Apr 24, 2019 Last Updated 12:31 AM, Apr 24, 2019

IN 2017 the Samoan Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi reintroduced the Criminal Libel Act to combat online anonymity and ‘ghost writers’ such as the infamous ‘Ole Palemia’. Reintroduction of the act, which had been abolished in 2013, was justified on the basis of protecting individuals from false and defamatory online allegations, and in the name of peace and harmony.

Then last year the Prime Minister threatened to shut down Facebook completely in Samoa because of what he termed as “gutless anonymous bloggers” and their continued allegations. This threat was criticised by Samoans, with groups such as the Samoa Alliance of Media Practitioners for Development (SAMPOD) warning against the implications this could have on free speech and democracy.

Targets of the PM’s anger include anonymous blogger/social media poster(s) ‘Ole Palemia’. A woman detained for allegedly knowing the identity of ‘Ole Palemia’ but who was then released due to insufficient evidence, has filed a lawsuit against Samoa’s Attorney General and police. Meanwhile in February this year, Australian- based Samoan Paulo Malele, who is also known online as ‘King Faipopo’, was arrested when he returned home for his mother’s funeral. He faces charges of making threats on social media against the Prime Minister. Malele has been released on bail and will reappear in court in March. Social media activity has risen dramatically

in the Pacific with increasing connectivity and affordability of internet access. This has been aided by the proliferation of handheld devices providing more convenient access to the Internet and specifically, to social networking sites. Facebook is the most prominent social networking site in Samoa. Facebook analytics data estimate around 100,000 to 150,000 active Facebook accounts in Samoa within a period of a month. Active Facebook accounts in Samoa are comparatively between 60-70 per cent of Samoa’s estimated population. These estimates are for account holders with listed ages of 18 toover 65. Over 70 per cent of these active Samoa based account users are between 18-34 years of age, the ages covered by Samoa’s youth policy. In other words, Samoa’s youth population constitutes the majority of Facebook and online users.

Of the estimated 100,000 to 150,000 active Facebook accounts, around 52 per cent are listed as accounts for women and 48 per cent are listed as accounts for men. Samoa is somewhat unusual in this regard as in Melanesia for instance, there are more Facebook accounts listed for men than women. Around 85 per cent of Samoa’s total active accounts are situated in the capital of Apia. Over 87 per cent of Facebook access in Samoa has been facilitated through mobile devices, especially through android devices, which indicates the increasing use and affordability of mobile internet deals and gadgets.

These figures ultimately indicate that the expansion of social media in Samoa, much like in the rest of the Pacific, is inevitable and brings with it a wide range of implications. There’s a tendency for Pacific governments and leaders to react aggressively to these implications, with threats of blocking social media or with laws that seek to criminalise certain online activity. The risk of taking these reactionary approaches is to compromise free speech and expression, while wrongful arrests or arrests without sufficient evidence exacerbates the impression of an Orwellian-like state.

Old guards of Pacific leadership are now forced to face the brutal realities of globalisation and the digital expression of their citizens’ frustrations and outbursts. How this is handled by Pacific governments will test how willing its leaders are to evolve with the changing times and dynamics brought on specifically by social media. The onslaught of digital technologies is going to force Pacific governments to either adopt or adapt to these changes. Reactionary and ill-thought regulations that risk-free speech and citizen engagement, reveal more about the insecurities of government leaders than any purported benefit to democracy or peace and harmony of a society.

IN a recent whirlwind visit to Samoa and Fiji, ADB President, Takehiko Nakao signed several important agreements, including one that scaled up the status of the Samoa office from an extended mission to a country office. He also met dignitaries, held media conferences in both capitals, visited ADB projects outside of Apia and visited Denarau and Natadola along Fiji’s Coral Coast, the sites of the ADB Board of Governors’ 52nd Annual Meeting in the first week of May later this year.

Nakao’s visit came in the aftermath of the various announcements of packages of (mainly infrastructure) funding from Australia. It was thus an excellent reminder to all concerned that when it comes to infrastructure funding and more, ADB has a long-proven record in the Pacific. The bank has been operating for more than half a century and is not likely to be giving up its prominent regional role to any Johnny-come-lately.

Nakao’s visit was strategic in its timing. Strategic in that the visit was aimed at consolidating ADB’s long-term position as a regional development bank that has ably proven its existence and services. The visits to Samoa and Fiji achieved their respective aims of re-enforcing the bank’s long-term aim.

The scaling up of the Apia office from an extended mission to a country office is indicative of what ADB is proposing to do with three other extended missions in Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu. Such upgrades reflect the volume and complexity of ADB’s lending businesses in those countries. For Samoa in particular, the up-scaling of its office has a symbolic significance: of all the 13 Pacific Island Countries ADB members, Samoa is the only foundation member with effect from 1966.

Fiji’s first ever hosting of an ADB Governors’ Annual Meeting in early May this year will be a historical first for Fiji, an ADB member since 1970. But it will also be strategic from ADB’s perspective. It is underpinning ADB’s geostrategic focus for the future to the Pacific Ocean that has been brought to greater prominence by the declaration of an over-arching Indo-Pacific by the Quad members, including Australia. Such prominence is of unprecedented interest in that the Pacific Islands Forum has responded with its Blue Pacific narrative to drive its ‘strategic autonomy’, its geostrategy in the context of a larger political construct that has totally encircled the region and beyond.

Once scaled up, the Samoa country office will bring the total of all country offices in the region to eleven. These will supplement the ADB operations carried out by the resident mission in Papua New Guinea, by the Pacific sub-regional office in Fiji and by the Pacific Liaison and Coordination office in Australia. 

The media release for Nakao’s visit gave an insight of what ADB has in prospect for the immediate future. “Across the Pacific region, ADB is significantly scaling up financing to help developing member countries achieve sustainable economic and social development, while strengthening climate and disaster resilience. The volume of ADB active projects in the Pacific has doubled every five years since 2005 and exceeded $3 billion as of the end of 2018. The volume of active ADB’s projects in the Pacific is expected to surpass $4 billion by 2020.” 

With that expansionary scenario, expectations of each member country will be consequently heightened and increased engagement with the Bank will ensue. If the ADB-Fiji partnership for immediate financing is any indication, it can be expected that for each member country, the volume and types of financing will increase, and sectorial coverage will widen, including lending to the private sector. Furthermore, all investment requirements for climate change and disaster-resilient infrastructure assets will be an essential element for any country member entitlement. 

In such a situation, especially in the context of increased infrastructure funding from other sources, ADB’s strategic approach would, by necessity, tend toward increased concessionality. As it is, ADB is already in that business. It presupposes more. The bank’s Asian Development Fund already offers concessional loans and grants and technical assistance to lower-income developing member countries. Further, it enjoys the capacity to convert concessional loans to grants should economic and financial conditions demand such conversion. Samoa has already benefited from such concession in January 2018 following a series of environmental disasters that struck that country.

The quintessence of Nakao’s visit was what was left unsaid, but it raised serious questions about the coherence of our regional approach in the context of the Indo-Pacific, especially the various funding proposals that have emerged in the name of this imposed political construct.

Australia, one of the architects of Indo-Pacific, joined Japan and USA at the APEC meeting in Port Moresby last November to announce their ‘Trilateral Partnership for Infrastructure Investment for the Indo-Pacific.’ Prime Minister Morrison did clarify that financing from this source is essentially loans that are bankable. India, a fellow Quad member, was left out of the Trilateral Partnership.

Not long after that, Prime Minister Morrison announced a further A$3 billion (US$2.12 billion) Pacific Infrastructure Bank, comprising A$2 billion financial facility: Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific (AIFFP) - for loans and grants for transport, telecommunications, energy and water projects. The balance of A$1 billion will be disbursed through the Export Finance Corporation (EFIC), to encourage more Australian firms to invest in the Pacific.

This funding is aimed at countering China’s influence in the southwest Pacific, and there’s the rub!

Statements from both Australia and USA are mixed: anti-China sentiments as against those infused with a veil of friendly rivalry, competition, ‘partnership rather than confrontation.’ The inconsistencies are particularly worrisome. On balance, when these statements are viewed against specific actions to counter China, there are reasons for pessimism about the prospects of Indo-Pacific.

Nakao’s interest would have been piqued by the paradoxes relating to Indo-Pacific and how an ADB member country was faring in the cross-fire that has ensued.

China joined the ADB in 1986. It created its own Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in January 2016. Prior to that in 2013, China initiated its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). To date, nine Pacific Islands Forum members have signed onto the BRI. The latest report from the Cook Islands, one of the signatory-PIF members, revealed a statement in a “US intelligence report accusing China of currying favour with Pacific countries through bribery and infrastructure investments.” The Cook Islands Deputy Prime Minister, Mark Brown, reaffirmed the utility of its BRI projects and underscored that these projects were not able to be financed by traditional development partners.

President Nakao is back in Manila. His unsaid message remains loud and clear, the ADB is the region’s top development bank. It can accommodate all our needs, notwithstanding those funds created specifically for climate change activities and for which ADB will mobilis e co-financing. There is no need for more. For the Indo-Pacific, ADB remains relevant. It remains committed to the region and stands ready to work with all its 15 Forum members in the execution of the region’s Blue Pacific narrative that seeks strategic autonomy in the context of a region that is becoming complex and geopolitically-charged.

Reward work, not wealth

At the close of 2018, all eyes were on international conferences in Poland and Hawaii, dealing with global commitments to climate change and fisheries management respectively. However Oxfam in the Pacific’s Regional Director, Raijeli Nicole, was at an important meeting dealing with another and related issue for the Pacific, the Blue Economy in Nairobi, Kenya. Highlights from her speech to the conference follow.

I hail from the blue continent, specifically from the large ocean state of Fiji. Fiji and its 13 independent island nation neighbours are great ocean powers. We are custodians of more than 155 million square kilometres of the Pacific Ocean. I say custodians, rather than owners, as we hold the Pacific Ocean in trust for future generations, as our ancestors have done for generations before us. We are accountable to, and responsible for the Ocean. For Pacific people, the ocean is the source of our identities, our creation and migration stories, our ancient gods, our ancestral connections, our food, and the key to our future prosperity.

So while concepts such as ocean governance and the blue economy may have recently gained currency and focus in the international political space, our connections and responsibilities to the ocean are ancient. Our blue continent is not a collection of Exclusive Economic Zones or political boundaries or enclosed spaces, it is a complex, interlinked organism that connects and sustains us.

I would like to ask you to imagine that you are in the year 2031. Specifically, it is October 2031 and you are witnessing the Nobel Peace Prize announcement. The chair of the Nobel Committee walks up to the microphone and says: “Ladies and Gentleman, the Nobel Committee has decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 2031 to “Reward Work, not Wealth Partnership” for their efforts to create a more equitable economy by prioritising ordinary workers and small-scale food producers and not the highly-paid owners of wealth.

This partnership formed at the first Sustainable Blue Economy Conference held in Nairobi, Kenya in November 2018 dared to put into motion transformative solutions to address the key global challenge of poverty in all its forms and dimensions. I start with this vision as a way to inspire us to act on our commitment for a just, inclusive and sustainable world. However, this vision raises some questions about the realities in 2018 that need to
be addressed if we are to reduce poverty, and what daring and transformative solutions are necessary to get us there.

Any discussion of the Blue Economy is intrinsically linked to the need for action on climate change. Following the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, we now know that we have just 12 years to make massive and unprecedented changes to global energy infrastructure to limit global warming to moderate levels. Staying at or below 1.5°C requires slashing global greenhouse
gas emissions 45% below 2010 levels by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2050. Meeting this IPCC goal demands extraordinary transitions in transportation; in energy, land, and building infrastructure; and in industrial systems. It means reducing our current coal consumption by one-third. It also demands a vast scale-up of Reward work, not wealth emerging technologies, such as those that remove carbon dioxide directly from the air. All in the very narrow window of the next 12 years while our momentum pushes us in the wrong direction.

A year ago, Oxfam released its report “Reward Work, Not Wealth” at the World Economic Forum in Davos. The report reveals 82 per cent of the wealth generated last year went to the richest 1 per cent of the global population, while the 3.7 billion people who make up the poorest half of the world saw no increase in their wealth. Not only that, but 2017 saw the biggest increase in billionaires in history, one more every two days, and
billionaires saw their wealth increase by US$762 billion in 12 months. This huge increase could have ended global extreme poverty seven times over.

Dangerous, poorly paid work for the many is supporting extreme wealth for the few. Women are in the worst work. Across the world, women consistently earn less than men and are usually in the lowest paid and least secure forms of work. By comparison, nine out of ten billionaires are men. We need to ensure the Blue Economy does not marginalise women.

Samoa’s Prime Minister has described our blue continent as an increasingly contested space. We know that much of the discourse around oceans governance and the blue economy is really about jostling for control of a space that is important for regional and global order, capitalist accumulation and ecological conservation.

Let’s use the Blue Economy to create a more human economy that puts the interests of ordinary workers and small-scale food producers first, not the highly paid and the owners of wealth. This kind of economy has greater equality as a primary aim. It is about humanity and it could end extreme inequality while guaranteeing the future of our planet.

There are three ways we can make this difference. We need to ensure all workers receive a minimum ‘living’ wage that would enable them to have a decent quality of life, eliminate the gender pay gap and protect the rights of women workers.

We need to ensure the wealthy pay their fair share of tax through higher taxes and a crackdown on tax avoidance, and increase spending on public services such as healthcare and education.

And as with climate financing, we believe in the importance of social accountability when it comes to income generation in this sector. The international community, national governments, and regional and international organisations also have an obligation to ensure that the most vulnerable - including women, children, people with disabilities and our elders, are able to benefit from the investments in decarbonising the transport sector and have access to safe, affordable, accessible and transport systems.

If we do this as an international community and press the reset button, we can imagine that future, when a Nobel peace prize is conferred because we worked together for a just, inclusive and sustainable world for all.

Is regulation the answer?

Social media under state scrutiny in Fiji

DISCUSSION around regulating cyberspace at Fiji Attorney General’s conference generates a few interesting questions and reactions for public discussion. Police Commissioner, Brigadier-General Sitiveni Qiliho, was perhaps the clearest in his sentiment stating, “To answer the question of whether we should regulate cyberspace, the answer is a definite yes.”

This sentiment in amongst others is underpinned by a variety of what can be termed as cases of digital deviance that has recently attained a significant level of notoriety and attention. This has overshadowed healthy digital discourse and dissent, which does exist in Fiji’s digital landscape. To an extent Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama’s statement of “when used correctly, can be an invaluable tool for… encouraging healthy discourse” only reaffirms the obvious for the constructive and engaged digital Fijian citizens.

Most of the notoriety has been generated on interactive platforms or social networking sites (SNS) such as Facebook. It is worth acknowledging that there are a variety of other social networking sites that are active in Fiji, such as Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest and Tumblr. However, Facebook is the most heavily engaged and prominent social networking site in Fiji’s digital landscape. Facebook in Fiji now has an estimated 490,000 accounts, ranging in age from 13 to well over 65. 

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Since assuming the mantle of Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, I have been committed to championing inclusivity in many aspects of the Secretariat’s work. Inclusivity ensures a variety of perspectives in dealing with issues dear to us as Pacific peoples and as a region. Inclusivity also builds ownership and empathy - which are both key to strong advocacy on all fronts. For the Pacific region, our advocacy on climate change and its impacts has been built, in most part on the impacts that we are facing today.

Our Leaders have been and remain strong advocates in international fora on this issue. I acknowledge in particular, the work of the late Tony De Brum, former Minister for Foreign Affairs and Climate Change Ambassador for the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and former President of Kiribati Anote Tong - who have become synonymous with the Pacific’s advocacy on climate change and its drastic impacts to our livelihoods and wellbeing.

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