The beginning of the end for PNG press freedom?

The Papua New Guinean (PNG) government’s new media legislation proposed in March is drawing a comparison with Fiji’s punitive media act.

By Shailendra Bahadur Singh

Fiji’s new government is tabling a bill to repeal the Media Industry Development Act. But the punitive legislation — which had been in place for more than a decade — has left its imprint on the region.

The Papua New Guinean (PNG) government’s new media legislation proposed in March is drawing a comparison with Fiji’s punitive media act. The draft media policy raises concerns about media freedom in PNG and even across Melanesia.

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In PNG’s case, the writing has been on the wall for some time with successive leaders displaying hostile attitudes towards the media, including threats to introduce stronger legislation. In 2010, former prime minister Michael Somare appeared to approve of Fiji’s media decree, telling journalists they were fortunate to not have similar laws implemented in PNG.

More recently, Prime Minister James Marape’s testy relationship with the media took a turn for the worse after an unflattering 60 Minutes Australia documentary prior to the 2022 elections. While Marape emerged from what is described as PNG’s most violent and chaotic elections with his prime ministership intact, he seems to have it in for the media.

His government’s announcement of the draft media policy was preceded by Marape announcing a ban on press conferences. Instead, the prime minister’s office will answer all questions in writing. Foreign journalists face even more requirements in addition to the visa application fee of US$350.

The draft National Media Development Policy released on 5 February 2023 is the most serious development in the media sector to date. Among other things, it proposes to turn PNG’s Media Council from a non-governmental entity into a regulatory government body and calls for the licensing of journalists. This has parallels with Fiji’s Media Industry Development Authority, which is constituted by the relevant minister.

The proposals have elicited a storm of protests by both local journalists and international organisations like Reporters Without Borders and the International Federation of Journalists.

The government’s insistence that the policy is designed to ‘improve democracy and support PNG’s development as a nation’ has hardly assuaged concerns. Advocates say the proposed policy foreshadows the beginning of state control over the media.

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This policy has drawn comparisons with Fiji’s punitive Media Industry Development Act implemented in June 2010. Like the proposed PNG policy, this was framed as a means to professionalise journalism and democratise the national media. But the policy has had a chilling effect on journalists who have been suffering from different forms of censorship.

The head of PNG’s Department of Information and Communications Technology, Steven Matainaho, has denied claims by prominent PNG journalist Scott Waide that the proposed policy could lead to greater government control. For Waide, what is especially alarming is the proposed licensing mechanism which would empower the government to issue and revoke licenses that control journalists’ ability to work. Waide argues that ‘licensing is one of the biggest red flags that screams of government control’ as it gives ‘government better tools to penalise journalists who present an unfavourable narrative’.

Another red flag is that the national media was initially given only 11 days to respond to the draft. Though later extended by a week, this was still seen as insufficient time to contribute to the process. In Fiji’s case, the time frame was even shorter. The media was given just two and a half hours to provide feedback on a complex, 50-page draft media decree that eventually became law with jail terms and financial penalties for breaches.

An independent report on the Fiji media law highlights its profound impacts on the country’s media landscape. The report found that the local media underwent a transition from self-regulation to government regulation following the new legislation. The question is whether the PNG media sector is undergoing the same process as Fiji and if this will result in a media environment like in Fiji where journalists fear retribution for critical reporting.

The trend in Fiji and PNG also raises questions about the future of media legislation in other Melanesian nations. A 2017 Australian National University Discussion Paper indicated increased government hostility towards the news media in the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, with a subsequent shift towards stronger media laws that was also justified on the basis of national stability.

A 2021 paper showed that Pacific journalists are amongst the youngest, most inexperienced and least qualified in the world — a problem that legislation and regulation has so far failed to address.

The report on Fiji media law also found that while training and development were major components of the legislation, the media authority was largely inactive in this area.

The trend in Fiji and countries like Malaysia and Singapore indicates that PNG could be at the crossroads of media rights. Once governments gain power or influence over the national media, they rarely, if ever, surrender it willingly. The Fiji government’s decision to repeal the media act is an exception, but what the replacement law will look like and how the government will react to media criticism after a ‘honeymoon’ period remain to be seen.

Fiji’s media act was in place for nearly 13 years and in the 2022 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, Fiji was distinguished as the ‘worst place in the Pacific region for journalists’.

If Fiji is any indication, over-regulation alone will not improve standards. Over-regulation is more likely to produce a cowed-down, submissive media that would not benefit PNG’s national interest. Governments in PNG, Melanesia and the Pacific as a whole should focus on the training and development of free press institutions.

This article was first published in East Asia Forum and is republished here with the kind permission of the author.

Contributing Author: Dr Shailendra Bahadur Singh is Associate Professor of Pacific Journalism at the University of the South Pacific.

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