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PNG media elite not interested in the grassroots

PHILIP FITZPATRICK has dug out a little-reported speech on the PNG media, and finds it may need to be read between the lines

PNG doesn’t get much media coverage in Australia and when it does it is usually negative. The Australian media gives its audiences what it thinks they want. In PNG’s case this is invariably stories about corruption and lawlessness – good news just doesn’t make the cut. Thank goodness the media in PNG has a more objective, balanced and less depressing view. Or does it?

An address by Joe Kanekane, President of the PNG Media Council, to a United Nations Development Program sponsored governance forum in Port Moresby in March casts some doubt over this proposition.

Mr Kanekane argues that the demography of PNG media audiences has changed significantly since the Media Council was set up in the 1980s. These days people are more sophisticated, thanks to globalisation, technology, better education and a “booming economy”.

He says the days of the media as watchdog is long gone. This role is more rightly the province of the Ombudsman Commission, the Public Accounts Committee and the Auditor General. The media’s role is rather to “offer what the customer wants”. What they want, according to Mr Kanekane, is reporting that is “more focused to their parochial needs than that of their country”.

Talking about the print media he says “a booming economy has a transcending affect. More people have money to spend and that demands additional pages to cater for that”. So what goes into these additional pages?

Mr Kanekane says that in the four main publications in active circulation it is amazing the “number of advertorials, classifieds and even the short anecdotes that appear”.  This explains, for instance, the bemusing pictures in the classifieds of kids having birthdays accompanied by lengthy and glowing testimonials.  He adds “climate change, corruption, law and justice and HIV/AIDS sadly don’t feature prominently”.

There now seems to be middle-class elite in PNG which is big enough and powerful enough to dictate media content. These are the people who buy the newspapers and can afford television. They are not interested in grassroots issues like corruption and the collapse of rural infrastructure. The few dissenters among them seem to be mainly younger people, including students who have access to technology like the internet.

Mr Kanekane cites the Reverend Oria Gemo who said in 1996 that “information is (now) regarded as a marketable commodity rather than a social right”. Mr Kanekane further adds that in this sort of competitive environment the decision to include a story on a social issue must include consideration of its “selling value”. He notes that “anything controversial arouses interest and prompts more readers”.

In May 2008 The National (which, incidentally, is owned by an Asian logging company) featured a photograph of a hanged and crucified drug addict on its front page who had “decimated” a young teacher on his way to school. Despite the community outrage about the photograph he says this was okay because circulation was high for the edition.

He also unapologetically noted that “most importantly, this level or kind of news presentation was targeted at selling the product”. What negative social impact the picture had was unimportant - the main thing was that it sold newspapers!

What hope of having his voice heard has the average subsistence farmer in the provinces who seldom sees a newspaper and gets most of his news from the radio? Provincial radio stations used to be the main source of information on agriculture, health, law and justice and community news, usually in the local languages. Now they play music all day and charge to run community announcements. The farmer, it seems, has lost his voice.

Even television, not the most elucidating medium, is under threat. Channel 9, for instance, has bought into PNG in a big way, dropped local production of programs like the popular Tok Piksa and substituted the sort of mindless pap we have to endure in Australia.

Mr Kanekane notes that the biggest purchaser of advertising space in PNG is the government. He also notes that the media have been very lucky. Except for a couple of abortive attempts at control “the industry has been graced immensely by the benevolence of many of our governments since independence” and has not been “subjected to circumstantial greed or the manifestation of absolute power”. He reiterates this point several times in his address; one wonders why?

Mr Kanekane’s address is reported verbatim in issue 2 (2009) of PNG Resources magazine. The address is not easy to read and I suspect, for the initiated, is rife with hidden meanings. He seems to think that a media that caters mostly to the needs of the elite and makes a buck on the way is a good thing and the way of the future. He calls this “opinion making”. Where have I heard that before?


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