After four years of fierce civil conflict in the Solomon Islands, an Australian-led international peacekeeping force managed to pacify the country in 2003. The media, which had been a frequent target of armed militias and corrupt local officials, enjoyed a respite under the international presence and operated with relative freedom.
Since 1998, the Solomon Islands have been ravaged by persistent war between the indigenous residents of the main island, Guadalcanal, and immigrants from neighboring Malaita Island. Despite a peace deal signed in 2002, groups from both sides have remained armed and violent. The government, led by Prime Minister Allan Kemakeza, has been accused of maintaining links with militia leaders and has failed to bring stability to the country.
In July, Parliament unanimously agreed to invite the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) to the country. Led by Australia, RAMSI includes more than 2,000 heavily armed troops from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga, and Papua New Guinea. The forces confiscated thousands of illegal weapons, arrested several powerful militia leaders, and initiated corruption investigations within the government.
The country’s journalists especially welcomed the mission, since it offered them a degree of protection they had not enjoyed since before the conflict. “With RAMSI in town, the media has been operating more freely than within the past four years,” said Johnson Honimae, general manager of the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation. Journalists used their newfound freedom to aggressively investigate and report on allegations of official corruption and abuses committed by both the government and militias during the conflict.
Despite the dramatic improvement in the situation after RAMSI’s arrival, militia members continued to threaten the media, even across national boundaries. Harold Keke, a notorious warlord from Weathercoast Region of Guadalcanal Island, was perhaps the year’s worst offender. In August, a group of armed men claiming to be Keke’s supporters forced their way into the offices of the Papua New Guinea Post-Courier in Buka, Bougainville Island, part of neighboring Papua New Guinea. The men threatened to burn the newspaper’s offices if journalists continued reporting on Keke’s ties in Bougainville. The Post-Courier had reported that Keke planned to escape RAMSI by fleeing the Solomon Islands to Bougainville. The newspaper remained defiant and issued a statement condemning the attack, though management closed the Buka office and flew its chief correspondent to a secret location to ensure her safety.
Keke surrendered to RAMSI in August and is being held on several charges, including the murder of seven missionaries his militia had taken hostage in early 2003. During the negotiations with Australian diplomats that led to Keke’s surrender, he warned the media against reporting from his stronghold of Weathercoast.
Solomon Islander government officials also threatened the media in 2003. In August, the mayor of the capital, Honiara, visited the offices of the daily Solomon Star and warned staff against writing about the city council. “As of today, I will ban any news items regarding the council from your paper. Don’t you know I am the mayor?” he asked. While the mayor has not acted on his threat, local reporters expressed fear that the media may once again face routine threats and harassment when RAMSI leaves. By year’s end, some RAMSI forces had begun to withdraw from the country, though Australian officials said they expect to keep troops there for at least a decade to maintain order.