Papua New Guinea deserves better than cut and paste journalism

Source: Dr Kristian Lasslett | International State Crime Initiative

Last week the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) suggested that institutionalised bias in Papua New Guinea’s media is preventing rigorous reporting on corporate and state malfeasance.

As a result, the coverage of serious human rights and corruption issues is disproportionately small compared to the depth of the abuse occurring in Papua New Guinea. But in addition to that, we contended, when scandals are covered the quality of the reporting is often poor.

Compounding this lamentable situation, corporate press-releases issued by powerful actors appear to find their way into the national dailies with disconcerting regularity.

For example, LNG Watch PNG found numerous instances where the Post-Courier cut and paste entire stories from ExxonMobil press releases (the examples used by LNG Watch are striking, and worth reading).

In marked contrast, the Post-Courier failed to cover serious evidence implicating Exxon in one of Papua New Guinea’s worst industrial disasters – evidence that was circulated widely in the American and British media.

Accordingly, we asked, why are foreign audiences getting better access to investigative reporting on Papua New Guinea, than nationals.

Over the weekend the Post-Courier strongly rejected ISCI’s criticisms. Given that their reply replicates the flaws we condemned in the original article, it deserves a response.

The Post-Courier initiates its reply with the following, seemingly innocuous statement: ‘As an example, he [Kristian Lasslett] used the coverage of the Post-Courier on the controversial Paga Hill redevelopment project, which has led to confrontation between the developer, illegal settlers and human rights activists since 2013’.

This apparent straight-forward statement of fact, contains the very vices that triggered ISCI’s initial article.

For instance, there were legal tenants living on Paga Hill in National Housing Corporation properties who were very much involved in this ‘confrontation’.  Second, not all settlement homes were illegal, many lived on reclaimed land, outside the Portion 1597 plot claimed by real-estate developer, Paga Hill Development Company (PHDC). A blanket application of the label illegal is stigmatising, and inaccurate.

Interestingly, the July 2014 Supreme Court decision which confirmed that the reclaimed land lay outside the boundaries of Portion 1597, was in fact noted by the Post-Courier, in an article misleadingly entitled ‘Supreme Court upholds Paga Hill development decision’. However, the paper failed to report that a fully owned PHDC subsidiary was awarded a special purpose state lease over the reclaimed land, without informing residents, or the Supreme Court who was deliberating on the matter.  Only the blog PNG Exposed, raised the alarm.

In contrast to local residents, no stigmatising label is reserved for the developer by the Post-Courier in their reply to ISCI. Yet the company’s claim to the land is not squeaky clean. By their own admission the Urban Development Lease was acquired in violation of the Land Act 1996. The initial ISCI article quotes from the developer’s masterplan, which explicitly acknowledges the violation (i.e. ‘The application process for an Urban Development Lease, which would normally be required by the Land Act 1996 and the Physical Planning Act of 1989, has been altered … to provide for a more flexible and intuitive approach to the development of the site’).

Even the term ‘human rights activists’ is misleading. For example, the International State Crime Initiative is a research centre made up of globally recognised scholars from world-class higher education institutions in the UK and US. Our research is peer-reviewed, and focuses on rigorously documenting the processes that precipitate serious human rights abuses – the gloss activist, is simply inaccurate and implies our claims are rooted primarily in political ideals, rather than rigorous, methodical research.

In fact, a lot of the flawed language used by the Post-Courier with respect to Paga Hill is indistinguishable from the language originally wielded by PHDC’s Icelandic and Australian executives to legitimise the company’s actions – they were the ones characterising residents as illegal squatters,  while dismissing ISCI as an ‘ill-informed and clearly biased activist organisation’. These erroneous representations have seemingly seeped into the lexicon adopted by Post-Courier reporters so they echo power, rather than scrutinise it.

In a bid to defend the Post-Courier’s slant on Paga Hill, Editor-in-Chief, Alexander Rheeney, argues: ‘We don’t just publish any allegations of impropriety or corruption when they are referred to us. The protocol in the newsroom is for those allegations to be subject to our own checklist which includes the probability of attracting defamation proceedings and whether the risks are high or low – depending on the evidence we have at hand’.

This statement suggests that the Post-Courier has not covered investigative research into PHDC and its senior executives, because the evidence is not strong enough to support an article.

Here is an overview of the evidence that has been drawn upon in our research, and in subsequent international reporting, to scrutinise the officials and transactions that form the content of the Paga Hill saga:

  • Company records held at the Investment Promotion Authority.
  • Original planning documents and leases.
  • Internal government and company records.
  • Auditor General’s Office and Public Accounts Committee reporting (which censured commercial transactions involving executives implicated in the Paga Hill development).
  • The report and transcripts of the Commission of Inquiry into the Department of Finance (which censured commercial transactions involving executives implicated in the Paga Hill development).
  • The report of the Commission of Inquiry into the National Provident Fund (which censured commercial transactions involving executives implicated in the Paga Hill development).
  • Interviews with residents, company executives and lands department officials.
  • Photographic and video evidence.
  • Investigative reports published by journalists such as Sean Dorney.

This body of evidence was deemed robust enough for The Australian, ABC, Radio New Zealand International, and SBS World News, to proceed with coverage.

The Post-Courier appears to suggest it operates to a higher standard. Except, that is, when it publishes articles that celebrate the achievements of corporate actors. Then examples can be found which suggest the high evidentiary burden demanded by editors drops notably.

For example, in two articles published in the Post-Courier it was alleged that Hilton Hotels were on board with the PHDC led development at Paga Hill. Had they bothered to check with Hilton Hotels whether this was in fact true, like their colleagues at Radio New Zealand International, the Post-Courier would have discovered it was not.

So, when it comes to publishing promotional pieces that benefit powerful actors, a rather low bar is set for what constitutes news and for what constitutes fact. But when it comes to critical voices raising the alarm over potential corporate and state malfeasance, a bar is set that is so high it appears impossible to leap.

Again we are not talking about absolutes here. The contention isn’t that Papua New Guinea’s newspapers point blank ignore corruption scandals, cases of misappropriation or human rights violations. Rather, the suggestion is that the institutional structures and press culture are such that the coverage is not of the quality or quantity warranted by the subject matter. Meanwhile, the quantity of coverage devoted to promotional pieces, of questionable newsworthiness and factual merit, is perilously high.

It would be wrong to single out the Post-Courier in this respect, its main competitor The National has also been criticised for the rigour of its reporting, particularly when covering corruption and illegalities within the agro-forestry industry, an industry in which its owner has a significant stake.

And, of course, the Post-Courier has moments in its history that it should be commended for. Who could forget official attempts to stop the circulation of the Commission of Inquiry report into the National Provident Fund. The Post-Courier responded to this injustice, by publishing dozens of extracts during 2002. We are indebted to them for it.

Unfortunately, as the Paga Hill case demonstrates, such high standards of investigative integrity are not being upheld. Perhaps there is hope for change. But in the meantime, it is critical that we hasten media reform, by reporting on and circulating those stories which they fail to cover, using the innovative means offered up as the digital world gradually opens up to readers across Papua New Guinea.