SIBC chief defends ‘free’ state media broadcaster in face of tighter controls

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SIBC newsroom in Honiara
News gathering as usual ... an SBS News cameraman from Australia films in the SIBC newsroom while reporters get on with their work. Image: Stefan Armbruster/SBS News

Pacific Media Watch newsdesk

The head of the Solomon Islands state-owned broadcaster has defended its role in the face of the government tightening control — a move that critics say is squarely aimed at controlling and censoring the news.

The government said last Friday that the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation (SIBC) would retain editorial control and that government officials would not censor or restrain the outlet.

Earlier in the week, the government had lashed out at the broadcaster, accusing it of a “lack of ethics and professionalism” and saying the government had a duty to “protect our people from lies and misinformation” it claimed was propagated by the SIBC.

In an interview published by the VOA News, Johnson Honimae, the SIBC chief executive, said he was proud of the broadcaster’s award-winning journalism.

He said it was business as usual for the broadcaster and there were no government censors vetting stories before they were broadcast, contrary to what was reported by some news outlets.

The government’s move came at a politically tumultuous time in the Solomon Islands.

There were riots in the capital of Honiara last November, followed by a no-confidence vote in Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare in December, which he survived.

Security pact with China
Then in April, Sogavare signed a security pact with China that has caused deep alarm in the Pacific and around the world.

The SIBC has reported those developments and has included the views of Sogavare’s opponents.

The broadcaster, which began as the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Service, has been a fixture for 70 years in the Solomon Islands.

Employing about 50 people and operating under the slogan “Voice of the nation,” the broadcaster is the main source of radio and television news for the nation’s 700,000 people and is listened to and watched from the capital to the smallest village.

In late June, the government moved to delist the SIBC as a state-owned enterprise and take more direct control, saying the broadcaster had failed to make a profit, something that had been expected of such state-owned businesses.

Opposition Leader Matthew Wale said the delisting was a scheme orchestrated by Sogavare as “a clear attempt to directly control and censor the news content of SIBC”.

“This will hijack well-entrenched principles of law on defamation and freedom-of-speech, thus depriving the public using SIBC to freely express their views, or accessing information on government activities,” Wale said.

Critical government calls
Honimae said the broadcaster took critical calls from Sogavare’s office in recent months.

“They believe we’ve been running too many stories from the opposition side, causing too much disunity,” Honimae said.

Honimae said the broadcaster and its staff won several journalism awards this year from the Media Association of Solomon Islands, including newsroom of the year and journalist of the year.

He also said the broadcaster plays the national anthem when broadcasts begin each morning at 6 am and again when they finish at 11 pm.

“We believe we are a great force for unity and peace in this country,” Honimae said.

Honimae added that the broadcaster needed to “balance our stories more” and leave no opportunity for criticism.

He said Sogavare — who is also the government’s Broadcasting Minister– had said in Parliament that the government would not tamper with the broadcaster’s editorial independence.

“There is no censorship at the moment,” Honimae said. “We operate as professional journalists.”

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