This statement was originally published on PFF's Facebook page on 11 April 2017.
Australia and Papua New Guinea must review media relations after two separate but equally "shocking" bans on PNG press, says PFF, the Pacific Freedom Forum.
In the first ban, PNG news media were told by Australian embassy officials to leave a press conference held at a war cemetary. "Standing on sacred ground is no place to deny freedoms that many died defending", says PFF Chair Monica Miller.
In a second ban after the cemetery visit, local news media were told by an official from the office of the PNG prime minister that they could not ask questions at a "joint" press conference between Peter O'Neil and Malcolm Turnbull.
"Australia has long faced criticism from the region for arrogant, neocolonial attitudes," notes Miller. "Issuing bans is no way to disprove those criticisms."
I am disappointed and embarrassed that my PNG media colleagues felt they were not allowed to attend this... https://t.co/W2qD1EwfRE— Eric Tlozek (@EricTlozek) April 8, 2017
Blame and shame
PFF condemns the bans, and expresses disgust at the actions of both governments. "The government of Papua New Guinea must share the blame - and the shame - with Australia for agreeing to ban PNG press from press conferences that should have been open to news media from both countries."
In background briefings given to PFF, Port Moresby sources state that PNG press were told to leave by Australian officials after taking photos of a visit by Alexander Turnbull to Bomana cemetery, a major war graveyard, with thousands of dead from World War II.
PNG journalists who questioned the order were told that a press conference with Turnbull at the Bomana site was "only" for Australian press, because only Australian issues would be discussed. After the Bomana visit, Turnbull held a second press conference with host prime minister Peter O'Neill, at Airways Hotel.
PNG media were then instructed they were not allowed to ask questions at the second, "joint" press conference.
"PFF is astonished at having to remind Australia, as a former chair of the UN Security Council, that a joint prime ministerial press conference involves not just the leaders but also the press of both countries."
"Having to even say that beggars belief. A press ban amounts to a diplomatic insult, in any democracy."
PFF regards the bans as representing two failures in basic freedoms. "Two failures. One day. Two governments," says Miller. "Both bans show contempt for a free press, guaranteed under constitutional protections, and article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."
Miller praises a journalist who defied the ban, saying Gorethy Kenneth from the PNG Post Courier should get answers to her questions.
"We also feel for Australian media colleagues who have been embarrassed by this diplomatic blunder."
News of the press ban comes the same month as a PFF submission to an Australian senate committee remains held back from the public. "Our submission is to a public inquiry, yet we have been told to stop sharing our submission with anyone else, until given approval by the committee."
It is not clear how many other submissions, if any, are also being held back. PFF offers the reminder that parliamentary procedure does not apply to press practice, which demands immediate release.
"Australia claims to be a regional leader yet stumbles over even the basics of human rights, such as freedoms of speech", says Miller.
PFF regards the three press freedom failures as reinforcing long-standing questions about relations between Australia and the rest of the Pacific.
"Heavy handed tactics with the press may work in Australia, but we do not need that kind of policy laundered to the rest of the Pacific."
PFF states that the press ban goes beyond diplomacy, and applies to all seven million citizens of Papua New Guinea, all twenty two million in Australia, and an "appalled" regional audience.
"How are citizens of Papua New Guinea supposed to stay informed if their prime minister fails to ensure their own news media gets in? How are Australian tax-payers supposed to learn if their aid dollars are being spent properly, if they don't hear local questions, from local media, challenging both leaders with local knowledge?"
PFF states that the bans reinforce the need for governments to rank media as a first priority, not last. "Our message is simple - stop failing the Pacific press test, stop failing democracy."