SO THE prime minister of Australia visited Papua New Guinea. It was a very short visit (he was on his way to India).
The relationship between Australia and PNG is a complex and complicated one. Recently, it has not been an easy one, so this visit could and should have been a great opportunity.
It seems hard to believe that one very short visit could generate so much controversy. But it did.
Before prime minister Malcolm Turnbull arrived, there were concerns that the visit was too close to the forthcoming elections in PNG.
While he was there, he and his immigration minister (who was not in PNG) gave out mixed messages about what the long-term future of refugees and asylum seekers on Manus island might be.
In amongst all this, the apparent treatment of members of the PNG media corps is something that merits particular scrutiny.
A senior journalist reported that the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby told her that a press conference at Bomana cemetery was for Australian journalists only and she was turned away from another subsequently.
At a very basic level, this is plain bad manners. It is also a fail at Public Diplomacy 101. But the implications of this go deeper and are much more significant.
First of all, the Australian foreign service has form in this regard. Late last year, when the Australian foreign minister visited Vanuatu, members of the local media were given the run around and were not able to be at the official press event.
It sparked an editorial in the Vanuatu Daily Post. But it does not appear to have sparked a meaningful discussion about why this is a bad thing and how to make sure it does not happen again.
Australian officials who organise these press events need to think about the context in which they operate. In this country, in Papua New Guinea and elsewhere in our region, the role of the media in the development and maintenance of democratic culture is not assured.
I looked recently at the disturbing comments of the prime minister of Tonga about what he thinks the media should or should not do. In PNG, we continue to see reports of journalists being vilified by politicians, threatened and attacked both verbally and physically.
In Vanuatu we can point to numerous instances of politicians treating the media with contempt and seeking to undermine their ability and willingness to ask hard questions or criticise failures of leadership.
Australia is the biggest democracy in our region. We might expect or hope that those who represent this democracy would provide leadership by example. But in this particular area, we have been sorely disappointed.
When Australian political leaders and officials treat our media badly it sends a signal to our politicians that it is OK for them to do so. The remarks of Justin Tkatchenko, the PNG Minister for Sports are telling in this regard.
At the close of Turnbull’s visit he made a reference to the local media having had a ‘rough time’ and then glossed over it with an airy assurance that all can learn from this for next time.
It may be that this is window dressing and behind closed doors Tkatchenko will express his concern about the treatment of Papua New Guinean journalists in strong, possibly undiplomatic terms. Then again it may not be.
Australia is in the process of seeking regional and global support for it to become a member of the UN Human Rights Council. In 2015, Julie Bishop said:
“Should we be elected, our focus would be on empowering women and girls, strengthening governance and democratic institutions, promoting freedom, freedom of expression, and advancing human rights for all.”
As we all know, actions speak louder than words. And the actions of Australian politicians and diplomats when they visit our region are of particular import.
The role of the media is crucial in the establishment and maintenance of democratic culture.
Our neighbour’s leaders and representatives should use opportunities such as to encourage media professionals to develop their practice. This includes asking difficult questions and holding decision-makers to account. That is the public service they are mandated to perform.
Since the very shabby treatment of Papua New Guinean journalists came to light, the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby has issued an apology. It relates to a ‘misunderstanding’ although, as RNZI notes, it is not clear what the nature of this misunderstanding is.
All well and good but an after the fact apology is too little and too late.
* Tess Newton Cain is principal of TNC Pacific Consulting and a leading researcher, analyst and strategist across the Pacific islands region