During my first week as a journalist in a television station in Papua New Guinea, I got told by a bureaucrat in a large government department that I should be careful what I write about him as he knew the country’s prime minister. That was 10 years ago.
Since then, I’ve received phone calls from government ministers asking me to omit certain details from stories. While covering an election, my cameraman was assaulted by supporters of a politician, I was threatened, and we were told to delete footage from our camera.
So, as the Papua New Guinea government conducts hasty consultation on its draft national media development policy, I want to know how journalists will be protected and allowed to do their jobs freely, because this policy – if it goes through – attempts to legitimise government control over journalists.
It’s obvious, the government wants to regulate what it can’t manage – which is quite clearly content on social media. But journalists risk being roped in too, as under this proposed policy, media outlets and reporters will be required to apply for accreditation or a licence to do their jobs. The policy calls for “provisions for renewing licences and for revoking licences in cases of violations”. So theoretically, if the government doesn’t like what a journalist reports, they can revoke their licence.
Peter Aitsi, the chairman of Transparency International PNG, has criticised the narrow window the government has allowed for media and stakeholders to provide feedback on the draft policy, and warned the policy could undermine media freedoms. “While the abuse of social media platforms is a new issue that is given as justification for the media policy, there are already existing laws that address the issue without undermining media freedom,” Aitsi said in a statement last week.
Social media in PNG is certainly a breeding ground for misinformation, but the solution isn’t a “regulation” policy – it’s funding university journalism schools and improving the government’s own public relations machinery.
The draft media development policy doesn’t address the obvious obstacles that journalists face, including the need for training and better remuneration, and it doesn’t state clearly exactly who is going to protect us from violence, harassment and intimidation.
The government is essentially trying to give more regulatory powers to themselves via a body called the Media Council of Papua New Guinea. The plan is to place this body, which is currently independent, under the PNG communications department, with fears the government could use the council to pressure journalists into covering what they want, significantly formalising political control of PNG newsrooms.
The PNG government already directly or indirectly owns the major TV station EMTV, the radio station FM 100 and the public broadcaster NBC, and it often takes only a phone call to news managers or company executives to bring journalists into line.
Neville Choi, the president of the PNG Media Council, expressed concern about the government’s plans, warning: “Undermining media freedom diminishes the role of the media as the mouthpiece of the people, holding those in power to account … We need newsrooms with access to trainings on media ethics and legal protections from harassment.”
This draft policy is bad news for local journalists who are under pressure to write favourable stories about the government, and comes in the wake of a government decision last September to screen all international journalists before permitting them entry into PNG.
Media censorship is a growing problem across Pacific Island nations, according to Reporters Without Borders, with local journalists sometimes threatened with sacking if they don’t keep quiet. Twenty-four news staff were fired from local television station EMTV last year after a dispute about the reporting of the arrest of Australian businessman Jamie Pang in PNG.
Don’t get me wrong, being a journalist in Papua New Guinea is rewarding and there is a lot to explore and write about. But journalists are often criticised and even shunned for highlighting the negatives in this beautiful yet troubled country that is plagued by sorcery-related violence, gender-based violence, a fragile health system, inflation, murder and rape, all because there are those who believe such coverage is ruining the country’s global image.
Until there is tangible change in the measures of development, stories must be told about the struggles, because Papua New Guineans are struggling to survive in their own country, where a recent UN human rights report states almost 40% of the population lives in poverty.
Journalists use the same hospitals, deal with the outcomes of corruption, use the same public infrastructure and live through the trauma of violence in PNG. So a plea to my fellow Papua New Guineans: please don’t shoot the messenger.
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