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Pacific media groups rally behind suspended Papua New Guinea journalist

A Photo of journalist Sincha Dimara and EMTV News from a post by Reporters Without Borders (RSF)

Journalist Sincha Dimara, one of the most well-known journalists in Papua New Guinea, learned on February 7 that she was suspended for three weeks without pay. Dimara is the Head of News and Current Affairs at EMTV, Papua New Guinea’s main public television news channel.

EMTV’s parent company, Media Niugini Limited (MNL), issued the suspension order after Dimara was accused of insubordination and damaging the reputation of the company. The allegations stemmed from Dimara’s decision to report on the ongoing court proceedings against Australian hotelier Jamie Pang whose charges related to producing, trafficking, and distributing narcotics were dismissed last month. Despite his acquittal, Pang was detained for breaching immigration law and firearm offenses.

EMTV released three reports about Pang tackling his legal status, lapses in the police investigation, and his employees’ concerns — seemingly questioning how the government handled the situation. This, apparently, did not sit well with a government minister who “requested” MNL do something about it. The Papua New Guinea government indirectly controls the EMTV through MNL.

The memo regarding Dimara’s suspension was leaked to the public and drew widespread condemnation in and outside of Papua New Guinea.

On February 8, the Interim Chief Executive Officer of EMTV claimed through a press statement that the “memo was taken out of context.”

At no time were EMTV's Journalists restricted nor stopped from reporting unfolding stories on the detained resident.

The memo was a result of alleged insubordination by staff towards verbal lawful instructions to drop stories sympathizing with Pang. EMTV is a responsible organization and will not be seen to sympathize with persons with questionable character.

The memo did not in any way restrict the journalists’ freedom of press, rather the memo was circulated to staff with the view to properly scrutinize the content of the news stories before they were aired that day.

But the Media Council of Papua New Guinea described the official’s reasoning as “shallow” and “bordering on intimidation of EMTV News Staff.” It also reminded MNL that other local media companies made similar reports about Pang:

The Council would also like to highlight that all Media houses reported the story of Pang being acquitted by the Courts, and the concerns of his employees.

It warned against “undue political influence” in the EMTV newsroom:

To resort to suspending its head of news for reasons of performing and complying to a ministerial directive based on personal or emotional reactions to social media comments about a story, reeks of undue political influence, and sets a dangerous precedent as the country moves into an Election Year. A time when strong independent news assessment will be key in news coverage.

Pacific media groups and journalists rallied to support Dimara, who has been with EMTV for 33 years. On Thursday, February 17, journalists from EMTV’s national news team staged a walkout to protest Dimara’s suspension.

Other news personnel took to social media to criticize the suspension. Journalist Scott Waide criticized the actions of the Interim Chief Executive Officer of EMTV:

The suspension of EMTV News Manager, Sincha Dimara, reeks of external influence on the company's top management.

A CEO is a buffer between staff and any external pressure. You need a heart of steel and buckets of bravery to fend off political pressure.

There is another way to correct coverage that does not “fit the aspirations” of a news organization – it's called LEADERSHIP.

Journalist Tania Fewec Bale lauded Dimara’s decision to continue reporting on an issue that can affect public interest:

When a TV CEO comes down to the newsroom and pulls a story for anything other than legal reasons, that is a direct breach of media freedom. When a newsroom runs the story anyway, that's NOT insubordination, that's upholding media freedom. That's a warrior move Sincha Dimara.

Pacific Freedom Forum co-chair Robert Iroga called for the reinstatement of Dimara:

We stand in solidarity with our EMTV wantoks [close comrade], and all our media family across Papua New Guinea who work in often difficult situations, to ensure the people are informed and know what is happening. Reporting the proceedings of court cases is an important part of the news cycle and the public interest, and we hope Ms Dimara can be reinstated quickly.

Kora Nou, president of the Pacific Islands News Association, noted that there are other ways to address the problem related to the news coverage without suspending Dimara:

From the letter of suspension of the head of News & Current Affairs, Ms Sincha Dimara, it is fair to say that the management has reacted quite harshly by suspending her without pay. The news selection on the Pang court proceedings and subsequent suspension of Ms Dimara could have been better dealt with internally.

He urged Pacific media members to defend press freedom:

In light of the current situation at EMTV in Papua New Guinea, I encourage all news organisations to always uphold and protect your editorial independence at all cost; this is what defines you as an independent and impartial media outlet.

MLN has faced criticism in the past for suspending and silencing journalists. EMTV News Chief Neville Choi was suspended in 2018 and fired in 2019 for “insubordination” after releasing a number of critical reports related to the APEC summit and national Defense Force spending. After his dismissal, the newsroom went on an all-out strike, and he was reinstated two days later. Similarly, senior journalist Scott Waide was suspended in 2018 after criticizing government spending.

Meanwhile, Pang continues to face additional charges as reported by the police.

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