Media Watch: Who is pulling The National's strings on SABLs?

The National newspaper, owned by Malaysian logging giant Rimbunan Hijau, seems to be struggling to present a fair and balanced coverage of the issue of Special Purpose Agriculture and Business Leases (SABLs).

On Thursday, May 5, Papua New Guinea's Acting Prime Minister, Sam Abal issued a press statement just before 4pm, announcing a Commission of Inquiry into the controversial issuing of SABLs covering over 5.2 million hectares of customary land.

This was BIG news. The issue of the leases, PNG's biggest ever land-grab, has been ever- present in the media over the last month, attracting the attention of academics, scientists, landholders, politicians, commentators NGOs, politicians and even the United Nations High Commission on Indigenous Rights.

Radio stations immediately began running the PM's announcement on their hourly news bulletins from 4pm, it was featured on EMTVs flagship evening news program at 6pm. On Friday morning the Commission of Inquiry was front page news in the Post Courier newspaper.

But the story was totally ignored by The National, PNG's other daily newspaper. This silence was quickly commented upon by Prof William Laurance, a scientist at James Cook University and a member of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation, which has taken a strong stand against SABLs: 

"Thank goodness for the Post-Courier newspaper, [which] has been investigating this issue thoroughly. The National newspaper, which is the other major paper in PNG, and is owned by Rimbunan Hijau, has supported the SABLs or been tacitly silent."

This analysis was reinforced today, Monday, when the announcement of the Commission of Inquiry was finally acknowledged in The National, albeit in a story on page 13 of the newspaper, while a statement by Opposition MP, Belden Namah, condemning the Inquiry, featured much more prominently on page 3!!

One of the criticisms of SABLs is that they are a mechanism for the logging industry to gain access to vast areas of forest which they can clear fell without any oversight from the PNG Forest Authority.

Rimbunan Hijau has been frequently linked with illegal and unsustainable logging and human rights abuses in Papua New Guinea but has always been staunchly defended in it own newspaper.