By Kelvin Anthony, RNZ Pacific digital and social media journalist, and Koroi Hawkins, RNZ Pacific journalist and Pacific Waves presenter
A Pacific journalism academic has warned proposed amendments to media laws in Papua New Guinea, if “ill-defined”, could mirror the harsh restrictions in Fiji.
Prime Minister James Marape’s government is facing fierce opposition from local and regional journalists for attempting to fasttrack a new media development policy.
The draft law has been described by media freedom advocates as “the thin edge of the web of state control”.
PNG’s Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Department released the Draft Media Development Policy publicly on February 5. It aims “to outline the objectives and strategies for the use of media as a tool for development”.
The department gave stakeholders less than two weeks to make submissions on the 15-page document, but after a backlash the ICT chief extended the consultation period by another week.
“I recognise the sensitivity and importance of this reform exercise,” ICT Minister Timothy Masiu said after giving in to public criticism and extending the consultation period until February 24.
Masiu said he instructed the Information Department to “facilitate a workshop in partnership with key stakeholders”, adding that the Information Ministry “supports and encourages open dialogue” on the matter.
“I reaffirm to the public that the government is committed to ensuring that this draft bill will serve its ultimate purpose,” he said.
The new policy includes provisions on regulating the media industry and raising journalism standards in PNG, which has struggled for years due to lack of investment in the sector.
But media leaders in PNG have expressed concerns, noting that while there are areas where government support is needed, the proposed regulation is not the solution.
“The situation in PNG is a bit worrying if you see what happened in Fiji, even though the PNG Information Department has denied any ulterior motives,” University of the South Pacific head of journalism, Associate Professor Shailendra Singh, told RNZ Pacific.
“There are concerns in PNG. Prominent journalists are worried that the proposed act could be the thin edge of the wedge of state media control, as in Fiji,” Dr Singh said, in reaction to Masiu’s guarantee that the policy is for the benefit of media organisations and journalists.
“If you look at the Fiji situation, the Media Act was implemented in the name of democratising the media, ironically, and also improving professional standards.”
Dr Singh said this is what is also being said by the PNG government but “in Fiji the Media Act has been a disaster for media rights”.
“Various reports blame the Fiji Media Act for a chilling effect on journalism and they also hold the Act responsible for instilling self-censorship in the Fiji media sector,” he said.
“If the PNG media policy provisions are ill-defined, as the Fiji Media Act was, and if it has harsh punitive measures, it could also result in a chilling effect on journalism and this in turn could have major implications for democracy and freedom of speech in PNG.”
The Media Industry Development Act (MIDA) 2010 and its implementation meant that Fiji was ranked 102nd out of 180 countries by Reporters without Borders in 2022.
Earlier this month Fiji’s Attorney-General Siromi Turaga publicly apologised to journalists for the harassment and abuse they endured during the Bainimarama government’s reign.
But Dr Singh said PNG appeared to have been “emboldened” by the Fijian experience.
Media freedom a Pacific-wide issue
He said other Pacific leaders had also threatened to introduce similar legislation and “this is a major concern”.
“Fiji and PNG are the two biggest countries in the Pacific [which] often set trends in the region, for better or for worse. The question that comes to mind is whether countries like Solomon Islands or Vanuatu will follow suit? [Because] over the years and even recently, the leaders of these two countries have also threatened the news media.”
A major study co-authored by the USP academic, which surveyed more than 200 journalists in nine countries and was published in Pacific Journalism Review in 2021, revealed that “Pacific journalists are among the youngest, most inexperienced and least qualified in the world”.
Dr Singh warned the research showed that legislation alone would not result in any significant improvements to journalism standards in Pacific countries, which is why committing money in training and development was crucial.
“Training and development are an important component of the Fiji Media Act. However, our analysis found zero dollars was invested by the Fiji government in training and development,” he said.
“If we are to take any lessons from Fiji, and if the PNG government is serious about standards, it needs to invest at least some of its own money in this venture of improving journalism.”
This is a sentiment shared by Media Council of PNG president, Neville Choi, who said: “If the concern is poor journalism, then the solution is more investment in schools of journalism at tertiary institutions, this will also improve diversity and pluralism in the quality of journalism.
“We need newsrooms with access to training in media ethics and legal protection from harassment,” Choi added.
Dr Singh said that without proper financial backing in the media sector “there is unlikely to be any improvement in standards, [but] just a cowered down or subdued media [which] is not in PNG’s public interest, or the national interest, given the levels of corruption in the country.”
APMN calls for ‘urgent rethink’
The publisher of the Pacific Journalism Review, the Asia Pacific Media Network, has also condemned the move, calling for an “urgent rethink” of the draft media policy.
The group is proposing for the communications ministry to “immediately discard the proposed policy of legislating the PNG Media Council and regulating journalists and media which would seriously undermine media freedom in Papua New Guinea”.
The network also cited the 1999 Melanesian Media Declaration as a guideline for Pacific media councils and said the draft PNG policy was ignoring “established norms” for media freedom.
The statement was co-signed by the APMN chair Dr Heather Devere; deputy chair Dr David Robie, a retired professor of Pacific journalism and author, and founding director of the Pacific Media Centre; and Pacific Journalism Review editor Dr Philip Cass, who was born in PNG and worked on the Times of Papua New Guinea and Wantok newspapers.
Article by AsiaPacificReport.nz