‘Chilling effect on journalism’ – expert warns PNG against changes to media law

28 February 2023
A Pacific journalism expert has warned the proposed amendments to media laws in Papua New Guinea, if “ill-defined”, could mirror the harsh restrictions in Fiji.
Downtown Port Moresby from Touaguba Hill. Credits: MSchlauch/Creative Commons

This article was originally published on RNZ and is republished with permission. 

By Kelvin Anthony and Koroi Hawkins

Prime Minister James Marape’s government is facing fierce opposition from local and regional journalists for attempting to fast-track a new media development policy.

The draft law has been described by media freedom advocates as “the thin edge of the web of state control”.

PNG’s information and communications technology (ICT) department released the Draft Media Development Policy publicly on February 5. It aims “to outline the objectives and strategies for the use of media as a tool for development”.

The department gave stakeholders less than two weeks to make submissions on the 15-page document, but after a backlash the ICT chief extended the consultation period by another week.

“I recognise the sensitivity and importance of this reform exercise,” ICT Minister Timothy Masiu said after giving in to public criticism and extending the consultation period until February 24.

Read more: Fiji: All change at FBC

Masiu said he instructed the information department to “facilitate a workshop in partnership with key stakeholders”, adding that the information ministry “supports and encourages open dialogue” on the matter.

“I reaffirm to the public that the government is committed to ensuring that this draft bill will serve its ultimate purpose,” he said.

The new policy includes provisions on regulating the media industry and raising journalism standards in PNG, which has struggled for years due to lack of investment into the sector.

But media leaders in PNG have expressed concerns, noting that while there are areas where government support is needed, the proposed regulation is not the solution.

“The situation in PNG is a bit worrying if you see what happened in Fiji, even though the PNG information department has denied any ulterior motives,” University of the South Pacific head of Journalism Programme, Associate Professor Shailendra Singh told RNZ Pacific.

“There are concerns in PNG. Prominent journalists are worried that the proposed act could be the thin edge of the wedge of state media control, as in Fiji,” Dr Singh said, in reaction to Masiu’s guarantee that the policy is for the benefit of media organisations and journalists.

“If the PNG media policy provisions are ill-defined, as the Fiji Media Act was, and if it has harsh punitive measures, it could also result in a chilling effect on journalism and this in turn could have major implications for democracy and freedom of speech in PNG.” Dr Shailedra Singh, University of the South Pacific

“If you look at the Fiji situation, the Media Act was implemented in the name of democratising the media, ironically, and also improving professional standards.”

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Dr Singh said this is what is also being said by the PNG government but “in Fiji the Media Act has been a disaster for media rights”.

“Various reports blame the Fiji Media Act for a chilling effect on journalism and they also hold the Act responsible for instilling self-censorship in the Fiji media sector,” he said.

“If the PNG media policy provisions are ill-defined, as the Fiji Media Act was, and if it has harsh punitive measures, it could also result in a chilling effect on journalism and this in turn could have major implications for democracy and freedom of speech in PNG.”

The Media Industry Development Act (MIDA) 2010 and its implementation meant that Fiji was ranked 102 out of 180 countries by Reporters without Borders in 2022.

Earlier this month Fiji’s Attorney-General Siromi Turaga publicly apologised to journalists for the harassment and abuse they endured during the Bainimarama government’s reign.

But Dr Singh said PNG appears to have been “emboldened” by the Fijian experience.

Media freedom a Pacific-wide issue

He said other Pacific leaders have also threatened to introduce similar legislation and “this is a major concern”.

“Fiji and PNG are the two biggest countries in the Pacific who often set trends in the region, for better or for worse. The question that comes to mind is whether countries like Solomon Islands or Vanuatu will follow suit? [Because] over the years and even recently, the leaders of these two countries have also threatened the news media.”

A major study co-authored by the USP academic, which surveyed over 200 journalists in nine countries and was published in 2021, revealed that “Pacific journalists are amongst the youngest, most inexperienced and least qualified in the world”.

Dr Singh warned the research showed that legislation alone will not result in any significant improvements to journalism standards in Pacific countries, which is why committing money in training and development was crucial.

“Training and development are an important component of the Fiji media act. However, our analysis found zero dollars was invested by the Fiji government in training and development,” he said.

“If we are to take any lessons from Fiji, and if the PNG government is serious about standards, it needs to invest at least some of its own money in this venture of improving journalism.”

This is a sentiment shared by Media Council of PNG president, Neville Choi, who said “If the concern is poor journalism, then the solution is more investment in schools of journalism at tertiary institutions, this will also improve diversity and pluralism in the quality of journalism.”

“We need newsrooms with access to training in media ethics and legal protection from harassment,” Choi added.

Dr Singh said without proper financial backing in the media sector “there is unlikely to be any improvement in standards, [but] just a cowered down or subdued media [which] is not in PNG’s public interest, or the national interest, given the levels of corruption in the country.”

The publishers of the Pacific Journalism Review, the Asia Pacific Media Network, has also condemned the move, calling for an “urgent rethink” of the draft media policy.

The group is proposing for the communications ministry to “immediately discard the proposed policy of legislating the PNG Media Council and regulating journalists and media which would seriously undermine media freedom in Papua New Guinea”.