It has been almost a year since a private company took control of the financially ailing public radio service in the Cook Islands.
Privatization may have been an attractive option for a government wishing to cut its payroll, but it has not improved the radio station’s fortunes.
Two of the four owners of the Cook Islands Broadcasting Service (CIBS) withdrew from the business in March. The company is in debt and losing money. It is also being sued by an equipment supplier in Tahiti following the collapse of a US $55,000 purchase in which shares were to be transferred as partial payment.
Following privatization, radio programs were cancelled and staff members lost their jobs or took deep wage cuts. An owner described relations with advertisers as “not so good – we didn’t have their support.”
Every November, as the trade winds falter, another tropical cyclone season begins in the South Pacific. For at least six months, until the southeasterlies return in April or May, areas of low pressure develop continually over warm ocean water. In a few cases they generate clockwise spirals of wind and develop into full-blown tropical cyclones.
Although cyclones can be identified and tracked fairly well these days, there is only so much one can do to prepare for winds of 200 kilometers per hour, torrential rain, and flooding that results from abnormally high tides.
During the 1996-97 season, Cyclone Gavin killed 18 people in Fiji. Cyclone Hina destroyed a seawall in Tuvalu and then traveled 1,500 kilometers to Tonga where it tore the roof off the parliament building. And then there was Justin, the cyclone that refused to die. After hammering Papua New Guinea for more than a week, killing 28, it moved across the Coral Sea, sinking a yacht with the loss of all five crew. Three weeks after claiming its first victims, Justin spent the last of its energy on the northeast coast of Australia, moved inland, and faded away.
It was a relatively peaceful cyclone season in Vanuatu, a group of 82 islands that are home to 140,000 people in the southwestern Pacific. But ten years ago Vanuatu suffered one of the worst cyclones on record, a storm which killed 45, and put the national radio service to the ultimate test.
Papua New Guinea, largest of the Pacific island countries, is a land that demands potent adjectives. It is vast, complex, chaotic, and violent. Definitely not dull or predictable. The four million people of PNG live in remote highlands, in cities, and on far-flung islands, covering almost half a million square kilometers. They speak an astonishing 867 languages.
Malaria, cyclones and volcanoes torment the country. For nine years, the island of Bougainville has been engulfed in a civil war that has killed hundreds.
Radio in PNG isn’t dull, either. In fact, it’s getting more interesting every day, as the newcomer, PNG FM Ltd, challenges the state-owned National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC). PNG FM Ltd is majority-owned by local investors, but 25 per cent of the shares are held by Communications Fiji Ltd (CFL) which owns three radio stations in Fiji and manages the PNG stations.
A century and a half ago, criminals in Australia would beg to be hanged rather than sent to Norfolk Island. “The worst prison in the British Empire” was a place where brutal discipline led to the death of many convicts. Escape was unlikely. From Norfolk, it was an 800 kilometer voyage north to New Caledonia, 1100km south to New Zealand, and almost 1700km west to the coast of Australia.
Despite its isolation, Norfolk has attracted some remarkable migrants. In 1856, after humanitarians in Australia succeeded in having the penal colony closed, 194 new settlers moved onto the island. They were descendants of the men who seized HMS Bounty in one of history’s most famous mutinies.
Today, about one third of Norfolk’s 1600 inhabitants trace their ancestry to nine of the Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian wives.
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.
Early this year, Fiji’s privately owned radio stations, FM96 and Navtarang, said good-bye to their turn-of-the-century home overlooking the tropical port of Suva.
The white colonial bungalow, a one-time “house of ill repute”, had repeatedly expanded to accommodate the growing radio enterprise – until it could expand no more.
The building was obviously in poor repair. It lacked features like air conditioning to make life more tolerable during humid cyclone seasons.
Nevertheless, managing director William Parkinson found several of his employees were reluctant to abandon the old place.
“They said they would miss the friendly ghost, a woman who regularly appeared during over-night shifts to keep them company.”