OPINION: The Constitution of Papua New Guinea under Section 46 Subsection 2 Item b reads:
Every person has the right to freedom of expression and publication, except to the extent that right is regulated or restricted by law;
In subsection (a) "freedom of expression and publication" includes (b) freedom of the press and other mass communications media.
As the wording suggests, although the freedom of the media is written in to the Constitution, this freedom is not guaranteed as it can be regulated by the enactment of law.
Successive PNG governments have threatened to draft policy and enact legislation to regulate the media these threats have been consistent over the 37 years of independence.
As the records have shown in each decade since independence the PNG government has commissioned committees to review the work of the media with a view of pushing legislation which potential places greater control of the media in government hands.
We in PNG have been fortunate to not have any amendments, additions or laws enacted that would seek to remove the freedom as provided for within section 46 of our constitution and as a result impose regulation to the freedom of our media.
Within our region there have been numerous instances where the freedom of the media has been put to the test. Media regulation has been threatened in the region and unfortunately been put in place in Fiji.
To mark this years’ Media Freedom Day, I will pose three questions to try to help us understand why this call for media regulation is echoing so loudly and perhaps generate some debate about how we as media practitioners respond.
Why do governments feel the need to regulate the media?
What are the pre-conditions that may facilitate regulation of the media?
What role can civil society play in protecting media freedom?
Let me deal with the first question: why do governments feel the need to regulate the media?
In PNG there have been many attempts over the years to control the freedom of the media, these calls always seem to be made whenever the media touches on issues that are generally sensitive and there is "bad news" or a perceived "negative" story about the activities of government.
From my discussions with various Members of Parliament it was clear many felt they were wrongly represented, some misquoted and victims of misinformation spread by their political enemies. As a result, unfortunately at times this has led to the call for greater media control, obviously this is a first knee jerk response and not on the basis of a reasoned and considered position.
In most cases the government responds in the following manner; no response, slow to respond or responds poorly, this creates suspicion among our communities.
National Policy on information and communication of PNG; 17th of December 1993, commissioned by Hon. Martin P. Thompson LL.B. MP.
The government’s poor ability to respond can in some part be put down to the fact that many of our Parliamentarians are new comers both to parliament and also to public life and perhaps are not experienced in dealing with broader national issue or of dealing with public expectation and scrutiny on the performance of their duties.
Another contributing factor that affects government communications is the lack of institutional memory, and equally important the lack of delegated authority that restricts the ability of public servants to deal with the media directly when such issues arise. How many of us in the media have followed up on stories emanating from government departments seeking a comment or clarification only to be informed the minister is the only one able to make a statement?
It is the nature of governments to try and control the flow of information and the media has always been the easy target, this is very much the case in the Pacific given we have relatively small communities with varying levels of education.
In my view, the media must continue to focus on issues that are important to the public. The media’s role must be to interrogate the facts and establish the truth. If we do our job right it will enable the public to have access to factual information from which they can then form an opinion or express a view. If they so wish they can then engage in the debate through letters to the editors and public comment via talk back programs on both radio and TV.
Let me share with you some comments that were made by two Members of our Parliament as to why media regulation should be introduced:
"We need legislation to punish publications or authors of reports that are critical of the government"
"We need to control media houses or publications through licensing and through deterrents"
"The government will pursue legislation and regulation to activate methods to control the media"
"To deal with the issue of not informing government on articles prior to publication"
"Comments were aimed at demeaning the current government"
Key message: there is a lack of capacity within government to deal with criticism and the open debate of public policy.
The second question: what are the pre-conditions that may offer opportunities for governments to introduce media control legislation?
I believe there are two main contributing factors that offer an environment where government enabled to introduce media control legislation. Firstly an apathetic or uninformed population, secondly the absence of a well-organised community based/owned media complaints process that is supported and recognised by the industry.
In most Pacific countries we have one or two major media players; some of them are government-owned or have some form of government ownership. Most if not all of these organisations work in isolation, by that I mean they do not actively seek engagement with other media organisations because they view them as competitors.
They also do not actively interact with the broader community in the form of NGO groups, some say because they want to retain their independence. Let me say to you, the opportunities for governments to introduce media control is greater in this type of environment where the media is isolated and there is no real demonstrable, let me say that again, no real demonstrable link between them and their communities.
In our Melanesian politics, our members often use the defence “it is in the best interest of the people". How many times have we heard that? Our objective is to ensure the people see that the media is part of them, that we are representing their interest it is only when we have achieved this level of relationship can we reasonable expect their support.
The third question: how can civil society be mobilised and actively involved in the process of protecting media freedom?
I will share with you my experience during my time the Media Council of PNG. If you think the approach is useful and has a "take away" value then well and good. In 1994, the PNG government started making serious moves to control the media, this galvanised our newspapers proprietors, radio station operators and our television station and they came together, galvanised by the threat of media regulation.
The heads of those organisations at the time had the wisdom to realise it was in their interest to put aside issues of competition for the common good of the industry.
On the back of this consensus a heightened commitment was visibly made by each media organisation. The Media Council of PNG was revitalised and its executives were voted to office. Each organisation gave its undertaking to support the work of the council through the executives, a critical factor in the Council’s early success was the placement of a motivated and energetic secretary who was able to build the relationship between all members keeping them informed of all activities and coordinating the interchange of information and material.
The capacity to share information and convene regularly assisted greatly to build and strengthen relationships between the members and build understanding across the competitive borders.
The next step the Council took was to identify key civil society groups and engage them with the objective of developing a mutually supportive relationship while obviously respecting each other's independence.
I will not go through the individual steps that we took to achieve the objective, suffice to say it was achieved through a structured method of very regular contacts through joint workshops, forums, direct discussions, phone calls and letters.
In a further effort to demonstrate the media's ability to "self regulate" we began consultations with other media council's including the Fiji Media Council to develop a code of ethics for our people to follow. We engaged two consultants the first to draft a Code pulling from the various COE available. The second consultant was engaged to seek the input from members of the key community groups as well as a group of working journalist.
The finished Code of Ethics that was finally accepted and implemented by the media organisations.
The Media Council of Papua New Guinea General Code of Ethics for the News Media was developed very much with the input of the wider community and the working journalist who are now obliged to abide by the code. We feel this method of involvement and engagement has given the Code greater credence and wider acceptance, although the elements are very much the same as most Codes used in other countries.
The arguments mainly used when the call for media control is that the media is not answerable to anyone. To counter this argument we undertook to establish a mechanism to receive and make rulings on complaints made by the public on media matters. Once again we engaged two consultants the first to draft the procedure. The second consultant was engaged to test and seek response from the wider community including working journalists on the function and powers of the proposed complaints' body. The outcome of all the work is the establishment of our Independent Media Standards Committee; once again the procedures of the IMSC are very much the same as other complaints tribunals operating in other countries, however with membership drawn outside of the media.
In closing, I wanted to leave you with some observations that I believe are important as we reflect on the role of the media and mark this year’s Media Freedom Day. I believe if we are to continue to enjoy the freedom as enshrined within our constitution we must all work to address the following areas:
To re-build the capacity gap that exists within our industry as a result of the loss of our more experienced and senior members; some through death others moving on to other roles.
The media organisations need to ensure they have competent and experienced sub editors and editors managing their newsrooms.
We as media practitioners need to become very familiar with and abide by our code of ethics.
Our biggest threat is the few individuals who have been allowed to creep in to our industry who are receiving bribes and or are being unduly influenced to provide bias or preferential coverage of individuals or groups.
We all have a responsibility to expose these individuals and remove them from our industry, if we fail to do so we will be the victims.
I am encouraged by the establishment of the PNG Media Workers Association and I am hopeful it will along with the Media Council of PNG be the catalysts to unite our media practitioners and support the training and development of the young people coming through the industry. I remind us all of the important role that media plays within our society, along with organisations such as the PNG Electoral Commission, the Ombudsman we the media industry play a vital role as one of the guardians of PNG’s democracy.
Peter Aitsi, MBE, gave this speech as part of celebrations in Papua New Guinea marking the 2012 World Press Freedom on May 3 and was former president of the PNG Media Council for eight years until 2007.
Click here for a copy of the Media Council of Papua New Guinea General Code of Ethics for News Media