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PFF calls on government to reconsider media shutdown

(PFF/IFEX) - Tuesday, October 4, Rarotonga, COOK ISLANDS - Closing down state media outlets is a short-sighted reaction to cost cutting pressures in French Polynesia, says regional media monitoring network the Pacific Freedom Forum.

State-owned news service Agence Tahiti Presse will close at the end of the year and broadcaster Tahiti Nui Television may later face the same fate.

According to news reports from the capital, Pape'ete, the decision to axe the news agency has come from cost-cutting pressures from Paris as the global economic crisis affects budgets in France's territories.

"News media are an essential part of keeping the public informed and should be a last resort, not the first, for cost cutting," says PFF chair, Titi Gabi.

"Other island states are coming to realise their mistake in putting local media in the firing line."

French Polynesia is currently ruled by the pro-independence party of long-time campaigner Oscar Temaru.

Gabi says it would be "sadly ironic" for moves towards independence to begin with the closing down of local news media, "a time when independent scrutiny is needed most."

"Does the Temaru administration really want the main source of information to be coming from RFO radio and television, both services mainly staffed and run from Paris?" asks Gabi, from Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea.

PNG has recently seen an upswing in funding for state media, essential for informing a disparate and widely dispersed population, says PFF. Funding was increased after a 2006 review of Australian aid to the region found that populations were under more threat from natural and other disasters because of failing state media.

From American Samoa, PFF co-chair Monica Miller notes that French Polynesia faces financial pressures similar to other island nations.

"During the 80s and 90s, many islands were encouraged by aid donors like New Zealand and Australia to privatise government services and leave the market to fill the gap," says Miller.

"As some have found, a lack of strong state media to independently inform citizens about current events, especially disasters, has cost lives and much money."

PFF is calling on the Temaru administration to reassess the role of state media in cost cutting plans. "The founders of France long ago recognised the role of a strong news media when they outlined a constitution which calls not only for an independent media, but also media plurality - a variety of sources of information and views for citizens to consider," she says.

"It's essential for the efficient and effective development of French Polynesia for local media to be supported towards professional and independent journalism, rather than using budget pressures as the excuse to close the doors on a news outlet serving Tahiti and the region."

Such support might include the establishment of a professional journalism society for locals and long-time residents, and an independent media monitor to ensure news media remain accountable to their community, suggests PFF. "In an information age, we all need more relevant and credible sources of information, not less. Our thoughts are with our news colleagues and their families in Tahiti as they face the prospect of being jobless for Christmas," says Miller.

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