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Iconic Pacific paper founded with no press, no journalism, no office ‘but tons of vision’

Philip Cass

Media academic Dr Philip Cass with the popular comic character Phantom in Tok Pisin ... as published in Wantok. Photo: Del Abcede/PMC

Pacific Scoop:
Report – By Henry Yamo

Papua New Guinea’s weekly Tok Pisin newspaper Wantok has been described as the longest surviving vernacular publishing icon in the South Pacific since its humble beginnings in 1969.

Although not the first to be published in Tok Pisin, this newspaper has stood the test of time and is now the only pidgin paper in circulation today.

Dr Philip Cass highlighted this in a seminar at AUT University’s Pacific Media Centre last night attended by several Papua New Guinean students and the public.

Born and bred in PNG and now postgraduate programmme leader of communication studies at Unitec in Auckland, Dr Cass said the newspaper was the result of tireless efforts by Fr Frank Mihalic, whose name is commonly associated with the newspaper.

“Fr Mihalic started the paper with literally nothing – no printing press, no journalistic experience, no office, no funds – but “tons of vision, commitment, drive and enthusiasm,” he said.

“Without Fr Mihalic, there would be no Wantok newspaper in Papua New Guinea today. Although the idea of a newspaper was not his, Fr Mihalic created Wantok.”

His work was supported by then Vicar Apostolic of Central New Guinea, Bishop Leo Arkfeld, who was equally committed and visionary in wanting to see the newspaper come into being and serve the needs of the ordinary people – reading and writing in Tok Pisin.

Fr Mihalic’s drive
Giving an account of an interview on Kairuru Island, East Sepik province, in early 1992 with Fr Mihalic – who was almost a jack of all trades – Dr Cass said it was Mihalic’s drive coupled with his belief in what he did that kept him pushing during the early years of the paper.

Fr Mihalic believed in the purpose of the paper – to educate.

This was appreciated by Papua New Guinean students in Auckland who acknowledged how Wantok became a force that enabled many people to be Tok Pisin savvy by reading the paper.

The newspaper has played a significant role in the spread of a common Tok Pisin vocabulary and way of speaking the language and boosting development through common communication in a society where Tok Pisin differed greatly from region to region.

Wantok was targeted at the grassroots people and during its early years it devoted a great deal of attention explaining the changing political scene and basic concepts in a language that was gradually becoming common to the readership, Dr Cass said.

Fr Mihalic started work on Wantok in 1967, a time when 24 other Tok Pisin publications – either from the churches or the government – were already in circulation in Papua New Guinea. To date none have survived – but Wantok did.

With all work done for the first issue, Wantok rolled out of the Wiriu printing press in Wewak on 5 October 1970. Then Speaker of the House of Assembly, the late Sir John Guise, pressed the button to start the press rolling.

‘Read then  smoke it’
The paper, which in the early days carried the slogan “Read it before you smoke it”, is truly a remarkable newspaper that is older than the nation it serves today.

It brings weekly news and information to the bulk of present day Tok Pisin readers in the country.

Pacific Media Centre director associate professor David Robie also praised Fr Mihalic’s “extraordinary contribution to the cultural and media life” of a dynamic developing nation.

Apart from creating Wantok, Fr Mihalic wrote the Tok Pisin dictionary for Papua New Guinea and translated the PNG Constitution into Tok Pisin, wrote 30 books and educated some of the top journalists in the country today.

Although he died in 2001, he  will still be remembered as long as Wantok lives – and well beyond.

Henry Yamo from the Southern Highlands is a postgraduate communication studies student at AUT University. This is his first article for Pacific Scoop.