal with backlash from peers offended by their coverage.
This article showed how USP’s journalism students changed their initial feelings of fear, hurt and self-doubt to a sense of pride and accomplishment.
Students felt they developed resilience, fortitude and a deeper understanding of the watchdog journalism ethos – learning outcomes which would not have been achievable through classroom teaching alone.
This reinforces the idea that students should not be cocooned, or made to practice ‘simulated journalism’, since they learn from dealing with confronting situations, a reality in journalism.
Students like Simpson, who bagged a string of national and regional awards as a professional, cut his teeth as a Wansolwara reporter.
The achievements of staff and students, the unique research undertaken by the program into regional media issues – which feeds back into teaching – and journalism’s crucial role in the region, have cemented the program’s position at USP.
In an interview in the November 2016 edition of Wansolwara, USP vice-chancellor and president, Professor Rajesh Chandra, pledged that journalism would remain part of the university’s future.
Chandra, who had strongly supported the establishment of journalism at USP, stated that good journalism was critical for an open and truly democratic society and USP’s role in training good journalists was crucial.
Professor Chandra’s comments underscore not just the journalism program’s important role at USP, but its contribution to the region as a whole. Such vindication is welcome news for all those who fought for the program and contributed to its development.
Dr Shailendra Singh is coordinator of USP’s journalism program