Despite a hostile political and economic atmosphere, the Solomon Islands’ small but tenacious media have managed to pursue controversial stories, including exposés of official misconduct and links between the government and ethnic militias. In 1998, a violent conflict erupted after indigenous residents of Guadalcanal, the archipelago’s largest island, formed the Isatabu Freedom Movement (IFM) to force out migrants from neighboring Malaita Island–who in turn created the Malaita Eagle Force (MEF). Although the warring militias signed a peace deal in 2000, they have mostly reneged on pledges to disarm and still hold tremendous power. Militants from both groups have been responsible for violent threats against journalists who report on their activities.
Prime Minister Sir Allan Kemakeza was elected in December 2001, in the first parliamentary elections since the MEF’s failed coup attempt in 2000. But the new government, which includes former militia members, has done nothing to improve the security situation or the impoverished economy. Instead, Kemakeza and others in his administration have publicly blamed the media for these problems, and throughout 2002, officials were directly involved in violent attempts to intimidate journalists.
Soon after his inauguration, Kemakeza lashed out at the media, accusing the public radio broadcaster, Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation (SIBC), of damaging the government’s international reputation by regularly publishing “inaccurate” reports.
In January, Economic Reform Minister Daniel Fa’afunua and his armed supporters forced the country’s only daily newspaper, the Solomon Star, to pay the minister US$1,000 compensation for an article that they claimed had insulted him. The government has failed to arrest any of the armed men, and the minister is still in his post. Soon after the incident, Foreign Minister Alex Bartlett, a former member of the MEF, issued a public statement calling on journalists to be patriotic and refrain from reporting negatively on the government or its leaders.
In May, a group of police officers stormed SIBC’s offices, destroying equipment and assaulting two employees in retribution for a report about disagreements within police ranks, according to SIBC general manager Johnson Honimae. Despite a formal complaint filed by SIBC, the responsible officers remain on the job.
The dire economic situation also imperils the press. SIBC, the nation’s most popular media outlet, has received none of its designated funding from Parliament for two years in a row, despite repeated requests from SIBC management, and is operating at a loss. The print media have been hit hard by a decrease in advertising revenue. The Solomon Star, for example, was forced to cut its number of pages by almost half to conserve funds.
Still, some journalists remain optimistic about press freedom on the islands. SIBC’s Honimae says that the social and political chaos “has made journalists stronger by encouraging them to get to the truth.”
A group of about eight men, some of whom were armed, entered the Solomon Star offices in the capital, Honiara, and demanded that the paper pay “compensation” to a government official for a report published in the January 22 edition. That day’s paper carried a news story, an editorial, and a letter to the editor about an unnamed drunken government official who had allegedly assaulted a taxi driver. Agence France-Presse later identified the official as Economic Reform Minister Daniel Fa’afunua.
Solomon Star‘s publisher, John Lamani, and associate editor Ofani Eremae refused to pay. The men then brought them to Fa’afunua, who told Lamani and Eremae that he was angered by the reports and demanded Sol$5,000 (US$1,000) as compensation, according to the Fiji-based Pacific Islands News Association (PINA). Lamani and Eremae paid the money.
Before they left the meeting, Fa’afunua warned the two journalists that if the Solomon Star published any more reports about him, they would be in trouble, according to PINA. By year’s end, police had made no arrests in the case.