Press freedom under threat in the South Pacific

| November 30, 2019

Journalism has always been a tough trade in the South Pacific. Living and working in island communities exposes editors and reporters to unusual political, personal and professional pressures.

A statement warning about ‘growing threats to media freedom’ from the Melanesia Media Freedom Forum, representing journalists from Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and West Papua, has been underlined by Vanuatu’s expulsion of a long-serving editor.

Kiribati chucking out a visiting Australian TV crew also says something about media problems.

One change these days is that Pacific journalists can’t rely as they once could on the coverage and support of Australian media and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

An irony of Australia’s policy ‘step-up’ in the South Pacific is how much Oz media has stepped down. As the ABC marks the 80th birthday of its international service, Radio Australia, a celebration footnote is that it seems Australia’s mothballed shortwave-radio site is in the process of being sold.

The Vanuatu story illustrates the forces confronting Pacific journalists. In a ‘dark day for media freedom’, the media director and publisher of Vanuatu’s Daily Post, Dan McGarry, had to leave the country where he’s lived for 16 years. As McGarry writes, ‘I believe the government refused my application to renew my work visa to silence me and warn other journalists in the country not to speak out.’

Like much else in the South Pacific, there’s a China dimension. McGarry says the prime minister’s office warned him about ‘negative’ coverage in July:

The Daily Post had just published a series of articles relating to how the government had detained six Chinese nationals—four of whom had Vanuatu citizenship—without trial or access to legal counsel. They were stripped of their citizenship and placed on a plane to China. We don’t know what happened to them after that …

There’s no evidence to suggest that China has asked for or even wanted my removal. But it seems clear that political pressures exerted on senior bureaucrats have resulted in this attempt to stifle the media.

Kiribati detaining and expelling the Channel 9’s TV crew certainly added drama to the ‘trouble in paradise’ story on 60 Minutes, and played to its report about ‘sinister’ Chinese activities. Watching the segment, though, it seemed more the usual island play of political personalities and power, with extra pressure stirred in by Kiribati’s switch of diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China.

Vanuatu and Kiribati join Papua New Guinea and Fiji on the dishonor roll of island governments that have expelled journos. In heaving hacks, governments always talk tough about asserting sovereignty, but it’s always a bad look. Why so sensitive? What’s to hide? This assertion of power makes a government look weak, not strong.

As Jemima Garrett writes, there’s no doubt that, for Australia, China’s growing influence is the story of the decade. But, with so few Australian journalists based in the region, even significant developments in the China story are going unreported:

The level of understanding and knowledge in Australia about the Pacific is staggeringly low. While there has been a significant uptick in Australian media interest in the region recently, its almost single-minded focus on China is not helping improve that understanding and is aggravating Pacific leaders who want to see Pacific voices and a wider agenda make more of an impact in Australia.

The Melanesia media statement said the ‘global decline of democracy is making it easier for our governments to silence the media’; misinformation, propaganda and fake news are growing problems; and social media is an ‘existential threat’, undermining the budget and role of Melanesian media companies.

The forum called for a better understanding of the role of journalism in the functioning and accountability of Melanesian democracies:

The range of threats to media freedom is increasing. These include restrictive legislation, intimidation, political threats, legal threats and prosecutions, assaults and police and military brutality, illegal detention, online abuse, racism between ethnic groups and the ever-present threats facing particularly younger and female reporters who may face violence both on the job and within their own homes.

Since the ABC closed its shortwave service in January 2017, half of the Pacific Islands Forum countries now hear nothing from Radio Australia.

Killing shortwave disenfranchised an unknown number of listeners. As broadcasting policy, it was highly questionable. As strategy, it was dumb—a distressing example of Oz amnesia about its South Pacific role and the role of free media in the islands.

The quietly released report of the review of Australia’s media reach in the Asia–Pacific didn’t advocate restoring shortwave, but nor did it endorse ABC dumbness. The recommendation was to think harder: Australia must identify its ‘strategic policy objectives’ and clarify the role of broadcasting.

Geoff Heriot is properly scathing about the review’s fuzzy geographic frame, and the way it calculates the benefits of shortwave only in economic terms.

Yet even on the money, the report found that in the decade before closure, Australia had ‘derived $40.3 million of net benefits from its shortwave broadcasts to the Asia Pacific region’.

So, ending shortwave hurt the national pocket as well as foreign policy.

As Australia ponders its interests, influence and values in the South Pacific, it must look anew at the central role of media.

This article was published by The Strategist.

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