Between 1974 and 1999, I spent twenty years as a journalist in Papua New Guinea. Following that, I spent fifteen years reporting on and from the Pacific islands, with a visit or two back to Papua New Guinea each year. Unfortunately, not long after the ABC made me redundant in 2014, I was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. It has severely limited my ability to type. Whereas once I was a ten-fingered typist, I am now down to two fingers, and even that is laboured. For my recent birthday, my wife, Pauline, and my two children bought me Dragon voice-recognition software. I could not have written this essay without it. But it is not perfect – especially with unfamiliar words.
I have been transcribing the extensive notes that my late mother wrote in longhand on our family history. In the mid-1970s, I spent three years on secondment from the ABC to the newly created National Broadcasting Commission of Papua New Guinea. My mother wrote about how, in 1975, she and my father came to Port Moresby to watch me play as a halfback for the national rugby league team, the Kumuls. Dragon made a stab at autocorrect. “Kumul” is the Melanesian Pidgin word for “bird of paradise”. However, according to Dragon, the national rugby league team is not named “the Kumuls” but “the Criminals”.
That software quirk amused me, but it also annoyed me on a number of levels. Given the limited and often one-dimensional coverage of Papua New Guinea we get today in the Australian media, many Australians could probably be forgiven for believing that “the Criminals” may be an apt name for any group representing Papua New Guinea. Yet it is far from true. Crime is almost non-existent in my wife’s village of Koropalek, on Manus Island, where the people live a predominantly subsistence lifestyle – feeding themselves from their gardens and the sea, and beating sago.
It is not only the Australian media that gives Papua New Guinea a bad rap. The BBC ran an article last year claiming that 70 per cent of Papua New Guinean women can expect to be raped at some stage in their life. Over the years, I have met and worked with a significant number of Papua New Guinean women, and spent weeks at a time living in my wife’s village. Unless the sample of women I know is completely unrepresentative, that figure is a ridiculous exaggeration. Rape is definitely a problem in the congested cities and towns, as is gender violence. But some 80 per cent of Papua New Guineans still live in villages, and rape is so socially destructive that, in the village setting, it would be met with immediate retribution. Last year, the ABC sent a camera team with Pauline and me to her village on Manus. During our visit, we produced two programs – a half-hour Foreign Correspondent and a forty-five-minute documentary for the ABC News channel. Pauline and I are often stopped by people when we are out shopping in Brisbane, where we live, and the most common comment is how healthy and joyful the people in her village are.
Papua New Guinea is still struggling with governance, it’s true. This is due to how rapidly it has moved from more than 1000 tiny, subsistence nation-states to a single country. Its eight to nine million people speak 860 distinct languages. For instance, in the Nuku District, just inland from Aitape, in the West Sepik Province, the people speak at least thirty-seven languages. It’s no wonder the biblical story of the Tower of Babel resonates so strongly in the nation. (Christian churches are hugely important to the population, and health and education services would be much poorer without the hospitals, aid clinics and schools funded and run by church agencies. Both the Catholic Church and the Seventh-day Adventists operate universities in Papua New Guinea, one in Madang and one in Port Moresby.)
Australia administered Papua for more than seventy years, and New Guinea for well over fifty – we took over New Guinea following World War I, after Australian prime minister Billy Hughes demanded at the Versailles Peace Conference that Australia be given control of what had been German New Guinea. But we did not administer the two territories as one colony until after World War II. Despite the tremendous work of Australian patrol officers and others, Papua New Guinea was far from a cohesive whole when independence came in 1975. As late as 1970 – just five years before independence – an area of some 170,000 hectares was still classified as not under administrative control. The Highlands were not discovered by the outside world until the 1930s, and it was not until the 1950s and 1960s that many in the Highlands came into contact with outsiders. Given that history, it is intriguing how little we know these days about what is going on inside this former colony of ours.
The price of ignorance
Australians’ understanding of what is happening in Papua New Guinea has narrowed dramatically over the past forty-four years. Back in 1975, when I was working for the National Broadcasting Commission, there were six Australian journalists based in Port Moresby, covering events throughout the country for the media back home. There were two in the ABC bureau; one each for the Australian Associated Press (AAP), Fairfax, and the Herald and Weekly Times; and one freelancer earning a decent living reporting for a number of other Australian news outlets. When Papua New Guinea did not immediately falter as a nation, the Australian media lost interest. It is not cheap to maintain a correspondent in Port Moresby, and the various bureaus gradually closed down. By the mid-1980s, there were just two Australian journalists based in the city – one at the ABC and one at AAP. Several years ago, AAP also shut down its reporting from Port Moresby. Now, the ABC’s Natalie Whiting struggles on alone.
Whiting is doing a great job but, as the solitary correspondent, she is the only reference point for those who decide what is run on the main news and current-affairs programs at the ABC. When I was the ABC correspondent, I would sometimes ensure that other journalists were aware of stories I regarded as significant. The simple reasoning was that if a story from Papua New Guinea featured in, for example, The Sydney Morning Herald, my version would almost certainly get a run on the ABC Radio current-affairs program AM. It was almost the opposite mindset to getting a scoop.
The reporting that emerges from Papua New Guinea is often significant for Australia, as demonstrated by two recent examples that highlight how much we potentially miss due to our poor coverage.
One poignant story that Whiting reported recently concerned children born from relationships between asylum seekers and local Manus women. “In a patch of jungle on Manus,” Whiting began, “the two-year-old is happily passed between his mother and grandmother outside their humble hut, but his paler skin makes him stand out. He is one of up to forty children who have been fathered by asylum seekers and refugees on Manus Island. His mother, Flora Boyoeu, is no longer in a relationship with Christopher’s father.” Some asylum seekers have married and want to take their wives and children with them if they are resettled. But the fate of children born of relationships that have ended is uncertain. “A spokesperson for the Home Affairs department confirmed to the ABC,” Whiting reported, “the children were covered under the Medevac Law and could be transferred to Australia as ‘legacy minors’. How that would work, and under what conditions they would be transferred, remains unclear.” And what about the mothers?
Although I have been critical of much of the Australian media’s reporting on Papua New Guinea, an exception is the Australian Financial Review’s investigative reporting of the Paladin contract for Manus. This tiny Australian-owned company was awarded $423 million in security contracts by the Australian government in a closed tender. I can appreciate some of the complications in administering security on Manus – larger companies involved earlier in the tender process had decided it wasn’t worth the fallout with institutional shareholders scared off by determined asylum-seeker advocacy. But $423 million! Maybe one of the problems is that very few officials in Canberra, who make these decisions, know much at all about Papua New Guinea. It’s also disheartening when even one of Australia’s best journalists, Paul Kelly, writes in The Australian that Indonesia’s closest neighbour is Australia. Papua New Guinea claims that status; it shares a large land border with Indonesia. But Australia is so close to Papua New Guinea that three Australian islands in the Torres Strait have been excised from PNG’s territorial seas. Australia’s knowledge of our nearest neighbour is abysmal – and we are paying a price for our ignorance.