Journalism under duress in Asia-Pacific – an introduction

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When the Pacific Media Centre was founded at AUT a decade ago in October 2007 — and launched by Laumanuvao Winnie Laban while she was Minister of Pacific Island Affairs – the region faced a turbulent era.

Fiji’s so-called “coup culture” had become entrenched by yet another coup in December 2006 by military commander Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama.

However, this time it was not an ethnocentric putsch, but allegedly a “coup to end all coups” and in support of a multiracial future.

A six-month state of emergency period followed with many human rights violations. These breaches continued for the next eight years until a general election in 2014 – and beyond.

There were also concerns in Papua New Guinea over human rights violations, including police brutality and killing of suspects in law enforcement.

Relations were strained at the time between Solomon Islands and Australia over the Moti affair.

This was about an Australian lawyer Julian Moti who had been appointed to the post of Attorney-General, culminating in an Australian police raid on the Solomon Islands prime minister’s office.

In 2007, corruption, gender violence and other human rights violations were rife.

Arbitrary killings
In the wider Asia-Pacific region, arbitrary, unlawful, and extrajudicial killings by elements of the security services and political killings, including of journalists, were already a major problem in the Philippines – but not anything like the scale of President Duterte era of today.

And in Timor-Leste, security forces carried out nine killings that year in 2007 – less than a third of the 29 the previous year – and there were human rights violations against journalists and other civilians.

These circumstances were fertile ground for the establishment of both the Pacific Media Centre here at AUT and its Pacific Media Watch media freedom project as one of the first research and publication initiatives established under the PMC umbrella.

The project was transferred to AUT’s PMC from the University of Papua New Guinea and University of Technology Sydney where it had been founded by ABC Four Corners investigative journalist Peter Cronau and me.

Billed as an independent, non-profit network reporting on media developments in and around New Zealand and the Asia-Pacific region, the initiatives and work were inspired by the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism (ACIJ) – which sadly closed in April this year after a quarter of a century of cutting edge investigative journalism.

Despite its limited resources, the Pacific Media Centre has contributed to greater diversity and more research and analysis of the region’s media over the past decade.

It has also worked closely with Reporters Sans Frontières in Paris, Freedom House in New York and other media freedom organisations.

As the credibility of neoliberalism and the quality of newspapers has eroded in Australia and New Zealand, universities and other non-profits are being increasingly seen as alternative backers for serious journalism.

Pacific Media Watch
Pacific Media Centre is regarded as an early example of such a venture, along with its early adopted project, Pacific Media Watch.

Another cornerstone of the Pacific Media Centre has been publication of Pacific Journalism Review, a Scopus-ranked international research journal that was launched originally at the University of Papua New Guinea and has now been published for 23 years.

At a conference at AUT in 2014 celebrating 20 years of publication, an academic analysis by Queensland University of Technology journalism coordinator Lee Duffield concluded that PJR “gives oxygen to campaigns that decry suppression of truth” and examines self-censorship by news media.

Pacific Media Watch has developed a strategy to challenge issues of ethics, media freedom, industry ownership, cross-cultural diversity and media plurality. It has been involved in reporting coups d’etat, civil conflict and media independence.

The service has been an important catalyst for journalists, media educators, citizen journalists and critical journalists collaborating in a broader trajectory of Pacific protest.

In 2015, PMW won the Faculty Dean’s award for a “critic and conscience of society” and it has won other awards.

Congratulations and thanks to the current PMW editor, Kendall Hutt, and all predecessors – Taberannang Korauaba, Josie Latu, Alex Perrottet, Daniel Drageset, Anna Majavu, Alistar Kata and TJ Aumua – for their contribution.

Spate of murders
In the Philippines, the extrajudicial killings crisis and the ongoing spate of murders of journalists has been an issue prominently reported on through the Pacific Media Watch project and the PMC’s news and current affairs website Asia Pacific Report.

Recently IFEX, the global media freedom exchange, summarised the current status of the trial of the accused in the Ampatuan massacre of 2009, in which 32 journalists were among the 58 people killed in a political ambush, by declaring: “Eight years, zero convictions.”

Threats to journalists in the Philippines since President Rodrigo Duterte came to power on 30 June 2016 have grown rapidly.

He unleashed his so-called “war on drugs” with an estimated death toll of more than 7000 to 9000 suspects, drug addicts and innocent people, so far – many of them children.

The recently ended three-month siege of Marawi City, also on Mindanao, has also been a tough time for journalists.

Malou Mangahas, executive director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), and her team are among those few brave Filipino journalists and media researchers trying to expose the truth in a chilling environment.

Malou is a veteran of Philippine journalism. As well as her role with the PCIJ, she is host of the weekly public affairs programme Investigative Documentaries on GMA NewsTV.

Political detainee
She was once a university campus journalist. She was the first woman president of the Student Council at a state university where she completed her thesis on a portable typewriter while on the run from dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ military goons.

Malou was arrested and became a political detainee in 1980, yet still managed to finish her journalism degree with honours.

A fellow of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University in 1998-99, Malou has worked as editor-in-chief of a national newspaper, radio programme host, executive producer of a TV debate programme.

She was also the first editor-in-chief of gmanews.tv online, while working as vice-president for research and content development of GMA news and public affairs.

Malou has conducted training on investigative reporting, data journalism, campaign finance, covering elections, and uncovering corruption for journalists in the Philippines and also in many places in Southeast Asia and Africa. This is her first visit to New Zealand.

I met Malou during a visit to the PCIJ in Manila on my sabbatical last year and I was subsequently at her presentation on the “war on drugs” at the UNESCO World Press Freedom Day 2017 conference in Jakarta, Indonesia.

West Papua
Closer to home in the Pacific, but equally ignored by most of the New Zealand media, is the ongoing human rights crisis in the two Indonesian-ruled Melanesian provinces of Papua and West Papua, which we generally group together as the region of West Papua.

It has been very difficult, even dangerous, for journalists to go to West Papua independently. Many have chosen to go there illegally as tourists and report under cover at great risk to themselves, and even greater risk to their sources.

Johnny Blades, a senior journalist of RNZ International, and his colleague Koroi Hawkins took advantage of incoming President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s celebrated “open door” policy to go there in October 2015.

They were the first New Zealand-based journalists in decades to visit there with a green light from the Jakarta bureaucracy.

Johnny is a presenter of Dateline Pacific and has written and reported extensively about the Pacific Islands, covering some of the most remote corners of this diverse region.

However, in recent years he has specialised in Melanesian affairs, a woefully under-reported part of the Pacific.

Today, December 1, is a very special day – it marks the first raising of the Morning Star, the flag of West Papuan self-determination in 1961. West Papuans have been seeking independence ever since.  

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3

Report by Pacific Media Centre

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