Media and Democracy workshop participants Yale Kramer and Tinong Kramer review an assignment with lead workshop trainer Floyd K. Takeuchi. Photo: Hilary Hosia.

By Floyd K. Takeuchi

            What happens when you bring together some 50 participants from across Micronesia, including some of the brightest young talent in the Marshall Islands, front-end load a four-day workshop on journalism and communications, and end with a day-long national summit on democracy and the news media? The answer goes to the heart of democracy in the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

Majuro Media and Democracy Workshop participants in the journalist and student track engaged in a presentation. Photo: Hilary Hosia.

            Consider that the summit took place in one of the world’s youngest democracies at a time when the foundational values of democracy are under attack around the world. For example, in the United States of America, once the Marshall Islands’ colonial master, there are senior elected officials who with a straight face defend sedition as the right to free speech. Yet on Majuro, beneath a large national flag, the republic’s president and parliamentary speaker, who don’t always see eye, found common ground supporting the constitutional right of a free and independent press.

            President David Kabua did note that a free press must play a critical leadership role. He likened it, most interestingly, to that of a mother’s place in a family. It was an eloquent reminder to the many Marshallese and regional journalists in attendance that the news media is an essential element in the national leadership structure.

            In a similar manner, those in attendance were reminded that defending the rights of a free press requires courage and commitment. Veteran Tongan news executive Kalafi Moala, one of the Pacific’s most eloquent journalists, spoke of the passion for speaking truth to power that must burn bright inside every Pacific journalist. Moala knows the cost of speaking truth to power – he was jailed and deported for reporting the truth. But he was also the first to counsel Pacific journalists to take the lead in acknowledging when they’ve made a mistake. The Polynesians are particularly adept at forgiveness ceremonies. The rest of the Pacific could learn much from Talanoa and similar customs.

            The summit had a practical benefit for the Marshall Islands. Keynote speaker Andy Winer, Washington, DC-based executive vice president of the lobbying firm Strategies 360, encouraged the Marshalls to develop a strategic communications plan to have clear and consistent messaging in the U.S. Congress and before federal agencies. It was a hard-edged reminder, offered as a “friend to a friend,” that if the Marshall Islands doesn’t effectively tell its own story, who will?

            A final takeaway, related closely to Winer’s call for clear messaging, was the obvious need for more support for the nation’s small corps of government and private sector public information officers. It was quickly evident that this critical group gets little support or credit, let alone institutional understanding of the role PIOs can play in telling the story of the Marshall Islands. It’s about more than “writing press releases” that disappear into the ether once they’re approved. PIOs can play a leading role in developing and defending the national “brand” of the RMI.

            My suggestion is the development of a national Marshall Islands Information Service, a corps of talented information specialists who are trained in best practices of writing, graphic design, photography and videography and who are conversant with the principles of public relations and brand development. At a time when the Marshall Islands is facing the twin existential threats of climate change and an expanding diaspora, few things are more important than having a corps of trained Marshallese specialists who can both tell the country’s story and reach its scattering population.

            The Marshall Islands is indeed fortunate to have the Pacific Media Institute, which developed last week’s training program and national summit. No one knows better what local needs are than locally-based experts. Now it’s time for the community to get behind the Pacific Media Institute and its programs.

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