IN 2010 a serving Papua New Guinean minister accompanied by a female associate appeared in Samoa and began buying much of the urban real estate that was on the market, even making offers for some that wasn’t available.
Samoa is a small place and this activity soon came to the attention of The Samoa Observer, the nation’s determinedly independent daily newspaper. It was a big story.
The PNG minister responded with a routine threat to sue (for what was never explained) and answered questions as to where the money came from with the claim that he was a “successful leader” and could be expected to be wealthy from, among other activities, timber exports.
So wealthy, in fact, that he walked away from a non-returnable deposit of $A100,000 on an upmarket Apia residential property as soon as his presence came to public attention. The Samoa Central Bank, before it clammed up completely, let slip that the cash was coming from Singapore.
No writ was ever forthcoming.
Nor was any exposure in PNG, where the dailies, after originally expressing keen interest in the story, soon became lukewarm. They said they were scared of being sued. “We’re scared of him,” said another journo, making it clear that the fear was physical.
There are two major daily newspapers in PNG: The National is owned by timber interests; the Post-Courier is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd.
The Samoa property story showed that media control in PNG is not a new issue. But in recent days that control has become more refined and fear is ever present (see recent PNG Attitude articles by Jack Klomes and Michael Joseph Passingan).
Also present is the spreading cancer of Fiji. Since Frank Bainimarama’s takeover of the government at gunpoint in December 2006, governments around the region have watched, often with a blend of admiration and envy, as he subverted a formerly democratic nation.
It wasn’t only his rigid control of the media, but Australia’s reaction to it that was a source of dismay for some and inspiration to others.
For Australia, until then an avid if somewhat ham-fisted advocate for media freedom, looked the other way as that freedom (along with many others) was stamped on.
After token resistance, Australia along with New Zealand, Britain and the European Union caved in to what Bainimarama wanted. The EU commissioner delivered a nauseatingly grovelling speech apologising to the regime for the EU’s originally resistance to an illegal act – the takeover of a government at gunpoint.
None of this went unnoticed in Port Moresby. If Frank can get away with it, was the feeling, why can’t we?
Thus EMTV is now in government hands after Bainimarama’s right hand man and minister for everything, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, rammed the sale down the throats of Fiji TV shareholders.
Radio is hardly a threat to the PNG government’s ambitions, the NBC already firmly in its hands, while The National can be relied upon to adopt the “correct” line.
The Post-Courier is majority owned by Australia’s News Corp, which may well be willing to unload it since being expelled from Fiji, its media property there expropriated.
So expect a move on the Post-Courier in the not so distant future.
And don’t expect resistance from Australia.
But why has Canberra caved-in on media freedom as well as many other freedoms?
Nobody’s saying but China is the only available answer. New Zealand has already benefited significantly from its free trade agreement with China while Australia recently concluded its own bilateral deal, subject to parliamentary approval.
But a few rights issues among its nearest neighbours won’t be allowed to stand in the way.
China is one of Bainimarama’s only real friends in the world and in recent years the People’s Republic has ramped up its presence and activity in the Pacific region. Rights of any kind in the Pacific won’t be a deal breaker in the relationship between Australia and China.
Government control of the media in PNG may not be formalised but it certainly exists and, if the sabre-rattling means anything, is likely to become a reality.
The thinking would be, why waste cash on greasing journos when a Bainimarama-style law will have the same effect? Especially when Australia can be relied on to do nothing.
Canberra’s supine attitude will have consequences, though.
As its near neighbours leave it isolated, this island continent large in landmass but puny in population will find itself in a region that determinedly despises its values.
And it will have only itself to blame.