FREEDOM AND CENSORSHIP IN THE PACIFIC

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Radio Australia IN FOCUS PACIFIC Melbourne, Australia October 26, 2001

Over the coming weeks, the Solomon Islands, Singapore and Australia will all be going to the polls. Few months pass without a regional or national election somewhere in a Pacific or Asian territory. Yet, while the final results rest with the voters, what role do the media play in these significant events?

Two Melbourne-based journalists - Rowan Callick of 'The Australian' and Peter Ellingsen of 'The Age' - have been pondering the question of press freedom and whether it's possible to have 'too much.'

In a number of nations throughout the Pacific and Asian region, the local media have a degree of freedom while still having their editorial policies 'guided' by the government.

This becomes particularly important at election times. Those in opposition complain that governing parties have an undue influence on the electorate through the media.

Equally, governments frequently justify media restrictions by saying that unfettered access to sensitive information could compromise national security. If the media has an open brief, how do you stop them going on and looking at the things that you don't want them observing?

Resolving Tensions

Peter Ellingsen believes that there is an ethical conflict that needs to be resolved.

"Look, there is a tension. And you can see it very much in China where for some years the Party's been pursuing a liberalization in the economic area and not willing to match it in the political area. And so media becomes fairly heavily controlled but it can't be managed actually.

"It's not possible to censor every provincial newspaper in every town to ensure that the Party line is adhered to. Not only are there variations within any Party line and regional forces that will want to run a divergent view but there are also individuals who will, for their own purposes, try to emphasize one cause or another.

"So, this is a kind of evolution really that you can guide. The question is, can you guide it where you want to guide it? It may end up somewhere completely different."

The Experience of Fijians

Rowan Callick says that the coups experienced by Fiji in its recent history provide a good example.

"During the coups in 1987, the military that emerged holding the ring, tried to shutdown the local media. That was a problem; but, at that time, Radio Australia broadcasting powerfully on short wave was a powerful influence.

"And people were tuning in, listening to what was happening. When the then elected Prime Minister Bavendra, who was deposed, came out from detention he, in his short speech outside his house, first of all thanked Radio Australia for what it had done to keep alive news of what was really happening in his country.

"Again, last year when we had the George Speight coup, Speight's pals in the Fiji telecommunications company pulled the plugs and thought that they had sealed off the country; but a modest website, run by a Fiji Indian journalist, http://fijilive.com, had kept on air.

"And so the rest of the world was agog and watching and reading what was happening through this one website. So, as Peter said, it's very hard now to shut things down."

An audio file and full transcript of the wide-ranging interview with Peter Ellingsen and Rowan Callick can be found on the ABC's website, On the Record.

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