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Media: Getting down & dirty with Sir Michael

Serious LAST WEEK the Australian Broadcasting Corporation ran a warts and all feature reporting on a recent news conference called by Sir Michael Somare when he returned to Port Moresby after a trip overseas.

The proceedings reveal a cantankerous old man, so lost in his own hubris he seems to have ceased caring what other people think of him.  Also shown is the prime minister's long-standing contempt for journalists.

LIAM FOX, ABC: Press conferences with the 74-year-old prime minister of Papua New Guinea are pretty rare these days; they only happen once every few months or so.

Recently Sir Michael Somare returned from an overseas trip and wanted to set the record straight on several matters he felt the media had covered poorly. He shuffled into the conference room with the help of a walking stick, sat down and unloaded onto the waiting press pack.

MICHAEL SOMARE: I go out as a prime minister, everywhere promoting this country. I go and put PNG on the map. But when I come home I get the reporting from people like yourselves - it's pathetic. One feels that, what's the point in wasting time trying to promote a country of people who don't know what they're talking about.

FOX: The Grand Chief, as he's known, was particularly unhappy with the criticism of recent amendments to the Environment Act. They effectively prevent legal challenges to environmental permits granted for resource projects like mining and logging.

Several prominent people have spoken out against them saying they rob people of their land rights, but Sir Michael said the concerns are rubbish and attacked the media for reporting them.

SOMARE: Most of you, and I can say this, you've taken out of context a lot of issues, particularly laws and construing the information; not getting the right information out to people, and I'm not very happy.

FOX: Then it got personal.

SOMARE: Most of you are young people. You want to make a career out of journalism, you're lucky you've got two newspapers to work for. You apply for jobs internationally, think they'll give you a job with this type of reporting that you've got? No. You have to be accurate; you have to be factual; you have to know your subject matter before you raise those questions.

FOX: After a 25-minute long, rambling and at times incoherent speech it was time for questions.

SOMARE: After ear-bashing, you can ask me questions, but remember, give you a question that you'll know you'll get a good answer. If you ask silly questions, you'll get a silly answer.

FOX: Veteran journalist and consulting editor of The National newspaper, Frank Kolma, says the prime minister's performance is nothing new.

FRANK KOLMA: It does show you an example of the kind of lives we journalists have led with the founding father of our nation. He does have a tendency to be very abusive of journalists.

FOX: Mr Kolma experienced that abuse first hand in 1987, and it wasn't just the verbal kind.

KOLMA: I saw a newspaper report, actually a Taiwanese newspaper, with his photograph shaking hands with a businessman from Taiwan and I got a translation. The translation was that Sir Michael had a 15 million kina deal with this Taiwanese businessman to build a building in Port Moresby to be called the Somare Foundation House.

We published this in the Times of Papua New Guinea. He came back and called a press conference and he just ran off, calling me small boy and small man, and that I had never been around when he started this country and eventually got up and walked up to me and bang, bang - he slapped me in the face. That was a shocker.

FOX: And what do you think are the reasons that he gets abusive towards journalists.

KOLMA: I tend to think that he does not like to be questioned; that he thinks that what he has done is, should not be questioned by the people of Papua New Guinea, and that is arrogance. I've said it a number of times in editorials - in my commentaries. And you know, he can't be a power unto himself; he's been in it perhaps too long.

FOX: It's not hard to see how power could go to Sir Michael's head. He was PNG's first prime minister after independence in 1975; he's known as the father of the nation and his portrait appears on the 50 kina note.

He's led the country on three separate occasions; his latest stint as prime minister began in 2002. But Frank Kolma says Sir Michael isn't the only politician who tries to bully and manipulate the media.

KOLMA: There is a dangerous trend growing amongst politicians and even journalists, I might add, that politicians understand the role of the media very, very well to the extent that they will wine and dine and give cash to journalists so that their side of the story gets in.

Now is the time when you really should have senior journalists who get in, you know, gutsy reports, but you are not getting it in PNG, and I think it is because of this kind of chequebook journalism.

FOX: The need for gutsy and independent journalism in PNG has never been greater. Its biggest ever resource project, a $16 billion dollar liquefied natural gas venture, is about to get underway and the country will be flush with cash. Some are worried about the impact that will have on a country already struggling with corruption.

Source: Correspondents Report, ABC Radio, 22 June 2010

Spotter: Bill McGrath


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Trevor Freestone.

Michael Somare started out being Father of the Nation. He no longer is entitled to this title as he has failed dismally in improving the children's lives in the villages. No water supplies, no free education, no sanitation.

Where have the billions of dollars gone? How can he proudly declare he is the father of this backward country.

It's time the educated women were given a chance to run PNG. They would show much more concern for the welfare of the ordinary people.

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