from our partners at the Pacific Media Centre
AUCKLAND(Pacific Media Watch): As tensions escalate in the Indonesian-occupied Melanesian region of West Papua, there is growing criticism over the lack of information in the mainstream New Zealand media about the troubled area.
Last week, the third Papuan People’s Congress was held in Abepura, on the outskirts of Jayapura. It was a peaceful rally of thousands of West Papuans who had gathered to celebrate their culture, hold talks and elect their representatives.
When the Morning Star flag was raised and cries of “merdeka” (independence) were heard by the strong Indonesian military presence, gunshots rang out and violencefollowed.
Deaths and mass arrests
The newly-elected “president” Forkorus Yoboisembut, chairman of the Papuan Customary Council (DAP), was arrested along with hundreds of others and reports emerged of up to six deaths.
On Monday, Indonesian police chief Adj. Comr. Dominggus Awes was gunned downon the tarmac of Mulia Airport. The People’s Liberation Army of West Papua or OPM, were accused of being involved but have since denied it.
And on a completely separate event, at least seven people have died over the past few weeks during the controversial strike over low wages at the US-owned Freeport McMoRan mine.
So far, only the public broadcaster, Radio New Zealand International, and independent media outlets such as Pacific Scoop have paid any attention. In the international pages of the main newspapers, Europe and other parts of the world have featured, but nothing about our own region.
NZ ‘not part of Pacific’
Dr Steven Ratuva, senior lecturer in Pacific studies at the University of Auckland, says New Zealand likes to consider itself a Pacific country, but can’t, as its interests lie elsewhere.
“There is nothing in terms of media coverage that gives the impression that New Zealand is part of the Pacific,” he says.
“It’s a dilemma that New Zealand is facing – on one level it claims to be a Pacific country but the New Zealand Herald has only one Pacific reporter, and TVNZ the same.”
Dr Ratuva sources his information from places such as West Papua from blogs as well as “internet sources outside the mainstream media”.
He says the main reason is politics.
“The [Pacific Islands] Forum, at the last meeting didn’t want to touch it. Indonesia is a significant player in the region and has links with Australia and New Zealand,” he says.
“Papua New Guinea doesn’t want to acknowledge it, even though it shares a border with West Papua, due to its fears of Indonesia.”
Dr Teresia Teaiwa, senior lecturer in Pacific studies, at Va’aomanu Pasifika Victoria University of Wellington, says mainstream print and television media leave a lot to be desired.
“If it’s not a major crisis or related to a major crisis, don’t expect it to be covered,” she says.
“I’ve stopped reading mainstream newspapers because of how inanely insular they are.
“I was surprised at how little coverage the Occupy Wall Street movement got in theDominion Post a couple of weeks ago. If a significant first world movement isn’t getting any serious attention in our newspapers, how can we expect informed and engaged journalism on issues in the Pacific Islands from New Zealand media?”
Dr Heather Devere from the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies says New Zealand is inward-looking.
“I do think we are more insular here,” she says.
“I’m not sure that it is so much a concerted effort to ignore rather than a genuine ignorance.”
While others say it is mostly economic pressures on newsrooms, Dr Devere says the issue with media goes back to the education of journalists.
“So many students seem to be attracted to the communication discipline as a chance to be a celebrity rather than an investigative journalist,” she says.
“There is very little content in the training so journalists do not have knowledge about the situations on which they have to report.”
Director of the Pacific Media Centre and journalism educator Dr David Robie is even more critical of the current New Zealand media role in informing the public about events in the region.
He says local media rely too much on international and digital syndications and few journalists dedicated to tailoring international news for a New Zealand perspective.
News judgment ‘parochial’
“There are very few genuine international affairs editors in New Zealand media organisations, specialists in global news who have either done the hard yards themselves as foreign correspondents or have expert background knowledge,” he says.
“So news judgment is often weak and parochial.”
He said it is a shame that New Zealand is shown up by other media organisations abroad.
“It’s extremely embarrassing and it makes a mockery of our claim to be part of the Pacific,” he says. “We really need to up our game.
“When a Middle East-based global news service like Al Jazeera find it important enough to send teams to cover New Caledonia and West Papua, for example, it is an indictment of our own coverage and news values that we fail to match this. I cannot recall the last time that I saw an in-depth TV report in New Zealand on the French Pacific.”
Melanesia loses out
Dr Robie says that most Pacific news published in mainstream New Zealand media is from the Polynesia, while Melanesia and Micronesia are largely ignored.
“It is very rare to see good, in-depth coverage of Melanesian and Micronesian affairs in New Zealand media, with the brave and committed exceptions of Pacific specialists such as Barbara Dreaver on TVNZ,” he says. He also praised Radio NZ International coverage.
“Yet two Melanesian nations are the economic ‘superpowers’ in the region – Papua New Guinea and Fiji. Since the fourth coup in December 2006, there has hardly been any serious journalism about Fiji any more other than extraordinarily biased polemics masquerading as journalism about the regime.
“The country’s censorship law and an inflexible regime don’t make it easy, but far better reporting could still be done in spite of the problems.
“In this context, West Papua barely exists. If even neighbouring Papua New Guinea falls below the radar then there is little hope for West Papua getting fair and informed coverage.”
Australia fares better
In the Australian media, Fairfax’s Sydney Morning Herald has been following the West Papua issue over the last few weeks.
Its coverage has compared with Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat programme. Yet here in New Zealand, no mainstream media has taken it up apart from Radio NZ International.
“I think we are extremely fortunate that there are still a few state-owned broadcasting outfits like RNZI in this country and ABC in Australia that have dedicated Pacific programmes,” says Dr Teaiwa.
“And I’m not sure whether to celebrate or lament this. But often some of the most illuminating stories come from student journalists who have not yet learned to surrender to the wider industry’s demands and values.”
Maire Leadbeater, from the Auckland-based Indonesia Human Rights Committee, and a campaigner for human rights in West Papua, wrote an article in a 2008 edition ofPacific Journalism Review about what she argued was New Zealand’s biggest media blind spot.
If we are unsure that very little has changed in the past three years, perhaps the New ZealandHerald’s approach to West Papua during the Rugby World Cup could clarify the situation:
‘West Papua‘s moment’
CupShorts took CupShorts jnr to Pt Chevalier playground where we bumped into an off-duty Green Party MP. “Why is the media so obsessed with the World Cup?” she asked. “Big issues are being missed. We just had a delegation here from West Papua and there was no press coverage on them at all.”
A fair point. And one that we’re only too happy to remedy. So, for the record, West Papua is currently part of Indonesia (no IRB ranking). However, if they got independence they might someday hope to rival neighbouring Papua New Guinea (rated 46th in the IRB rankings). Good luck to them.”