Respect Pacific cultures, broadcasters urged

There is a story told frequently throughout the Pacific islands. When Christian missionaries arrived from Europe in the last century, they found local inhabitants wearing little clothing. Shocked by what they saw, the Europeans set about teaching modesty.

So successful were the missionaries that, even today, it is not uncommon to see island men garbed in woolen jackets and neckties despite the tropical heat, or families swimming in the sea while fully clothed. Nowadays, it is devout locals who are scandalized when their beautiful beaches are filled with bikini-clad tourists from overseas.

Cultural sensitivity and recognition of local conditions may not have been big issues for the first missionaries, but they are central themes as today’s evangelists begin to use radio broadcasting to further their reach into remote areas.

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Equipment failure paralyzes Tuvalu radio

In the tiny Pacific nation of Tuvalu (formerly the Ellice Islands), Pusinelli Laafai is unhappy. Although he is the manager of Radio Tuvalu, Laafai is powerless to restore his country’s one-year-old FM network, which went off the air due to equipment failure at eight remote transmitter sites. 

“When we first switched from AM to satellite FM everyone was very happy with the quality,” said Laafai. “Then it all fell apart.”

At each transmitter site, the story is the same. A power supply module in the broadcast downlink receiver overheated in the tropical conditions. Even though the fault was identified before the project was completed in September last year, it still has not been fixed. 

The problem is not entirely technical, however. Geographic isolation, poor communication, and a lack of accountability have also played a part.

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High school radio lessons

Everyone knows that high school students are some of the most ardent radio listeners. More remarkable is the fact that thousands of them actually run their own FM stations at school, carrying on a tradition that began fifty years ago. Actor Harrison Ford honed his skills on a high school station in Illinois. And the writers of Beverly Hills 90210 included school radio in their portrayal of California’s coolest teenagers. 

Hundreds of today’s radio and television professionals began their careers covering school sports or playing record dedications between classes. 

But high school radio isn’t just for aspiring broadcasters. Teachers and students agree that radio offers valuable lessons for anyone. 

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Cook Islands Broadcasting Service in trouble

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.”

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Radio Australia to survive, but with reduced services

After months of uncertainty, Radio Australia has been promised enough money to stay on the air, but not enough to maintain all its services. The Australian government will cut funding to the international broadcaster from AUD$20.5 million annually to AUD$7.4 million for each of the next three years. Donald McDonald, chairman of the state-owned Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), which runs Radio Australia, said the ABC will maintain “a significant broadcasting presence in the Asia-Pacific region” despite the cutbacks.

Transmissions to the Pacific in English and to nearby Papua New Guinea in Tok Pisin will continue, but programs to Asia in Bahasa Indonesian, Mandarin, Khmer and Vietnamese will be scaled back. Cantonese, Thai and French services will disappear.

Radio Australia (RA) will lose the most modern of its three short-wave transmitter sites, after having lost a fourth site last year.

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Cyclone Uma batters Radio Vanuatu

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.

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Private radio turns up heat in PNG

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.

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Radio Australia under threat

Radio Australia, the 58-year-old international service of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), has reacted vigorously to a suggestion that it be closed in order to save money. The suggestion was contained in a government-commissioned report on the state-owned ABC prepared by Bob Mansfield, a former chief executive in the telecommunications and newspaper industries. 

Mansfield received 10,615 submissions and made 19 recommendations in the report, which was presented to Australia’s Communications Minister, Senator Richard Alston, in January.

In response to the report, Radio Australia has carried numerous news stories containing negative reaction to the proposal, and has coordinated a protest campaign on the Internet. 

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Pacific paradise was once a hell on Earth

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. 

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Across the Pacific, media seek greater freedom

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.

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