By Dr Shailendra B Singh and Dr Amanda H A Watson

This piece is the third in a series that addresses media freedom in Papua New Guinea.

In this part, the authors compare a media law that was in place in Fiji for years with a proposed media policy in PNG this year.

Fiji’s media law

Soon after a coup in Fiji in 2006, the Fijian media sector faced a number of restrictions. At times, there were military censors in newsrooms. The punitive Fiji Media Industry Development Decree (later transformed to ‘Act’) was introduced in 2010.

The law was in place in Fiji for nearly 13 years but was repealed by the newly-elected government in a parliamentary vote on 6 April this year. Before it was repealed, Fiji’s media act loomed over the media sector like a guillotine, threatening substantial financial penalties and gaol terms for those in breach.

Media freedom in PNG

Papua New Guinea has had a resilient democracy since 1975. The country’s home-grown constitution has been upheld and maintained. Media freedom is enshrined in the PNG constitution and there has been relative media freedom for decades.

As was explained in an earlier piece in this series, the Minister for Information and Communication Technology Hon. Timothy Masiu, MP is considering introducing a media policy in PNG for the first time.

Similarities between Fiji’s recent law and a proposed PNG media policy

There are a number of similarities between the restrictive law that was in place for more than a decade in Fiji and the first draft of a proposed media development policy released in PNG in February this year. Four similarities will be discussed here.

Firstly, the draft of the PNG media policy that came out in February suggested that the Media Council of Papua New Guinea would become a legislated body with regulatory responsibilities.

This has parallels with Fiji’s Media Industry Development Authority, which was constituted by the relevant minister.

Secondly, like the proposed PNG policy, Fiji’s policy was framed as a means to professionalise journalism. However, in Fiji, the policy had a chilling effect on journalists. An independent report on the Fiji media law found that, once the law came in, journalists feared retribution for critical reporting and so they tended to be cautious in their work.

There are concerns amongst media outlets, informed experts, non-government organisations and members of civil society that the proposed law may have a similar impact in PNG.

Thirdly, there was a short timeframe for consultation when the policies were initially proposed. In Fiji’s case, the timeframe was much shorter, with the media and interested others given just two and a half hours to provide feedback on a complex, 50-page draft media decree that eventually became law.

Fourthly, both mention training of journalists, but the Fiji authority was fairly inactive in this regard.

What PNG can learn from Fiji

Experiences from Fiji indicate that PNG should tread carefully with any new media legislation that brings in government control. The impact of the Fiji media act after more than a decade was aptly summed up in the 2022 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index.

The index rated Fiji as the ‘worst place in the Pacific region for journalists’, largely because of the media act. The broader implications for democracy are clear. In Freedom House’s 2020 Freedom in the World Report, Fiji managed only a ‘partly free’ ranking, in part due its ‘restrictive press laws’.

Unlike in Fiji where media houses had less than half a day to respond to a draft media decree, the Minister for Information and Communication Technology Hon. Timothy Masiu, MP has been taking on board feedback.

He has acknowledged written submissions and hosted a day-long workshop to gain insights from relevant bodies such as the Media Council of PNG and Transparency International.

At the workshop, the department secretary Mr Steven Matainaho did his best to answer all questions from attendees. There was plenty of time for discussion.

Informed commentators and concerned bodies remain hopeful that the idea of introducing a media law in PNG will be ditched. It would be in the best interests of democracy in PNG if the media policy progresses no further.

The new government in Fiji recently took the widely hailed decision to revoke that country’s repressive media law.

Pacific Freedom Forum, a non-government organisation, celebrated Fiji’s decision as a win for media freedom in its statement on World Press Freedom Day this month. The authors urge the government of PNG to take a similar approach and abandon consideration of a media law.