Journalists challenge PNG government over ‘media control’ policy

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PNG Prime Minister James Marape
PNG Prime Minister James Marape with reporters . . . he has frequently criticised coverage of his government’s failings and Papua New Guinea’s social problems. Image: Stefan Armbruster/BenarNews

By Stephen Wright of BenarNews

The Papua New Guinea government’s push for news organisations to become its cheer-leading squad is under further scrutiny this week as Parliament hears testimony from journalists and top officials.

The effort to wield influence over the news, first announced last year as a “media development policy”, has been watered down in the face of strong opposition.

Despite the changes, the policy still contains avenues for politicians and officials to undermine the watchdog role of the Pacific island country’s media.

“When we say media development we are saying media should be a tool for development because we are a developing nation,” said Steven Matainaho, Secretary of the Department of Information Communication Technology, which devised the media regulation plans.

“In a more advanced and mature economy it could be used as a Fourth Estate for balance and check, but in a developing economy every stakeholder should work together to develop the country — that includes the media,” he told the Committee on Communications’ hearing at Parliament House.

Papua New Guinea’s global ranking in the annual Reporters Without Borders press freedom index deteriorated to 91st place this year from 59th last year. In 2019 it was placed 38th out of the 180 nations assessed.

“We’re calling it the ‘media control policy’, not the ‘media development policy’,” Scott Waide, a senior Papua New Guinea journalist, told BenarNews.

“We didn’t agree with it because it was trying to make the media an extension of the government public relations mechanism,” he said.

Amid the criticism, the parliamentary committee on Wednesday asked the Media Council of Papua New Guinea to amend its submission to include a proposal that it takes the leading role in drafting any media policy.

Ricky Morris, Marsh Narewec; and Sam Basil Jr .
Papua New Guinea’s parliamentary Committee on Communications members (from left) Ricky Morris, chairman Marsh Narewec; and deputy chairman Sam Basil Jr listen to evidence on 22 May 2024 in Port Moresby. Image: Harlyne Joku/BenarNews

Marape threatened media
Prime Minister James Marape has threatened to hold journalists accountable for news reports he objected to and has frequently criticised coverage of his government’s failings and Papua New Guinea’s social problems.

The government has an at times tenuous hold over the country, which in the past few months has suffered economically ruinous riots in the capital, spasms of deadly tribal violence in the highlands and a succession of natural disasters.

The fifth and latest draft of the policy argues that a government framework is needed for the growth of a successful media industry, which currently suffers from low salaries, insufficient training, competition for readers with social media and, according to a government survey, a high level of public distrust.

The media policy is also needed to justify providing funds from the government budget to bolster journalism training at universities, according to Matainaho.

It envisages a National Media Commission that would report to Parliament and oversee the media industry, including accreditation of journalists and media organisations. A Government Media Advisory Committee would sit inside the commission.

A separate National Media Content Committee would “oversee national content” and a National Information Centre would “facilitate the dissemination of accurate government information” by overseeing a news website, newspaper and 24-hour news channel.

It also aims to make existing state-owned media a more effective conduit for government news.

Government role ‘too much’
Neville Choi, president of the Media Council of PNG representing the major mainstream broadcasters and publishers, said the plans still give far too much of a role to the government.

Neville Choi
Neville Choi, president of the Media Council of Papua New Guinea, speaking to a parliamentary committee in Port Moresby on government plans to regulate the media on May 21, 2024. Image: Harlyne Joku/BenarNews

He said the council is concerned about the long-term risk to democracy and standards of governance if the state became the authority for accreditation of journalists, determining codes of practice, enforcing compliance with those codes and adjudicating complaints against media.

“One must consider how future actors might interpret or administer the policy with political intent,” he said in the council’s submission to the committee.

“The proposed model would allocate too much centralised power to government,” he said.

Waide said the main focus of a media development policy should be on training and providing adequate funding to university journalism programmes.

Media, he said, “is a tool for development in one respect, in that we need to promote as much as possible the values of Papua New Guinean society.

“But there has to be a healthy mix within the media ecosystem,” he said. “Where opinions are expressed, opinions are not suppressed and not everyone is for the government.”

Call to develop ‘pathways’
Although the policy mentions the importance of press freedom in a democracy and freedom of expression enshrined in the country’s constitution, other comments point to different priorities.

“It is necessary to review, update and upgrade how we do business in the media space in PNG. This must be with the mindset of harnessing and enhancing the way we handle media information and news for development,” Minister of Communications and Information Technology Timothy Masiu said in the document.

It is timely to develop “pathways” for developing the industry and “holding media in general responsible and accountable,” he said.

And according to Matainaho: “The constitution protects the rights of the citizens, we must not take that away from the citizens, but at the same time we need to find a balance where we still hold the media accountable.”

His department had studied Malaysia — which ranks lower than Papua New Guinea in the press freedom index and has draconian laws used to threaten journalists — when it was developing the media policy, Matainaho said.

Media’s rights under the constitution are not absolute rights, he said.

Harlyne Joku contributed to this report from Port Moresby. Copyright ©2015-2024, BenarNews. Republished with the permission of BenarNews.

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