22 Jan 2024

In-depth Solomons: Leaked emails show China's media interference

5:36 pm on 22 January 2024

By Ronald Toito'ona and Charley Piringi, In-depth Solomons

Screen capture of the leaked emails In-depth Solomons has obtained.

In the last two years, China has provided both financial support and thousands of dollars' worth of office and media equipment to Solomon Islands news organisations. Photo: In-depth Solomons

China's interference and moves to control the media in the Solomon Islands have been exposed in leaked emails In-depth Solomons has obtained.

On Monday last week, Huangbi Lin, a diplomat working at the Chinese Embassy in Honiara, called the owner of Island Sun newspaper, Lloyd Loji, and expressed the embassy's "concern" in a viewpoint article the paper published on page 6 of the day's issue.

The article, which appeared earlier in an ABC publication, was about Taiwan's newly-elected president William Lai Ching-te, and what his victory means to China and the West.

Lin's phone call and his embassy's concern was revealed in an email Loji wrote to the editorial staff of Island Sun, which In-depth Solomons has cited.

"I had received a call this morning from Lin (Chinese Embassy) raising their concern on the ABC publication on today's issue, page 6," Loji wrote.

"Yesterday, he had sent us a few articles regarding China's stance on the elections taking place in Taiwan which he wanted us to publish," his email reads.

"Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Solomon Islands) made a press release reaffirming Solomon Island's position with regards to the Taiwan elections (recognition of one China principle)."

"Let us align ourselves according to the position in which our country stands."

"Be mindful of our publication since China is also a supporter of Island Sun."

"Please collaborate on this matter and (be) cautious of the news that we publish especially with regards to Taiwan's election."

Loji has not responded to questions In-depth Solomons sent to him for comments.

On Sunday 14 January, Lin sent an email to owners and editors of Solomons Islands' major news outlets, asking for their cooperation in their reporting of the Taiwanese election outcome.

"Dear media friends," he started his email. "As the result of the election in the Taiwan region of the People's Republic of China being revealed, a few media reports are trying to cover it from incorrect perspectives," the email continues. "The Embassy of the People's Republic of China would like to remind that both inappropriate titles on newly-elected Taiwan leaders and incorrect name on the Taiwan region are against the one-China policy and the spirit of UN resolution 2758," Lin said.

In the same email, he also sent two articles from the State Council Taiwan Affairs Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China on the results of the Taiwan elections.

He requested that the articles be published in the next day's papers.

None of the two articles appeared in the Island Sun the next day, but the paper eventually published them on Tuesday.

The Solomon Star featured both articles, along with a government statement issued at the behest of the Chinese Embassy, on its front page.

Lin failed to respond to questions In-depth Solomons sent to him for comments.

Taiwan has been Solomons Islands' diplomatic ally until 2019 when Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare ditched them for China.

In the last two years, China has provided both financial support and thousands of dollars' worth of office and media equipment to Island Sun and Solomon Star.

'Incident is regrettable', media association says

Media Association of Solomon Islands (MASI) urges China to respect the independence of the media.

"This incident is regrettable," MASI President Georgina Kekea told In-depth Solomons.

"Any attempts to control or manipulate the media compromise the public's right to information," Kekea added.

"Despite the One China Policy, China must respect the rights of Solomon Islanders in their own country.

"The situation shows the big difference between the values of the Solomon Islands and China. Respect goes both ways.

"Chinese representatives working in Solomon Islands must remember that Solomon Islands is a democratic country with values different to that of their own country and no foreign policy should ever dictate what people can and cannot do in their own country."

Kekea further added that it is disheartening to hear interference by diplomatic partners in the day-to-day operations of an independent newsroom.

She said in a democratic country like Solomon Islands, it is crucial that the autonomy of newsrooms remain intact, and free from any external government influence on editorial decisions.

Kekea also urged Solomon Islands newsroom leaders to be vigilant and not allow outsiders to dictate their news content.

"There are significant long-term consequences if we allow outsiders to dictate our decisions.

"Solomon Islands is a democratic country, with the media serving as the fourth pillar of democracy.

"It is crucial not to permit external influences in directing our course of action."

Kekea also highlighted the financial struggles news organisations in Solomon Islands face and the financial assistance they've received from external donors.

She pointed out that this sort of challenge arises when news organisations lacked the financial capacity to look after themselves.

"The concern is not exclusive to China but extends to all external support.

"It is essential to acknowledge and appreciate the funding support received but there should be limits.

"We must enable the media to fulfil its role independently. Gratitude for funding support should not translate into allowing external entities to exploit us for their own agenda or geopolitical struggles.

"Media is susceptible to the influence of major powers. Thus, we must try as much as possible to not get ourselves into a position that we cannot get out of.

"It is important to keep our independence. We must try as much as possible to be self-reliant. To work hard and not rely solely on external partners for funding support.

"If we are not careful, we might lose our freedom."

-This story was originally published by In-depth Solomons.