Australian media (but not NZ) is missing in action on Bougainville
17 April 2019
ANNMAREE O’KEEFFE | The Interpreter | Lowy Institute
SYDNEY – Bougainville, the autonomous region of Papua New Guinea which suffered a brutal 10-year civil conflict in the 1990s, was due to have a referendum in June to decide if it would separate from PNG.
But because funding and arrangements for the plebiscite were well behind schedule, the voting date has now been postponed to October.
Does this matter beyond PNG? One would think so.
This referendum is a celebrated element of the 2001 peace agreement that finally brought the bloodshed to a close and could result in Bougainville becoming another independent but under-developed, economically struggling small island state in the Pacific, with a population of 350,000 people.
If it achieves independence, this small archipelago just over 1,000 kilometres from Cairns will have as its legacy a still festering internal debate about the future of its fabulous mining wealth that was at the heart of the conflict that claimed around 20,000 lives.
And whether independent or not, Bougainville remains an area of intense geo-political interest for Australia particularly as other nations, including China, seek to access that fabulous wealth.
Yet judging by Australia’s recent media coverage of this volatile rich island, it is just about invisible aside from some reporting in the business media about Australian mining interests in Bougainville. All this is doubly strange, given it’s not as though nothing has been happening.
In a year not yet four months old, there has been a flurry of discombobulating developments already in 2019 in what was already set to be an important year for Bougainville. These threaten to impact on Bougainville’s ability to weather the political and massive economic challenges ahead.
The year began with the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) and a landowners’ group in Panguna, the site of the copper and gold mine which was at the heart of the conflict, publicly opposing each other’s preferences for the mining companies they would like to see re-opening the mine.
Separately, concerns were raised in January about the delays in funding to prepare for the forthcoming referendum, at that stage still scheduled for June.
Then the ABG announced that it would change its mining laws to accommodate a West Australian mining investor.
A subsequent and surprising announcement from the ABG revealed its intention to establish its own company to re-open Panguna mine in the hope of solving its financial problems. That plan was met by outrage among landowners living around the mine and more widely.
By February, the Bougainville Referendum Commission, chaired by former Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern, concluded that the commission and Bougainville wouldn’t be ready to hold the vote in June and sought a deferral.
That delay was confirmed by the ABG and PNG’s national government on 1 March. Four days later, New Zealand was asked to lead a regional support mission to assist with security during the referendum, now scheduled to start on 12 October.
The mining issue continued to simmer into March and April with the WA-based mining developer making assurances that it would work with the ABG to find a solution for the closed mine.
Around this time, an important reconciliation ceremony took place bringing together Bougainville President, John Momis, representing the ABG, and Mekamui separatists. This coming together with the once militant faction is a vital step in cementing Bougainville-wide unity in the lead up to the referendum for independence.
And as part of the preparations for the October vote, the United Nations initiated a “roadshow” with Bougainville president, the UN resident coordinator in PNG and the national parliament’s Minister of Bougainville travelling around the archipelago to explain what the referendum was all about.
In short, it’s been a newsworthy few months.
Given the parochialism of Australia’s domestic mainstream media, the lack of attention is probably not surprising although it is disappointing. But that shouldn’t be the case for the ABC and in particular Radio Australia’s service to the Pacific.
Perhaps it’s their search engine’s fault in not capturing all their own stories, but a search of ABC’s coverage of Bougainville shows no news stories since January 2018.
Radio Australia, as should be expected, has so far this year had 25 stories. But this pales when compared to RNZ Pacific which since the beginning of the year had almost three times that number of stories.
So comprehensive is RNZ Pacific’s coverage that reading the entries on their search engine provides a readily accessible, reliable and up-to-date narrative of Bougainville.
This paucity of coverage by the ABC of one of the most important running stories in the Pacific is despite the fact that according to the ABC itself, PNG and the Pacific comprise a target audience group for its international broadcasting services.
Answering the question of why there is so little coverage compared to its Tasman cousin could be a matter of budget. The ABC only makes available $11 million a year for its international services out of its total budget of $865.5 million.
Yet RNZ’s total budget is around NZ$42 million and that includes funding for both its domestic and international services.
So if money isn’t the answer, what is?
We should not be too hard on the ABC.
It has suffered serious budget cuts as the LNP reactionaries attempt to stifle the one media outlet that actually asks difficult questions which, of course, they regard as an impertinence and obvious evidence of incipient socialism.
Meanwhile, the mainstream media feeds its audience of a steady, calorie rich, nutrient depleted diet of ephemera, sensationalism, shock jock screeching and the frequently vacuous doings of the rich and famous.
Also, lets be frank with ourselves, few Australians give a tuppenny damn about PNG or any of what Donald Trump contemptuously described as "shit hole" countries.
We are far too busy obsessing about the price of real estate or the cost of child care or whether we really need health insurance to turn our minds to what is going on in Bougainville.
To paraphrase Neville Chamberlain's famous remark, "why should we care about a country far away of which we know nothing".
So, have mercy on the ABC. They can and will do better if we Australians are collectively smart enough to dump the idiot's version of Game of Thrones that we currently call a government.
Posted by: Chris Overland | 17 April 2019 at 03:16 PM
The Interpreter article, 'Australian media: missing in action on Bougainville - But you can count on New Zealand – again!', is seriously misleading about the extent of ABC coverage.
A simple search of online coverage is manifestly inadequate in conveying the breadth and depth of coverage ABC News provides and a very unfair way to judge the contributions made by our teams.
As anyone familiar with the Pacific and media coverage will tell you, it’s one of the few regions in the world where you could argue that digital content offerings are less relevant than radio and TV (although clearly not irrelevant), and this non-digital coverage won’t always be surfaced through search.
It’s also misleading to treat ABC Radio Australia as something separate to the wider ABC.
The article does not even acknowledge the role ABC plays by funding a PNG bureau. So often the questions the ABC asks on the ground provide the grabs that the other media run with.
As one example, the article mentions the deferral of the Bougainville independence referendum. It was ABC PNG correspondent Natalia Whiting’s sit-down interview with Bertie Ahern, which ran on radio and TV, that provided the first confirmation the referendum would be delayed, after ongoing speculation. Natalie then covered the meeting where the new date was set and broke the news online of when it would be.
And there are other issues.
The writer did not get in touch with us to check anything or put any questions, and we’re concerned the article will be cited as an accurate representation of ABC coverage.
Kellie Mayo, ABC Managing Editor, Asia Pacific, is preparing a full response, which we would like to have published.
PNG Attitude will also publish the response when it's received - KJ
Posted by: Sally Jackson | Communications Lead, ABC News, Analysis & Investigations | 17 April 2019 at 12:32 PM
The answer is stupidity Annmaree.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 17 April 2019 at 09:49 AM