An entry in the Crocodile Prize
PNG Chamber of Mines & Petroleum
Award for Essays & Journalism
I received a text message from a relative in the village which read, “The last days is here, the prime minister Peter O’Neil has authorised the triple six by signing a memorandum of understanding with Vodaphone to have everyone under the control”.
As a journalist I can easily spot misinformation and speculation. My relative’s opinion was based on rumour. The (“number of the beast”, 666 (from Revelation 13:16-18), is an age-old human superstition suggesting that the Rapture is imminent.
The truth was that the Papua New Guinea government was on the verge of introducing electronic identification as part of its National Identity Project – and that’s what the MOU was about.
However the village had no access to the media and the information had spread through word of mouth and, in the way of these things, had been exaggerated for religious reasons.
It intrigues me that much of what has been promised by the information age – including access to vital knowledge, better information and greater democratic participation - has yet to reach ordinary Papua New Guineans.
Opinion leaders in remote PNG villages are a powerful influence - the average villager relies hugely on them for information and decision making.
So is this the development paradigm our nation of diverse cultures is adopting, where the well informed become powerful, successful and prosperous, thus widening the gap between the rich and the least fortunate.
In his paper on the role of public opinion in democratic societies, Deverraux Ferguson looks at how public opinion shapes and maintains the essence of democracy and how public debate and discussion is a vehicle for informed and intelligent decision making.
The remote populations of Papua New Guinea need to be informed and able to make good decisions, it’s a democratic right, but what they lack is information and the credible media through which the information can be passed to allow for dialogue.
Because rural people lack the resources to make their voices heard in PNG’s shifting social, economic and cultural landscape, these remote and disadvantaged communities face the twin dangers of being left out of decision-making that shapes the future of their country and receiving modern media services.
It has been that “in a country like PNG … where the construction of nation is still in progress and far from completion, the lack of participation and exposure to Western values could lead to fragmentation and cultural diversity loss” (Pamba, 2000).
With the mainstream media having failed as agencies of empowerment, what are the alternatives for reaching the ordinary people of Papua New Guinea?
Informing and educating the people is a core obligation in the development of democracy in PNG. As a journalism graduate, I believe the practices of PNG’s mainstream media leave a lot to be desired. Deteriorating media law and ethics is a major stumbling block.
I felt uneasy to practice helicopter journalism - where a journalists are not on site to report on what is happening but instead rely on other sources. Usually the source is an opinion leader, a local politician or village chief and the perspective may be far from objective.
Election in Papua New Guinea bring to the fore the results of information gaps and media negligence in educating the people. Potential candidates easily mislead voters who lack the basis to analyse campaigns and policies.
The information gap between policy makers, implementers and the general public is in need of urgent attention.