Expression is Wealth

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

I’ve been following a few different stories these last few weeks. Thousands of miles apart and separated by decades, they might seem at first to have little in common.

The first is the story of over 500 websites in China that have decided to mark the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre by voluntarily taking themselves offline for ‘non-technical maintenance’. The censored are boycotting the censor.

The second story is the ongoing suppression of media in Fiji. In a June 2nd statement, Fiji’s interim Permanent Secretary for Information, Lieutenant-Colonel Neumi Leweni indicated that the current state of emergency would continue into August at least. It’s not clear whether this means that state censorship of media will continue as well.

The last is a story of the Australian movie ‘Balibo’. The recently-released film recounts the story of 5 Australia-based journalists killed by Indonesia during the 1975 invasion of East Timor.

Following decades of patient, determined investigation, the facts of the Balibo case have at last come to light. In the years following the murders, nobody – not even Australia – wanted the full extent of Indonesia’s depredations in Timor to see the light of day. Through a combination of determined neglect and deliberate distortion, countries in the region and across the globe allowed Indonesia to act with impunity against the Timorese people.

All of these stories have one thing in common. Every single one of them has been shaped by our collective complacence. The passive-aggressive self-imposition of censorship by Chinese website operators is more an act of sullenness than outright protest. According to one commentator, the increase in censorship activity in the lead-up to Tiananmen’s 20th anniversary is a “minor annoyance for most, perhaps making them remember, but they don’t care that much.”

I suspect that many Fijians outside of the media establishment feel more or less the same. If media coverage and letters to the editor are any indication, it seems that many of us in Vanuatu and throughout the region concur.

Contrast this with the lavish media attention devoted to the Balibo Five, as the murdered journalists have become known. John Tebbutt, a senior lecturer in media studies at La Trobe University in Melbourne, writes that this story has inspired the creation of a feature film, 5 books, 7 reports and an investigation by East Timor’s Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation. In addition, he writes, “[t]here are thousands words in newspaper, television and radio reports.”

International coverage of the Tiananmen Massacre was intense at the time. But since then, it’s dwindled significantly. Though it’s trotted out from time to time and used to deliver a rhetorical rap on China’s knuckles (US Secretary of State Clinton did just this recently), the suppression of truth in China continues unchecked. It is, in fact, aided and abetted by numerous US-based Internet companies who, fearful of ‘missing out’ on the lucrative China market, compromise themselves in order to remain in China’s good books.

Some people I’ve spoken with on the Fiji issue have suggested that more pressure might be brought to bear on the Bainimarama regime if it was of any geopolitical importance. But, lacking influence in the outside world, average Fijians are left to cope on their own with the stifling effects of a censor that won’t allow bad news of any kind to circulate.

The flow of information creates influence. The ability to bring significant media resources to bear on an issue – or conversely, the ability to block its scrutiny – has a distorting effect on how we view history.

Hundreds, possibly thousands of people died in Beijing’s streets as the People’s Liberation Army advanced on Tiananmen Square, but all most of us remember is a single man who, for a few brief minutes, blocked a column of tanks.

Years of effort have been expended finding out the exact circumstances of the death of the Balibo Five. But nearly 200,000 Timorese people – 20% of the entire population – died as a result of the Indonesian invasion and occupation. Where is their movie?

And what will historians have to say about this period in Fiji’s history? How will daily Fijian life be recorded if nobody cares to see?

The wealth of nations is often measured in monetary terms. I say it should be measured in how that wealth is used.

Investment in media and in the mechanics of free speech and open exchange of ideas creates immeasurable wealth. Such wealth will never appear in economic reports. It will, however, define our history.

In a recent Daily Post story, Minister of Education and local UNESCO representative Charlot Salwai rightly decried poor attendance at the conference on Vanuatu’s Intangible Cultural Heritage. Unless we invest time and effort in recording these critically important aspects of Vanuatu’s culture and kastom, they will be lost.

The tragedy of such a loss may pale in comparison to the others on this page, but that distinction is a matter of degree, not of kind. The lesson in every case is the same: If we do not invest in our history, it will be utterly lost.

Update: Omitted from the print version (for space reasons) is an obvious corollary to this conclusion: If we leave it  to others to invest in our history, it will be as they see fit to record it. A recent post from a China expert on the Huffington Post illustrates this nicely. While the Chinese have invested no small resources in denying or distorting important aspects of the 1989 protests, Western journalistic and historical writing has been quite selective in its interpretation of events as well.