By David Robie
PORT MORESBY — Ever since Prime Minister Paias Wingti gained power last year, his government has had its sights on a second national daily newspaper.
Although Papua New Guinea had long enjoyed the most vigorous press in the South Pacific, its second daily, Niugini Nius, was closed abruptly by its owner, the airline entrepreneur Sir Dennis Buchanan, in March 1990. The media scene in PNG hasn't been the same since.
In recent months the government has been incensed by much of the press coverage it has been getting. The blame has been directed, probably unfairly, at the country's lone daily, the foreign-owned Post-Courier.
As cabinet considers a new information and communication policy, debate has centred on the possibility of a national news agency and another daily.
The Post-Courier, 62% owned by Rupert Murdoch's Australian-based News Ltd and with the Pacific's largest circulation of about 37,000, has become a scapegoat over news reflecting unfavourably on the Wingti government.
Claiming that the paper was waging a campaign against the government, ministers began turning up the heat in May. One Post-Courier story, later retracted, so enraged public services minister Albert Kipalan that the paper was cited before the parliamentary privileges committee. The case is expected to be heard at the start of the August parliamentary session.
Ministers have frequently claimed that the reason they're getting a raw deal is foreign ownership. So it was a surprise when it was revealed that the government apparently backed publication of a foreign-owned second daily, Pacific Star, due out in November. Information and communication
secretary Lindsay Lailai let the news slip while he was speaking at a recent media seminar on press freedom organised by the PNG Journalists' Association and the Pacific Journalists' Association.
What troubles many media watchers, civic leaders and conservationists is that the new publication will be owned or controlled by the giant Malaysian timber conglomerate Rimbunan Hijau Group (RHG), which dominates PNG's export log trade. There is a growing fear that RHG might try to use the paper as a "propaganda sheet" to promote its timber interests at a time when the country's forestry industry is again in turmoil.
With between K350 million and K400 million profits last year from its up to 86% share of the log export market, RHG earned more than the combined revenue from PNG's national gold and oil sales.
RHG has one of the world's largest timber concessions — Makapa in Western Province. The Forests Department says the timber rights to this resource are estimated to cover 7 million cubic metres of exportable logs. At today's prices, this would be worth up to K1.5 billion in export sales.
Although freedom of information is guaranteed under section 51 of PNG's constitution and the country has a tradition of a free and vigorous press, there is growing unease over the implications of this new media development.
"What irks me", complained Times of PNG columnist James Pinder, "is the alleged deal of a joint venture between the state and Rimbunan Hijau, which has the timber rights to 80% of our country, and at the same time ripping us off, and one day we will look around and see naked land that was once a forest".
Pinder believes the editor will be appointed from the prime minister's office.
Government spokespeople have so far failed to clarify the government's role in the paper. Said prime minister's press secretary Frank Kolma: "I'm aware that a Malaysian group has shown an interest in
setting up a daily. It is one of at least two groups which have shown an interest. While it is good for the public and the media to have another daily ... we will be seriously looking at the ownership structure."
The planned paper was discussed at the Pacific Journalists' Association conference in Suva from June 23 to 25. Delegates criticised the paper and urged the establishment of a PNG-owned and controlled daily "in the interests of a free and sovereign press".
Other resolutions passed by the PJA conference criticised the legal implications for journalists and their professional work under PNG's new Internal Security Act, called for free access to Bougainville for journalists and for the PNG military to halt its obstructive policies towards journalists, and condemned the legal harassment of Tongan newspaper editor and MP 'Akilisi Pohiva by the Tongan ruling elite.
[David Robie is a NZ journalist who lives and works in PNG.]