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Must Try Harder: The Papua New Guinean News Media and Governance 2002:

End of Year Report

Paper Presented at PNG Update 2002 Conference at Divine Word University,


Madang,
5 November 2002 by Dr Richard Rooney, Divine Word University, Madang.

ABSTRACT
This paper explores the news media and governance in Papua New Guinea. It begins
with a general outline of what constitutes ‘good governance’ and the ways in which the
news media can be expected to contribute to its achievement. It explores media
ownership in PNG and then offers a content analysis of what the two main newspapers
and the country’s only television station consider to be the main news agenda. The paper
suggests that the PNG news media does not serve all sections of society, instead it
concentrates on elite groups such as politicians and businessmen to the exclusion of
ordinary people. The paper concludes with some suggestions on how this situation might
be improved.

What do we mean by ‘governance’?

There is a lot of agreement in the developed world as to what constitute key governance
capabilities. For the purposes of this presentation I am going to use the British
Government‟s overview of what constitutes good governance, as expressed by the
Department for International Development (DfID).

DfID believes good government should:


1. Operate political systems which provide opportunities for all the people, including the
poor and disadvantaged to influence government policy and practice;
2. Implement pro-poor policy and to raise, allocate and account for public resources
accordingly.
3. Guarantee the equitable and universal provision of effective basic services.
4. Develop honest and accountable government that can combat corruption.
(DFID, 2001, p. 9)

News media can play a central role in supporting good governance. My theme today is
how well have the news media in PNG done this.

To guide us through what can be a complex tale I‟d like to explore these four questions
about the PNG news media.

1. How pluralistic is media ownership?


2. How independent are the media from government?
3. How representative are the media of different opinions and how accessible are they to
different sections of society, including poor and vulnerable groups and political
parties?

News media and governance as presented 1


4. How effective are the media in investigating government and powerful corporations?

But first an introduction to PNG itself.

Papua New Guinea (PNG) society is extremely fragmented with more than 800 distinct
cultural groups, each with their own language. About 85 per cent of PNG‟s population,
estimated at 5 million, live in isolated scattered rural settlements. Poor roads, bridges and
air transport are barriers to providing education and health services. About 3.5 million
Papua New Guineans depend on subsistence agriculture for their survival and are largely
outside the formal economy.

How pluralistic is media ownership?

There is no truly indigenous newspaper in PNG or the South Pacific. Journalism in this
region was developed under British and other European models. Each island country as it
came under a colonial power, gradually gave birth to a small newspaper (Craddock, 1999.
P.80). Australian journalists set up the first newsrooms in PNG and trained many of the
Papua New Guineans who went on to reach senior management positions (Phinney,
1985). Ex-Pats still play key roles in senior management at PNG‟s newspapers.

There are two daily newspapers in PNG, both are based in the PNG capital, Port Moresby
and share a metropolitan bias. The Post-Courier is the oldest daily newspaper in PNG,
established in 1969 and owned by South Pacific Post, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch‟s
News Ltd. It has a circulation of 29,819 and is the country‟s largest selling newspaper.

The National is PNG‟s newest daily newspaper with a circulation of 22,615 copies.i The
newspaper, established in 1993, is Malaysian-owned with a subsidiary of timber
company Rimbunan Hijau, holding a majority shareholding.

The weekly Independent, formerly the Times of Papua New Guinea and then the
Saturday Independent, is owned by Word Publishing through Media Holdings Ltd. Its
shareholders are the mainstream churches in PNG: Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran,
Anglican, and Uniting Church (Cullen, 2000). It has an approximate circulation of 3,000.
The company also publishes the weekly Wantok, the only national newspaper in the Tok
Pisin language, which has a circulation of about 10,000.ii

The Eastern Star, established in 1991, is PNG‟s only provincial newspaper and has a
circulation estimated at 2,500. It is published fortnightly around Alota, Milne Bay.

The one television station in PNG is Em-TV, which is owned by an Australian company
(Channel Nine) and generates only a small proportion of its coverage locally.
Broadcasting started in 1987 (Foster, 1998, p.54). In 2002, 15 years after launch, the
channel is still not available across the whole country.

Radio has a great importance in PNG and the Pacific as it can reach illiterate people and
broadcast in the vernacular. In many cases, but by no means all, it also overcomes the

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problem of geographical isolation. Radio can be an important medium for messages,
education and information other than formal news prepared by journalists (Nash, 1995, p.
36). Radio in PNG is in the hands of a bureaucracy, the National Broadcasting Company,
which as the only radio broadcasting authority in the country is the nation‟s public
service provider reaching about four million people in about 60 different languages as
well as English. (Nash, 1995, pp. 42-43). There is also a growing number of commercial
stations, playing mostly music, based in and around PNG‟s urban centres.

The English language newspapers rarely circulate outside of urban areas and the vast
majority of Papua New Guineans are excluded from information. A total of 72 per cent of
adults in PNG are illiterate and have no need for newspapers (United Nations
Development Program, 1999, p.110). Newspaper readers are likely to be leaders and
opinion makers and this gives newspapers an influence in the country that far outweighs
their circulation penetrations.

How independent are the media from government?

Although there is a free press in PNG, newspapers are heavily dependent on government
advertising. This places the Press in a difficult financial position if it tries to protect the
public against bad government.

Anna Solomon, until this year editor in chief of Word Publishing believes: „Government
propaganda is repackaged by a press that does not dare ask uncomfortable questions for
fear of losing advertising revenue. Given the small readership of these papers, most fall
into the trap of taking the easy way out by becoming mere recipients and ending up as a
public relations tool for the government or multinational corporations operating in the
Pacific‟ (Solomon, 1995, p.121).

Frank Senge Kolma, a former editor of the National newspaper, has made claims that
journalists exercise self censorship. Reporters were said to be reluctant to write stories
about logging because of the newspaper‟s links to the logging industry (Senge-Kolma,
1999, p.125). The National has lost advertising in the past when a client objected to being
criticised in the news columns of the paper (Solomon, 1999, p.26).

The geographical isolation of much of PNG makes it difficult for journalists to cover
stories. Many media operate in a vacuum and journalists have no idea what is happening
in most of the country, especially areas outside the towns (Solomon, 1995, p.124).
Newspapers do not circulate far from urban centres and Em-TV (the only PNG television
channel) and radio stations are beyond the reach of many people (Pamba, 2002, p.19).
The state-owned NBC radio, the country‟s public service broadcaster has been
consistently neglected and starved of funding by governments and even the advanced
technology used by commercial broadcasters does not reach the rural areas (Eggins,
1999, pp.149-152).

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It is also contested whether NBC is really „free‟. A former chief editor of NBC news,
argues the government tried to control the news agenda of the station for many years
(Ealedona, 1999, pp.108-109).

How representative are the media of different opinions and how accessible are they to
different sections of society, including poor and vulnerable groups and political
parties?

This is a report on a pilot survey that examined journalists and their sources of
information. The results suggest that journalism in PNG concerns itself with a small
section of society, to the exclusion of the vast majority of people in the country. A survey
of ten issues of the National and Post-Courier was undertaken over two separate weeks in
August 2002. Both papers only published Mondays to Fridays and two full weeks‟ worth
of publications was examined.iii

The pagination of the two newspapers varied widely across the week. Both titles had 52
pages in their Friday editions, but the smallest edition of the Post-Courier had only 20
pages and the National, 32 pages.

Both newspapers placed their editorial in clearly defined compartments. Running from
the front of the newspaper, these typically were home (or national) news, regional
(Pacific) news, world news, business news and sport. There was other material
interspersed among these compartments on some days, for example news from specific
regions within PNG and supplements sponsored by advertisers or organisations.

As table 1 shows, home or national news accounted for six to eight pages per day in the
National and between five and nine pages in the Post-Courier.

National Post-Courier
Total Pages 32-52 20-52
Home News 6-8 5-9
Sport 4-10 3-9
Business 4-8 3
Overseas News 3-6 2-5

Table 1: Number of pages devoted to different types of editorial.


Source: Author

Sports and business were important to both newspapers‟ editorial mix. Sports news in the
National ran from four to ten pages per day. The Post-Courier ran sport on three to nine
pages per day. Both titles ran an Australian racing form guide each day and each had a
racing guide supplement once a week. The sports pages were dominated by overseas‟
news, but a PNG sports event or story was always the main story on the main sports page
(the back). Sports likely to interest expatriates were important to both titles, with
Australian rugby league dominant in this category. Both papers cast their sporting nets
wide and included English soccer and US sports. The National ran a weekly rugby league

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lift out which gave more space to the game overseas (Australia and New Zealand) than to
within PNG. The Post-Courier included a two-page colour poster of an Australian rugby
league team in one of its editions.

The business section, which in the National ran from four to eight pages per day, was
bigger by far then the Post-Courier, which typically ran three pages per day. Both
newspapers ran a full page of Australian stock market prices each day. The National
included shipping and property supplements once a week. In both titles the business
editorial was heavily dominated by overseas‟ news, mostly Australian. In neither case
were advertising supplements counted in the research, although both titles managed to
secure advertising using this method. Typically, such supplements were local
supplements, which appeared to be run in conjunction with chambers of trade or similar
organisations representing the interest of business.

Overseas‟ news (defined as news from outside PNG) was sub-divided by the newspapers
into region (or Pacific) and world. The world section was always larger than the regional
by a ratio of two or three to one. Both newspapers seemed to define the „region‟ as the
Pacific and Australia. Regional and world categories combined accounted for between
three and six pages per day in the National and slightly less, two to five pages, in the
Post-Courier. Both newspapers seemed to rely on news agency material to fill these pages
(sometimes carrying identical stories, as was also the case in the business sections), but
the Post-Courier also seemed to use material from News Ltd. Newspapers in Australia.

The pilot study examined the sources of news stories. This task was simple as nearly all
stories surveyed had a single source of information and were from public events such as
sittings of Parliament, conferences and conventions, and events constructed specifically
for the media. This passivity of journalism this reveals will be discussed below.

National Post-Courier Em-TV


n =30 n = 30 n = 42
Parliament / Government 19 15 20
Press Conference/ statement 3 6 8
Court case 3 1 1
Speech 3 1 2
Crime 0 4 0
Others 2 3 11

Table 2: Sources of stories on prominent news pages of The National and Post-
Courier newspapers and Em-TV National Em-TV News
Source: Author.

We should be interested in the relationship between journalists and their sources because
in a democracy everyone should have equal access to the media. We should be concerned
with relations between the media and those who have political and ideological power and
especially institutions that seek to define and manage the flow of information in contested
fields of discourse (Schlesinger, 1990, pp. 62-66). The traditional liberal view has it that

News media and governance as presented 5


in a democracy the media reflects a wide range of opinions and interests in society. That
position is contested by Hall et al (1980) who argue that people in powerful positions are
able to over access the media and become „primary definers‟ of the news because
journalists faithfully reproduce what they say and thus reinforce the existing structure of
power in society. The primary definers are allowed to set the agenda and others with
opposing views have to insert themselves into its definition of what is at issue. In this
way, Hall argues, the dominant ideology of the ruling elite is transmitted by the media
(Hall et al, 1980, p.58).

The newspaper survey was made of the lead news stories on each of the main news pages
(front, three and five). Out of the 30 stories counted, 25 in the National and 22 in the
Post-Courier came straight from „primary definers.‟ Stories in this category included
statements from Government ministers on why there was a need to cut public spending
and reduce salaries of government employees, a financial crisis in the copra growing
industry and the board meeting of a large petroleum company. My observation as a
regular reader of these newspapers is that these story types were entirely typical of the
items that usually made up the news agendas of the two newspapers.

Both newspapers shared the same agenda, but the Post-Courier was a little more likely to
give prominence to dramatic human interest stories. For example, it led one edition on a
story of a woman being hacked to death inside a bus in the capital, Port Moresby, while
the National chose to lead that day on the Australian Prime Minister‟s call for PNG to
continue with its financial reforms. (Gerawa, 2002, p.1. Senge-Kolma, 2002, p.1).

Em-TV broadcasts one news program per day called Em-TV National News. It runs for
30 minutes (less time taken for commercials) each night. It is originally broadcast at 6pm
seven days per week with a repeat each night, typically at 10.30pm or 11pm. The
program was subdivided into three segments: national news, overseas‟ news and sports.
The broadcast also included stock market and currency prices from Australia, the US,
Europe and Japan. Although the news was read in English, many of the speakers who
appeared on news items spoke in Tok Pisin or other vernacular.

The pilot survey ran for a full week, Wednesday to Tuesday, and counted the first six
news items in each program.iv In most cases all six items were in the home news
segment, but on two occasions overseas‟ news and once sports news appeared in the top
six items. All overseas‟ news was supplied by Em-TV‟s Australian parent company,
Channel Nine. This company in turn relied heavily on material supplied from foreign
news organisations, especially ITN in the UK and ABC in the US.

Government spokesmen dominated the national news, either when speaking from
Parliament or in other specially organised situations. This agenda spreads even to the
weekend. On Saturday‟s broadcast two of the first six stories were from the previous
day‟s sitting of Parliament and two more involved minister‟s statements. Sunday‟s
program also lead on a story on the Gaming Act from the previous Friday‟s Parliament.

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How effective are the media in investigating government and powerful corporations?

The PNG constitution provides for free speech, including freedom of the media, and the
government generally respects these freedoms in practice. A cynic might say that the
government could afford to have a free press since journalists show no inclination to call
politicians to account. Newsgathering in PNG tends to be passive and the media rely on
official sources such as the government, police and emergency services for their stories.
The value of the news depends mainly on the importance of the speaker, not on what they
have to say, and in that respect it is not unlike the media in many developing countries
(Williams, 1994, p.9).

The sources of the overwhelming majority of news reports in the newspapers and on Em-
TV are organised events, such as Parliamentary sittings, public conferences and
conventions and events put on especially for the media. There are very few stories about
ordinary people unless they have been victims of misfortune or have appeared in court.

Journalistic endeavour is weak. Reporters tend to receive information from a single


source and re-present it unquestioningly in reports. In most of the stories in the survey,
the reporter made no attempt to gather additional information, not even to get a
„balancing‟ quote in the case of a story about a matter of controversy. Nor do journalists
tend to give background information to the stories, even those running from day to day.
Journalists in PNG seem to have no institutional memory and seem unable to draw on
information from their own archives to put stories into context. For example, in 2002 Bill
Skate was elected as Speaker of the National Parliament but no media profiled him and
reminded readers that he had been Prime Minister for two years until 1999 and had
resigned in controversial circumstances.

News stories are presented at face value. Reporters tend not to ask questions that require
people in positions of power to justify their statements or actions. Em-TV‟s interviewing
of politicians is a particular case in point. The culture of deference to important people is
strong in PNG journalism. During the 2002 National Elections Em-TV‟s current affairs
program Tok Piksa interviewed the country‟s prime ministers past and present. In a series
lasting five weeks, the interviewer John Eggins, head of Em-TV news and current affairs,
failed to follow up on a single assertion made by his interviewees.v

Reporters do not use clear and simple language in their reports and articles. Reporters
often simply repeat the jargon of the press release or press statement. Sometimes the
stories are rendered unintelligible to even the most literate reader, suggesting that
reporters do not themselves understand what they are writing and simply copy down the
official words. Both the National and Post-Courier also publish academic articles from
university lectures on matters of interest to elite groups, but they are written in a language
impenetrable to ordinary readers. The Post-Courier regularly features a „Focus‟ column
which, during the research period, included a 1300-word article on the „law on the
integrity of political parties and candidates‟, written by an associate professor of law
(Luluaki, 2002, p.11).

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If you need proof that readers of the newspapers have trouble with the English language
you only have to look at the readers‟ letters columns of the newspapers. Here people
struggle to express themselves clearly in a language of which they only have the most
tenuous grasp. It seems readers cannot understand anything but the simplest prose.

Although reporting in PNG is passive there was one significant attempt to define the
media agenda in 2002. All media joined a PNG Media Council campaign against corrupt
leaders. At the launch of the campaign, the media promised to help to expose corrupt
leaders in the run up to the National Election later that year. The anti-corruption
campaign received support from a wide range of organisations, including churches, trade
unions and political parties. The media promised to support the fight against corruption
through unified comments, news coverage, investigative reporting, public forums and an
awareness campaign. (Media Declares War, 2002. P.1). I do not intend to critique this
campaign here but the news organisations‟ rhetoric could be said to have far exceeded
their actions. There was a great deal of space devoted to the campaign in 2002 and this
probably resulted in an increased awareness of the issue of corruption. The majority of
the coverage nonetheless consisted of reports about events, such as commission hearings,
that would have happened even if the campaign had not been in place. Judging by the
media‟s willingness to cover official events, they would probably have been reported in
the normal course of events without a campaign in place. There was no evidence of
significant „investigations‟ being mounted by the media on the issue.

We should be careful when examining the PNG media not to take models from developed
countries and superimpose them into unsuitable situations. The survey suggests to me
beyond reasonable doubt that people in elite positions (in this case politics and big
business) „over access‟ the media and set the news agenda. In PNG, however, I am not
convinced that the media play the same role in society that they do in developed countries
where they are among the key social and cultural forces in society and the most important
source of information when it comes to influencing opinion. Journalism is the main
source of information about the world beyond our own immediate environment and our
personal experience (McNair, 1998, pp. 1-4).

I doubt if much of this applies to PNG where the society is fragmented into more than
800 distinct social groups and communications between these groups is limited. I can find
little evidence that people in rural areas have any interest in knowing what is going on
beyond the confines of their villages, unless something poses a direct threat to them. The
kinds of information they need and use to make their daily decisions are not the type
usually carried by the media. In PNG the media has a role of supporting elite groups and
to the extent that they conform to McNair‟s model, the media limit themselves to
informing members of distinct social and political groups about what others members of
the groups are up to. More research needs to be done in this area, but it suggests to me
that the best way to get information to the villages is not through the established national
media but through localised initiatives using existing local community structures.

Education and training of PNG journalists

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There is agreement within PNG that journalists need better education and training, but it
is less clear what exactly is needed. Bill Skate, when Prime Minister of PNG, lamented
the failure of overseas‟ media companies to train journalists in PNG. His reasoning owed
more to his desire to get PNG a „good press‟ abroad in order to attract investment and
tourist dollars than for any need to inform the ordinary people of PNG (Skate, 1999,
pp.44-45).

The leader of the opposition at the time disagreed. Bernard Narokobi wanted a media that
was “development oriented, giving focus to the people‟s initiatives in development,” with
a dedication to science, technology, arts and culture. He also felt poor pay for journalists
contributed to the problem of low quality media, encouraging journalists to accept
government contracts or even bribes to supplement their income (Narokobi,1999, pp.154-
158).

Training journalists in PNG is not easy. Many people who want to work in the media
have grown up with little exposure to the range and variety of newspapers, magazines,
radio and television programs that people elsewhere in the world would. Aspiring
students have little understanding of the media and often only slight knowledge of the
outside world or how PNG itself works (Weber, 1999, pp. 10-12).

Conclusion

Journalists and educators need to reflect on the purpose of journalism in a country such as
PNG. We know that students attending the two university programs in PNG are seeking
ways into the profession, but the standards of achievement of PNG media are low.

Journalism educators should encourage a greater understanding of what journalism could


be. Journalism serves the people of PNG badly and we should direct attention to this fact
and help already established media companies to address this. The issue is not only one
of established media companies alone, we should lead debate on how the needs of the
ordinary Papua New Guinean can be met by the media.

Journalism must embrace the villages. Most of the important stories are taking place
outside of the urban areas, missed by journalists because they have a narrow definition of
interest. Journalism should reflect the concerns and activities of the society it serves,
what happened, why it happened and whether it is likely to happen again. It should mirror
society as a whole and not just that part of society which has gained political office or
come to the attention of the police (McParland, n.d, p.5). More than 80 per cent of PNG
people live in rural areas and because such a large proportion of the population live in
rural areas they are likely to be where trends and events that will have major impact on
cities later on. Rural areas are where environmental changes are first felt. Social changes
such as land use, people having to abandon the rural areas for towns, creating shanty
towns settlements (McParland, n.d, p.6)

News that is accessible to as many people as possible should be the first priority for the
broadcast media. Access to information is the first requirement for an engaged,

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participative democracy. Pro-poor policies depend on the extent to which people and
their organisations can demand and exercise their democratic rights. (Roth, 2001, Pp. 23-
27).

Without information people will be unaware of the right to have rights. The news media
can be used to convince the poor of the benefits of having, and realising rights – and can
help them to assert these rights in practice. This may be best achieved through radio,
which reaches a wide audience, rather than television, which may be accessible only to a
small minority.

Adequate news coverage requires structures to gather news from all parts of the country,
some of which are remote, and from abroad. It also needs specialised reporters who can
explain complex topics – economic affairs, business and trade, environment – in terms
which the audience can understand.

The editor‟s task is to ensure that matters of public concern are covered freely and
openly, allowing pluralist discussion and room for dissent.

The treatment of information should be people-led, not source driven; audiences need
information which gives practical guidance based on individual human experience (news
you can use) not ministerial public relations handouts.

The starting point should be where the audience is, not what the source or the practitioner
knows.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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i
Circulation figures for the Post-Courier and National are from ABC for six months ending June 2002.
ii
Officially audited circulation figures for the Word Publishing Group and Eastern Star are not available publicly. The figures quoted
here are industry estimates.
iii
The research period was Monday-Friday 12-16 August 2002 and Monday-Friday 26-30 2002.
iv
The survey ran from Wednesday 4 September 2002 to Tuesday 10 September 2002.
v
See for example the interview with the sitting Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta, Tok Piksa, Em-TV, broadcast 12 June 2002.

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