MEDIA FREEDOM IN THE PACIFIC ISLANDS

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A Speech By William Parkinson President, Pacific Islands News Association (PINA)

To A Symposium On Media Freedom In The Pacific Islands February 5, 1999 Japan Publishers Club Tokyo, Japan

The Pacific Islands like most regions of the world have experienced phenomenal rates of change over the last thirty years.

For most parts of the Pacific this has been a period of transition from colonial rule to independent statehood, traditional cultures have had to deal with rapid westernization and tiny economies protected by geography and paternalistic colonial economic policies have had to respond to the challenges of the global economy.

In particular local government structures have come under tremendous pressure as support from the colonial powers was removed and Pacific Island leaders have had to step forward to take up the reins of government.

For the initial period of "independence," which for most countries was the 1970’s, these newly independent states were cushioned by the fact that colonial powers had left strong structures and were prepared to support new governments with generous aid packages.

An additional factor was that Pacific Island politicians quickly learned how to take advantage of cold war rivalries to maximize international aid.

During the 1980’s and early 90’s many parts of the Pacific experienced a general breakdown of systems of government. Corruption became a common occurrence and in the absence of strong media and strong democratic systems levels of accountability were very low.

Many of the early Pacific Island political leaders were traditional leaders in their own right and were quick to use their traditional roles to consolidate their new political positions. These protected them from the scrutiny normally experienced in a democratic and independent state.

This was made worse by the inexperience of the judiciary and the media in exercising their rights to provide this scrutiny.

Finally the size of these countries protected political leaders from political debate. Like in most small places public debate in the Pacific is often stifled by the fact that small communities depend heavily on each other as individuals and so there is a general reluctance to criticize or to be seen as disrupting society.

The result was economic and social disaster for the Pacific Islands, a disaster that we are only starting to recover from now as we approach the new millennium.

Several key factors have played a role in this transformation.

Several factors played a key role.

In addition many of these pioneers faced high levels of political and social pressures as they struggled to provide an independent voice in very small countries.

The Pacific Island News Association was formed in the early 70’s as a regional body that would focus on protecting media freedom, assisting with training, and providing a link between the media of the South Pacific.

PINA has been particularly effective as a promoter and protector of media freedom. Because of the size of our member states it is virtually impossible for media organizations to fight these issues alone and so they have turned to PINA and through PINA world media organizations to fight these issues.

PINA has also been active in promoting the issue of media freedom across the Pacific. The organization feels strongly that it is vital that "the person on the street" understands that media freedom plays a key role in the democratic process and that it is an individual right.

We also believe that media freedom can only be preserved if the media of the Pacific are able to provide a quality product. PINA is very active on the training front and runs and coordinates between 20 to 30 training courses each year.

While the last thirty years have been traumatic ones in terms of the political and social development of the Pacific as we approach the new millennium we are happy to note that media freedom is generally accepted as a key requirement for good governance.

With media freedom has come a growing awareness of the importance of exercising the basic right of freedom of speech. The result is that the people of the Pacific are beginning through the independent media of the region to play their role fully as active citizens of independent and democratic states.

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