Kettering Conversations: Duran Angiki Ponders the Changing Nature of Journalism

The Kettering Foundation has a rich tradition of exchange with international citizens. Duran Angiki is finishing up a six-month residency at the Kettering Foundation. He was born and raised on the island of Bellona, a Polynesian island in the Solomon Islands with a population of less than 3,000. He began a career as a journalist with the first locally owned English newspaper, the Solomon Toktok, in the 1990s, and later joined the Solomon Star in 1993 until 1995. He left the Solomon Islands in early 2001, following death threats against his family by ethnic Malaita Eagle Force (MEF), an armed militia, which were preceded by his media coverage of the ethnic conflict during and after the June 2000 coup. He worked his way up the ladder of opportunity to become the first indigenous Solomon Islander and Pacific Islander to graduate with a Master of Arts (MA) degree in journalism in one of Australia’s most prestigious journalism schools at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) in 2003. He now lives in Australia and works as a journalist. Research assistant Jack Becker sat down to talk with Duran about his experiences in a conversation that spans journalism, technology, politics, and perseverance. Jack Becker: Your personal and professional journey have taken you from the Solomon Islands to Australia and now to the United States on a residency with the Kettering Foundation, how has each move contributed to your work? Duran Angiki: From a professional perspective, the journey has been rewarding, but also laced with many challenges. Australia is very similar to America in terms of culture, social, political, and economic system of government, and standard of living. Both countries have very strong democratic institutions with very active citizens and agenda-setting groups, who are willing to engage and participate in the processes of democracy. Living abroad is not easy for any migrant, but I guess that is a small price to pay for choosing to live in Australia for security and safety reasons. My time in Australia has enabled me to appreciate more freedom. In addition, my experience here at Kettering Foundation has been intellectually rewarding. I will always be thankful for the opportunity. The highlights were listening to plenary speakers, talking with people of many different backgrounds, sitting in planning, research, review and alumni group meetings, workshops and conferences. Pity that I did not have an opportunity to work with an online media publication. However one of the most enriching experiences about traveling the world is learning to accept things that you do not normally accept in your own country. But nothing can supersede the type of learning that I have received so far at the foundation. This experience is very unique and I don’t think anyone will learn this type of knowledge at a university or college in six months. I’m now armed with a renewed hope of going back and applying some of my new knowledge out in the field. It is an exciting time for me and I’m looking forward to it with vigor and renewed hope and confidence. JB: On your website, Duranangiki.net, you locate your research interests in “journalism, media, history politics, hybrid political and traditional systems and institutions, democracy, freedom of expression, governance and Wantokism.” Can you explain how those interests fit together? DA: These issues are interrelated, although in traditional academic disciplines, there is a strong resistance to allow interdisciplinary studies and research on issues affecting communities. This is very real in the context of developing communities. In our communities, people are dealing with a host of issues at once that there is no separation of politics, socioeconomics, religion, culture, history, tradition, and modernity. Every issue contains an element of another issue that impacts communities. In the context of smaller communities, the issue of freedom of expression is related to history politics, hybrid and traditional systems, governance, and Wantokism. On a daily basis, I’m writing about issues that are nondiscriminatory in terms of interconnectedness. They also have historical contexts, yet people are dealing with them in contemporary context. The intersecting of Western and traditional cultures are shaping current events, issues, expectations, aspirations, and hopes of our people and communities. As someone who had grown up and shuttled between two cultures (Western and traditional) before settling in Australia, I took the view that our global society shares more commonalities than differences. On this basis, I used the term hybrid to describe this contemporary reality in our communities. The term Wantok or Wantokism is derived from two English words: one and talk. During the early years of Europeans establishing plantations in the Solomon Islands late in the 1800s, they recruited people from all over the different islands. They were strangers to each other from the multi-island, ethnic, language, and cultural group. The only way to identify themselves was through language groups or people who spoke the same language. Since then, our people used the term Wantoks to identify their connection through language group. The word Wantok System is also used in the Melanesian region to describe a hybrid system of “Western and Island values.” The word is spelled in the Tok Pijin language of the Solomon Islands to mean: people of the same language, race, ethnicity and culture.” It can also mean “people of the same island, nation, and region.” In a nutshell, people of the Solomon Islands are Wantoks. In the context of America, people from Dayton or Ohio are Wantoks. If you are travelling abroad, you can refer to fellow Americans as Wantoks. JB: You describe the mission of Duranangiki.net as “to check the leaders of Solomon Islands and our province, Rennell and Bellona, and expose corrupt leaders regardless of who they are. Our purpose is to encourage transparency and accountability in the public sector without reservations, and expose corruption where it exists.” Can you talk a little about doing this? What kinds of barriers do you face in this pursuit? DA: The mission statement of Duranangiki.net is a labor of love that is based on conviction and sacrifice, but also an ongoing commitment to the ideal of promoting good governance. It is difficult as someone who had the opportunity of being educated and living in Western countries to see our people and communities being exploited by our leaders. Daring to speak in a nation where your allegiance is first to protect the image of your island, ethnic, and cultural group, before the nation, is not only suicidal, but also plain madness. It is one of the most unpopular jobs that yielded no personal gains for me, let alone my immediate family members, who indirectly, suffered the consequences of my work. Many times in my career, I’ve often questioned myself about the logic of this mission, but I often comforted myself with the knowledge that if I’m not to do it, who else. If we want a better country and future for us, someone has to step up to the plate. Unfortunately, my traditional obligation has put me in this position. I become a journalist in the hope of making a difference. It is a commitment that I made to my people to represent them. I left the island in 1981 in the hope of getting a decent education. On an occasional basis, I’ve been travelling back to my home island for holidays. To my disappointment the social and economic situations are not getting any better. Our people are still living in an almost similar situation since the arrival of Christianity in 1938. The only modern developments on the island are an airport, a piece of road, and a clinic, which were built by our grandmothers, grandfathers, and parents, without government assistance, with their bare hands in the mid 1970s. Our people are still walking for miles to fish, garden, collect food, and hunt and rely on family members for social security. About 95 percent of our people, from the same island are unemployed and still living off the land, earning zero dollars a day. I’m among few individuals from our village, island, and province, who went against all odds and the barriers of socioeconomic disadvantages to gain an education—thanks to the sacrifice of our immediate families. We shoulder the expectations, aspirations, dreams and hopes of our people. I took on this responsibility with dignity, pride, and humility, knowing that I’m representing a huge constituent of silent victims and a generation of people who are staring down the barrel of oblivion. At times, this role seems to be travesty in a country where political and government institutions are highly corrupt. This situation has created a working environment where journalists and citizens often succumb to threats, harassment, bullying, and intimidation by politicians. I could have chosen an easy path, but I choose to take this daring path, instead of silently moaning the injustices. Despite the personal cost to my life, I have never given up hope about my mission and committed to the course. I’m hoping that this mission will inspire other young people to realize the importance of openly contributing to the broader conversation about building a secure, stable, and better future for our people and communities. We need to break away from the culture of silence and engage in open dialogue. I guess history will be our best judge. JB: You mention that your work is based on a commitment to people in your community; one of Kettering’s core concerns is a lack of alignment between how citizens make decisions in community and the way institutions—including media institutions—go about their work. What should the relationship between journalists and a community be? How does journalism fit into a citizen-centered democracy? DA: Realistically, the idea of alignment sounds good, but in practice, it is a huge challenge. In my experience in developing and developed communities, the majority of the people couldn’t care less about what the media and institutions are talking about or will talk about. The sad reality of this situation is this: citizens are often left to their own demise when decisions are taken and later impacted negatively on them. Global media tycoons more often than not control the news media in Western countries, which becomes a hindrance to the role of journalists. The case of US journalism is unique because news media outlets and their journalists are either conservative or liberal. There is no middle ground in American journalism. This situation has created distrust by citizens and communities of the media, especially the role of journalism as a watchdog. The watchdog role has replaced agenda setting. Despite public cynicism of the media in this country, America is the only country in the Western world that enshrined in its Constitution, under the First Amendment, freedom of the press. In Australia and other democratic countries, freedom of the press or media freedom is an implied right under Common Law. Sadly, in the case of the United States, the constitutional recognition of media freedom has not provided any greater access by citizens to the news media. The new culture of agenda setting has simply taken away authentic journalism, which grounded on the presumption that journalists and the news media will provide objective, fair, and balanced coverage of issues that are affecting communities. One of the reasons that journalism is still thriving in the states is it is protected by the Constitution. It is on this basis that citizen groups and communities are always fighting to be heard. The biggest threat to journalism in America is how the profession and educational institutions are entangled in the issue of allegiance to right-wing and left-wing politics. In my observation, this is the major blight to authentic journalism in America. JB: On that note, media outlets, such as television news networks, newspapers, and magazines, are in crises; reshaped by consolidations, buyouts, layoffs, a new push for advertisements, and other trends that treat readers as passive consumers of information. The profession is in serious danger of being completely overtaken by concern over “the bottom line.” Your work, however, is a little different; it might be thought of as citizen-journalism. How does your work differ? DA: At different times and different stages in modern history, the journalism profession has been going through changing stages all because of technological advancements in communication. It impacted on the bottom line of media businesses. Now, the emergence of web-based communication platforms is no exception, though they threaten the traditional media on the basis of cost and interactive ways of communication. But journalism has survived from different eras: from print, to radio, to television and now the web-based “media convergence.” The attraction for a lot of people like myself is the freedom that we have to dictate and manage our own media contents. Additionally, it is cheaper and less time consuming to deal with virtual communities. The benefit of being your own boss is a plus. There is the added bonus of being able to publish stories while on the road and anywhere in the world—of course, with access to Internet. But there are many downsides to online publication, including the challenge of building trust with members of a virtual community. I do not think that publishing online will eventually lead to the eventual demise of journalism as a profession or newspapers, radio, and television. They have to be innovative to cater for the new global demands. This situation will always come down to cost. For a lot of developing countries, online publication only appealed to people who are living in cities and towns. There are many countries and parts of the world that are still not benefiting from the advancement of communication technologies due to lack of infrastructure and appropriate technologies. Some of the smaller nations will always miss out because the market is small and the building of infrastructure is costly. So they will remain the same for many years to come. One of the challenges for traditional journalism is whether or not to reorient itself through training and acquiring skills in digital media, online publication, and social media platforms. In more ways than one, online journalism will become the future of publication because it converges the entire different medium into one. JB: You speak of communication technologies; much of your work is done online, through blogging, social media sites, and online videos. Can you talk a little more about how technology shaped journalism over the last decade? DA: It has changed the way people communicate, relate, and deal in business. This is a new territory in journalism, but let’s face it, we are part of this global phenomenon. There are many advantages of media convergence, but there are a lot of disadvantages. These are some of the benefits. First, anyone can virtually become his or her own boss as a publisher. Second, it is costless. Third, you are not obligated to any political party and agenda-setting group through advertising and political affiliation to influence your writing. And fourth, it is easy to publish materials anywhere you go. The downsides of course are many. First, you have to build a virtual community and maintain connectivity through regular communication. Second, the rule of engagement is not always at your control. Third, you just have to trust strangers, who are members of your virtual community. Social media has great potential because of its interactive nature of communication and this is one of greatest appeals to many business houses, government departments, organizations, institutions and people in general. It is a huge advantage to get feedback on a regular basis about the services and products that you are selling. It helps to improve your work. For journalists, who are working by themselves, this is also a lonely platform because you are always alone physically. Duran Angiki is a current international resident at the Kettering Foundation.  Jack Becker is a former Kettering Foundation research assistant.