Attacks on the Press 2002: Papua New Guinea

Journalists in Papua New Guinea, who had faced harassment and violence during the administration of former prime minister Mekere Morauta, viewed the August election of Sir Michael Somare, a former journalist, positively. Nevertheless, continued violence reminded observers how far the country is from reaching political and social stability.

Throughout the year, the Papua New Guinea Media Council, a self-regulatory membership group, conducted a nationwide campaign to expose and eradicate corruption, a longtime scourge on national politics and society. While this effort helped expose several major cases, one journalist was targeted for her investigative reporting. When Robyn Sela, a reporter for the country’s largest daily, the Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, went to military barracks in the capital, Port Moresby, to cover a story about the secretary of defense, who is under investigation for corruption, a soldier told her that if she continued writing about the case, “We will shoot you dead.” Sela went into hiding for a brief period. No arrests had been made in the incident by year’s end.

Eliminating corruption was a major issue during the national elections, which began in mid-June. The voting was troubled from the beginning, with almost 3,000 candidates from 43 parties running for 109 seats. The polling period, which was scheduled to last for two weeks, was extended by more than a month following widespread reports of voter intimidation, fraudulent voting, stolen ballot boxes, and general chaos, during which at least 25 people were killed. Groups of armed men reportedly intimidated voters in Port Moresby and other urban centers. In the Highlands provinces, where violence is rampant and armed candidates and their supporters controlled voting sites, journalists often employed bodyguards.

On August 5, Somare was elected after candidates from his party won the majority in Parliament. Voters were hopeful that Somare, who was Papua New Guinea’s first prime minister after it gained independence from Australia in 1975 and served again in the 1980s, would help bring political and economic stability to the country, which has been so politically unstable that no prime minister has served a full five-year term since independence.

Foreign journalists, especially Australians, were prevented from reporting on the elections when officials failed to process entry visas, a common tactic to deny access to the country. The government has long blamed foreign journalists for reporting negatively about Papua New Guinean society and has made it difficult for them to enter the country. Only five foreign journalists were granted permission to enter, while reporters from major Australian media outlets, including the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the Sydney Morning Herald, and the Courier-Mail, were barred. After the elections, the Media Council began working with the new administration to ease restrictions on foreign journalists, but no discernible progress had been made by year’s end.

Off the east coast on the island of Bougainville, which has been fighting for independence for 10 years, a nascent media began to emerge after an August 2001 agreement granted the region autonomy. In May, EM-TV, the nation’s only television broadcaster, restarted transmission to the island for the first time since the conflict began.

October 4

Robyn Sela, Papua New Guinea Post-Courier

Sela, a reporter for the Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, was verbally assaulted by a soldier during a visit to the Murray military barracks in the capital, Port Moresby. The threat apparently stemmed from an exposé Sela wrote about Fred Punangi, the secretary of the Defense Department, who is being investigated on charges of improper conduct.

A military officer dressed in civilian clothes grabbed Sela as she entered a car to leave the Murray barracks. According to Sela’s account, reported in the Post-Courier, “He grabbed me by the forearm and shook me a few times, then he said, ‘You better stop writing stories about Mr. Punangi.'” The soldier then pointed two fingers at her temple and said, “If you continue, and if we find you somewhere, we will shoot you dead.”

The man then drove away. Military police have acknowledged that a soldier was responsible for the threat and are investigating the incident. The Post-Courier, which media magnate Rupert Murdoch owns, is Papua New Guinea’s largest newspaper.