The Micronesian Alliance
An Interview with Francis Hezel: Media, Governance and the Island Way

April 1, 2005

The Micronesian Alliance

Good Governance. Accountability and transparency. These are terms used often throughout political and economic discourse in the FSM today. What exactly do they mean?

The Asian Development Bank, active throughout the FSM in the Compact II era, defines it this way: "Governance has many dimensions, including transparency, accountability and honesty, and is pervasive in its affect on society. Good governance is a cross cutting issue for virtually all areas of economic development, ranging from fiscal efficiency and stability, to equitable delivery of social services, and to private sector development" (from their Micronesia 2005 Economic Report.)

The Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat defines it thusly: "The key prerequisite for economic growth and sustainable development is good governance - the effective management of a country's resources in a manner that is transparent and accountable and in full adherence to the Forum Eight Principles of Accountability" (from their Pacific Plan.)

Father Francis Hezel, Director of the Micronesian Seminar, an institution that is home to one of the region's finest resource collections of various media - books, films, photographs and other writings and publications - also has some views on the subject of good governance and the role of the media toward it. Hezel, a Jesuit Priest, is a respected social commentator, putting out once per quarter the publication, Micronesian Counselor, usually focusing on any social topic of importance, which is to say, it covers just about any subject - politics, health, education, the environment and the media, to name just a few. Hezel's latest Counselor - Issue #54 - deals with the idea of good governance and the media's role in it within the FSM.

Father Hezel - in Peeking into the Public Process - brings up the point of a media that is increasingly disrespectful in its reporting, comparing the way the media "has rolled back the private lives of government leaders in other parts of the world. All we need do is compare the way the U.S. press handled Clinton on his sexual conduct in office in contrast with the discreet way they treated John Kennedy's exploits forty years ago."

He compares this to the "strong islander gut reaction to public criticism" and further notes, "I have to admit that the reluctance to criticize openly is one of the many qualities that I find endearing in the Pacific. I regard the desire to spare the feelings of others as admirable…There is a shared understanding in Micronesia that some things, even things that are known be everyone, should not be discussed publicly." It is a worthy point to make.

The idea for this last publication came about in part from a discussion that Father Hezel and I had back in August of 2004 at his open and inviting MicSem offices, in Kolonia, Pohnpei. We were able to conclude this discussion somewhat with an interview that we conducted by phone for this issue of the Alliance. Below is an accounting of that discussion on the media, government and the expectations of the Micronesian people today.

The Micronesian Alliance: It is often said, by international financial institutions in particular - the ADB said this in a recent economic report focusing on the FSM: "Improving standards of governance must be given high priority as the FSM looks to the future. Greater transparency or openness of government would promote greater public awareness and involvement in the political process, thereby facilitating focus on policy and programmatic issues that are of priority to stakeholder groups and the general public" - that the press, or media, help to foster good governance within a nation or society. What are your thoughts on this? Is this indeed the case for the FSM? Francis Hezel: First of all, this notion of greater transparency or good governance is happening worldwide; it has to do with investments. The big financial institutions are pushing for good governance as a requisite for development capital. What ADB and all other economic institutions want to promote is a place that has a stable government structure, one that isn't going to be overthrown or that is going to go through radical changes in the short term. Obviously those outsiders with capital don't want to invest in a government that favors locals over foreign investors. They want to be assured that there is a level playing field for all people and business, including foreigners. This is a concern around the world, and this is what is now resonating in the FSM. The media, of course, are depended upon to feed information on government performance to the people, so that the people can keep their leaders in line.

TMA: In a section entitled, "Media as a Watchdog", you make the point that "the public in any state may be aware of what the state government is doing…but their knowledge of the Congress of the FSM is likely to be scant…But Congress, like most other government institutions, would prefer to conduct its business far from the public eye." Why is this and how might there be a better information flow from the FSM Congress to the people via the media? That is, how might the media and Congress be able to have a more positive, trusting relationship? Or is it destined to remain antagonistic?

FH: The important thing to note here is the history of these government institutions, going back to the 60's. In the early years, government leaders, once they were elected, were expected to make wise decisions on behalf of the people. At the time, people could not be expected to know the workings of politics and government, a relatively new thing in their life, after all. Politicians did not anticipate having people look over their shoulders. But today's world has changed. People are more educated and inquiring now, and they have many ways of finding out what the government is doing. The problem is that even though education and technology and media have advanced, the government institutions sometimes think this is still 1965. What they have to do, just as other government institutions must do, is adjust to people inquiring into their operations and looking for information. In Palau for example, the President goes on the air once per week - on Wednesdays - to talk about what is happening in the Executive Branch. The Legislature in Palau, however, does not do the same direct broadcasts, although their sessions are telecast live on the local cable channel. The bottom line is that the FSM Congress, like other legislatures, is going to have to tolerate people looking in on its operations, and perhaps actually initiate the dissemination of information. Resio Moses (Congressman from Pohnpei) used to put out a regular newsletter describing congressional measures. If something like this were resumed, that would certainly help.

TMA: I was interested in your point that "the media bears responsibilities of its own…Although it is supposed to pursue public information, prying open doors where necessary, it must always keep in mind that no one forfeits his right to respect, no matter how grievous and numerous his misdeeds. As strong as the temptation might be at times, the media should not carve up individuals and serve them for dinner to the public." You appear to say that the media needs to have some self-control in what it reports, to toe the line of respect and disrespect toward other people, could you perhaps elaborate a little on this point?

FH: There has been a long tradition of restraint within the US media toward public figures, but I have not seen this in recent years. I sometimes wonder whether we are living one big reality TV show. There seems to be a higher tolerance and even a greater demand for more details on people. I don't think there is a need for this. We should stick strictly to the issues and we should not malign people in the process of criticizing their positions. Whatever our stance on any issue, we ought to have respect for people who take a different position. This must be inculcated by the media. We can't break down the respect for people that exists here - at least publicly. There is a great value to that respect system. Now I'm not saying issues should not be reported on, we just have to draw the line when it comes to personal attacks on individuals. For these break down rather than build up a society.

TMA: More than ten years ago and we still often hear the infamous story of Sherry O'Sullivan, former Editor of the FSM News, who was declared persona non grata within this nation. Was that a case of stepping over that line, that the paper did not "pay its cultural dues?" Or was it that that paper was ahead of its time?

FH: I would say first that her newspaper was serving a good purpose. Something like that paper may have been needed. But she overstepped. She waged personal vendettas against public figures. As far as she was concerned, certain government officials could do no good. Secondly, O'Sullivan would rush into the paper certain items that were unsubstantiated. There was an unfortunate instance where she slandered two people with sexual abuse allegations - again, unsubstantiated. You can't damage people that way and consider yourself a champion of the truth.

TMA: In my experience, people will sometimes say that if a newspaper does not have hard, critical attacks on public figures it is irrelevant, just a fluff publication. Readers often want to see this kind of reporting.

FH: Issues are issues. By all means, you can criticize a certain figure on a political stand they might take, but without adding the insult that Sherry O'Sullivan sometimes did.

TMA: People such as O'Sullivan (in Canada now and still active with writing and reporting) and Alfonso Diaz, a long-time radical radio show host in Palau and now a Senator, have been two people who have pushed the boundaries of reporting standards within the region. Diaz, you state, 'had three cars burned already" because of his reporting style. They both appeared to have great support from their readers and listeners, but perhaps very little from the politicians and power brokers. I would be interested in your thoughts on the individuals and their styles of reporting. Can a newspaper or radio station not run attacking or negative stories and still be effective?

FH: With Diaz, everybody was a target. Palauans would say that no one escaped his wrath for long. Sometimes he was said to change his own position on issues from day to day. Yet, the corrective mechanism that his radio show had was that it was a call-in show. He had people call in and give their comments and rejoinders to what he had said. I think we are over the hump now in the FSM. We are no longer content with harmless little bits of information that fail to shed light on today's issues. We don't want to know merely which ambassadors presented their credentials. We want to know what the Congress and Legislatures are doing, what the working relationship between the Governor and the Legislature is like, and what the FSM Government is doing in regard to Chuuk. That's news. In reporting that there may be some negative points made, but that is fine. The purpose of the media is to inform the people on issues so that a public dialogue can be started and the issues honestly discussed. Media's job is not to protect the government, but to let the people in on what government is doing - and let the chips fall where they may.

TMA: The development of the print media within the FSM would appear to be growing at the moment. Along with your long-standing Counselor series, we have the established Kaselehlie Press (Pohnpei) and Yap Networker papers as well as the more recent papers, the Micronesian Alliance (Kosrae, Chuuk) and Da Rohng (Pohnpei). How do you view this ascendance, if it indeed can be called that? Is this beneficial to the nation and is there room for more growth in this area?

FH: I'm pleased that we have some more papers. First of all, it is great to see that Kosrae and Chuuk have the Alliance and I certainly hope Da Rohng can continue. But I think we also have to keep in mind that this is an oral culture and the main way people get information is through word of mouth. So the question is, how do we reach into the heart of the communities, into the villages where the life of this nation is, where the people are? We can put out print information, as we should continue to do, that is talked about at Sakau bars, coffee shops, at the office - but it is also important to get information to the people in the communities one way or the other.

TMA: At the end of your essay, "Peeking into the Pubic Process," you state, "The current position taken by government on dispensing information is understandable, particularly in view of traditional Pacific attitudes on information" - which you note is one of protectiveness of valuable knowledge - "but is counter-productive in a modern government. Other nations and the educated populace of the Micronesian nations themselves expect more." From your vantage point, how have both government attitudes toward sharing information with the media and the expectations of the Micronesian populace changed over the last decade or so?

FH: People themselves are changing today. There are very strong opinions stated - sometimes too strong - on our Forum page (, often in relation to what is going on within government. People are beginning to talk more openly about issues and question their leaders-church as well as government, I would add. As for government institutions, the old attitude of withholding information is beginning to wear at the edges, but by no means is it gone.

TMA: Although you do assert that building an effective media system to relay information to the public is a serious need," you also refer to reporters as a "roving band of news hawks" and a small group of professional snoops." What is your view of the media in general?

FH: I wrote those statements tongue in cheek (Hezel laughs.) I wanted to portray the media as they are often misunderstood, or seen by some of those in government offices. The government sometimes treats the media as an impediment, something that is making a difficult job harder. Input from people does complicate decision-making, but it's a necessary complication.

TMA: Lastly, do you think the FSM can achieve the form of good governance that the foreign governments and donor institutions are calling for? And if so, will it be just another "manifestation of U.S. neocolonialism?"

FH: As to the second part of the question, my answer to that is a firm "No." This is not chiefly a demand of the US. It is part of a movement that is worldwide. A nation that will not recognize this will wind up a laughingstock at best, a pariah at worst. Can FSM achieve this good governance? To a great extent it already has. We have been discussing some of the problems in governance here, especially with regard to access to public information. But we should not fail to recognize the tremendous progress that FSM and the other governments in the region have made in governing themselves. There are improvements that can be made, of course, but the achievements in the last twenty years have been real.