16 November, 2019, 3:30 pm
VICTOR Mambor cuts an unassuming figure. Standing around 5ft 9’, he is quiet. There’s a touch of a sprightly jump in his stride though.
It’s a bright and sunny Monday morning.
There’s a slight breeze coming in over the Brisbane river, cutting its way across to the balcony of Room S02 – 7 at Griffith University.
In the distance, what appears to be fog, is, however, smoke emanating from the Queensland bush fires.
Media reports suggested 150 fires raged across New South Wales and Queensland, feeding tinder-dry conditions.
High temperatures and volatile winds aided the fires in Queensland, sending forth white smoke that hovered above Brisbane.
It forced warnings for residents to remain indoors in parts of the city on Monday and Tuesday.
Inside the lecture room, journalists like Mambor mingled. The enclosed room kept the smoke out and important discussions in.
This was the first meeting of the Melanesian Media Freedom Forum. Journalists from Vanuatu, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Bougainville, the Solomon Islands and Victor from West Papua started arriving in Brisbane south as early as Thursday for the two-day forum.
On Saturday, measles made the news in Brisbane. A report of an outbreak in a school in the south of Brisbane was hitting the top end of the news bulletins on television.
On Saturday, August 24, though, the Jakarta Post had reported about Mambor’s claims he had faced intimidation and harassment for reporting on an internet blackout sanctioned by the Indonesian government amid escalating protests in Papua and West Papua.
The Indonesia Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI Indonesia) reported that Mambor, an AJI member and the editor of Jubi newspaper and a correspondent for The Jakarta Post, had been harassed by a social media user with the Twitter handle @antilalat.
A day later, the report stated, UK-based lawyers Doughty Street Chambers announced that Mambor had filed an urgent appeal to UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression David Kaye regarding internet blocking in the provinces amid protests.
AJI Indonesia’s advocacy head, Sasmito Madrim, said that @antilalat had accused Mambor of having links to the Free Papua Movement (OPM) in the provinces and abroad, as well as being an informant for Indonesian lawyer Veronica Koman, a lawyer for the West Papua National Committee.
Sasmita said the accusations against Mambor were groundless since he had merely been doing his job as a reporter objectively while complying with the journalism code of ethics.
“The AJI would like to remind social media users and law enforcers that journalists, in doing their jobs, are protected by Law No. 40/1999 on the press. If anyone thinks there is incorrect journalistic material published in the media, the Press Law regulates the mechanisms that ensure a journalistic right to reply and corrections, and allow the filing of complaints to the Press Council,” Sasmito said.
Radio New Zealand took up the report on August 26.
The Indonesian government, it reported, deployed a thousand-extra military and police personnel to Papua at the time, as some of the protests turned violent.
The Ministry of Communications announced it had throttled internet access to parts of Papua.
According to the RNZ report, this came as large protests spread through Papua in response to racist harassment of Papuans in Javanese cities.
At the time the ministry had said blocking of internet would be held until the circumstances in Papua were “absolutely normal”.
Mambor insisted the blockage violated international human rights law, meaning coverage of the protests was difficult.
The ministry said that although the situation in some parts of Papua had begun to gradually recover, “distribution and transmission of information hoax, hoaxes, provocative and racist (material) remains high”.
As a consequence, local media outlets were restricted in their ability to send photographs and videos of the protests.
The Committee to Protect Journalists got involved, urging Indonesian authorities to immediately restore internet access to the Papua region.
Its Senior Southeast Asia representative, Shawn Crispin, claimed the shutdown aimed to block the free flow of information in a region notorious for state-sponsored rights abuses.
In the room though, Mambor’s quiet demeanour slowly evaporated as discussions turned to media freedom.
It’s a topic close to the heart of these regional journalists who had been invited to be part of this historic meeting in Brisbane.
In November last year, the ABC reported that a senior PNG journalist, who was suspended after airing a story critical of government spending, was reinstated by broadcaster EMTV following a widespread public backlash.
Scott Waide, the Lae City bureau chief, was suspended for airing a report from a New Zealand TV station criticising PNG’s purchase of 40 luxury Maseratis. The report came in the wake of anger over government spending during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference hosted by Papua New Guinea.
The government was accused of a cover up by the Opposition.
Last week, The Guardian reported that the Vanuatu government had refused to renew the work permit of the Vanuatu Daily Post’s long serving director Dan McGarry’s work permit.
Having spent 16 years living and working in Vanuatu, McGarry’s application to renew his work permit was refused. It meant McGarry, his Ni-Vanuatu wife and his children will have to leave Vanuatu.
McGarry believes the turn of events stemmed from the newspaper’s reporting on the government’s activities, causing it “discomfort”.
It’s interesting that just last year, Freedom in the World recorded what it termed the 13th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.
The reversal, it pointed out, had spanned a variety of countries in every region, from long-standing democracies like the United States to consolidated authoritarian regimes like China and Russia.
It stated the overall losses were still shallow compared with the gains of the late 20th century, but the pattern was consistent and ominous. Democracy is in retreat.
More authoritarian powers, it pointed out, were now banning opposition groups or jailing their leaders, dispensing with term limits, and tightening the screws on any independent media that remained. Most troublingly, it stated, even long-standing democracies had been shaken by populist political forces that rejected basic principles like the separation of powers and targeted minorities for discriminatory treatment.
However, it believes the promise of democracy remains real and powerful. It stated not only defending it, but broadening its reach is one of the great causes of our time.
In the Fiji context, the Media Industry Development Act (formerly Decree) popped up as a point of discussions in Brisbane.
Section 22, on content regulation, requires media organisations in Fiji to ensure that their content must not include material which:
- is against the public interest or order
- is against national interest; or
- creates communal discord.
Section 23 reads: The content of any print media which is in excess of 50 words must include a byline and wherever practical, the content of any media service must include a byline.
The penalties for these breaches are fines not exceeding $100,000 for a media organisation or, in the case of a publisher or editor, a fine not exceeding $25,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or to both.
Journalists like Waide, McGarry, and Mambor were at home. The discussions focused on an area of their chosen profession they understood intimately, and were passionate about.
So how did it all start though?
Tess Newton Cain said the idea for the forum started with a conversation over pizza which included a few people with her and Stefan Armbruster.
“We were reflecting on what we had heard from journalists in the region about the threats to media freedom that they were facing. We felt that there would be value in getting some of the senior people together to join forces, intellectually and emotionally, and see whether they could work out how to better meet those challenges in the future.
“We road tested the concept with some key people in Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu and got the sense that it was something that would be welcomed and that people felt a safe and neutral space was needed – hence Brisbane was chosen as the location.
“Griffith University agreed to be the institutional home for the event and so in July 2018 it was official – we were going to make this thing happen. We formed an organising group and got going.
“During the two days I was struck by how the participants grabbed the opportunity and made it work for them. It was always our intention to create the space and hand it over to the media practitioners to use it as they wanted to.
“I think this is something of a new approach and it was a bit of a risk. What if no-one wanted to say anything? What if people got bored and wandered off?
“But the concept seems to have proved valid. Everyone was fully invested from the start. Everyone played a role and contributed. Hearing people say that they were pleased that they had come and that they gained something from the experience was really wonderful.
“What I hadn’t been ready for was the emotional energy that this event would create. I heard a couple of people say “it’s so good to realise we’re not on our own in this”.
“I felt really grateful that the participants had trusted us to deliver what we had promised and embraced the opportunity in the spirit with which it was offered.
“As you know, (veteran ABC Pacific journalist) Sean Dorney is living with Motor Neurone Disease and he has to be careful that he doesn’t overdo things. At the end of the two days he said to me: “Pauline kept asking me if I was OK, if I was getting tired but I said to her ‘being here and being with these journalists is giving me energy, it’s giving me a boost”.
“It was a big job to get everything in place for the event and the members of the organising group have all put in 110%, mostly in their spare time. But I think I can speak for all of us when I say that it’s been a pleasure and a privilege to have been part of what was such a special event. And we are very excited to see what comes next.”
Outside the lecture room, the white smoke hung heavy in the distance.
In the din of the afternoon traffic in this massive Australian city, there is a sense of appreciation in the room.
There is a sense of motivation, and a leaning towards an appreciation of solidarity. That’s probably the key here, right now. Solidarity!
In the face of seemingly overwhelming forces at work, getting their pitch against the traditional platforms of journalism, sits a need for solidarity.