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COMMENTARY

Fijilive.com Proves Power of the Online Press


By Rob Kay and Jeff Bloom

One muggy evening last May, seven masked men armed with AK-47s stormed Fijiís Parliament building in the capital city of Suva and held Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and his Cabinet hostage. It was the beginning of a coup that lasted nearly two months and caught the world by surprise.

A few shots were fired, telephone lines were cut, but www.Fijilive.com, a news organization heretofore unknown outside Fiji, had a reporter with a cell phone in the Parliament building.

As tension mounted, the reporter filed dispatches every few minutes (later every quarter-hour) and the news was immediately posted on Fijilive.com. The word got around quickly and soon dozens of international news organizations such as the BBC, ABCNews.com, CNN and Reuters (not to mention expatriate Fijians) came to rely on Fijilive.com as a lifeline for breaking news on the coup.

In the blink of an eye, a little-known journalist by the name of Yashwant Gaunder, Fijilive.comís founder, had scooped the worldís news media and catapulted his publication into worldwide prominence.

Unwittingly, Gaunder proved how powerful and vital an online news organization could be ó not only in a country such as the United States, but in a distant Third World setting where more often the Internet is something you read about rather than experience.


Fijilive.com was founded in 1997 by 37-year-old Yashwant Gaunder, a tall, unassuming Indo-Fijian who has only been using computers seriously since 1992. A newspaper journalist by training, Yashwant started his career in the 1980s as one of the original employees at Fijiís first private radio station, FM 96. He then free-lanced with the now defunct Fiji Sun before joining the venerable Fiji Times and becoming an editor.

Yashwant told us the Internet inspired him to do something different and challenging. His vision was to build the first, the largest and the best Web site in Fiji and the South Pacific. Weíd say heís certainly achieved that. To meet the demand, he now has a staff of 12, including reporters and webmasters.

But says heís not stopping there. He readily admits that heís not a "webmaster" but rather acts more as a managing editor. In his words, "I play a large part in what content goes in the site."

Fijilive.com was originally designed as a vehicle to republish existing content from Fijian publications such as The Review, a local news magazine. This led to the organization developing its own local news coverage of Fiji politics, sports and other issues of interest to the nationís 830,000 inhabitants. When the coup occurred, the stage was set for Gaunderís portal to gain worldwide fame at least among the journalistic and South Pacific cognoscenti.

Challenges overcome

The coup presented challenges both in gathering and distributing the news. Power failures and intermittent telephone service plagued the capital of Suva (where the coup took place) but luckily Fijilive.com escaped unscathed. Fortunately, Gaunderís office (and server) is located in a new building with good infrastructure. Although rebels did cut international telephone services, data lines were spared.

As the Fijilive.com founder explained it, "All telephone lines were cut but apparently the Internet was forgotten. We were updating the Net every few minutes." Yashwant and company later realized that with a reporter in the Parliament building who was relaying info on a mobile phone they had a lock on the news. A Reuters story proclaimed: "Fiji Web site is worldís window on coup attempt."

"We found out at night," said Gaunder, "that this was the case when everyone started calling us for interviews and pictures, etc."

Ironically, the only time Fijilive went down, it wasnít because rebels silenced their operation. Rather it was because of too many "hits." Said Gaunder: "Our server could only handle a maximum of 50,000 simultaneous hits. Pre-coup we only averaged 5,500 hits per day so on the third day when we received 175,000 hits, it killed our server. We now receive about 50,000 hits per day."

The traffic, he explained, was mostly coming from overseas.

Throughout the coup, Fijilive was praised for its objective reporting by the foreign press. "I think itís crucial, itís vital, itís something the coup leaders may not so easily suppress," said Heinz Shurmann-Zeggel, head of South Pacific research for Amnesty Internationalís Secretariat in London. In Gaunderís words, "We wanted to do our job as journalists informing the world in a balanced fashion."

Ian Collingwood, an executive at Sunflower Airlines Fiji and founder of various e-commerce sites such as Pacificnavigator.com, www.fj2.com and www.mrlavalava.com, was an early adopter of the Internet in Fiji. He reckons that Fijilive.comís coverage of the coup gave a shot in the arm to freedom of speech in Fiji and signals the nascent growth of the new economy in Fiji and the South Pacific.

"Yashwant did a great service to Fiji, but his ability to fly by the seat of his pants typifies many local entrepreneurs. Here in Fiji we sometimes donít have the government stability that first-world countries can depend on. That makes us a lot more dependent on our own business instincts and sheer ability to survive.

"The Net is a great equalizer and in the Fijian world of cowboy capitalism, where guerrilla marketing and ability to react quickly in the marketplace is paramount ó we fit right into the Internet equation. The lesson for us and other South Pacific countries is: Leverage the tools that will give you an advantage. Thatís what Fijilive.com did."

Bullish about future

Yashwant Gaunder is bullish about the future and confident that the Internet can play an important role in the growth of developing countries like Fiji. "The pity in most Pacific countries is maybe that the policy makers do not understand the Net or use computers. Last year we did a survey of local MPs and less than 10 percent had used the Net," he says.

"Yet this is a great chance to bridge the rural-urban divide as well as educate our people," he adds. "The Net can be used for tele-medicine, etc. Unfortunately, monopoly ISPs run by government-owned companies are extremely slow in developing the sector. Governments have to open up the Internet sector and move faster because the whole world will leave us by the time we wake up."

We agree with you, Yashwant. However, itís not only isolated South Pacific nations that face stumbling blocks from their respective governments. The state of HawaiĎi, which has taken great strides in developing a home-grown e-commerce sector, still faces enormous challenges in this arena.

According to Tony Clapes, author of the newly published "Blue Wave Millennium, a Future for Hawaii," to succeed in becoming an engine of the new economy, the private sector, the public sector and academia need to work in close cooperation. "Weíll need a full-court press to make HawaiĎi a hub of technology. Weíve become a solid bit player in the technology arena but that isnít enough to ensure long term success. We need to create a leading role."

Rob Kay is a Honollu-based public relations practitioner who works with technology companies in Hawai'i and Silicon Valley. Jeff Bloom is the founder of Computer Training Academy/Network Resource Center, a computer education/consulting firm based in Honolulu.

Published Nov 26, 2000

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