Alex Rheeney: Frontline media lessons of the past – from PNG logging to the elections, beware

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"Activists gatecrash RH!" ... when a reporter "becomes the news". Image: The National , 1 June 2006

SPECIAL REPORT: By Alexander Rheeney

It was probably one of those rare times when I “became the news” as a journalist.

I had accompanied Greenpeace activists to the Port Moresby headquarters of the Rimbunan Hijau (RH) in June 2006 to report on the presentation of the “golden chainsaw award” to the Malaysian logging giant.

And I literally got “arrested” by security guards for trespassing and ended up at the Gordons Police Station.

Police later let me go, saying I was only doing my job.

I covered Papua New Guinea’s forestry sector extensively between 2003–2007 as a journalist and reported on many cases of human rights abuses, dodgy timber permit licences and the often clandestine relationship between loggers and Papua New Guinean politicians in successive national and provincial governments.

I was sued a couple of times by logging companies in Papua New Guinea’s National Court along with my then employer, the PNG Post-Courier, and I was sent numerous warning letters by lawyers — a favourite tactic employed by a lot of logging companies at that time to keep away nosy journalists.

That has probably become standard practice today, as PNG media companies with dwindling advertising revenue fearing hefty legal bills pushing them to bankruptcy back off.

Support of ‘true patriots’
My reportage wouldn’t have hit the printing press without the support of Papua New Guinean conservationists and true patriots who had a heart for the traditional landowners as well as international environmental groups.

Also, officials at Morauta House, Waigani, who leaked official documentation from a government review of PNG’s logging sector in early 2000s which uncovered massive breaches of logging permit extensions and alleged human rights abuse, often perpetrated by rogue landowner-individuals in collision with corrupt officials.

Papua New Guinea’s traditional landowners of the country’s tropical rainforest to this day remain the custodians of 5 percent of the world’s biodiversity, but continue to face increasing pressure from unscrupulous developers.

With the 2022 General Election just 6-7 months away, the media in PNG should be vigilant as history shows that the country is at its most vulnerable state in the lead-up to, during and after a general election.

Alexander Rheeney is a former PNG journalist and ex-editor of the PNG Post-Courier and now an editor of the Samoa Observer.

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