Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s whirlwind visit to the Pacific has seen press conferences and media access heavily restricted, highlighting the growing threat to journalism in the region.
- Reporters were sidelined during Wang Yi’s visit to the Pacific, with journalists unable to ask questions
- Samoa, Papua New Guinea and Fiji have dropped in press freedom rankings
- China and Australia both have government-sponsored programs to engage with Pacific media
For Peter Greste — the director for the Alliance of Journalists’ Freedom and a professor of journalism at Macquarie University — what has played out during the visit to the region was troubling but not particularly surprising.
“What we’ve seen in this particular trip is the latest and perhaps the more extreme version of a trend that we’re seeing play out in the Solomon Islands, in Fiji, and across the region,” Professor Greste said.
“What is, I think, really concerning is the way in which a lot of countries across the Pacific region have been adopting some of the more authoritarian tendencies of China, to control the flow of information.”
Details about Mr Wang’s trip, which was aimed at signing Pacific nations up to a range of security and trade deals, have been scarce and journalists’ interactions with officials have at times been tense.
In Fiji on Monday, Chinese officials attempted to block an ABC camera operator from filming a meet and greet between Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) secretary-general Henry Puna and Mr Wang.
“I watched as Chinese government media and Chinese officials tried to stand in the way of this cameraman so they wouldn’t be able to do their work,” senior Fijian journalist and ABC freelancer Lice Movono said.
“Thankfully, the forum secretariat were very vocal in their insistence that they would not suppress the media, that they would allow the Pacific media to conduct itself in the way that free media does.”
During Mr Wang’s first leg of the trip, the Media Association of Solomon Islands (MASI) called on members to boycott a press conference after local and Chinese media were told they could collectively ask one question of their respective foreign minister ahead of a scheduled press conference.
MASI board member and journalist Dorothy Wickham told the ABC there was no justification for the press conference restrictions, leaving journalists angry and disappointed.
“I know our colleagues in Fiji face a problem such as restrictions on certain things and maybe also they do not feel free to speak up or even write on certain things,” she said.
“But in the Solomon Islands, we’ve never had that problem and I am disappointed that our government is allowing itself to allow this.
“I think [China is] expecting our government to keep certain things from the public and I think that’s where they’re making the wrong move,” she said.
While China has one of the world’s most restrictive approaches to press freedom, Professor Greste cautioned against drawing a direct line between Beijing’s stance and the trends playing out in the Pacific.
“What we know is that the region has been moving closer to China in all sorts of ways and this trip was very clearly an attempt by China to cement its relationship and deepen its relationship across the region,” he said.
“And we’ve seen a lot of attempts by governments to use punitive actions to control.
“It’s hard to say that those two things are directly connected, that China is directly responsible for causing this or whether there’s … soft influence or whether it’s just simply a coincidence.
“Whatever is causing that trend, I think we need to start arguing very, very forcefully for reversal.”
How is media freedom under threat in the Pacific?
Issues of freedom of the press, censorship — and even self-censorship — have been simmering in the Pacific for some time.
Dr Shailendra Singh from the University of the South Pacific said the transition to the internet and social media for news consumption had caused revenue from newspaper subscription fees to evaporate and made many local media businesses financially vulnerable.
Pacific outlets sometimes rely on government advertising to support their enterprises, which Dr Singh says threatens the editorial independence of media.
According to Reporters without Borders (RSF), authorities in Fiji — the worst-performing country for press freedom in the Pacific on the World Press Freedom index — use “discriminatory” advertising practices to blackmail media outlets considered critical of the government.
RSF said the country’s vaguely worded media laws had created “a climate of fear and self-censorship”.
“The connection between political and economic power is very tight and the influence of the economic power over the editorial team … makes it quite difficult for journalists to publish some stories,” RSF Asia-Pacific director Daniel Bastard said
Australia’s place in the press freedom index has also taken a hit, dropping from 25 to 39 in 2022.
“And while we don’t necessarily see journalists being locked up in prison, the law is having its intended effect, and that’s acting as a deterrent.”
Additionally, Dr Graeme Smith from the Australian National University’s Department of Pacific Affairs noted that the limits placed on journalists during Mr Wang’s time in Fiji were not so different from when former prime minister Scott Morrison did not invite media with him to flood-affected areas in northern New South Wales earlier this year.
“They don’t want surprises, they don’t want embarrassment and they like these things to be highly scripted affairs,” Dr Smith said, adding that the media blockout was not specific to the Pacific trip.
In 2019, the Melanesia Media Freedom Forum released a statement raising concerns that the threat to media freedom in the Pacific was increasing.
It pointed to concerns about restrictive legislation and an unwillingness from politicians to respond to journalists’ questions.
It also highlighted issues faced by female journalists in the region, who often struggle to get responses from people in authority and face threats to their safety, including sexual harassment, according to the statement.
COVID-19 has inflicted another major setback for media freedom. Governments have used the pandemic to justify further curtailing the media, according to Dr Singh.
Journalists in Vanuatu, for example, were not allowed to publish coronavirus stories without government approval.
And in Fiji, a military leader penned an op-ed in the Fiji Sun in 2020 defending the government’s move to “stifle criticism” of coronavirus policies.
Dr Smith said while some forms of China’s media engagement in the Pacific were welcome, he said the country was adopting “cruder” methods of engagement with Pacific media.
Under Chinese President Xi Jinping’s leadership, China has been trying to deepen engagement with Pacific journalists by sponsoring study tours to China and fostering stronger ties with cash-strapped media organisations.
But Dr Smith said Beijing’s efforts were often in the hope of pushing a more positive image of China abroad.
“If it’s done in a way that is kind of sneaky and back door rather than openly advertising for scholarships, then I think it crosses a line,” Dr Smith said.
Australia also has programs to engage with Pacific media, including a project to build capacity of Pacific journalists — funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and managed by the ABC — as well as the $17.1 million PacificAus TV initiative, which provides free Australian television programming to Pacific broadcasters.
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