Papua New Guinea’s new media rules could undermine the work of journalists

Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape

Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape addresses the general debate of the 76th Session of the General Assembly of the UN (New York, 21-27 September 2021). Screenshot from UN website.

The office of the prime minister of Papua New Guinea (PNG) has enforced new media rules which could hinder journalists’ work and undermine press freedom.

On August 31, the office of Prime Minister James Marape published a full-page public notice in two newspapers, National and Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, informing journalists that they can no longer directly contact the leader, and instead, they should direct their questions to the appropriate government ministries.

Here’s an excerpt of the ad:

This circular is to advise all members of the media fraternity, both national and international, that the Prime Minister Hon. James Marape MP will no longer accept direct press enquiries from the date of this correspondence onwards.

The prime minister has been accommodating and has responded openly to our media ever since he took office in 2019. We would like to continue this partnership by streamlining your queries to our relevant ministries.

The text of the ad was also sent to a WhatsApp group of journalists in Papua New Guinea by Marape’s media team, accompanied by an appeal to “work for the good of our country” and “support the PM.” The government officer who sent the message added:

We are all in this game. It's our country and we need you. Media, you make or break leaders and paint either a good or bad image of your and our children's nation. We all work for the good of our country. Let's not get that wrong … support the PM. Take back PNG for us all.

A few weeks later, the Prime Minister's Department and the National Executive Council reiterated the requirements that foreign journalists need to submit before they are allowed entry into the country. This involves seeking permits from several offices such as the Department of Foreign Affairs, PNG Immigration & Citizenship Authority, PNG National Filming Institute, and the Prime Minister's Department.

Post-Courier published an editorial criticizing the requirements:

…the requirements appear to be ludicrous and an affront to media freedom in PNG.

We ask the simple question, what have we got to hide from public scrutiny?

Our foreign friends should not be turned away on some ridiculous belief that they may stumble on some hidden secret that will unplug the government.

It also suggested that the new media rules could be linked to the government’s refusal to address sensitive topics like corruption.

If the government is serious, it should allow its ministers to be interviewed regularly by foreign and PNG media on a weekly basis on issues of interest to the nation including why corruption remains the biggest stumbling block to development in PNG.

We cannot be seen as a nation that is suddenly turning against the most powerful source of information in the world – journalism!

But Department of Prime Minister and National Executive Council Secretary Ivan Pomaleu clarified that the republication of the rules was only meant to facilitate the visa processing of foreign journalists.

It is in no way, in its message disseminated yesterday to the mainstream media, implying a recent intention to restrict foreign media from traveling to PNG.

A long-time blogger in PNG has a reminder for authorities who want to restrict the work of foreign journalists:

The International Federation of Journalists took notice of the new media rules and urged the government to work closely with the press and promote the public’s right to information:

As press freedom continues to decline across the Pacific, any restriction on journalists is a concerning development. The IFJ urges Prime Minister Marape and Papua New Guinea’s government to maintain press freedom and due consultation with the media, and allow journalists full and unfettered access to government proceedings.

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