Journalists left this year’s conference of the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA), vowing to continue campaigning for media freedom. The keynote speaker and several delegates boycotted the August (1996) meeting in Nuku’alofa, capital of the Kingdom of Tonga, when the host government refused to allow a New Zealand-based journalist to attend.
Michael Field, a correspondent for Agence France-Presse (AFP) has been banned from entering Tonga since 1993, when he wrote about the country’s emerging pro-democracy movement.
In Tonga, a nation of just over 100,000 people, only nine of the 31 members of parliament are elected by commoners. The rest, including all the ministers, are chosen by the venerable king, Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, and the country’s nobles. Tongan leaders, like those in many nations, demand respect and are affronted by criticism, especially if it is reported in the media.
In some countries journalists can be jailed for not revealing their sources or for merely annoying a cabinet minister. If they work for the state-owned media, they can be fired for reporting news that embarrasses the government.
The president of PINA, Monica Miller, told the convention that the ban against Field, and other moves to restrain journalists, threaten freedom of expression.
“Journalists and news organizations that expose or highlight abuse of office by politicians and public officials, misuse of public money and corruption, are increasingly being accused of being irresponsible,” said Miller.
She and PINA are working to convince Pacific islanders that “the media would indeed by acting irresponsibly if they did not expose and highlight wrongdoings.”
Reporters – including Miller, a former newspaper editor from American Samoa – have been threatened with violence. In 1994, the publisher of a newspaper in Western Samoa had his premises destroyed in a suspicious fire.
Within this gloomy scene there are at least a few bright spots, according to Francois Turmel, journalism lecturer at the University of the South Pacific (USP) in Fiji.
“Countries such as the Marshall Islands, American Samoa and Fiji, seem, for the time being, to enjoy media freedom,” he says, “but that is not the case for Western Samoa, Solomon Islands, Cook Islands or Tonga for instance.”
In Western Samoa, representatives of opposition political parties are rarely heard on state-owned radio and television. In Vanuatu, officials of the ruling party supply scripts to be included in the radio news and censor the stories they do not like. Throughout the Pacific islands, the biggest and most accessible of the mass media is state-owned radio, usually controlled by the Minister of Information, if not the Prime Minister or President. These people often claim that since they approve the money to pay for public broadcasting, they should also decide what goes on the air.
Censorship is far less common at privately owned radio stations which make up one third of approximately 100 stations across almost two dozen states and territories.
Even at some private stations, journalists are known to “self-censor” to make life easier for themselves and their employers.
At its 1989 convention, PINA highlighted another problem faced by journalists: the passion for secrecy among politicians and bureaucrats. PINA called on regional governments to enact freedom of information laws, and specifically criticized Fiji for denying entry to foreign journalists. The following year, the Fiji government showed its displeasure by refusing to allow PINA to hold its annual conference in that country. It also expelled two German aid workers who were supporting a regional news exchange and training project for public radio stations, forcing the project to pack up and move to another country.
Later that year, the Fiji government succeeded in having a package of resolutions on media freedom taken off the agenda at the South Pacific Forum, the annual conference of Pacific island leaders.
Journalists in Fiji say their situation has improved. They were allowed to host the 1993 PINA convention, and their local media association is thriving.
Every couple of years, however, the Fiji government floats the notion of setting up a panel to license media outlets and ensure that they behave “responsibly.” The Cook Islands and Papua New Guinea have made similar threats recently. The Cook Islands Prime Minister was angered when newspaper journalists exposed a financial scam whereby his government issued letters of guarantee worth billions of dollars while the tiny country had no significant financial reserves.
Field said it is ironic the government should now be seeking to place restrictions on journalists: “Politicians loathe them, but the fact is that it was the reporters who effectively saved the Cooks from complete ruin over the letters of guarantee scandal.”
Papua New Guinea, the largest of the Pacific island states, continues to deny reporters access to one of the region’s biggest stories.
For seven years, PNG security forces have been fighting a civil war against rebels on the island of Bougainville. The government issues statements, indicating how many rebels it has killed. Similarly, the Bougainville Revolutionary Army claims its successes. The truth is unknown, because PNG refuses to allow reporters to travel to the island.
The war, with its cloak of secrecy, has spread to the neighboring Solomon Islands. Soldiers from PNG frequently cross the border, claiming they are searching for rebel supply lines.
The Solomon Islands government – worried about relations with its much larger neighbor – has banned coverage of the border conflict on the nation’s only broadcasting service, state-owned Radio Happy Isles. It actively discourages other journalists from visiting the border region.
At times, the Pacific penchant for information control can be downright ludicrous. In 1992 a journalist at Radio Vanuatu tried to reveal that several violent criminals had escaped from prison, but the Prime Minister’s office killed the story, saying it might cause listeners to be alarmed. People in Vanuatu also might have been disturbed by the 1995 French nuclear tests in the South Pacific. Thanks to their pro-French government, these stories too were blacked out.
What is remarkable about journalism in the Pacific is that stories – some of them at least – do get reported. Reporters know how to work within their customs and culture to earn the respect of their community.
With the support of their colleagues in PINA, they are also increasingly outspoken against censorship, secrecy and intimidation.
Media freedom and cultural traditions
Most Pacific island cultures value unity, traditional social structures, and respect for leaders.
Elected governments can exist alongside traditional chiefly systems, binding journalists into a complex system of loyalties. It is difficult for journalists to ignore rank, and dare to ask questions.
Fiji’s Permanent Secretary for Information and former manager of state-owned Radio Fiji, Jioji Kotobalavu, says many people make the mistake of thinking media freedom is an absolute right.
“Media freedom is subject to respect for the dignity and esteem of institutions, customs and traditions,” he says. Francois Turmel, journalism lecturer at the University of the South Pacific (USP) in Fiji, agrees that journalists must be sensitive. “Cultural differences must be preserved in some fields – attitudes to sex, family, community values, for example,” he said.
This does not mean that media freedom is culturally inappropriate in the Pacific. Miller’s view is that journalism in any part of the world “must be based on objectivity, accuracy, and fairness.”
Ironically, while Pacific island leaders claim they need to defend local culture, some seem more inclined to talk to foreign reporters than to their own journalists. Since most local stations routinely relay short wave news bulletins from overseas, it is not unusual for a banned story to make it to air in the country concerned, despite government orders. “Paradoxically,” said Michael Field, “tightening controls threatens the development of indigenous media and guarantees the dominance of imported media like CNN.”
Turmel believes local journalists need to be more professional. “Most people working in the media have no training, apart from the occasional workshop, and cannot pretend to be journalists,” he says. “At the best, they are recorders.”
Turmel has 35 students studying for journalism degrees at USP and there is a similar program at the University of Papua New Guinea. In the last few years, journalists in several countries have formed media associations and one of these, in Fiji, has even established a journalism training institute.
PINA, which runs training courses itself, has taken a leading role in the struggle for media freedom during its 22 year history.
Among other activities, it sponsors the prestigious Freedom of Information Award. Winners of this award include Dykes Angiki, News Editor of the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation, who was recognised for publicly opposing his government’s ban on reporting the Bougainville conflict.
Turmel feels journalists have time on their side. “The situation is going to change with new technologies – satellite TV, Internet,” he says. “It will be harder and harder to fight against media freedom.”
* First published 16 October 1996 in the International Edition of Radio World