[Pacific Scoop] Pacific Media Celebrates World Press Freedom Day
Many Pacific nations rate well for media freedom
By Greg Asciutto
AUCKLAND, New Zealand (Pacific Scoop, May 9, 2013) – Across the Pacific, advocates of media freedom hosted many World Press Freedom Day celebrations this year.
Australia, Fiji, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa and the Solomon Islands were among the countries to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) event on May 3, which focuses upon securing freedom of expression in all forms of media.
According to UNESCO, more than 600 journalists have been killed globally in the last decade — 121 died last year alone.
“All these journalists had one thing in common,” says Tim McBride, deputy chair of New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO communications sub-commission.
“They were all exercising what many in our society appear to take for granted: the fundamental right to freedom of expression.
“These journalists were murdered for simply doing their jobs.”
Professor Mark Pearson of Griffith University delivered the keynote address at New Zealand’s inaugural WPFD celebration, which was hosted by Auckland University of Technology’s Pacific Media Centre.
Pearson highlighted press repression in Fiji, Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore, but emphasized that the issue stretches far beyond the Asia-Pacific region.
Sedition, defamation and anti-terror laws arm governments across the globe with ammunition to intimidate media in this era of technological advancement, he said.
“My observation has been that governments are quick to enact laws to control emerging social and technological situations, but are loathe to wind them back when they prove unjust or the reasons for their existence have long gone,” Pearson said.
Traditional media, he argued, are not just fighting government regulation and censorship.
Social media, citizen journalists and bloggers are stealing both readership and advertising dollars from established outlets.
According to Pearson, as Australian, New Zealand and North American media organizations struggle to fund coverage of Asia-Pacific affairs, the quality of foreign correspondence in the region is declining.
“This means the policies of governments in Pacific Island nations are exposed to less international scrutiny and that breaking news is more likely to be covered ‘on the cheap’ by so-called ‘parachute journalists’ who fly in and out to report in a superficial way,” he said.
Celebrating in PNG
In Papua New Guinea, WPFD event organizers at Divine Word University welcomed citizens from underreported communities to share their stories and concerns with the public.
“Although we say that we have a free media in PNG, these people are left out of the information cycle,” said Br Michael McManus, head of communication arts at DWU.
Keynote speaker Aipapu Marai, a member of the Saussi community from the province of Madang, discussed how he and his family have resisted selling their homeland to the oil palm industry for 15 years.
Representatives from Live and Learn, an NGO specializing in community development, spoke about their work promoting the rights of children throughout the country.
“We were happy to give them a small opportunity to engage with the media,” said McManus.
“Hopefully they experienced the media as a voice for everyone, not just for our elites.”
In Fiji, more than 250 students, media professionals and school children attended the University of the South Pacific’s two-day UNESCO World Press Freedom Day celebrations.
The program of presentations, panels, debates and discussions tracked across a range of issues and challenges facing the media as it strives to main its freedom to report the news.
Press freedom ratings
Coinciding with WPFD celebrations, independent watchdog organization Freedom House released its annual report on press freedom last week.
The legal, political and economic environments of 197 countries and territories were used to rate each nation’s media operations as free (0-30), partly free (31-60) or not free (61-100).
New Zealand and Palau received the highest ratings (16) in the Asia-Pacific region.
The Marshall Islands (17), Federated States of Micronesia (21), Australia (21), PNG (28), the Solomon Islands (28), Samoa (29) and Tonga (29) were among other regional nations ranked with a “free” status.
East Timor (35), the Philippines (43), Indonesia (49) and Fiji (56) were some of the Asia-Pacific nations designated “partly free,” while Malaysia (64), Singapore (67) and Brunei (75) were labeled “not free.”
Few Pacific Island nations saw drastic changes from their 2012 to 2013 ratings.
Notably, Fiji (56) advanced only two positions and still sits on the border of “partly free” and “not free.”
Since the Media Industry Development Decree was imposed by the Bainimarama regime in June 2010, Fiji journalists and media organizations have been subject to strict censorship and repression.
West Papua repression
Despite regular reports of violence against journalists and information suppression in the two provinces of West Papua, Indonesia retained its 2012 Freedom House rating of 49.
According to Octo Mote, former Papua bureau chief of Kompas, the nation’s largest daily newspaper, the Indonesian government prohibits coverage of the West Papuan independence movement in any state publication.
“You can talk [about] anything at all in Indonesian media about Indonesia except West Papua,” he said.
Foreign journalists are seldom allowed to enter the province, and all journalists operating in West Papua are forced to work under a heavy military presence.
“This is daily life,” Mote said. “Being a journalist, [the] military follows you everywhere.”
As recently as May 7, Indonesian police have arrested Papuan media personalities for broadcasting content deemed offensive to the government.
Pacific Media Watch reported on Tuesday that Papuan radio journalist Abert Dimas Anggoro was taken into custody for “financial allegations” he made on Penyiar Radio FM.
Journalists critical of Indonesia’s handling of West Papua risk more than incarceration, however.
“When they identify a journalist as dangerous, they will come to threaten them,” Mote said of the nation’s intelligence and military agencies. “You continue reporting, they’ll kill you — it’s common.”
Greg Asciutto is an exchange student from the University of Southern California on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University.
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