ABC Foreign Correspondent viewpoint on PNG

The national election now underway in Papua New Guinea, Australia’s closest neighbour, is a critical moment in the life of the young nation. PNG has “the resources, the talent, and the will to succeed, but seems to lurch from one crisis to the next.” Even the election is a crisis, with violence already reported in remote areas, and grave doubts held about the integrity of the election process.

There is little foreign media reporting of PNG, but what there is plays a critical role which is highly regarded by leaders and the people of Papua New Guinea. AMT spoke in-depth to the ABC’s former Papua New Guinea correspondent, Richard Dinnen about reporting on Australia’s northern neighbour. While Dinnen’s background is in radio, he also reported for television while posted overseas.

AMT: What was it like spending three years as a foreign correspondent in PNG?

DINNEN: Brilliant. I’d worked around the South Pacific since 1987, and had always wanted to go to PNG. The opportunity came in late 1998 when Sean Dorney’s long stint ended, and I was lucky enough to get the nod. In PNG, there are no agencies to fall back on for information or pictures. For the ABC, it’s all primary reporting – every bit of information, sound and vision, we get ourselves. People are not accustomed to dealing with media so directly, so it takes a lot of people skills to win co-operation and trust. And it’s such a diverse place, 800 languages, so many complex social and political under-currents. Nothing is ever as it seems, not if you look through Australian eyes. And often, not much makes sense. A correspondent there needs to rely on instinct every bit as much as knowledge and intellect. You have to develop an ability to interpret, to filter, material that is almost always unintelligible to the folks back in Australia, and deliver it in a way they can understand, without losing the meaning it has in PNG. It was an immensely rewarding challenge, and I feel very lucky to have been given the opportunity.

AMT: Are PNG Governments sensitive to the way foreign media covers the country? Did they try to censor or restrict you?

DINNEN: There is a great sensitivity to foreign media reporting of PNG, largely because so much of it is wrong, or ill-informed. Only the ABC and Australian Associated Press maintain resident correspondents there, and have done so for a long time. Both organisations have been well served by their correspondents, and have won considerable respect in PNG for that. The Australian’s Mary-Louise O’Callaghan has covered PNG with great distinction, but after that, very few make the effort. It’s not a place for parachute journalists – it takes ages to develop the ability to make sense of it. And much of the reporting is done by people who blow in for a few days and behave as if they were in Canberra or Washington. Inevitably they don’t get the full picture, or worse, they get it very wrong. And there are those who don’t even visit PNG, who try to cover it from Australia. You wouldn’t sit in Port Moresby trying to cover Australia – why try it the other way around? PNG makes very little sense to complete outsiders. You don’t get it through your head, not even your gut. You get it through your skin, through being there and feeling what it’s like. Then you begin to understand the issues, the strife, the chaos.

I think some of the sensitivity also comes from the fact that PNG is especially vulnerable to external shocks, economically. Every time I’d report some trouble around a resource project in the Highlands, the share prices would begin to fall on the Australian markets. Investor confidence is critical in a high-risk place like PNG, so the foreign media can do some damage. But it’s not my fault there’s trouble in the Highlands, and there were times that the Government blamed the foreign media for reporting the trouble, rather than accepting its own responsibility for failing to deal with the trouble. A bit of shoot the messenger, and they could often be tense times for the correspondent.

As for restrictions, censorship, no, there were no attempts to censor my reporting. It was certainly followed very closely and there were attempts to influence it, much the same as you’d get from a spin-doctor or media minder in Australia, if a little less subtle. And there were times when coverage was restricted simply by not answering my calls, or preventing access to a place or person. No different to Australia on that score. Interestingly, it was the Australians up there, the diplomats, who were much more worried about my reporting of PNG, or Australia’s role there, than the PNG Government.

AMT: You say your reporting was closely followed up there. How was that done, and how did it affect your conduct as a journalist?

DINNEN: Well, ABC-TV is re-broadcast on cable in PNG, and ABC Radio is heard throughout PNG, mostly via our international service, Radio Australia. Some Radio Australia news and programs are re-broadcast on local radio. So all of my reporting was seen or heard in PNG, and some of the radio stuff would go to air up there even before it was broadcast in Australia. Radio Australia is closely listened to in places like Bougainville, and other areas not well served by local media. And people do take notice of what we say about their country. I’d often get calls, faxes, letters, I’d have people come up to me in the market. Feedback was immediate. People weren’t shy about letting me know what they thought, especially if I’d got something wrong. There’s no other ABC foreign posting where the correspondent’s work is broadcast locally to such an extent. It meant my reporting had to be right in both PNG and Australia, make sense in both places. The feedback in PNG was very useful, I could always check to make sure my story was faithful to the events and their significance locally. It wasn’t always easy though, the ABC, especially TV, wasn’t always comfortable with that.

AMT: Aren’t you operating under a restriction, though, in that the PNG Government gives you a visa to work there, and could therefore kick you out if you displease the powers that be?

It’s very difficult to get a media visa for PNG, especially for a short visit. The resident correspondent visa is hard enough, and I understand the ABC is still struggling to get one for my replacement, six months after I left. But once the visa is issued, it’s usually honoured. There have been problems in the past, but that’s never been about the reporting by the correspondent. The ABC has been in PNG since World War Two, and we ran broadcasting there until independence. We’re expected to be an exemplary citizen, and abide by all the laws and rules regarding our presence there. The only time I was ever threatened with expulsion was when the ABC tried to send a reporter in to assist me during a crisis, and against my advice, sent him up without a visa. He was turned back at the airport, and that night, a very angry Government Minister harangued me on the phone at length. His anger was not about our reporting – he felt we had tried to circumvent the law, and said the ABC should not behave in that way. They expect high standards of us and they feel let down when we don’t live up to that. Foreign Correspondent did it recently, sent in a reporter without a visa and then used that fact in its promo of the eventual story. The PNG Government was outraged. Governments there expect the best of the ABC, even when, especially when, those governments themselves may not always be behaving at their best. And I believe media, in its role as public watchdog, has to be above reproach in order to have its credibility.

AMT: What role do you think foreign media reporting of PNG plays in PNG?

DINNEN: Well, like any good media reporting, I think it’s a crucial plank of this thing we call democracy. It’s one of the checks and balances that keeps the democratic processes and institutions on track. Public scrutiny. I think the foreign media presence in PNG has helped the development of local media, and it has especially been helpful in bringing out stories local media can’t report, either through lack of resources or political pressures. The Sandline affair was an example of that, and there are many others. And I believe good reporting develops understanding, and I think Australian audiences get that from PNG through the ABC. Australia and PNG have a deep, complex bilateral relationship, and if Australians understand PNG a bit better, that can only help PNG on the road to its future.

AMT: The current election is seen as a critical time. What’s likely to happen?

DINNEN: Well, it’s impossible to predict the result in any PNG election, especially this one. In a nutshell, PNG went to the dogs in the late 90s, under the Skate Government. The current crew took over in 99, embarking on a reformist agenda, privatisation, clean-up corruption, peace in Bougainville. It’s had some success, and many believe the best result would be for Sir Mekere Morauta to continue as Prime Minister, and continue with that agenda. But his Government has not effectively sold this agenda at the grass roots level, and most economic reform hurts the grass-roots in developing nations. So there could be a back-lash. There are other leaders who would be good choices, and some who would be disastrous. In the end, people vote for their favourite local candidate, the 109 winners get together and try to form a government. Parties and platforms and policies don’t really matter – it’s all about getting the numbers into one group. So it’s to be hoped that whoever ends up in power can rise above the politicking and number-crunching, and deal with the social and economic problems. PNG has what it takes to be a truly wonderful nation – it’s leaders have to find the wisdom and courage to harness that, and lead by example.

Since returning from his PNG posting earlier this year, Richard Dinnen now presents Drive for ABC Radio Far North in Cairns. He can be contacted at [email protected]