The state of Pacific media freedom is fragile in the wake of serious setbacks, notably in Fiji, with sustained pressure from a military-backed regime, and in Vanuatu, where blatant intimidation has continued with near impunity.
Apart from Fiji, which has a systemic and targeted regime of censorship, most other countries are attempting to free themselves from stifling restrictions on the press. But the Indonesian-ruled Melanesian territory of West Papua has emerged this year as the Pacific’s worst place for media freedom violations.
Against a backdrop of renewed unrest and mass rallies demanding "merdeka", or freedom, with two bloody ambushes in Abepura on the outskirts of the capital Jayapura in early August, Indonesian security guards firing on strikers at the giant US-owned Freeport-McMoRan copper mine and last week’s attack on the Papuan People’s Congress, repression has also hit news media and journalists.
In the past year, there have been two killings of journalists, five abductions or attempted abductions, 18 assaults (including repeated cases against some journalists), censorship by both the civil and military authorities and two police arrests (but no charges).
Besides criminal libel, Papuan journalists are forced to contend with the crime of makar (subversion) as applied to the media.
According to West Papua Media Alerts editor Nick Chesterfield, "Regular labelling of the Papuan press as being pro-separatist is another significant threat against journalists seen to be giving too much coverage to self-determination sentiment".
Indonesia became rulers of the Dutch colony of West Papua, which shares a frontier with Papua New Guinea, through a flawed and manipulated referendum in 1969 — the so-called "Act of Free Choice".
Coupled with governments that are sluggish to introduce freedom of information legislation and ensure the region-wide constitutional rights to free speech are protected, there are few Pacific media councils and advocacy bodies with limited resources to effectively lobby their governments.
Those that do run the risk of backlashes by government figures who have a poor appreciation of the role of independent media in national development. For smaller countries, media is still largely under the thumb of governments and mainly an instrument for uncritically disseminating official information.
Since the military coup in December 2006, Fiji has faced arguably its worst sustained pressure on the media since the original two Rabuka coups in 1987. The Bainimarama regime in June 2010 promulgated a Media Industry Development Decree.
The new law enforced draconian curbs on journalists and restrictive controls on foreign ownership of the press.
This consolidated systematic state censorship of news organisations that had been imposed in April 2009. The Public Emergency Regulations have been rolled over on a monthly basis ever since. Promised relaxation of state censorship after the imposition of the decree never eventuated.
A controversial issue about the decree was a limit imposed on foreign ownership of not more than 10 per cent, a clause vindictively aimed at the country’s oldest and most influential newspaper, The Fiji Times (founded in 1869), because of its unrelenting opposition to the regime.
This newspaper company was then a subsidiary of News Ltd. News Ltd sold the newspaper to Fiji’s trading company, the Motibhai Group, and managing director Mahendra "Mac" Motibhai Patel, a director on the Times for more than four decades, took control.
Patel said: "Fiji without the Fiji Times is unthinkable". He hired an Australian former publisher, Dallas Swinstead, to lead the newspaper in a more "accommodating" direction to safeguard the survival of the business.
Ironically, Patel himself was imprisoned for a year after being found guilty of corruption in April 2011 in his role as chairman of Fiji Post — nothing to do with the newspaper. But the impartiality of the judiciary since the 2006 coup has been under question.
"During its history," said a longstanding former editor, Vijendra Kumar, "The Fiji Times has changed hands at least five times and has been none the worse for it. Each new owner infused it with new fresh ideas and better resources to ensure its continued growth and expansion".
Fiji journalists themselves are divided about the impact of the regime. Some have taken the view that faced with the reality of working under a military regime, they would strive towards rebuilding the independence and integrity of Fiji’s news media with the promised return to democracy in 2014.
According to Fiji Broadcasting Corporation news director Stanley Simpson, who has recently resigned: "In the main, journalists today are not as confident (or as aggressive, as some would describe it) as their counterparts were prior to 2006, and in the 1980s and 1990s.
"I am not saying that current journalists lack courage — in fact it is a courageous thing to be a journalist at this time.
"However, given the PER [Public Emergency Regulations], we are constantly checking ourselves and asking ourselves if the stories we write will breach the PER and what the consequences may be."
While the region’s media freedom status may appear relatively benign compared to other countries, such as in the South-east Asian democracies of Indonesia and the Philippines, which enjoy a nominally free press but pose serious dangers to journalists, there remain significant media freedom issues in most Pacific Island countries.
Cultural issues involve the reconciliation of the ideals and values of a burgeoning media with the entrenched practices of compliance with traditional tribal or communal authority and for the most part, small communities with many conflicts of interest.
Other issues include problems of educating populations about dealing with the media, and a lack of access to media experienced by many communities.
An ongoing feud exists between the Suva-based Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) and its breakaway former members and detractors who would like the body that runs the regional Pacnews agency to pull out of Fiji rather than risk being compromised by its proximity and collaboration with the military regime that is so blatantly restricting freedom of the press.
In its defence, PINA argues it can only convince the regime to respect freedom of the press by working with it as it prepares to draft the country’s new constitution in the lead up to elections.
Clashes over media issues are not new, although they came to a head in Vanuatu last November when crusading Vanuatu Daily Post publisher Marc Neil-Jones was strongly opposed by the Media Association Blong Vanuatu (MAV) when he applied for a radio licence.
Vanuatu provides an example of an intense media climate without any official censorship such as in Fiji.
Neil-Jones’s case in March this year when he was assaulted by a group of men at the behest of a government minister was another episode in a saga of violent reactions to his publication’s reports.
A minor fine for his political attacker prompted further dismay from international media freedom and human rights advocacy groups.
In East Timor, the vibrant local media scene continued to grow this year with the launch of the island nation’s fourth daily newspaper, The Independente. But a controversial new documentary, Breaking the News, highlights the dangers for Timorese journalists.
Other countries and territories of the Pacific with burgeoning media outlets experience development issues that restrict their ability to bring news to both their citizens and diaspora who live abroad. The Territorial Assembly of French Polynesia decided this year to drop the popular online news agency Tahitipresse and to scale back the national broadcaster Tahiti Nui TV as part of a raft of public spending cuts brought on by pressure from France.
Read the full Pacific Media Freedom report here.
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