Papua New Guinea govt faces criticism over plan to regulate media

Harlyne Joku
2023.02.27
Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
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Papua New Guinea govt faces criticism over plan to regulate media Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape (left) arrives to attend the APEC Leaders’ Dialogue with APEC Business Advisory Council during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bangkok, Nov. 18, 2022.
Lillian Suwanrumpha/Pool via Reuters

A Papua New Guinea government plan to regulate the media threatens free speech and journalistic independence, critics of the proposal say.

The government’s national media development plan is critical of ethical standards in the news industry and calls for a regulator to be established. It says the media should be a “tool” to support development objectives for the Pacific island country, which struggles with limited infrastructure, widespread poverty and frequent tribal violence.

“Leave the media alone,” Papua New Guinea’s Trade Union Congress said on Monday. “Just do what is right and ensure your conduct is within the confines of the law, then you will not be afraid of scrutiny,” it said in a statement aimed at Prime Minister James Marape’s government.

Marape has been increasingly critical of the media since being reelected last August following a violence-marred national vote that gave the governing coalition control of nearly all the seats in parliament. He has said that journalists were creating a bad perception of his government and he would look to hold the media accountable. 

The media plan, which is open for a brief public consultation, says freedom of the press will be upheld although it describes guardrails for the tone of news coverage, the types of issues that should be reported on and a need to “filter” content deemed to be against national development objectives. 

It mentions consequences for journalists and media organizations that fall short of requirements for fairness and accuracy, but does not give specifics.

The Department of Information and Communication Technology, which is overseeing the media policy, said in a statement that the government was not planning to restrict the media. It has arranged a public seminar for Thursday to discuss the proposals.

“These concerns have led to some misinformation being spread regarding the policy’s intent,” it said. The department, the statement said, has “taken steps to address these concerns and clarify that the government has no intention of controlling the media through this policy.”

Inside PNG, an online news group formed by more than 20 journalists who were sacked from a government-owned TV company last year, said plans for licensing of journalists and turning the country’s press council into a regulatory agency would put media under government control. 

“In this government-proposed utopia, journalists are licensed by the media council and any person not fulfilling the development agenda is penalized by having their licenses removed,” it said.

Papua New Guinea was ranked 62nd out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index last year, a drop from 45th place in the previous year. 

Fiji, No. 102 on the index, was the lowest ranked Pacific island country. Sitiveni Rabuka, its recently elected prime minister, has promised to replace a draconian media industry law.

Papua New Guinea’s laws are relatively protective of press freedom, but journalists are faced with intimidation, direct threats, censorship, lawsuits and bribery attempts, making it a dangerous profession, the free press advocacy group said in its 2022 report.

It also said a lack of resources for investigative journalism has tended to encourage “copy and paste” journalism. The country has two main newspapers, one owned by media conglomerate News Corp. and the other by a Malaysian logging company.

Last week, Reporters Without Borders called on Papua New Guinea’s government to withdraw the “draconian” media proposal.

It said the policy was being adopted without any real consultation and posed a threat to journalistic independence.

“It is entirely commendable to want to encourage the development of a healthy and dynamic news and information environment,” said Daniel Bastard, Asia-Pacific director for Reporters Without Borders.

“But as it stands, the policy proposed by Port Moresby clearly endangers the independence of the media by establishing government control over their work,” he said.

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