The news media environment in the Pacific Island states is experiencing some major turbulence, with a government of a key country trying to legislate the national press as competition grows between superpowers to court journalists in the region.
Papua New Guinea is currently the centre of attention: draft media legislation unveiled there on February 6 has elements of China’s controlled media system, as opposed to the liberal media model which has been the norm both in PNG and across the Pacific.
If the law passes as expected, the PNG media will come under government regulation for the first time in the country’s history.
Autocratic-minded national governments and leaders were once considered the major threat to media independence in the Pacific, but the situation has become complicated by the intensifying geopolitical contest in the region, with China on one side, and the United States and Australia on the other.
Research published by the Australian National University’s Department of Pacific Affairs in 2020 on “China’s Media Strategy in the Pacific” indicates that media are one of the core avenues of competition in the region between Australia and China.
Likewise, another report, “Beijing’s Global Media Influence 2022” by Freedom House, suggests that Pacific Island states could be part of China’s greater media strategy.
It is then perhaps no coincidence that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken joined the Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) launch of the 2023 edition of the World Press Freedom Index last week. He called on “governments to ensure media safety and protect journalists’ ability to do their jobs without fear”.
In terms of its proposed media law, PNG is following in the footsteps of Fiji, the first country in the region to bring the national media under government regulation through its 2010 Media Industry Development Act.
The law was in place for nearly 13 years before it was repealed by the new government elected in December 2022.
The trend of legislating the national media in Fiji and PNG taking hold in other Pacific Island countries is alarming some observers because historically, media practice in the region has been based on the western liberal watchdog model, which emphasises the importance of holding governments to account.
This is premised on the separation of powers principle whereby an independent media is seen as a cornerstone of democracy, and allowed to operate with minimum government control.
The respective models dumped by Fiji and proposed by PNG have parallels with China’s controlled media system, with comparatively stronger government regulation and little tolerance for government criticism.
There is some pressure to report news and information that the government deems beneficial to the nation.
Media regulation is usually considered an internal affair, but any attempts to capture or commandeer the press, whether by foreign elements or national governments, is cause for concern, not just because of the impact on media independence, but also due to the potentially negative effect on democratic norms in society as a whole.
There is ample evidence of this from Fiji: In the 2020 Freedom House “Freedom in the World Report,” Fiji managed only a “partly free” democracy ranking, despite elections in 2014 and 2018, in part because of its “restrictive press laws”.
There is a clear correlation between the 2022 Freedom House report on the decline of democracy in Fiji and the 2022 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index finding that Fiji is the “worst place in the Pacific for journalists.”
While Fiji has repealed its media act, its imprint, though, can still be felt in the region.
According to an Australian National University Discussion Paper published in 2017, besides Fiji and PNG, news media in two other Melanesian countries, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, also faced increased government hostility, including threats of stronger legislation.
In the report, the governments of all four countries expressed a preference for a developmental, nation-building journalistic approach, which is closer to the Chinese communist media model than the liberal watchdog model.
In some instances, anti-media sentiments are actually playing out in the field, with cases of crackdowns against reporters critical of China, or of national governments.
In October 2019, Australian 60 Minutes reporter Liam Bartlet and his crew were deported from Kiribati while investigating the country’s “switch” from Taiwan to China.
Likewise, the Vanuatu Daily Post news director, Dan Mc- Garry, was temporarily barred from the country for his October 2019 report on the arrest of six Chinese nationals in Vanuatu by Chinese and Vanuatu police.
And in November 2018, PNG journalist Scott Waide was sacked by the state-owned media company EMTV for criticising the PNG Government’s purchase of 40 luxury Maseratis for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation conference.
While being followed by a government vehicle in the Kiribati capital Tarawa, Bartlet wondered “whether that’s the Kiribati government or whether somebody from [the] government operating under Chinese instruction. It’s a very, very strange thing to happen in a place like this,” he added.
For his part, McGarry stated that he had observed a trend among some Pacific leaders of emulating behaviour that they had noticed elsewhere, whereas Waide stated that Pacific governments were taking lessons from China when dealing with their critics.
“I’m not saying China’s directly telling them what to do, but people watch, people learn,” he said. Claims of major China efforts to influence the Pacific mediascape are repeated in the latest Australian Strategic Institute report released this year, titled: “Seeking to undermine democracy and partnerships: How the CCP is influencing the Pacific Islands information environment.”
The report alleges that China is engaging in “coordinated information operations in Pacific Island countries designed to influence political elites, public discourse and political sentiment regarding existing partnerships with Western democracies”.
These developments indicate that despite its smallness, and for all its weaknesses, the Pacific media sector has a high strategic value in the information warfare pertaining to the geopolitical contest in the region.
This is an updated version of an article published by BenarNews. Used with the permission of BenarNews.
•SHAILENDRA BAHADUR SINGH is an associate professor and head of the journalism program at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji. He has written widely on Pacific media, politics and development. The views in this article are his own and do not reflect the position of The University of the South Pacific or The Fiji Times.