In 2003, ruling party parliamentarians tried to protect themselves from press criticism by proposing a bill that threatened press freedom. But national and international protests made the government back down. On the whole, the independent press was able to work freely.
A group of parliamentarians of the ruling National Alliance presented a bill in April 2003 that threatened the freedom of journalists to cover the activities of the government and parliament. This attempt to establish the basis for a return to censorship was indicative of the contempt that part of the political class feels for the independent press. A campaign by journalists, by national and international press freedom organisations and by bodies such as the Press council forced the government to shelve the bill.
But Sir Michael Somara, the prime minister and a political heavyweight in Papua New Guinea since independence, said in November that he regretted not letting his supporters rein in the press. He accused foreign journalists and foreign-owned news media of damaging the country’s image.
Reporters Without Borders did not register any case of direct censorship in this country of independent print and broadcast media. But the weekly The Independent closed down for financial reasons. The Press Council tried to increase its power to sanction news media guilty of violating press ethics. And Australian journalists who came to cover the refugees which their government has installed in camps in Papua New Guinea were not made welcome.
Two journalists attacked
Gorethy Kenneth, the daily Post Courier’s correspondent in Buka (in the north of Bougainville island), was attacked in the newspaper’s office by four gunmen on 7 August 2003. One of them hit her in the face, put a knife to her neck and threatened to kill her. They said they were followers of Harold Keke, a warlord in the neighbouring, troubled Solomon Islands who had been the subject of several articles in the Post Courier a few days before. They said the newspaper should stop running articles by Erik Kone, its correspondent in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands. Kone had on several occasions written that Keke’s Guadalcanal Liberation Front was linked to the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, an armed separatist movement which fought government forces until Bougainville was granted autonomy in 2001. Earlier the same day, two men had threatened Kenneth with an arson attack on the newspaper’s offices. The offices were closed for several days while Kenneth was moved to a secure location.
Ekar Keapu, a photographer with the daily National, was hit in the face by police while covering a clash between traders and police in Port Moresby on 28 November. One of the policemen broke his camera.
Harassment and obstruction
A parliamentary committee announced on 3 April 2003 that it was drafting a bill that would allow for the prosecution of anyone, especially journalists, who publicly criticised the government and country or tarnished the dignity and integrity of parliament. The committee’s president, Nick Kuman, said the aim was to deter people from publishing libellous articles. The announcement sparked an outcry from journalists and diplomats. The government’s position on the bill was unclear. A spokesman for the prime minister said on 6 April that the bill did not necessarily correspond to the government’s ideas, but he added that the media should act responsibly by not putting out reports that could be negative for the country.
Australian businessman Rod Mitchell and economist Mike Manning, a naturalised Papua New Guinean, were called before the parliamentary privileges committee on 3 April for criticising the government. Manning, the director of an independent think tank, the Institute of National Affairs, had described Papua New Guinea in an article entitled "PNG on the brink" as a deeply corrupt country with inefficient services and growing criminality and therefore close to an economic crisis. Mitchell, the managing director of a retirement fund, spoke about corruption in comments that were reported in several Australian newspapers.
Soldiers prevented two Australian journalists including Australian Broadcasting Corporation correspondent Shane McLeod from going to the Kalili region in the northeastern island of New Ireland at the start of October. Their cassette tapes were confiscated and they were asked to leave the island. They had been been investigating reports that Japanese troops left a cache of gold there in 1945.
Deputy prime minister Andrew Baing announced on 14 November that the government intended to present a bill that would force Papa New Guinea’s news media to be at least 51 per cent nationally owned. The announcement was made to a panel of owners of news media including the Australian companies News Corp and Publishing and Broadcasting. It was immediately criticised as a new threat to the independent press, which had been accused by the government of hurting the country’s international image. A few days earlier, the prime minister had accused Papau New Guinean journalists of imagining themselves to be foreigners and attacking their own country. An editorial on 21 November in the daily Post-Courier, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s group, said its journalists did not take orders from foreign owners and to claim that was an insult to the integrity Papa New Guinea’s journalists.