A cycle of fear is how Reporters Without Borders (RSF) headlined the release of its 2019 World Press Freedom Index. This tool RSF says, “shows how hatred of journalists has degenerated into violence, contributing to an increase in fear. The number of countries regarded as safe, where journalists can work in complete security, continues to decline, while authoritarian regimes continue to tighten their grip on the media.”
Independent islands of the Pacific did not do too badly in this year’s index, although only four nations – Samoa, Papua New Guinea, Tonga and Fiji, were ranked. This is a pity really because there are other nations that could have done better than Samoa – the highest ranking of the four – had they been included. Solomon Islands and Vanuatu would rate well, with their vibrant and robust media players, most of which are not state owned. Former American trustees up in the northern Pacific, namely Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) and the Republic of Marshall Islands would excel too in the RSF Index were they included.
Be that as it may, the RSF world press freedom index should trigger alarm bells in our part of the globe. Now is not the time for island nations to rest on their laurels. Even for Samoa, ranked 22 out of 180 countries, the RSF warned that the island nation will soon lose its “regional press freedom model” status if it was not careful, laying the blame squarely on the man who leads the country, Prime Minister Tuilaepa.
For Ppua New Guinea at 38, independence of the media is at risk, the RSF declared. The RSF says journalists there face intimidation, direct threats, censorship, prosecution and bribery attempts, adding that “the situation is all the more precarious because the media groups they work for rarely defend them when they are under attack.”
Disturbing erosion of media independence is how RSF describes media freedom in Tonga, which scored a ranking of 45.Increasing litigation against journalists by politicians and the interference of Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva in the running of the state broadcaster did not win his country any points.
At 52, Fiji was the last of the four Pacific countries listed, and for very good reasons too. Restrictions in the draconian media decree and the regulator it created, plus the unsuccessful prosecution of the Fiji Times newspaper on sedition charges no doubt resulted in Fiji’s poor showing.
The decision of Fiji police to detain New Zealand journalists in March in the capital Suva would earn the island nation no points. The recent attempts by a group of traditional leaders in FSM to expel an American journalist from Yap further underscores the fact that there is a lot of work still to be done about media freedom in the Pacific.
If anything, the Reporters Without Borders’ annual index on world media freedom should jolt island leaders out of their slumber. The message is simple: Put your own house in order first. There is no point strutting the world stage and preaching about good governance, climate change or independence for West Papua if you can’t even offer the basic fundamental freedom of expression and press freedom to your very own people. Yes don’t just preach media freedom, show it. Live it!