The new media development policy being proposed by the Papua New Guinea Communications Minister, Timothy Masiu, could lead to more government control over the country’s relatively free media.
The new policy suggests a series of changes including legislative amendments. But media and stakeholders are not being given enough time to examine the details and study the long-term implications of the policy.
The initial deadline for feedback has been extended by another seven days from today. However, the PNG Media Council (MCPNG) has requested a consultation forum with the government, as it seeks wider input from research organisations, academia and regional partners.
The government’s intention to impose greater control over aspects of the media, including the MCPNG, is ringing alarm bells through the region. This is to be done by re-establishing the council through the enactment of legislation. The policy envisages the council as a regulatory agency with licensing authority over journalists.
The MCPNG was established in 1989 as a non-profit organisation representing the interests of media organisations. Apart from a brief period in the earlier part of its existence, it has largely been unfunded. Over three decades, its role has shifted to being a representative body for media professionals and a voice for media freedom.
The president of the council, Neville Choi, says there are aspects of the media that need government support. These include protection and training of journalists. However, the media is best left as a self-regulating industry. According to Choi:
Media self-regulation is when media professionals set up voluntary editorial guidelines and abide by them in a learning process open to the public. By doing this, independent media accept their share of responsibility for the quality of public discourse in the country, while preserving their editorial autonomy in shaping it. The MCPNG was set up with this sole intent.
It is not censorship, and not even self-censorship. It is about establishing minimum principles on ethics, accuracy, personal rights while preserving editorial freedom on what to report, and what opinions to express.
The regulatory framework proposed for the new media council includes licensing for journalists. Licensing is one of the biggest red flags that screams of government control.
While the PNG media has been resilient in the face of many challenges, journalists who have chosen to cover issues of national importance have been targeted with pressure coming directly from within government circles.
In 2004, the National Broadcasting Corporation’s Head of News and Current Affairs, Joseph Ealedona, was suspended for a series of stories on the military and the government. The Managing Director of the government broadcaster issued the notice of suspension.
In 2019, Neville Choi, then Head of News for EMTV, was sacked for disobeying orders not to run a story of a military protest outside the Prime Minister’s office in Port Moresby. Choi was later reinstated following intense public pressure and a strike by all EMTV journalists and news production staff.
Two years later, a similar scenario played out when 24 staff and EMTV’s Head of News were sacked for protesting against political interference in the newsroom.
For many within the industry, licensing just gives the government better tools to penalise journalists who present an unfavourable narrative.
On paper, the government appears to be trying to remedy the desperately ailing journalism standards in PNG. But the attempt is not convincing enough for many.
Fraser Liu, an accountant by profession and an outspoken observer of national issues, says the courts provide enough of an avenue for redress if there are grievances and that an additional layer of control is not needed. Liu said:
Media agencies and agents must be left alone to their own ends, being free from coercion of any sort, and if media reporting does in fact raise any legal issues like defamation, then the courts are the avenue for resolution. There is no shortage in common law of such case precedent. This is clearly an act by government to control media and effectively free speech.
Government cannot self-appoint itself as a referee for free speech. Free speech is covered under our Constitution and the courts protect this basic right. The policy talks about protection of reporters’ rights. Again, what is this? They already have rights guaranteed by the Constitution.
Coming back to poor journalism standards, Minister Masiu, a former broadcast journalist himself, has been challenged on many occasions to increase investment into PNG’s journalism schools. It is a challenge he has not yet taken up despite the abundant rhetoric about the need for improvement.
The energy of government should be put into fixing the root problem contributing to the poor quality of the media: poor standards of university education.
When the government provides (tax payer sources) funding support for any program it is guranteed that the government has the greater ability influence the program.
Given the experience of the last three years President Ronald Reagan’s words on the 9 most terrifying words in the English language ring loudly –
Scott Waide and others have good reason to be concerned if PNG’s draft media act will replace media self-regulation with government regulation. Fiji underwent the same process in June 2010 and our analysis of the Fiji Media Act that we launched earlier this month, is indicative of the disaster that it was for media rights in Fiji, with potential lessons for PNG. The report published by Dialogue Fiji was co-authored by Nilesh Lal, with a section by the deputy chief in the
Arizona attorney general’s office Dan Barr. The report can be found here:
My sincere thanks to Scott Waide for writing this piece. It is valuable that a respected journalist in Papua New Guinea is explaining this issue and bringing it to the attention of a wide audience. My thanks to the editors of the Devpolicy blog for publishing this timely piece.
I acknowledge that the department secretary, Mr Steven Matainaho, has written a response. The secretary writes that the department is “completely open to open dialogue”. I feel it is imperative to state that the short consultation period is one of the causes of alarm for some, including me. It does not give the impression that the department is open to engagement regarding this draft policy.
The initial press statement was dated 6 February and indicated that submissions would close on 17 February. As I said to journalist Salome Vincent for her story at the following link, this initial eleven-day-long consultation period made me wonder if the desire for consultation was genuine: https://www.looppng.com/png-news/media-central-functioning-democracy-117704
As I understand it, in response to a request from the Media Council of PNG, the minister has extended the consultation period. However, it has only been extended by another week. I must admit that I was surprised by the short length of the extension. There are a number of issues and proposed strategies in the draft policy. Even with the extra week, it seems to me to be a short consultation period.
For those unfamiliar with the Papua New Guinea media sector, I describe it in a book chapter at the following link: https://press.anu.edu.au/publications/series/pacific/papua-new-guinea-government-economy-society
Pages 227-230 of chapter 8 describe the media landscape, while there’s a section on media freedom in Papua New Guinea on pages 231-234.
I find it very sad that various media outlets are misconstruing the intent of the Draft National Media Development Policy (draft Policy).
The draft Policy in its current version, has NO intent and does not indicate in any shape or form that powers will be given to the Government to control the media.
The draft Policy indicates NO intent to infringe on the constitutional rights of freedom of expression.
The draft Policy instead intends to inform for a legislative framework to strengthen the work of the PNG Media Council.
The draft Policy will enable for structural and budget reforms necessary to fund development programs to the PNG Media Council and Universities to train journalist, media specialists, etc…
The draft Policy will enable the PNG Media Council to effectively promote the professions within the Media Industry.
There are many things the draft Policy will unlock including ensuring improved conditions surrounding the media profession.
Most importantly, we must ensure that through solid policy and legislation, the PNG Media Council will continue to operate independently of Government as is the case with many other professions such as the law profession (PNG Law Society), Medical Profession, and Engineering Profession (institute of engineers). All these other professions have government policy and law to govern their profession in a manner that is free from ‘Government Control’.
The Department of ICT has taken note of concerns of the Community Coalition of Corruption through its press statement dated 16th February 2023 particularly of certain functions proposed to be established in the Department of ICT and we will ensure the next draft released addresses the concern. This is the kind of feedback we must hear and we are completely open to open dialogue.
The draft National Media Development Policy is currently in draft and has been released for consultation on the PNG Department of Information and Communications Technology website.
Secretary (Head of Department)
Office of the Secretary | PNG Department of Information and Communications Technology