A FEW WEEKS AGO, I, as well as many people in Papua New Guinea and abroad read with unease and disgust at how one of PNG’s most prolific and bravest voices in social media was threatened into silence and submission.
Blogger Martyn Namorong was told at knifepoint to cease and desist in his independent assistance of the country’s political Opposition in calling out the national government over a number of controversial dealings it has been involved in.
The story took me back two years; to a time when the social media landscape in PNG was very much different from now.
I remember sitting on a creaky seat in the main lecture theatre at the University of Papua New Guinea one night, listening to the leader of the Australian Greens Party (whoever the hell he was) give a special lecture on the Party and its policy for environmental development in the region.
After the boring presentation and a pointless Q and A session dominated by Papua New Guinean tree-huggerNGOs asking stupid questions (read making emotional statements), the lecture came to an end. I noticed the only other guy scribbling notes of the atrocity was a skinny fellow; tall with small but loud eyes and perfectly buai-stained teeth.
With notebook in hand, I walked over to him. He looked up to me from his own notebook and I knew that he was probably the only other person in the room who realised he had wasted an hour of his life. I was writing freelance for the local newspapers at that time and so I had made the trip to hunt a story.
With notebooks closed we started chatting, and I learnt that this was Martyn Namorong, an acquaintance of mine from my Youth Against Corruption days in high school. He had been some kind of guru for us as I recall. Some kind of half Gandhi, half rockstar.
He told he remembered a debate organised by Youth Against Corruption in which I had shown up in an Agmark Guria rugby jersey when everyone else was in uniform and ended up singing the chorus from Lucky Dubessong Prisoners.
I was always too angry for Youth Against Corruption. But this guy wasn’t. I remembered him floating into the discussion after the debate and there was some kind of electricity that surged through the crowd. “Uni student,” they whispered. And there we were chatting in 2012. “I dropped out of Medical School,” he told me. “I sell buai to make ends meet. I run a blog to pass time. Do you want a buai?”
One night in late 2011 I was in Madang, in the bush of the beautiful bay that is Rivo. I was at a late night informal meeting with my friends Scott Waide and Martyn Namorong. What we discussed on that night and nights before was the future of social media in Papua New Guinea and what kind of influence we could have in this phenomenon so new to Papua New Guinea.
At that time, there were about 20,000 Papua New Guineans on Facebook. The now famous Sharp Talk discussion group had only 500 members. Twitter was almost non-existent. And blogs either pursued a vaguely realised commercial purpose or not. There were some who (anonymously) ran serious blogs that discussed controversial issues affecting the nation or, in some cases, brought actual issues to light.
Much of the more evolved debate and discussions came from this latter group of blogs as well as efforts by expatriate writers and Papua New Guineans offshore. There were also mixed bag efforts from veteran bloggers like Emmanuel Narakobi, with carefully crafted blog content that never got politically incorrect.
Martyn Namorong came on to the scene at the height of these trends and did something very bold for blogging in Papua New Guinea.
Namorong came out as an angry, disenfranchised young thinker who called out everything that was wrong in the country – and he did it without anonymity – if anything he was grinning like a jackass in the photo he uploaded in his blog’s About Me section.
Martyn was an anti-hero. His was the reverse-engineered rationale of the super hero who adorns a mask to protect the ones he loves. Martyn refused to wear that mask of anonymity. For those of us who were waiting for a voice to capture that anger, it was a beautiful moment when we saw him post links to his article, often raw and unedited.
Martyn cursed and called names; he called out the people who needed to be called out. And he did this from within the country; from within the breach itself. It was revolutionary.
At that time most of my own blogging was done through Facebook usage. I would upload memes and caricatures of things and people I wanted Papua New Guinea to laugh at. One of my efforts was getting a picture of Michael Somare and turning the colour of his black and red suit and tie to purple, yellow and green to resemble the outfit worn by comic book villain, The Joker.
There were angry moments in these efforts. I remember going on rants against politicians and the corruption in the country – rants inspired by a conspiracy of silence in social media and the greater national discourse, on all the problems that were happening in the country.
I had attempted a blog on the Blogger service, after much encouragement from literature academics Steven Winduo and Russell Soaba at the University of Papua New Guinea. The effort was supposed to be an outlet for poems and short stories that I was writing during my second year at Uni while studying courses in Literature.
I arrived in Madang to meet with Martyn, Scott and other amazing people who shared parts of my philosophy. In our discussions I realised that social media defies the hierarchical dogma of information flow in ways that places much power in the hands of ordinary people.
In this realization, I saw just how much of this power was left in a state of suspended animation; that the people with the power to upset the status quo, to break the conspiracy of silence, were suppressed by ignorance.
Then and there I decided to start the Edebamona Blog. It would be everything I wanted it to be – with swearing, name-calling, two toea legal analyses, expository and investigative journalism and contributions from my collaborators in-country and around the world. I retired the Edebamona Blog after one year and 161 posts.
The decision was reached after I realised there was a likelihood of me jeopardising my chances of getting into the Legal Training Institute after law school. The blog upset some influential people in the country, including lawyers who could object to my competency to receive training for the bar.
In mid-2013, rogue PNG Defence Force soldiers stormed the UPNG Taurama Campus and over the course of three days assaulted students and staff and vandalised property. The story made national and international headlines. As Acting President of the UPNG SRC during the crisis, I put out a press statement condemning the actions of PNGDF personnel.
As a blogger I knew I had to make the information organic and responsive to subsequent commentary, and so I stayed up for hours in various discussion groups on Facebook, defending and compounding the press statement and keeping the commentary swung to my side.
My words upset some soldiers so much they decided to post a threat to me, saying that they would slaughter me like a pig and pull out my intestines. For the next few weeks I grew paranoid of Toyota ten-seater Land Cruisers whenever I saw one in the vicinity.
I had lived through a similar paranoia during the 2012 political impasse when I was blogging about the constitutional crisis and organising student protests.
Another time I got pulled aside as I stepped out of a PMV bus, and an angry man told me he knew who I was and that I should watch what I write on the internet. For some reason, I was in a fighting mood and dared him to do what he wanted to do.
Blogging in PNG is dangerous, especially if your endeavours mean calling out people and groups within the country. I’ve found that marriage has actually changed my perspective on blogging.
I fear for my own safety these days because I have a family that needs me and cares for me, and I realise I put them in unnecessary danger every time I blog or tweet or post something scathing or upsetting to some people.
I recall the “suicidal” days when Martyn and I would post one tactically offensive and tacitly informative blog article after another as If we were racing against each other – and in some respects we were – to out-do each other in terms of blog traffic as well as rambunctious written and illustrative content.
What are my views of blogging and social media in Papua New Guinea today and what do I think will happen to the medium in the future… well, that’s for another day. I would have told you straight away two years ago but my wife wants me to log out and have some rest.