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Telling tales - challenges and opportunities for reporting PNG

Ben PackhamBEN PACKHAM | Lowy Institute

AN editor once told me, there are always more than enough stories to go around. It's a good rule for a reporter to live by. But some environments are simply more flush with stories than others.

Papua New Guinea has a richness of news to match its mineral and cultural wealth. Australian journalists and editors looking for compelling stories should cast their eyes north.

Its economy is set to grow by 21% this year, far outstripping China. But most of its people live far from modern services, eking out subsistence livelihoods on less than $6 a day.

There are stories of corruption, sorcery and horrific crimes against women. There's humanity and inspiration, and ancient cultures grappling with the modern world.

There are people getting rich, and lots who aren't.

Marriages are sealed with traditional shell money, pigs and hard currency. But there's also a new push by young people to get an education and connect with the world.

For Australian journalists, it's hard to go past the fact that, at its closest point, PNG is just a canoe ride away. Australia's northern-most inhabited island is 5km from PNG's Western Province, a hotspot for deadly and drug-resistant forms of TB.

The porous border also offers opportunities for smugglers of people, guns and drugs. Lax financial regulations have made PNG an attractive place for international criminal syndicates looking to launder their cash.

And money derived from corrupt practices in PNG is alleged to be flowing into Australia, particularly into the Cairns property market.

Those shocked by the treatment of women and girls in parts of the Middle East should turn their attention closer to home, where Australia has some influence.

Women are more likely to be bashed or raped in PNG than almost anywhere else in the world. Australian journalists should be doing everything they can to make it a bigger story, ramping up awareness and international pressure over this national shame.

PNG is Australia's only former colony. We have a shared and fascinating history in war and peacetime. What happens here is important to Australia's economic and strategic future. It's also culturally fascinating and brimming with conflict and controversy - all things the media loves.

But PNG is sadly not on the radar for the majority of Australian journalists.

It's a lack of interest that frustrates those focused on this country - diplomats, academics and development people - who watch with a mix of fascination and concern at how things will pan out here.

There's a range of reasons the Australian media so often overlooks PNG. There are also notable exceptions; Australian journalists and media outlets doing their best to report on this immensely complex place and put events here in context.

PNG comes up most often in the Australian media these days in relation to asylum-seekers. What happens on Manus island and the deal that put asylum-seekers there are legitimate and important news stories.

Journalists should be interested in how Australia's $500 million annual aid contribution to PNG is being spent. And what will happen if asylum-seekers are ever settled in the PNG community?

But there's much more to PNG than the Manus island detention centre.

The ABC's former veteran Pacific correspondent Sean Dorney told me recently, "When I was based in Moresby I often said the stories were so interesting that items that could only make it onto page four or five of the Post Courier would be front page stories in any other country. There were just better ones ahead of those."

The Murdoch-owned Post Courier is a good quality tabloid that stands up well beside its Sydney and Melbourne cousins. It has no need to exaggerate or distort, it simply reports the news in all its fascinating detail. The National, owned by Malaysian logging interests, is also pretty good.

The Australian's Rowan Callick, who's also had a long association with PNG, says sustained coverage of the country should flow from an understanding of the resources sector here.

PNG's immense natural wealth - in oil, gas, copper, gold and nickel - is the key driver of the country's economic expansion. The recently completed Exxon-Mobil LNG project pumped US$19 billion into PNG during construction and will bring in an estimated US$10 billion in taxes and royalties in its first ten years of operation.

The gas boom has fed the property, manufacturing and services sectors. Australians now have more money invested in PNG - $20 billion at last count - than in China. There are huge profits to be made, as in most developing countries, for those willing to take the risks.

And yet, PNG is also a largely ungoverned land where the rule of law is tenuous and extends only as far as the major highways; where the nation state is an amalgam of 800-plus tribal groupings, and ritualised conflict has been a way of life for generations.

Few realise that at current growth rates, Papua New Guineans will outnumber Australians sometime this century, and they'll be desperately trying to lift their standard of living.

As one old PNG hand told me: "This is a state in transformation and we don't know what the end game is yet."

Ben Packham is an Australian journalist living in Papua New Guinea. He has had a 15 year media career working for The Australian, The Herald Sun, AAP and The Geelong Advertiser


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