Despite a peace agreement between the government and militants, Solomon Islands broadcasters continue to work under state-of-emergency laws.
The media are prohibited from reporting freely on ethnic violence that has resulted in at least eight deaths and caused as many as 15,000 people to flee their homes.
Ironically, the news story that cannot be fully told has taken place in villages just a few kilometers from the headquarters of state-owned Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation (SIBC) on the island of Guadalcanal.
Influx of outsiders
For decades, many indigenous people of Guadalcanal have resented the influx of outsiders hoping for houses and jobs near the capital city, Honiara.
Most of the anger has been directed at migrants from the country’s most populous island, Malaita. The anger turned to violence earlier this year, when mobs began attacking the homes of Malaitans on Guadalcanal.
Many Malaitans have since made the 100-kilometer boat trip to their home island.
Under a peace deal signed on June 28th, the government agreed to look into the grievances of the Guadalcanal militants.
Just two days later, however, Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa’alu imposed severe restrictions on the media.
Media organizations from the Pacific region and around the world quickly condemned the restrictions but SIBC, which operates the national AM service Radio Happy Isles and two smaller AM stations in distant provinces, has had no choice but to comply.
“We have a copy of the regulations in front of us, and we vet our own work,” said Johnson Honimae, general manager of SIBC.
“At the same time, we owe our listeners this information, and so we try our best. Every now and then we refer items to our lawyers before we run them. I believe the public are continuing to hear about what is happening.”
Under the emergency regulations, journalists and editors face imprisonment for up to two years if they report anything that is “prejudicial to the safety or interests of the state” or “likely to excite…feelings of disaffection to the Government.”
“The regulations are very strong,” said Honimae. “You don’t even have to be proved guilty.”
The regulations have had an impact on international broadcasters too.
As soon as the regulations were announced, the SIBC stopped its live relays of news programs from the BBC World Service, Radio Australia and Radio New Zealand International (RNZI).
For the next two weeks, SIBC staff recorded the news broadcasts from overseas, and played them an hour later, after editing out anything that might get the SIBC into trouble.
“What they did was ask us to fax a copy of any Solomons stories to them in advance,” explained Linden Clark, manager of RNZI.
“This went on for a week, after which they said they were happy with our news coverage and we stopped faxing.
“RNZI in no way altered its coverage of Solomons stories during this period,” Clark added.
Right to decide
Honimae said some overseas journalists described the SIBC’s actions as censorship, but he disagreed.
“We, as the management of this place, have the right to decide what goes to air from this station,” he said.
“The fact that we relay these overseas stations live means that we are giving editorial responsibility to them. While we respect our colleagues at the stations we relay, the responsibility still lies with us. We, who are here, have to work under this situation.”
SIBC has now resumed live relays of overseas broadcasts.
Clark says she knows at least some of the 440,000 people in Solomon Islands continued to receive RNZI news live during the “blackout,” via their own short-wave receivers.
So far, the government has not prosecuted SIBC for any of its reports, and the station’s local news team is beginning to reassert itself while taking care not to break the law.
In some ways at least, things are getting back to normal.
“We get phone calls from politicians complaining about our stories,” Honimae said, “but I believe that means we are doing our job.”
* First published 13 October 1999 in the International Edition of Radio World