Thank you for asking me to speak at this important event for such a timely cause, Media Freedom. I used to teach in the PNG Studies Department here, for those who don’t know me, and I have been a longtime media producer in PNG.
I remember when Maggie Wilson and I asked Francesca Semoso to play a role in Stolen Moments our 1989 soap opera/drama. She was working for NBC radio, had done a few Cold Power ads, but was really famous for her part in Tukana as Lucy, the sorceress. “Media ruined my life,” she said. We could see that: people would run from her, faint at the thought of Lucy walking through town, and call her names. She lived for a time under that conflation of image and reality that was so powerful in the first years of film and TV here. BUT it did not prevent her from becoming the Autonomous Region of Bougainville’s first female parliamentarian.
Today, the Prime Minister is suing two internet commentators for libelous talk. Another Minister calls for the deportation of Paul Barker, Director of the INA. Now Thomas Webster has been fired. Whe government gets a taste of supression, we know it's pretty hard to turn back. Not so long ago Paul Paraka called for my deportation over a blog. In June we may have our first Cyber Crime Law in PNG. So, yes, today is indeed a very different media climate than the past. Whereas the eighties problems were perceptual, conflating the actor and role, today there is much more media and less conflation, but very little discrimination between[genres. Is a troll the same as a social commentator? We are in a battle of quality, not so much of free speech. In some ways it is still about creating the PNG voice, a scramble up the slippery slope from the FB insults and SMS-speak. These are dangerous diversions.
These new push-backs measures can seem arbitrary though. What is taboo today and what is just illegal? It is the media’s role to tell us, and this is what I want to talk about. Journalists take the high road by using an ‘objective’ voice, as a corrective. But there is a tendency to shrink from sounding Papua New Guinean on a lot of issues, and almost to hide behind a western tone. Some stories now reflect an absurd brevity in the attempt to be professional. What we need is a long-form investigative journalism in PNG free from any restraints, including personal taboos, and ignorance. That’s what I want to talk about.
It is true that, in oral society, we abide by very different protocols. Oral societies have their own economies of knowledge, and we all of us know the danger of revealing clan information or ‘owning’ someone else’s story. This is the essence of linguistic diversity here, why some communities once had public and private dialects, or men’s and women’s speech registers. PNG is not the birthplace of a democratic distribution of knowledge, by any means, nor is it now a place where everything can be said to anyone. This is not the birthplace of a world wide web, or even Voltaire’s sentiment that, ‘I object to what you are saying but I will defend with my life your right to say it!’
Today, on the singsing grounds of Mt Hagen, an orator will enlist a very special speech register to make cheeky or insulting comments to the enemy. And they are usually tok piksa or veiled threats. ‘You are a branch of a large tree and we see your leaves dying...' Sometimes not veiled at all: 'You have insulted us by this miserly brideprice payment!' These are words called out to the public at large---to to the record, like the Hansard. But if you used this language in ordinary conservation, you'd be asking for a fist fight.
As a result, we tend to put more constraints on our speech than necessary, and get very tetchy about language. Who amongst us hasn’t been physically or emotionally battered by someone who then turns around and says you’ve offended them with words. A creep was texting me the other day, really unspeakable stuff, and so I called him a moron. His response? ‘Why are you verbally abusing me?’
So on the one hand, we have facebook commentators calling the PM’s mother a whore, and on the other hand we’re really tetchy about rude words, and afraid to speaking out because a) you’re not entitled to that story, or b) you’re related to one of the players. It’s touchy. The result is that we’ve spent a lot of time letting public figures off the hook, giving them a free pass.
Communication Arts students dramatize the arrival of 'white men' !
Even the SABL Commission of inquiry has been less than assertive. David Rabie has just launched a new books about media repression in the Pacific, called Don’t Spoil My Beautiful Face; Media, Mayhem and Human Rights in the Pacific. From what I understand, it’s rough read; we know there are journalists in the Philippines and West Papua, for example, being kidnapped and killed for their stories. We do have excellent role models in our journalists like Patrick Matbob, Belinda Kora, Anisah Issimel, Titi Gabi at PNG Edge, and others ---and did you know Father Jan was the head of the Journalism Department in school? No small thing in Communist Poland!---I learned that on the radio recently. (thank you FM 100).
What we need is radio airtime, or an inertnet page, not owned by the government or Digicel, a cannery, or a mining company (like the sponsor of this event), where we can develop a long-form investigative journalism. Forget the news tweets, those are ridiculous.
There is an acute sense of fair play in PNG, its part of Melanesian culture---reciprocity and having a say. Painfully, tediously, every customary forum, every government and office meeting involves every single person getting their say. Then when you think it’s over someone always says ‘Emi no stret! Harim tok blo mi!’ But this is what we need to generate good stories: we need to ask, What isn’t stret?
The single most important ethos of Melanesian culture is reciprocity, giving and taking to a balance, over the long or short term. When people take and don’t give back its called negative reciprocity, and it pretty much describes late capitalist culture, Port Moresby politics, and a lot of that collegial ‘me-first’ attitude that informs development these days. Why are we letting this happen? When it is a perversion of public service ideals, we let it go, and when it seems to violate core values, we continue to let it go.
But don’t let anyone tell you this is ‘bigmanship’ in a new age. How does a politician reciprocate wheb Malaysians build him a castle? Go have a read of all the ethnographies on real bigmanship in the Friendship library here---read Ben Finney about Goroka’s first entrepreneurs---and you’ll learn that the original highlands bigmen were benefactors, philanthropists, they gave everything away and their power lay in being owed, not having it all. Even Harry Gotaha, the first real Goroka BIG man, first person anyone say use a mobile phone , would walk around barefoot.
We cannot afford to lose the freedoms we now enjoy, and those freedoms, even on social media, are beginning to give voice to the powerless, and bring those wife-beaters and child-abusers to task, thankfully. So when we talk about censorship, we have a lot to lose, and when the government gets a taste of shutting down debate, there’s no going back. Long form journalist is the best way to carve out the PNG voice, explaining the social motives of bad behavior. It is also the form that gets beyond the obvious, it pulls the curtain away from the Great and All Powerful Oz, and doesn’t throw false motives into the mix.
One of my pet peeves is that gender issues have been smothered by human rights discourse, so that we have the exact same arguments here as in Australia about sexism, the ball and chain jokes, the testosterone men and so forth. Where are the kandare and tambu relations? Where are the beliefs about female biology that underwrite so much of this violence? Gender is a crucial organizer of PNG culture and no act of male-female violence, even the burning of Kepari Leniata cannot be fully understood without explaining it. No problem gets solved by framing it in foreign jargon.
That said, the single most redeeming fact about social media has been its ability to shame the guilty parties---men who beat their wives, abuse children, exploit their power over the formerly voiceless.
By the same token, examine every theory that’s imported, from your curriculum to the assumptions being made by the IMF or World Bank. We borrow the capitalist critique to quickly where money may not always be the only incentive, or cause. Today, most development theory has moved beyond the ideals of monetary wealth and really talks more about self-determination and having a voice. Similarly, foreign media can arrive like a Trojan Horse. We wheel it in without thinking, and then it insidiously breaks down our cultural values. Trojen Hos emi olosem yu wokim bel kol wantaim birua blo yu, oslosem yu kisim sampla sid blong cocoa, tasol displa cocoa emi pulap long sik na sik bai kilim ologeta gaden blo yu yet bihain.
As you find a voice that is critical and true to PNG, beware the carpetbaggers of tradition, because there is an industry of them: those willing to explain graft in terms of reciprocity, saying we are a gift giving culture, and creating a smokescreen to what is really negative reciprocity. By the same token, beware an act of media ‘exposure’ does not have the wrong consequences. As they say, there is no speech free from consequences.
Once you describe a community as bloodthirsty ‘cultists’, Rai Coast madmen, without providing the historical and cultural context of these movements, which have long been described as a response to government’s lack of reciprocity---a call for church and government assistance---then you set up a kind of syllogism, and its inevitable that a developer will conclude they are all better off being relocated in favour of an oil palm project.
It’s very tricky sometimes, but the best navigational device is a deep understanding and a critical eye. And yesterday Namah himself lodged a direct accusation at the PM, for tax evasion on the sale of two generators for Port Moresby and Lae. After the SABL Report and everything else we know, isn’t this a little tame? We are ranked 144 of 177 countries in Transparency International’s 2013 Global Perceptions of Corruption Index---right there on par with Iran and Nigeria. We’re on par with Nigeria—home to the original internet scams! A place where 234 schoolgirls are currently kidnapped by Islamic fundamentalists and no one seems to know what to do!
We are just slightly less corrupt, it seems, than Afghanistan, where pallets and pallets of US aid money has been dropped in the desert never to be seen again. I feel this corruption Index, almost as a reflection of local media failure, failure to control the global image of Papua New Guinea, not just in Australian papers, but the world, the newswires. We make headlines for sorcery and witch burning, but when no one provides the indigenous perspective, when we flinch at these subjects ourselves, these same stereotypes are perpetuated.
And there is good money these days in perpetuating stereotypes. Speaking in behalf of the so-called native are a few well paid generalists theorizing about the violence of New Guinea life, and calling it vestigial stone age today. Third and fourth world people around the world would scream bloody murder to have books written about them of the kind Jared Diamond is writing, based on speculation fueling the notion that today’s PNG is an evolutionary backwater.
Get out there and reclaim that territory with a strong informed and critical PNG perspective, shaking all kinds of self-censorship and pseudo objectivity, shedding everyone else’s voice but your own. Life is a riddle in PNG, and it’s yours to crack. They say Hollywood reporters need to know who is sleeping with whom; political correspondents should know who is paying whom. PNG journalists must know who is related to whom, and a little of each of the other two.
I leave you with the words of Eldridge Cleaver during the US civil rights movement. 'If you're not part of the solution, you are part of the problem!'