THROUGH COUPS AND UNREST SOLOMON ISLANDS BROADCASTING CORPORATION STAYS ON

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By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (September 24, 2002 - Agence France-Presse)--When a Solomon Islands cabinet minister disappeared last month it was local radio, not authorities, who found out what happened.

That was because the man who executed him, warlord Harold Keke, called up state-owned Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation (SIBC) to announce it.

Marking its 50th anniversary this week, SIBC is a survivor in a nation falling apart through civil war and bankruptcy.

For general manager and veteran Pacific journalist Johnson Honimae saving "Radio Hapi Isles" has become very personal, with violence and threats on himself and his staff. He believes passionately in the service, the only single medium available to the around 446,000 people of the very troubled nation.

But the station is also in the midst of its biggest ever story, under pressure from the legal politicians and the dozens of men who roam around the capital Honiara carrying guns.

For Honimae and his 38 staff keeping the balance between creating fear and informing the public is now something of an art form.

Honimae told AFP in an interview Tuesday that they probably have a much better idea than anybody else on the state of the nation. They monitor the wireless services operated by various groups from provincial governments through to churches.

Keke is among the wireless operators, whose call sign is "Zero-Zero."

For the last couple of weeks there have been rumors that Keke has been on the run from Weathercoast villagers angry at the reign of terror. His absence from the wireless underscored the stories.

"We couldn’t get him for about two weeks and then suddenly he came up," Honimae said.

"We said there were allegations he was being chased and he said, ‘Oh, all that is bullshit.’ We said to him, ‘Where have you been? You’ve disappeared for two weeks.’ He said, ‘No, no, no, I’m still here.’ We don’t know if he is telling the truth."

He said they have learned to be careful over what Keke and the other militants say.

"We do run a lot from the militants though. We say, well, here is Keke putting his view through. We all know, the whole country knows, he is a villain, so maybe he should be able to tell the rest of the country why he is a villain."

It might, he says, offer information that will help solve the crisis.

The station has had militants come into it and threaten staff and break equipment. Over time it has changed the way staff behave.

"We go straight from work to the house, minimize our social activities."

Honimae said that over the years politicians have tried to gag them.

"They say, ‘Oh, SIBC is owned by the government. You must do what we say.’ And basically what we tell them is that SIBC is owned not by the government, but by the people.

"We have been able to fulfill our mandate. We’ve been able to successfully hold off any political interference."

Because the government has not given them funding for several years it has been a struggle to survive. This came out when militants in 2000 staged a coup, seizing then Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa’alu. Heavily armed they went to SIBC.

"They walked into the on-air studio to the morning announcer and said, ‘Can you read this message?’ He read the message and they went out again and didn’t come back."

The message told people to stay indoors.

"That staffer was worried and he rang me and he said, ‘I’m sorry, they didn’t pay for that message.’ And I said, ‘Damn the payment, are you okay?’ and he said, ‘I’m okay, but I am worried. We have a rule that when a message is read out on air that is not paid, then whoever is on air has to pay for it.’"

Michael Field New Zealand/South Pacific Correspondent Agence France-Presse E-mail: [email protected]  Phone: (64 21) 688438 Fax: (64 21) 694035  Website: http://www.afp.com/english/  Website: http://www.michaelfield.org 

 

LET SOLOMON ISLANDS BROADCASTER STAY INDEPENDENT, SIBC’S HONIMAE URGES

HONIARA, Solomon Islands (September 24, 2002 - SIBC/PINA Nius Online)---Don't interfere with the independence of the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation as a news and information organization, general manager Johnson Honimae urged yesterday.

The prominent regional broadcaster and news executive made the call when speaking at ceremonies in Honiara to mark the 50th anniversary of SIBC.

The SIBC -- operating national medium wave and short wave services and local FM and community stations -- has adopted the anniversary theme "Rebuilding Unity and Confidence."

Mr. Honimae urged the government to provide an environment conducive to effective running of SIBC rather than try to gag or interfere with the freedom which SIBC so much treasures.

He emphasized the crucial role of an independent SIBC in the current Solomon Islands crisis.

He also appealed for the support of the community to ensure the survival of SIBC, which has continued operating throughout the ethnic conflict and economic crisis.

He thanked the aid donor community for helping the corporation.

They understand that the continuing existence of a national broadcaster is vital, he said.

Mr. Honimae challenged the government to consider some form of guaranteed funding to the corporation to prevent it from competing with commercial radio stations for the advertising dollar.

Mr. Honimae suggested a number of measures as guaranteed funding, including the imposition of radio license fees on everybody who owns a radio set. This was done in the former British Solomon Islands Protectorate, he said.

Mr. Honimae also recommended that both the government and SIBC discuss an overhaul of the 1976 Broadcasting Ordinance to accommodate technology and other changes as the corporation enters the new millennium.

He also called on the Cabinet to urgently approve the release of the funding passed by Parliament for SIBC this year, and cited the failure by government to meet last year's funding.

Mr. Honimae also urged the Cabinet to immediately approve the payment of debts to SIBC by government ministries and departments that have been long outstanding.

The SIBC General Manager said it seems that government is more interested in paying illegal payments than ones approved by parliament.

If SIBC is to continue to serve the nation, government must ensure these services are delivered, he said.

Mr. Honimae added that SIBC is owned by the people of Solomon Islands, and if the government claims to be of the people and by the people, it must put its money where its mouth is.

Governor-General Sir John Ini Lapli praised the theme adopted by SIBC.

Sir John said the social tension, collapse of the economy, worsening law and order and loss of confidence in authorities made the theme very relevant.

SIBC is committing itself to help rebuild confidence and the unity of the Solomon Islands, Sir John said.

He called on everyone -- government, politicians, public servants, churches, non-government organizations, business houses, communities, families and individuals -- to do the same.

The Solomon Islands must survive as a country, upholding its forefathers who began the journey towards nationhood, he stressed.

Acting Prime Minister Snyder Rini told the celebration ceremony that institutions like SIBC have an important role to play in rebuilding unity and development.

Mr. Rini called on the board of directors and management to foster and enhance the information network and create and promote economic growth, advance democracy and link people.

For additional reports from the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Radio/TV News/Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation.

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Website: http://www.pinanius.org 

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