How will they know? The dilemma of foreign affairs journalism

By PNG Echo

In an earlier atrocity, the crowd watched as they burned, young mother Kepari Leniata alive. She had been accused of witchcraft
In an earlier atrocity, the crowd watched as they burned, young mother Kepari Leniata alive. She had been accused of witchcraft

She had been hacked with a machete – opened up from her sternum to her pelvis. Her intestines were exposed and spilling out from her cut abdomen. She’d been disemboweled.

The graphic pictures that appeared on Facebook came with the explanation that this was done to her, by her husband, in retaliation for adultery.

Were it in the Middle East, we’d shake our heads and maybe say: “It’s typical of those radical Muslims with their Sharia Law and their lack of respect for women,” wouldn’t we?”

Well it wasn’t. This occurred in a stridently Christian country from where it is said that at low tide, one can walk to Australia

It happened on Australia’s doorstep

It occurred in Papua New Guinea – where atrocities against women happen regularly and despite being Australia’s closest neighbour and the recipient of upwards of $450 million of Australian aid annually, these things are seldom reported.

What’s more, the PNG press themselves are often apathetic and fail to report. There is not nearly enough outrage. The PNG press contains a cross section of the community at large, many who’d consider that the arbitrary punishment fit the crime (and would be able to quote the bible passage that backs their assertion.) The status of women in PNG is abysmally low.

This is why, it is incumbent upon foreign media to bring ‘fresh eyes’ to the issue to expose these gross human rights abuses and condemn them. But, in the main, there’s no market for the stories, if not in their own jurisdiction, then certainly not in a foreign one. And about the Pacific, the Australian press is particularly apathetic.

Pacific correspondents lament at how difficult it is to get their stories run – freelance journalists have no hope.

Behind the fences on Manus Island
Behind the fences on Manus Island

The only issue that is adequately and comprehensively reported from Papua New Guinea at present, is the deal struck to house Australia’s ‘boat people’ who, in theory, and according to the agreement, will be resettled in PNG. (Although I did read this morning of new Australian plans to shut down the detention centre on Manus Island).

A rethink of strategy would indeed be a good idea because so strident and intolerant is the practised Christianity in PNG that settling any ‘boat people’ there, mainly Muslims from the Middle East, would be completely fraught and, to date, none have been.

Some evangelical church leaders have even gone as far as to advocate the banning of all other religions, save Christianity, from the country.

When they do these bilateral deals, you wonder what they were thinking, don’t you?

What makes a story newsworthy?

Why is the gross abuse, mutilation and murder of women in PNG not considered newsworthy in Australia while the detention centre on Manus Island is?

Are Australians so inwardly focused that unless it directly concerns us (as in Manus Island) we don’t care – no matter how shocking or how geographically close these things are occurring?

I have been writing about affairs in the Pacific since 2008 (in particular Papua New Guinea) – I am a relative newcomer but I am one of the few left doing so exclusively.

Sean Dorney: retired
Sean Dorney

The veteran ABC reporter, Sean Dorney, has recently retired and, with all the cuts at the ABC presently, I doubt he will be replaced as Pacific correspondent. AAP closed its Port Moresby Bureau last year and, I believe the knowledgeable and experienced reporter for the Australian, Rowan Callick has also retired but even before then his title as ‘Pacific Correspondent’ was an adjunct to his other job as China correspondent.

These specialist Pacific correspondents brought a wealth of contextual experience that will be missing when stories are covered by a journalist helicoptered in for the event with little in-depth knowledge of the issue but more importantly the context that surrounds it. Most stories will just not be covered.

The state of affairs was driven home to me quite early in my career. My ‘trial by fire’ was the Julian Moti case.


Julian Moti, vilified by the mainstream press but vindicated by the High Court of Australia
Julian Moti, vilified by the mainstream press but vindicated by the High Court of Australia

Julian Moti is the former Attorney General of the Solomon Islands who the Australian government had pursued, with vigour, in order to prosecute for an alleged decade-old crime, the charges for which had been previously dismissed as specious by a Vanuatu court.

The pursuit started in earnest in the days when the Solomon Islands was seriously looking at getting rid of RAMSI (around 2006) – the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands, that, led by Australia, had been tasked with peacekeeping after the country almost erupted into civil war in 2003.

Moti’s opinion was that: “RAMSI came to do good and stayed to do well.”

When I first met Moti, Australian authorities had already achieved their major goal of his removal from the Solomon Islands. He had been deported into the waiting arms of the Australian Federal Police in Brisbane where he was arrested and charged.

Moti spoke to me of how the media was presenting an exclusively ‘pro-Australian government’ bias and were ignoring the excesses and egregious breaches of domestic and international law on Australia’s part.

I wrote a different story (as did some other fringe publications) the mainstream Australian press refused to publish. “No interest,” they told me.

This was during the court preliminaries. The case didn’t make it to trial

Australia’s high Court granted Moti a permanent stay of prosecution citing “abuse of process” by the Australian authorities – abuses unreported by the mainstream media.

In the final analysis, this was a Pacific story and the Australian press’ interest waned after the Australian government stopped making a noise about it.

Alexander Downer and John Howard, the real 'subjects' of the Moti Affair
Alexander Downer and John Howard, the real ‘subjects’ of the Moti Affair

In particular the press were reporting the words of the then Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and then Prime Minister John Howard who were both deathly afraid that Moti would start raining on their parade in the Solomon Islands. So they nobbled him and the press helped them.

What had happened to the ‘Fourth Estate’ principle of the media keeping the authorities honest?

So, the theory is: in Australia, the press will report on a foreign issue if a Member of Parliament brings their attention to it.

Is it possible then, Hon Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ms Bishop that you can say a few words (apply a few sanctions even?) about our “family member” so geographically close who is committing unspeakable human rights abuses against our sisters? It’s the only way that Australians will find out because from a PNG correspondent, living in Australia, take it from me, they don’t know (and they should).

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