The Spin Cycle: How Papua New Guinea’s Media Washes Dirty Stories
Dr Kristian Lasslett | International State Crime Initiative
30 September 2015
With characteristic insight, last week Oro Governor Gary Juffa MP took aim at Papua New Guinea’s media.
Juffa asked: ‘Where are the in-depth stories into matters of concern to the public such as the Sustainable Agriculture Business Leases (SABLs), the Pacific Maritime Industrial Zone (PMIZ) scam, the sea bed mining saga, the numerous inquiries that went nowhere and the inflated contracts that go to dubious companies?’.
Those of us investigating the crimes of the powerful in Papua New Guinea, know what a miserly place the media terrain can be, particularly the print press.
Entrusted to fearlessly keep the powerful to account, Papua New Guinea’s daily newspapers increasingly feel more like a Laundromat, where the rich and powerful can go to have their dirty ‘news’ – public relations pronouncements – put through the spin cycle, so it can be churned out to the people of Papua New Guinea cleaned of its partisan origins.
Coupled to this, there is a systematic failure to inquire into, and report on, the daily scandals profoundly affecting the region. Land frauds, forced evictions, theft of landowner resources, cronyism in government, corruption scandals, security force violence, are all common place, but rarely investigated or covered with any nuance.
Willed blindness to regional injustice is no small feat. Ignoring these issues requires significant effort, after all when it comes to corporate crime and corruption Papua New Guinea is one of the most transparent countries in the world.
National court judgements, commission of inquiries, public accounts committee reports, auditor general reports, and published research is literally teeming with information on corruption, illegal resource theft, police misconduct and human rights abuses. And names are named! Senior politicians, civil servants, business leaders and major corporate brands are all explicitly cited.
This information is literally being hurled at the media’s doors by citizens, landowners, NGOs, researchers, activists, and anti-corruption agencies.
Yet still it remains largely closed to the everyday injustices and abuses that many Papua New Guineas have to endure.
Of course, on occasions stories do appear in both the print and broadcast media that probe the misconduct of the powerful. But they are notable because of their exceptional quality. And they result from the concerted efforts of devoted journalists who are prepared to risk their career and personal safety to break a story of public importance.
However, we cant evaluate Papua New Guinea’s media on the basis of the exception. Rather in order to measure the rigor and vitality of the Papua New Guinea’s media we have to look at the overarching rule. When we do it becomes apparent courageous reporting that speaks truth to power is a slither in a much larger cake made up of banal news reports, corporate puff pieces and barely edited media releases from politicians and business elites.
Comparing PNG and Australia: A case study on Paga Hill
During the course of our Papua New Guinea research the International State Crime Initiative has uncovered startling evidence on major international corporations, senior political officials, business leaders and government departments. While this research rarely gets acknowledgement in the national press, it has been disseminated widely by the media in Australia, Britain and the United States, including The Guardian, The Australian, ABC (Australia), SBS, CNN, The Nation, Al Jazeera, Radio New Zealand International, to name just a few.
Lets pause and think about this for a second, foreign citizens are better informed by their mainstream media about investigative research into improper or illegal commercial transactions in Papua New Guinea, than Papua New Guinea citizens – and this is not from a want of trying, no amount of pester power from the International State Crime Initiative has resulted in national coverage.
To use one exemplary case study that has hit the headlines in Papua New Guinea and Australia – the luxury real-estate development proposed for Port Moresby’s iconic former national park, Paga Hill.
The real-estate development is being spearheaded by the state-lease holder, Paga Hill Development Company (PHDC) and its CEO, Mr Gudmundur Fridriksson.
Mr Fridriksson has a colorful commercial history. During his 20 year involvement in Papua New Guinea, companies part owned and managed by Fridriksson have been implicated in commercial transactions censured in 4 x Public Accounts Committee reports, 2 x Auditor General Reports and 1 x Commission of Inquiry. By any stretch this is an achievement, albeit one not many would want.
Perhaps not surprisingly then the Paga Hill acquisition has courted controversy.
For example, the initial urban development lease over the land at Paga Hill was granted in violation of the Land Act 1996, and Physical Planning Act 1989.
The developer has acknowledged these violations, but argues their approach is more intuitive than the one set out in Papua New Guinea’s law: ‘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’. Quite.
In 2007 the Public Accounts Committee took a dim view of the company and its ‘flexible’ approach to the law. The Committee labelled PHDC ‘foreign speculators’ who acquired the land through ‘corrupt dealings’, claims that Mr Fridriksson and his colleagues deny.
But don’t expect to find any of this in the recent coverage of the Paga Hill saga.
Lets take the Post-Courier as our example. It has published 31 articles featuring PHDC. The following headlines give you a sense of the editorial line taken:
- ‘Iconic transformation’, PNG Post-Courier, September 25, 2015 Friday
- ‘Paga Hill developer returns to help settlers’, PNG Post-Courier, March 30, 2015
- ‘Firm to sponsor literary awards’, PNG Post-Courier, January 21, 2015 Wednesday
- ‘City police praise Paga Hill eviction exercise’, PNG Post-Courier, June 2, 2014 Monday.
- ‘Policewomen hail a firm’s support’. PNG Post-Courier, April 25, 2014 Friday
Advertisements seem pretty superfluous when newspapers are prepared to publish this kind of ‘news’.
If we turn our head to Australia’s media, we see a marked contrast.
Even though issues in Papua New Guinea are frequently marginalised or sensationalised in the Australian media, the Paga Hill eviction and the previous commercial dealings of its CEO, have been covered in The Australian, Radio Australia (ABC) and SBS World News.
This coverage has raised serious questions over the commercial background of PHDC’s CEO and the land transactions underpinning the project. As a result, Australian readers have been treated to much greater investigative detail on the Paga Hill saga, than residents of Port Moresby who have lost a national park to a luxury real-estate development.
The difference can be seen very clearly if we divide articles between promotional pieces (articles that promote the development/developer without critical scrutiny), event coverage (reporting on a daily event related to the development) and investigative reports (pieces featuring evidence obtained through investigative research).
|Post Courier||Australian media|
While the Post-Courier clearly has more content on Paga Hill than the Australian media, the majority of articles were promotional pieces. In contrast, the Australian media coverage was made up almost totally of reports featuring investigative evidence on the development itself, and the developer’s commercial background.
Matters don’t get any better if we scrutinise the content of the event coverage featured in the Post-Courier, breaking stories down according to whether the article covers events that are either favorable, neutral or unfavorable to the developer. Again we see a notable skew – and it should be observed, the development has been marked by corruption allegations, home demolitions, police violence, court cases and a prolonged campaign for justice by local residents. Very little of this finds its way on to the pages of the Post-Courier
The Post-Courier and Paga Hill: Counting the Omissions
If we shift our analytical approach and examine the statements featuring in Post-Courier articles, we find repeat failures to give readers a balanced view by reporting key facts now on the public record. The most recent Post-Courier promotional piece dated 25 September 2015 is a revealing example.
It is punctuated with the type of fawning language one would expect of an advertisement produced by a marketing department, not a daily newspaper. The Post-Courier observes: ‘The drive up to the site was a breathtaking moment for media personnel … Lead architect of the Paga Hill project Paul Gallagher, who accompanied the media to the site, said the Paga Hill project will be an icon of a modern and progressive PNG’.
The newspaper continues: ‘In addition to representing a superior investment opportunity, PNG and Port Moresby will greatly benefit from Paga Hill Estate’s development; from the perspectives of employment, tourism, infrastructure, as well as the genuine lift to the face of the nation that it will undoubtedly provide … Paga Hill Estate will transform Port Moresby’s tourism infrastructure’.
Love sonnets are more restrained.
The Post-Courier fails to draw its readers’ attention to past projects overseen by the developer’s CEO, Gudmundur Fridriksson, who has been the principal driver behind the Paga Hill Estate since its inception.
What of the K2.5 million book Destination Papua New Guinea Mr Fridriksson’s company helped produced in 1996 for the Papua New Guinea government at taxpayers’ expense? ABC reporter Sean Dorney slammed Destination Papua New Guinea for its alleged inflated price tag, poor production quality and avalanche of factual errors.
Or what about the K7.4 million Ela Beach fun park another of Mr Fridriksson’s company CCS Anvil was meant to help steward into being on behalf of Bill Skate MP?
The Post-Courier could have turned back to its own reporting from 2003 to discover ‘Mr Freidriksson [sic] said the project, if and when completed, would have 200-300 metres of water slide from the top of Paga Hill and into the sea, a children’s playground, an open-air cinema, a picnic pavilion, floating pontoons, paddle boats and a lookout on the top of Paga Hill. It would also have a big waterfront area for markets, restaurants, bowling and a mini golf course. He has already held talks with an unnamed European country, which he said has said it was willing to fund the development’.
The Post-Courier might also have looked to the Icelandic press where Mr Fridriksson’s proposed Chinese Liquorice factory made quite the splash.
Surely when a property developer is making fairly big claims about their current real-estate project, any responsible newspaper worth its salt would look into their past performance in order to give readers a balanced view.
Equally, given it is on the public record, and has direct relevance to a project alleged to have been enacted through ‘corrupt dealings’, it might also be worth asking why the Post-Courier has failed to alert its readers to another company, Anvil Project Services, part-owned and managed by PHDC’s CEO – after all Anvil Project Services for a period was the Project Director for the Paga Hill Estate (according to a corporate brochure: ‘Anvil (PNG) Project Services has been exclusively retained to seek a purchaser, investor or development partner for the Paga Hill Estate Development).
This company was heavily criticized for its consultancy work with the Public Curator’s Office, a fact that was explicitly pointed to in The Australian.
The Auditor General and Public Accounts Committee both state after having two certificate of inexpediency’s rejected by the Central Supply and Tender Board, the Public Curator’s Office expropriated assets from private estates over which it was trustee, to reportedly pay Anvil Project Services K5.2 million (for further information see here).
According to company registry records Anvil Project Services was part owned by Mr Gamoga Jack Nouairi along with Mr Fridriksson and his wife (via Asigau (PNG) Holdings) – Mr Nouairi was the Acting Public Curator when Anvil Project Services was procured as a consultant.
All of this detail is on the public record, but don’t expect to find it in the Post-Courier pages any time soon.
To the contrary, in its most recent promotional piece the Post-Courier assures us this real-estate development has been declared a project of national significance.
Again they neglect to tell their readers – and we have repeatedly made this fact known – that this status was initially pushed for by the then Minister for Civil Aviation, Culture and Tourism Michael Nali (see Michael Nali Letter). Mr Nali subsequently took a 9% stake in PHDC through his firm Kwadi Inn.
This is another example where the Post-Courier has omitted key details, denying its readers vital information.
The Post-Courier piece goes on to observe: ‘The company achieved a harmonious resettlement [of local residents] to a PHDC donated site’.
Harmonious? The company, by its own admission, helped organise the forced demolition of homes along the Paga foreshore in 2012, which descended into anarchy when police opened fire on unarmed civilians – all of which was captured on film.
Image: Homes are demolished along Paga's foreshore in May 2012.
Since then the developer and Papua New Guinea state have been in bitter legal disputes with NHC and settlement residents, as the latter seek compensation and justice for the violence and suffering they have endured (in 2014 the Supreme Court declared residents lived on reclaimed land outside the state-lease area [Court Order] , however, during the legal struggle a PHDC subsidiary obtained a state lease over the reclaimed land, unbeknownst to residents [Gazette Portion 3149])
Also the ‘site’ at 6-mile PHDC has earmarked for displaced residents, can’t have been donated by the company. Its customary land, which can only be alienated under very specific conditions. PHDC has not forwarded any evidence it has converted the tenure, or acquired any other type of lease permitted under the Land Act 1996.
One would expect any newspaper operating in Papua New Guinea to be acutely aware of land tenure principles, especially in light of recent scandals involving SABLs and state land. Yet no attempt is made by the Post-Courier to ask how PHDC could give away customary land under the Land Act 1996.
And lets be clear, the International State Crime Initiative has petitioned the Post-Courier to improve its deeply one-sided coverage. We have even been given editorial assurance they would publish details noted above, but despite our pestering no coverage has been forthcoming.
If Papua New Guinea readers want to learn more, they will need to buy an Australian newspaper or access them via the internet, which is not always easy to do.
Building a free and independent media in Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea is not short of individuals prepared to speak truth to power, including journalists. But the institutional structures are simply not in place to support professionals who want to engage in investigate reporting that scrutinise the dealings of the powerful.
New conversations need to be had on how such an institutional structure could be built that can bring to light the scandals Papua New Guineans want to know about, while also forcing the mainstream media to lift its game.
There are examples overseas which Papua New Guinea’s journalists could look to, where principled reporters fed up with being muzzled have sort funding from international donors devoted to press freedom and democracy, and set up a not-for profit investigative units, often with significant impact.
It is time to strike a blow against the information monopolies held by the mainstream media in Papua New Guinea, so that Papua New Guinea can enjoy a fourth estate devoted to truth and keeping the powerful to account.