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Recent defamation cases highlight complaints process and ethics

(PFF/IFEX) - Rarotonga, COOK ISLANDS - Another defamation suit filed against a PNG media organisation has raised questions on why public complaints are not being taken up with the national media complaints committee, says regional media freedom monitoring network, the Pacific Freedom Forum (PFF).

Major logging, trading and media interest Rimbunan Hijau (RH) has filed a defamation suit against Papua New Guinea's "Post Courier" newspaper over its coverage of an official investigation into logging interests by an RH company in the Pomio district, in the West New Britain Province. The "Post Courier" reported several stories of police brutality on landowners unhappy with logging operations in the area.

It was alleged the police were sent there by Rimbunan Hijau.

Defamation threats were also levelled at reporters covering the sale of the former Prime Minister's official jet. The threats were made by Air Niugini's CEO, Wasanthra Kumarasiri when pressed to explain what the sale plans were and the cost involved. In August, a provincial governor named "The National" (which is owned by RH) in his defamation suit over stories he 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," says PFF chair Titi Gabi, of Papua New Guinea.

"The national Media Council manages a complaints process on behalf of news organisations who are its members who follow a code of ethics which members of the public are able to call on in their complaints," says Gabi. "It's a model of self-regulation which has worked in the past and should be strengthened because it works. We encourage the current claimants, and the public – especially leaders and companies with grievances over reportage - to take up the media council complaints process."

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

PFF co-chair Monica Miller of American Samoa says the PNG Media Council serves the region's largest nation and spread of media organisations, and provides a model from which other developing media councils can learn.

"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 says.

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