4 May 2018

Media in 'crisis' - Pacific press freedom comes under spotlight

2:46 pm on 4 May 2018

The media industry is said to be in crisis, with some leading Pacific journalists describing a dire state of affairs when it comes to media freedom in the region.

Papua New Guinea prime minister Peter O'Neill casts his vote in the 2017 election in his electorate of Ialibu-Pangia.

Papua New Guinea prime minister Peter O'Neill casts his vote in the 2017 election in his electorate of Ialibu-Pangia. Photo: PMO Media

The United Nations sets 3 May as World Press Freedom Day to raise awareness about the importance of a free media.

The day also drew attention to some of the challenges the media faced in the Pacific.

A senior journalist in Papua New Guinea said there is no media freedom in the country and journalists are often working in fear.

Titi Gabi said local media had become a public relations entity for the powers that be.

Ms Gabi said World Press Freedom Day was simply a reminder of the issues that existed in PNG.

"With interference from outside influence, right up to setting the news agenda to bribing journalists to threats to threats of court action against journalists. There is a lot of censorship, there is a lot of control," she said.

"We no longer enjoy media freedom so today it is really sad times here in PNG."

PNG Electoral Commissioner Patilias Gamato under pressure at a media conference

Photo: RNZI Johnny Blades

Ms Gabi said journalists were working under extreme pressure, particularly from government, and it was sometimes applied in an indirect fashion.

"The pressure is coming from the highest, most powerful office in the country and most of the threats are directed at the top members of media houses and not necessarily the newsroom managers and it trickles down to the newsroom," she said.

Kalafi Moala is a long-time publisher and journalist in Tonga who was jailed in 1996 for contempt of parliament after reporting on proceedings in the House.

He said media freedom and access to information was in the worst shape that he had ever seen in his country.

He said the current government was trying to control channels of public information.

Mr Moala gave the move of senior journalists out of the state broadcaster's newsroom as just one example of this.

"It is set up for public broadcasting, yet the government has felt to take control of it, specifically because they have been annoyed, according to the Prime Minister, for the harsh and hard questioning that they have done over the last few years."

Mr Moala said the government had also refused to answer queries about delays in the recovery and rebuild after February's Cyclone Gita, responding to criticism or probing questions by making statements to ridicule the media.

Tonga, like PNG, dropped two places in the Reporters Without Borders media freedom rankings.

Publisher and commentator, Kalafi Moala

Publisher and commentator, Kalafi Moala Photo: supplied

However Mr Moala said that might not be an accurate reflection of his country.

"The drop in the ranking of two is so small compared with what we as journalists on the ground here in Tonga are experiencing," he said.

"This is the worst in 29 years of working as a journalist and publishing here in Tonga, the last three and a half years has been the worst that I have seen in Tonga."

Next week the kingdom hosts the Pacific Islands News Association conference where many of the region's media leaders will be represented.

Mr Moala said the gathering might help ease the tension that exists in Tonga but he did not hold optimism for the future.

He said as long as the current group under Prime Minister 'Akilisi Pohiva was still in government, there was no hope of advancing freedom of information in Tonga.

Fiji was the only Pacific country to climb the media freedom rankings but still remained behind Tonga and PNG in 57th spot.

A newspaper stand selling the Fiji Times in Fiji

A newspaper stand selling the Fiji Times in Fiji Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

Reporters Without Borders said the adoption of a new constitution in 2013 and the ensuing parliamentary elections in September 2014, the first since the 2006 coup, had a positive impact on access to information.

However the group also claimed the media was still hampered by a number of restrictions including a draconian 2010 media decree.

A high profile trial is also underway in the country with senior staff at the Fiji Times accused of sedition under the Crimes Act after the publication of a letter in the iTaukei newspaper, Nai Lalakai, in 2016.

In a separate incident, staff at the Islands Business magazine were taken in by police earlier this year over an apparent breach of the Public Order Act.

The arrests followed an article published during a lockout of workers at Nadi airport, which suggested that the magistrate who ruled in their favour had had his contract terminated.

The charges were recently dropped.

This week Fiji's Leader of the Opposition, Ro Teimumu Kepa, released a written statement saying the press was the fourth arm of the State which linked the government and the people.

Ro Teimumu said Fiji had not been immune to practices which "kill the messenger" with power, regulation and brutal use of force.

She said Fiji had lost some very good journalists as a result, through migration, resignation, injury, death by torture and closure of the press.

She said any attempt to stifle the freedom of the press by adopting a heavy handed approach upon the journalists would only result in self-censorship, denial of the right to freedom of expression and lead to Fiji becoming a society devoid of information, public probity and fair reasoning.

"I call upon the government of the day and the people of Fiji to seriously consider the review of the Media Industry Development Authority Decree and other draconian laws that continue to make freedom of the press a distant dream in Fiji," Ro Teimumu said.

"It is time that we set the Press free in order to set ourselves, our future generations and our country free."

Jason Brown is a founding member of the Pacific Freedom Forum.

He said the industry was in crisis and the government saw the news media as the enemy.

Ro Teimumu Kepa, Fiji's SODELPA leader

Ro Teimumu Kepa, Fiji's SODELPA leader Photo: RNZ / Republika

"...that we are out to sabotage government projects, programmes, objectives, if not just for the sake of a racy headline but on behalf of foreign owners."

He said media houses needed to change their centuries-old corporate structures to better suit the current environment.

He also said governments needed to realise the importance of the press.

"We're the front-line of any national defence," Mr Brown said.

He said the media could find things out faster than almost anyone with the exception of the highest level of government surveillance.

"So we should be regarded as development partners, even if we are the most difficult development partner."

Jason Brown also said a better resourced media would be better equipped in the current environment.

Titi Gabi agreed to some extent.

She said the absence of a national media council in PNG and a lack of emphasis on media freedom and ethics among local institutions had definitely hurt the industry.

Jason Brown said news media 'thought-leaders' that were looking at industry structures offer the clearest path ahead.

Reporters Without Borders world press freedom index map. The lighter the country, the more free the media.

Reporters Without Borders world press freedom index map. The lighter the country, the more free the media. Photo: supplied / Reporters Without Borders

He said the former New Zealand Herald editor, Gavin Ellis, had written a book outlining the structure that newsrooms of the future might operate under.

Mr Brown said it was up to the media to look at new and innovative ways of running and resourcing the news.

CORRECTION: This story previously referred to sedition charges in Fiji being made under the Crimes Decree of 2009. The charges were in fact made under the Crimes Act that was amended in 2009. The offence of sedition predates the amendment.

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