Samoa surges in Pacific press-freedom rankings as other nations falter

Samoa surges in Pacific press-freedom rankings as other nations falter

Samoa surges in Pacific press-freedom rankings as other nations falter

Updated 3 May 2017, 18:05 AEST

A global gauge of media openness, released ahead of World Press Freedom Day, shows some positive trends in the Pacific, with several of the region's nations climbing strongly in the rankings.

But there are plenty of journalists across the Pacific who won't be celebrating following a series of concerning media developments in Vanuatu, Tonga and Papua New Guinea.

While Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Fiji all rose in this year's World Press Freedom Index, Tonga dropped 12 places in the annual survey from Reporters Without Borders to 49th in the world.

The government of Prime Minister Akilisi Pohiva's decision to sack the head of the Tonga Broadcasting Corporation (TBC), Nanise Fifita, has only heightened concerns the country is heading in a dark direction for press freedom.

Tongan publisher Kalafi Moala said Ms Fifita — who began as a trainee reporter at the TBC more than 30 years ago — was sacked because she was doing her job properly.

"They've held her responsible for the kind of news information and attitude toward government that the journalists of the TBC have," he said.

"Public broadcasting is basically a role to serve the people of Tonga, the nation of Tonga, and whatever government is in power at that particular time, that doesn't mean that they end up controlling what goes out of Tonga broadcasting commission."

The New Zealand-based Pacific Islands Media Association spokesman Will Ilolahia said that did not appear to be Prime Minister Pohiva's understanding of the TBC's role.

"Some of us are concerned that the Prime Minister is forgetting that the media or the fourth estate is required in a democratic country, and also in other states. What's coming through here is some sort of a dictatorial answer to the problems that he's facing," he said.

"The media are just doing what their jobs is, to report what's happening and it's interesting that during his time in opposition he was relying on the media to get his message across, and now that he's in the position of running the country he doesn't feel that media should still do the same thing."

The ABC is seeking comment from the Tongan Government.

In March Mr Pohiva told the ABC's Pacific Beat program the TBC was government property whose main task was to support state services.

"That doesn't mean that we stop Radio Tonga from scrutinising government services but they must do it in a proper way, in a way which is impartial, independent and without malice and hatred," he said.

"There's a difference between public property, Radio Tonga and Television Tonga, and independent paper[s]."

Aggrieved by some of the state broadcaster's coverage of his government, the Prime Minister has called for them to be shut down or sold off.

Vanuatu's state broadcaster also faces financial squeeze

There have also been fears about the future of Vanuatu's state broadcaster, the Vanuatu Broadcasting and Television Corporation, after team leaders at the network were handed redundancies last Friday.

"This is one of the government organisations that is not making money so that is why they have decided to cut down the number of staff and for that reason they have to go to the redundancy," Vanuatu government media spokesman Hilaire Bule said.

The main role of the organisation was to make profit and it must learn to stand on its own legs rather than relying on government grants, he added.

"The survival of the media, like the print media and audio, it is advertisement and if you cannot make good stories and good programs, well the business cannot advertise," Mr Bule said.

Mixed picture for PNG

For Papua New Guinea, the picture is mixed this World Press Freedom Day, with a couple of recent complaints from publications to the country's media council over government interference clouding a four position improvement in the rankings to 51.

The president of the PNG Media Council, Alexander Rheeney, said while there remained plenty of threats to journalists holding power to account, social media had significantly improved access to news for Papua New Guineans.

"There is more variety in terms of news content now so it means more competition," he said.

"And more competition at the end of the day means having a variety of news content for Papua New Guineans and Papua New Guineans having to choose what news they want to consume."

The light of the Pacific

The big Pacific success story of this year's World Press Freedom Rankings is Samoa, which shot up eight places to number 21 to become the best performing small island country, sitting close behind Australia and New Zealand in the Oceania region.

Keni Lesa, editor of the Samoa Observer, said he wasn't surprised by the result because Samoan journalists are free to report on anything but stressed the quality of that reporting remained an issue.

"The value issue for me I see, the quality of information that's going out because sometimes it's kind of hard to get information and even when you get information, you really have to wonder about the correct information," Mr Lesa said.

Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi had been a hero of press freedom and was incomparable to some of the other more autocratic leaders in the Pacific.

"Everyone in the media in Samoa knows that if you want to talk to the Prime Minister, he'll be available. He has a weekly media program where he talks to anyone and everyone," Mr Lesa said.