Media freedom group concerned at PNG defamation suits

24/11/2011 15:19

Former PNG Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare laughs off the front page story of the March 1, 2007 edition

of the Post-Courier which reported on the call by civil society members for Sir Michael to step down over the

Moti Affair. The former PM was a strong critic of the newspaper and at one time labelled it "toilet paper".

Pacific Freedom Forum (PFF) has expressed concern about a defamation suit filed against Papua New Guinea newspaper Post-Courier.

The regional media freedom monitoring network says the decision by Malaysia’s Rimbunan Hijau Group (RH) to sue the newspaper Post-Courier raises questions on why complaints are not taken up with a press complaints committee in the PNG Media Council.

RH is suing the Post-Courier over its coverage of an official investigation into the activities of one of its subsidiary companies in East New Britain province’s Pomio district. The newspaper published a number of stories on police brutality targeting villagers who opposed the RH subsidiary’s activities.

Defamation threats were also levelled at reporters covering the sale of the former Prime Minister’s executive jet. The threats were made by Air Niugini’s CEO Wasanthra Kumarasiri when pressed to give details of the sale plans and the cost involved.

In August this year The National, a subsidiary of RH, was named in a defamation suit over stories that a PNG provincial governor was unhappy with.

“The spate of defamation suits is a worrying trend. Using legal offices and language against journalists reporting the facts can lead to self-censorship by PNG media at a time when their investigative journalism is badly needed. The national media council manages a complaints process on behalf of news organisations who are its members. They follow a code of ethics which members of the public are able to cite in their complaints,” said PNG-based PFF chair Titi Gabi.

She encouraged the current claimants and the public, especially leaders and companies who had grievances with the media to use the PNG Media Council’s press complaints process.

Under the PNG Constitution freedom of speech, press, and information are guaranteed and defamation is not a criminal offense. However, journalists can be sued for defamation in civil cases but the complaints are usually settled out of court before the start of proper hearings.

PFF co-chair Monica Miller of American Samoa said the PNG Media Council serves the region’s largest nation and is a model which other developing states can follow.  

“We are all interested in taking our cue from what works and what needs improving in all our own Pacific contexts – and it’s clear that a strong and transparent public complaints process beats a costly legal battle every time,” she said.