FROM TIN CANS TO INTERNET AS PACIFIC MEDIA DISCOVER CYBERSPACE

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By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (October 6, 1998 - Agence France-Presse)--- Sometimes Pacific Islanders got their news delivered in tin cans and "coconut wireless" had a legendary inaccurate quality but these days the world is flooding into atolls and islands by the Internet.

From being accessible only to the most persistent of reporters, Pacific news floods in now.

The most dramatic illustration came last November when a cyclone swept over the remote Cook Island atoll of Manihiki. One Henry Williams raced to his boat with his disposable camera and caught a picture of a wave sweeping over his home. Within two days that picture was around the world, thanks to the Internet.

A couple of decades back was the other extreme, at Niuafo‘ou in Tonga, and known as "Tin Can Island" for the way mail and newspapers were stuffed into big biscuit tins and tossed overboard where swimmers from the island could recover them.

The changes are bringing complaints and recently the Samoa Observer defended itself over claims it ran more overseas news than local news.

It said the Internet was bursting with news while local reporters were not easy to come by.

"Bear in mind that this country is not so isolated from the rest of the world as it was 10 years ago."

The growing popularity of the Internet is despite the very high cost of the service, provided in most Pacific states by the monopoly state owned telecommunications companies. At the South Pacific Forum summit this year leaders agreed to promote "competitive telecommunications markets" while their economic ministers talked of encouraging the "development of the information economy."

It is happening anyway.

In just a year "Pacific Islands Report" (http//pidp.ewc.hawaii.edu/PIReport) has become a key regional news source with around 15 stories a day.

A collaborative project of the Hawaii-based East-West Center's Pacific Islands Development Program and the Center for Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Hawaii it aims, according to editor Al Hulsen, to increase public knowledge and understanding of the Pacific.

"Increasingly we hear that the Internet service is a primary source of Pacific Islands news, used by governments, businesses, academic institutions and other entities," he says.

"The Internet is putting more and more people worldwide in touch with the Pacific's daily events and issues. It is making the Pacific real, rather than a romantic fantasy."

University of the South Pacific, Suva, journalism tutor David Robie provides an e-mail news service and World Wide Web page focussing mainly on Pacific politics and media freedom issues (http://www.usp.ac.fj/www/usp/sch/journo/nius/index.html).

"Pasifik Nius" began three years ago while he was at the University of Papua New Guinea and was originally an extension of the journalism program there.

"The demand grew and even though several newspapers in the Pacific established websites, Pasifik Nius was still sought after and it expanded after moving to Fiji in March," he says.

The free e-mail service has 250 subscribers and has a UNESCO grant.

Robie notes that the two daily newspapers in PNG are on-line and they had enormously raised the news profile of the South Pacific, particularly during the Sandline mercenary crisis in Bougainville last year.

Pasifik Nius is contributing to diversifying news sources and improving the balance.

"Many stories that might not have been told in the past now make it into the mainstream media because there is a greater variety of sources and perspectives to draw on," Robie says.

One of the more curious sources of Pacific news is the German city of Braunschweig where computer scientist Norbert Braumann runs an e-mail service on news about Papua New Guinea, its civil war torn Bougainville Island and its Indonesian neighbor Irian Jaya.

Although biased towards the freedom movements of Bougainville and Irian Jaya his information sent out free to subscribers is regarded as a useful source.

"I'm pretty sure that the information I send out has an impact," he says in an e-mail, "but I do not have the chance to assess it."

Michael J Field Agence France-Presse Auckland, New Zealand TEL: (64 21) 688-438 FAX: (64 21) 694-035 E-Mail: afp.nz@clear.net.nz WWW: http://www.afp.com/english/

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