Sheldon Chanel says he always wanted to be a journalist, to hold power to account and make a meaningful contribution to society by reporting on critical issues.
Based in Fiji, Sheldon writes for The Guardian‘s Pacific Project, which is supported by JNI. He has filed stories for Al Jazeera and the Earth Journalism Network. He was deputy business and sports editor for daily newspaper the Fiji Sun for three years. He also consults as a training editor at the University of the South Pacific, helping to develop the next generation of Pacific journalists.
We caught up with Sheldon to find out more about the stories he’s covered in Fiji and what’s on the horizon for 2021.
What are some of the key stories you’ve covered for The Guardian?
My first story for The Guardian — on bullying in Fiji schools and its broader implications — is a hard one to forget. I’ve also looked at the impact of cyber bulling and revenge porn in Fiji since the explosion of the internet across the country.
In October, I worked on a major story about a physical altercation between Chinese and Taiwanese diplomats at Taiwan’s annual National Day banquet in Suva, which I attended as a guest. It revealed how the competition between the two Asian rivals is intensifying in the region. The story was a cross-border collaboration, involving myself, The Guardian‘s Pacific Editor Ben Doherty and reporters in Taipei and Beijing.
I’ve also covered the impact of COVID-19 on Fiji and the region’s political, economic and social fabric.
How much of a disruption has COVID-19 been to your work?
I have been forced to do much of my work remotely. This has come with challenges as well as opportunities.
I have been conducting most of my interviews through email and over the phone, as most people prefer not to meet in person.
Government measures to limit movement have also cause restrictions and misinformation on social media has been rife, making our job as journalists challenging, but all the more important.
What impact do you think The Guardian’s Pacific Project has made in Fiji and the Pacific?
There is demand for good, analytical journalism from Pacific journalists, who have lived, worked and studied in the region. The Guardian‘s resources, vast network and international experience combines well with local knowledge and talent.
Usually, reporting on the Pacific is confined to local audiences and the stories are told by foreign journalists.
The Guardian has given Pacific journalists a rare opportunity to report on regional issues for an international audience.
The hope is that global audiences begin to recognise the region as a diverse and vibrant space, made up of many cultures, languages and people, instead of as small, vulnerable and disaster-prone.
The Pacific Project could not have been launched at a more opportune time. The Pacific is at the centre of two ongoing and potentially world-defining events: climate change and the intensifying competition between the US and China. As a journalist, we have to explain these issues to the public in a simple and concise yet impactful manner.
The Guardian is doing great work with regards to putting the region on the international map, with experienced staff also mentoring Pacific journalists like me. I have been fortunate to have mentors, including Kate Lyons and Ben Doherty.
What can Australian journalists do to better understand and report on Fiji and the Pacific?
The key thing is for Australian journalists to work closely with their Pacific counterparts. There is wide scope for collaboration in the sharing of resources, skills, knowledge and networks. With support from Pacific journalists on the ground, stories about the region will be more impactful and nuanced.
Australian journalists should interact with local journalists more regularly while covering the region and, if possible, visit the region for first-hand experience.
I think it’s also important to read as much as possible about the Pacific to get familiar with the issues at stake.
What are the key issues likely to be for Fiji and the region in 2021?
The major ones include COVID-19’s health and economic impact, the ongoing climate crisis and China’s growing presence, which is making the region an intensely contested geopolitical environment. I believe these issues will continue to dominate the news from the region in 2021. The Pacific’s largely tourism and aid dependent economies have been devastated by the pandemic and there are concerns about economic and political instability should the crisis continue unabated.
Another important story is on fisheries and other resource/extractive industries. The Pacific has reportedly the world’s largest reserve of tuna but the pressure is increasing due to increased foreign fishing activity.
Fiji’s national elections will also be held in 2022, which should be an interesting affair given recent trends and the impact of the pandemic.
What I think also needs more coverage, which is perhaps being overshadowed, is the ongoing lifestyle/non-communicable disease crisis. That’s a pandemic in its own right and there seems to be no improvement whatsoever.
Besides that, there are also ongoing issues around corruption, good governance, regionalism, environmental degradation, violence against women and growing inequality that need media attention.