BEN PACKHAM The Australian
CANBERRA - The Papua New Guinea government has been accused of trying to stifle dissent in the lead-up to this year’s APEC conference with a plan to take Facebook offline in the country for a month.
Free press organisation Reporters without Borders this week condemned the plan as a move by the government to silence online critics, particularly those sounding the alarm over corruption.
Amid growing criticism of the ban, opposition MP Allan Bird warned it would alarm APEC nations as PNG prepared to host the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation leader’s week in November.
Communications minister Sam Basil announced the ban late last month, saying it was to identify “fake accounts” and users who posted “false, misleading information”.
“This will allow genuine people with real identities to use the social network responsibly,” he said.
PNG’s roughly 900,000 internet consumers are big users of Facebook, which has become the primary means of sharing sensitive political stories that mainstream media would be reluctant to report.
Stung by criticism from bloggers and political opponents, the O’Neill government last year moved to criminalise “defamatory publication” and online bullying in a new Cyber Crime Act.
Daniel Bastard, the Asia-Pacific head of Reporters Without Borders, said blocking the social media network would deprive almost a million people of access to independently reported information.
“Instead of resorting to censorship, [Mr Basil] should encourage online platforms to be more transparent and responsible about content regulation,” he said.
“We urge PNG authorities not to take this road.”
Mr Bird said Facebook had become the “people’s parliament” in PNG, giving people a voice on how their country was run.
Long-time PNG watcher Paul Flanagan said politicians were sensitive to criticism: “There is a fair bit of antagonism among parliamentary members about the way free speech operates.”
Online stories about alleged extramarital affairs and corruption by politicians had infuriated senior government MPs.