May 15, 2021 Last Updated 6:06 PM, May 14, 2021

The Pacific Islands News Association has paid tribute to media workers covering the COVID-19 pandemic, recognising their commitment and the “great sacrifice” they have made.           

In a statement made to mark 2021 World Press Freedom Day today, PINA notes that while “our health workers have been rightfully recognised as ‘frontliners’ in the fight against COVID19, the critical frontline efforts of our media workers in bringing much-needed information and news to our people has been largely forgotten.” 

“Much like our health sector colleagues, our media workers go about their daily work, also at high personal risk and exposure to this virus, but with the unwavering desire to inform and educate our people,” PINA says.

PINA President Kora Nou urges governments to vaccinate journalists “to ensure they can continue to work without having to fear for their health and their lives.”

Meanwhile, the Pacific Anti-Corruption Journalists Network (PACJN) has called for a regional Pacific commitment to boost media freedom.  

"Pacific journalists need stronger Right to Information legislation and whistleblower protection so their daily work can better target the diversion of state and private sector funds into corrupt hands," said PACJN Coordinator (and Islands Business Publisher), Samisoni Pareti.

"Our journalists have worked hard to get governments to host more regular media conferences during the onset of COVID so not only misinformation, but real procurement problems can be addressed quickly.

"But journalists need to be able to rely on their own independent reporting, without fear or favour, not just media conferences," Pareti says.

In Fiji, National Federation Party General Secretary Seni Nabou said: “Fiji owes those who promote independent and impartial news, our immense thanks. They are doing a remarkable job given that Fiji has only selective media freedom.”

“While the Government may have concerns about Covid rumours slowing down its vaccination rollout plans, as a matter of principle, we must all uphold the freedom to "to seek, receive and impart information, knowledge and ideas", as well as the freedom from "scientific or medical treatment or procedures without an order of the court or without his or her informed consent", as promoted in their 2013 Constitution,” Nabou said.

“Fiji will only enjoy absolute media freedom with the repeal of the draconian Media Industry Development Act, first legislated as a Decree in 2010,” Nabou says, pledging to repeal the Act. “This will have to be done as a matter of priority by the next government.  And we will do it.”

Press Freedom Index raises concerns over Pacific developments

The  2021 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) shows that “journalism, the main vaccine against disinformation, is completely or partly blocked in 73% of the 180 countries ranked by the organisation.” The Index rates New Zealand as the 8th  most free nation in  (Norway is in first place). Samoa is ranked at 21, Australia at 25, Tonga at 46, Papua New Guinea at 47, Fiji at 55 and Timor Leste at 71. Other Pacific Island nations are not ranked.

Reporting on Samoa, RSF says:  “In a sign of further decline in the situation in 2020, the prime minister threatened to ban Facebook and personally brought a defamation suit against a blogger whose comments he did not like.”

On Tonga, RSF noted years of tension between government and media and stated: “Pohiva Tu’i’onetoa, who became prime minister in October 2019, must put a stop to the pressure and meddling and ensure that journalists enjoy full editorial independence.

RSF says in Papua New Guinea: “The installation of… James Marape, as prime minister in May 2019 was seen as an encouraging development for the prospects of greater media independence. Journalists were disillusioned in April 2020 when the police minister called for two reporters to be fired for their “misleading” coverage of the Covid-19 crisis. In addition to political pressure, journalists continue to be dependent on the concerns of those who own their media. This is particularly so at the two main dailies, The Post Courier, owned by Australian media tycoon Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, which is above all focused on commercial and financial concerns, and The National, owned by the Malaysian logging multinational Rimbunan Hijau, which doesn’t want its journalists to take too much interest in environmental issues. As a rule, the lack of funding and material resources for proper investigative journalism and reporting in the field has tended to encourage “copy-and-paste” journalism. So the efforts undertaken by the commercial TV channel EMTV News to practice and promote investigative reporting are encouraging. Social media are meanwhile developing rapidly but the advent of Facebook has led to the creation of many politically-affiliated accounts that focus on spreading disinformation and attacking independent journalists. Reporters continue to be prevented from covering the fate of asylum-seekers held in Australia’s migrant detention centres on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island and in the capital, Port Moresby.”

RSF says in Fiji: “The sedition laws, with penalties of up to seven years in prison, are also used to foster a climate of fear and self-censorship. Sedition charges poisoned the lives of three journalists with the Fiji Times, the leading daily, until they were finally acquitted in 2018. It was the price the newspaper paid for its independence, many observers thought. The newspaper’s distribution was banned in several parts of the archipelago at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020 because – the government said – the press was not an essential service. The pro-government Fiji Sun was nonetheless distributed with complete normality in the same areas.”

Remembering Pacific journalists

PINA has also used the day to salute five media workers for their “tireless and immense contribution to the Pacific media fraternity.”

  • Ricky Binihi, a well-known investigative journalist in Vanuatu, with over four decades of journalism experience, working with Vanuatu Broadcasting & Television Corporation (VBTC), Vanuatu Daily Post and the Vanuatu Weekly. He was one the pioneers of journalism in Vanuatu after independence in the 80’s. He died in January this year.
  • Glenda Popot, was heavily involved in the development of the electronic media, especially EMTV in Papua New Guinea. She worked with FM100 as its Editor before her death,
  • Alphonse Muapi, worked with the national broadcaster in Papua New Guinea, NBC before joining the Electoral Commission. He was considered an asset and bridge between the media and the Commission, during the conduct of PNG’s most immediate past two national general elections.
  • Maepeza Wickham, an experienced videographer in Solomon Islands. In a tribute from MASI President, “The loss of Peza is felt by many in the media fraternity in Solomon Islands for the many contributions he’s made to the media industry.”
  • Poliakepo Kefu – the Secretary of the Media Association of Tonga (MAT). The president of MAT, Ramanlal Vallabh said Kefu was an active member and supportive member of MAT and his demise is a huge loss to the media family in the island kingdom.

The UN Human Rights Office has warned of “toxic lockdown culture” in a number of countries, with UN Secretary General António Guterres reminding governments that the threat was the “virus, not people.”

States of emergency have been declared in many Pacific island nations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with measures including curfews, border closures, internal travel restrictions and compulsory quarantine and self-isolation periods. For the most part, quick and decisive actions from our governments has borne fruit; many Pacific island nations have been spared from local COVID cases for now, and in others, the spread has been quickly contained . They should be congratulated for that.

However some of these government-mandated measures have been challenged (with varying results), for example in courts in Guam, French Polynesia and Fiji.

Meanwhile, there have been challenges to the notions of media freedom in several jurisdictions.

To scrutinise, question  and unpack government policies, and the rationale behind them, is the job of the media. They’re not acting this way because they are evil, but because the ability to question, debate and understand is integral to a healthily functioning society.

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McGarry barred from Vanuatu

Vanuatu Daily Post journalist Dan McGarry has been stopped from re-entering the country by Vanuatu immigration officials.

McGarry was until recently, the Media Director for the Daily Post. However the government earlier this month refused to approve his annual work permit renewal. He says this is due to the newspaper’s coverage of Vanuatu’s relationship with China.

Originally from Canada, McGarry is in the process of applying for dual Vanuatu citizenship.

He had been in Brisbane, Australia for a week with his partner. But when they tried to check in for a flight back to Port Vila on Saturday, they were told that Vanuatu Immigration had issued a notice barring the airline from uplifting him. His partner had to return home to their two children alone.

“Repeated attempts to obtain a copy of Vanuatu Immigration’s letter to the airlines were unsuccessful,” McGarry says. “How can I comply with Immigration’s demands if they won’t tell me what I need to do? I feel like a character in Catch 22.”

 “They’re doing what every guilty-minded government does when faced with inconvenient facts: they’d rather shut me up—and shut me out—than engage honestly with the public about the stories we report.”

Last week in a broad-ranging statement about the state of media freedoms and threats in the Pacific, the Melanesia Media Freedom Forum called on the Vanuatu government to uphold the appeal of the Daily Post against the rejection of McGarry’s work permit.

PNG journo reinstated

Two days after terminating his employment, Papua New Guinea’s EMTV has re-instated News and Current Affairs manager Neville Choi, and he says he will be back at work this morning.

Choi was sacked for what EMTV management alleged were human resources breaches.

However the action against the respected journalist created a storm of protest from his local and international colleagues and EMTV viewers.

The President of the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA), Kora Nou had urged the parties in to quickly meet and resolve the issue, and offered to act as a mediator.

The Pacific Freedom Forum, a media rights watchdog, took a stronger line:  “We stand in solidarity with Neville, who is a well respected and leading Pacific journalist who has mentored and trained journalists across his nation. We also call on PNG Communications Minister Renbo Paita --given his powers over board appointments for EMTV's parent company--  to support a swift and independent mediation between all parties to resolve an escalating issue ,” said PFF Chair Bernadette Carreon of Palau.

“Our concern at this time is that a quality news service cannot be suspended because news workers feel intimidated, unheard and unable to report without fear or favour,  in the current environment,” says Melanesia PFF co-chair Ofani Eremae of the Solomon Islands. 

Senior members of the EMTV newsroom, including  Meriba Tulo- the journalist named to replace him, called for his re-instatement and asked that EMTV’s Acting CEO be sidelined, as they “no longer have confidence in her leadersihip.”

In a statement, newsroom leaders Tulo,  Scott Waide and Sincha Dimara said: “The action to terminate Mr Choi is one that is wrong, and in direct challenge to the separation, and indepdence of the News Media Code of Ethics.”

Their support for Choi meant there was no news bulletin aired on Monday night.

EMTV's coverage of expenditure related to last year's APEC meeting and industrial action by the PNG Defence Force raised the government's ire.

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