Following a recent assault on a Post-Courier reporter in Papua New Guinea, a media workers group has spoken out about the “worrying” state of the country’s news sector. Attacks on journalists are on the rise, industry ethics are deteriorating and the Media Council of PNG is completely ineffective, they say. What’s going wrong in the South Pacific’s biggest media industry? An Asia-Pacific Journalism special report.
Analysis – By Harry Pearl
Post-Courier reporter Michael Koma in Papua New Guinea was recently savagely assaulted for a news story he wrote questioning the appointment of several district administrators in the Highlands province of Chimbu.
Koma, who is the newspaper’s Kundiawa-based correspondent, says four men confronted him at a relative’s house at about 8am and, after questioning him briefly about the story, repeatedly punched him in the face.
“I received punches to both sides of my jaw, jawbones, which is very painful as I’m talking right now,” Koma told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation just days later.
According to a story which appeared in the Post-Courier the following week, the men were disgruntled supporters of newly appointed administrator, Francis Aiwa, and his deputy, Marcus Warip.
In April, Mark Kayok, a police reporter for the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC), suffered a broken nose in a brutal attack by uniformed police officers disgruntled with “negative” reporting about them.
While Papua New Guinea ranks highly on international media freedom indexes, as reported in the Pacific Media Freedom Report 2011 by Pacific Media Watch, some in the country are worried the assaults are signs of a worrying trend.
Papua New Guinean journalist Titi Gabi, who co-chairs a regional media watchdog Pacific Freedom Forum (PFF) and is a founding member of the PNG Media Workers Association, says the media climate is “deteriorating” in the country.
Threats, bribery claims
Threats to journalists, widespread allegations of bribery within publications, and a lack of affective industry regulation are all afflicting the media, she says.
“What used to be a really shining, strong industry, sadly has now cracked all over the place”.
Papua New Guinea has the largest media industry in the Pacific. It consists of two English-language dailies, one local language (Tok Pisin) weekly, the National Broadcasting Corporation of PNG (NBC), four major FM radio stations and two television stations, EMTV (Media Niugini) and the government-owned Kundu TV. There is also a network of church-based radio stations reaching some of the most isolated communities in the country.
The media is mostly foreign-owned – with the Post-Courier being a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s Sydney-based News Ltd and The National being owned by the Malaysian logging company Rimbunan Hijau – and targets the metropolitan-based corporate elite – a relatively small proportion of the country’s population.
Baluck Boney, acting executive director of the Media Council of Papua New Guinea – the industry body tasked with development and regulation of the country’s media – says Papua New Guinea has one of the most vibrant and free media environments in the Pacific.
“We have never had any major incidents until now,” he says.
“In the last couple of months, prior to elections and during the time of political upheaval, we have had incidents where journalists have been assaulted or abused by members of our security forces.”
The media landscape in Papua New Guinea has had a significant shake-up over the last year, owing in part to the rapid take-up of social media, reported the PMW media freedom report, but predominantly to the political instability which accompanied the political coup on August 2 last year, and extended through to the formation of the new Peter O’Neill-led government at the beginning of August this year.
When O’Neill ousted ailing and absent Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare through a parliamentary vote in August 2011, Papua New Guinea plunged into a leadership crisis that had by mid-December turned into a constitutional crisis.
The leadership change, and subsequent dispute over who was legitimate Prime Minister, resulted in a protracted bout of judicial suspensions and legislative changes enacted by O’Neill, who was backed by the majority of Parliament.
The situation ultimately earned a rebuke from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay in April, who warned: “Papua New Guinea is on a slippery path to upending the constitutional order and undermining the rule of law.”
Pillay, acting on reports that several journalists had been attacked for reporting on the political impasse, also called on the government to ensure journalists were protected.
“It is the government’s responsibility and obligation under international human rights law to ensure that freedom of expression is respected, and that when journalists are attacked for doing their jobs, prompt investigations are conducted and perpetrators are duly prosecuted.”
Pillay’s comments came just months after soldiers allegedly threatened to shoot a reporter from PNG FM who requested an interview at the Murray Barracks in Port Moresby, and a Post-Courier journalist was threatened by police brandishing semi-automatic weapons and grenades for reporting on a meeting between officials and landowners about a controversial gas pipeline project.
When coupled with flagrant assaults on journalists, such as the attack on NBC journalist Mark Kayok, the situation facing the media as the country headed to the polls looked dire.
In a comprehensive report on media freedom in the region published in the Pacific Journalism Review last year, Alex Perrottet and Dr David Robie predicted PNG would face a challenging year in 2012.
A year out from national elections, they cited elections in previous years as having been “frequently marred by corruption claims, voting fraud and threats to journalists,” they said.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the prognosis has proven accurate. There have been threats to journalists reporting the election, two documented cases of information from voting returns being denied to journalists, and allegations of bribery within newsrooms.
According to a statement from PFF on July 5, staff at a NBC provincial office were threatened by an angry mob led by East Sepik governor Peter Wararau Waranaka, who was upset at a report filed by a journalist the previous day.
In two separate incidents, journalists at polling centres in the Western Highlands and Morobe provinces were refused information from returning officers, and in one instance asked to pay a fee for results .
Equally worrying is what Gabi describes as “widespread” corruption in newsrooms themselves.
“It did get worse since the election period. It was like people were just buying the front page.”
Although journalists have been confronted with a challenging political environment to report on, there have been long-standing claims from politicians that the reporting in Papua New Guinea is “biased” and unbalanced.
Gabi said it is “common knowledge” journalists, including senior journalists, are on the “take”.
“That in itself is a threat to the industry,” she said.
In March, months before the campaign period started, Parliament conducted a debate where MPs aired their displeasure with media coverage. Biased reporting, along with unbalanced stories and radio interviews were raised during the discussion.
Although Gabi said this type of criticism is not uncommon from MPs, she concedes sometimes the ministers have a point.
“Sometimes they do make sense, because we’re also reading and we see the slant in the stories and that the standards have dropped.”
Media Council inquiry
The trouble facing Papua New Guinea’s media is compounded by the absence of adequate industry regulation and advocacy, a role tasked, at least nominally, with the Media Council of Papua New Guinea (MCPNG).
Crippled by an ongoing AusAID investigation into alleged misuse of funds, the MCPNG, in the words of Gabi, “no longer exists”.
“We need to wake up the Media Council, force them to hold an AGM to be clear and start working”
Established in 1985, the MCPNG Facebook page describes the council as the “peak media body in the country” and its membership is comprised of representatives from Papua New Guinea’s main media organisations.
Its goals include enhancing the media sector and empowering its personnel to “overcome restrictions from the state, market and the profession”, as well as supporting the media to “maximise opportunities for critical reflections and rational deliberations in the public sphere”.
According to Gabi, this is not happened at all.
“They don’t respond to anybody, they’re just not there.”
When Koma was attacked on October 13, Gabi hit out at the MCPNG for not publicly condemning the assault, telling Radio New Zealand International the council has been invisible for nearly two years.
However, Boney says it has always been the policy of the MCPNG to condemn acts of violence aimed at journalists.
“We have been always been defending our members who are in the media outlets here.”
Asked why the MCPNG had not voiced its concern over the most recent attack, he says the council had not received specific details of it.
“We must have the details, information as to why this happened. In order for us to speak up and ask the question of redress we need to get all this information from our people before we can make any statement.”
In its inaugural Pacific Press Freedom Report published in May 3 this year, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) concluded that the council’s Media Complaints Tribunal, established to look at public complaints about the media, was also inactive in its regulatory role.
Among the 12 accompanying recommendations made by the IJF to strengthen Papua New Guinea’s media was a call for the Media Tribunal to be “jolted into action” and an AGM to be brought forward to “ensure normal functions of the Council resume as soon as possible”.
With its funding frozen, more than half its workforce dismissed and no timetable scheduled for another general meeting, it looks unlikely adequate reform of the council will be implemented in the immediate future.
Some commentators have pointed out more deep rooted problems within Papua New Guinea’s media, such as “appalling” pay rates of most journalists and the pressure this exerts on ethics.
“This raises concerns about how independent the media really is with such low wage structures, or how at risk the media may be to the influence of so called “envelope journalism” inducements by unscrupulous politicians,” Pacific Media Centre director Professor David Robie wrote in a South Pacific communications book chapter.
Entry level salaries for journalists start at about PKG8000 a year, while media managers salaries generally vary from between PKG20,000 to PKG40,000; as the IJF report points out, the latter salary range would be the starting rate for journalists in public relations.
According to Gabi, pay rates for journalists are a major contributor to the poor shape of the industry.
“It’s so bad, nobody wants to come and do the job. While those already there, the bribes become really attractive. It’s becoming quite expensive to live in PNG.”
With limited control over the economic fortunes of the media industry, education for journalists and professional mentoring in newsrooms seem to be key.
Despite pledging his commitment to media freedom at a workshop in Port Moresby in May, O’Neill said the changing face of the media, with advances in internet, mobile access and social media, will see future government’s passing law to “expand and expound” on media freedoms.
O’Neill’s Communications Secretary, Kora Nua, who represented the Prime Minister at the workshop, told those gathered: “[Legislation considered] should only be confined to aspects of definition, responsibility and clarity of these freedoms and without any real or implied imposition of restrictive and regulatory provisions” .
While the comments seemed to signal a considered approach to any new media laws, Gabi is fearful of what the fractured state of the media and a lack of adequate regulation could ultimately mean.
“Well first of all, what we’re doing is running the risk of having the government coming and saying, ‘You’ve got nobody in place that is actually doing anything to regulate – so perhaps we should step in’. That’s my biggest fear.”
Harry Pearl is a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies student journalist on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University.