Page 86

Kicking at the cornerstone of democracy The State of Press Freedom in Australia 2012

“The military, police and the National Intelligence Organisation and other pro-government civilian networks are monitoring all attempts to destabilise the government’s firm control of the country,” Micah said. “All patriots and law-abiding citizens are required to be vigilant.” He announced that a monitoring committee would be established to investigate malicious and misleading information through the social media. This, he said, would be regarded as “a serious crime”. Micah also listed six telephone numbers for citizens to call and report “suspicious activity”. But when Eoin Blackwell, the AAP correspondent in PNG, called, all six were either disconnected or rang out. Paul Barker, executive director of the PNG Institute of National Affairs, responded that government attempts to rein in the social media were “chilling and reminiscent of what would happen in a totalitarian state”. He added that anyone feeling aggrieved at the spread of malicious or misleading information already had adequate recourse under law. Micah’s words also drew condemnation from the International Federation of Journalists, which expressed great concern for free speech – a supportive act that did not go unnoticed in PNG. In a joint statement, the International Federation of Journalists and the Pacific Media Centre said: “The statement threatens unspecified punishment for those found to be using personal communications technology in a manner deemed illegal and detrimental… It appears to criminalise the personal use of phones, email and social networking websites without a clear legal mandate. “Policies and laws which attempt to censor or punish those expressing themselves online, or via other communications technologies, violate this core principle of democracy.” PNG was ranked 35th in last year’s Press Freedom Index, produced by Reporters Without Borders. Not a bad position for a developing country, behind Australia and New Zealand but ahead of all the Pacific Island nations. Will Micah’s threatened crackdown substantively affect press freedom? Clearly, the answer will lie in the response of Papua New Guinean journalists and the social media and my bet is that they will be neither impressed nor compliant. Micah, it seems, is attempting to turn back a burgeoning, democratising tide of free information flow. There’s a PNG group on Facebook called “Sharp Talk” with more than 4000 members, who exchange views on political issues. There are probably 70,000 Facebook accounts in PNG. Not that many, perhaps, in a nation of seven million people, but a number that is growing rapidly and relentlessly. Blogging has emerged as an incisive tool for writers like Martyn Namorong (his Namorong Report gets up to 3000 hits a day when the issues are running), who has made connections with journalists in Australia and the United States and who was invited to speak at a conference at Deakin University in April. Twitter is the medium of choice for rapid information transmission and, like the rest of the social media, its growth in PNG is being spurred by sophisticated mobile telephony, which in a small number of years has transformed communications in this very geographically challenged country. The PNG government recently advertised for staff for a social media department. But in the past, the government has been notoriously sluggish and unsuccessful in explaining itself to people through the mass media, and there’s no reason to expect it to become more efficient in social media. Indeed, Micah’s threats just seem to be galvanising opposition to any crackdown. Executive officer of the PNG advocacy group Act Now!, Effrey Dademo, says, “Our main aim is to get the mass population of PNG to speak up about what they see is not right.” On the PNG Attitude website, university student Gelab Piak issued “a challenge to stand up for freedom of speech and our rights. After the failed attempt to ban journalists, they are now attacking the voicebox of the ordinary people. This is a dent on free speech and free press.” Blogger Emmanuel Narakobi said Micah’s threat reminded him of witch-hunts like the attempts in the United States to ferret out communists. “It can appear to be a scary place to go,” he said. Given the strength of opposition to attempts to impose limits on press freedom, it seems most unlikely that any government will be able to muffle the “voice box”. But the struggle could get really messy along the way. Footnote: An official in Peter O’Neill’s office belatedly said Micah’s view were his own and that the prime minister supports a free and open media. Keith Jackson is chairman of the Sydney-based public relations firm Jackson Wells. He worked in Papua New Guinea as a teacher and journalist from 1963–76 and publishes the PNG Attitude website at http:// asopa.typepad.com/asopa_people/

86

2012 Press Freedom Report  

The Annual Media Alliance summary of press freedom issues in Australia