The Role of Media in Papua New Guinea

The local media are a rich source of public opinion in their daily news stories, their editorials, their feature pieces and their letters to the editor. In Port Moresby, the daily newspapers are purchased by people on the way to work and reading them is the first activity of the day in many offices. In bars frequented after work by the rich, the famous and the politically well placed, the music is stopped and a hush descends when the evening newscasts start on the local TV channels. Talkback radio shows are highly popular, and here the voice of the urban grassroots may be clearly heard. With the arrival in recent years of broadband internet and smartphones, blogs and Facebook have become popular means of disseminating opinion for those who can access the web.

Newspapers have been published in various towns in the country since the early twentieth century, mainly though not entirely in English—some have appeared in Tok Pisin. The two current dailies are the venerable Post-Courier and the comparative newcomer the National, started in 1993 under sponsorship of the Malaysian firm Rimbunan Hijau, which had entrenched itself via a multitude of subsidiaries as the principal logging operation in the country and in the early 1990s was looking to expand its PNG investment base and to counter some of its bad press.

The newspapers were originally written for and by the expatriate colonisers, but this situation was already changing before Independence, with Papua New Guinean journalists trained and writing for the Post-Courier, statements by national politicians being given good coverage, and Letters to the Editor being penned by future citizens. These letter writers, who usually concealed their identity behind pen-names, were not and still are not representative of the entire citizenry, many of whom are illiterate, or at least not literate in English; do not have regular access to the newspapers; are not interested in writing letters to newspapers or do not have the means or resources to do so. The target audience is not limited to other letter writers, but it has been suggested that writers and readers are still by no means representative of public opinion as a whole; that they mainly constitute an educated, urbanised group interested in national rather than parochial affairs, manifesting pro-capitalist and liberal views, with some measure of influence over those involved in determining national policy.

Television is available only in towns, but radio is available, if sometimes only intermittently, even in the far reaches of rural areas, and is an important source of information for grassroots and villagers. Whereas until recently most village people lacked access to media sources other than newspapers and local radio, they have now found new voices in the very recent entrants onto the media scene: the digital media, in the form of blogs, Facebook and similar internet resources. These provide a vivid alternative to the often biased information put out by the newspapers, are used more by younger people, their users do not hesitate to criticise and condemn ‘the establishment,’ and they have become the means by which civil society in PNG has found a strong new voice, augmenting the former limited options of churches, sporting groups and wantok systems.

The media are by no means impartial and can also be very inaccurate, as the erroneous Post-Courier report about the males freed in the Three-Mile Guesthouse Raid shows. The newspaper never checked, and was never called to account. Although the newspapers purport to represent all sectors of society, in reality they mainly express the opinions of the elites, are politically biased towards their owners and can be very selective in what they print. Dame Carol Kidu cites the ‘moralist negative response’ of the media as one of the three main challenges to her decriminalisation initiative, along with that of sectors of the religious community and ‘concerned individuals from the society at large.’

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