In Pacific island nations, radio remains the most accessible news source. But while media is being targeted for development, funding cuts and government interference are threatening its efficacy. By Megan Anderson.

Vanuatu’s radio’s active decay

If you want the news in Vanuatu, you have to get in quick.

“They’re sold out,” I’m told after asking for the Vanuatu Daily Post for the third time in a week. “Come in the morning.” As always, there’s an empty space next to the bunches of bok choy and fresh peanuts, grown quickly after cyclone Pam devastated the country’s fruit trees and crops in March.

For many Pacific islanders, newspapers are a luxury item. On average, each newspaper in the Pacific will be read by seven people, which helps explain why the daily paper’s print run is so low. While mobile phones are ubiquitous – top-up booths can be found in the most remote areas of the Pacific – the cost and patchy coverage of internet and TV mean radio is still the most accessible form of media.

“… radio remains the main staple medium for the Pacific,” says Suva-born Francis Herman, who has worked in the Pacific media industry for more than 30 years as journalist, broadcaster and pre-coup CEO of the Fiji Broadcasting Corporation. “Radio stations across the Pacific are actually opening up.”

I’m speaking to Herman from a conference phone in the Pacific Media Assistance Scheme (PACMAS) office at Port Vila, where Herman works as program manager. PACMAS, a four-person team funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and supported by ABC International Development, works with local and Australian media to deliver 74 programs in media training and development throughout the 22 Pacific islands.

Herman and I have traded places for the week: he’s flown to Melbourne to complete end-of-financial-year work at the ABC, while I’m roaming Efate, Vanuatu’s most populous island.

Local media is reporting on the toppling of the Joe Natuman-led government, the distribution of aid, and an ambitious effort to rebuild a classroom at Mele village in just two days. Buses and taxis are refusing to drop some women and elderly home in villages, preferring to protect their investment vehicles rather than risk them on muddy, potholed roads.

“It’s very shallow,” says Herman of the post-cyclone reporting. “The media could play a more proactive role in giving more focused discussion on the rebuilding effort.”

For Herman, the power of the media rests in its ability to “look beyond today’s news and look at tomorrow’s news”. This quality is essential to address key issues in the Pacific such as poverty, climate change and gender inequality.

“The media can and should play a very pivotal role in development.”

But this work is tough in the Pacific. Journalists are often untrained, unpaid, or on a salary that reflects journalism’s low status – about $A200 a month. Some also work for the government, which compromises their journalistic integrity. But this is the least of their worries.

“There’s fear of reprisals; there’s a lot of corruption,” says Herman. “The media in many quarters are quite scared of engaging [and] reporting very controversial issues. Some media or some journalists stick their necks out, [but] after a while they get chopped off.”

After ferocious political discussions on Vanuatu’s popular current affairs Facebook group Yumi Toktok Stret and talkback radio, new prime minister Sato Kilman has already made moves to bite back – attempting to rush through media regulatory legislation in a move strongly criticised by the Pacific Freedom Forum.

“It’s a real sad story,” says Herman of the state of media in the Pacific. “I think that’s why media development work, irrespective of whether it’s by Australia, New Zealand or anyone else in the Pacific, is so important.”

But with a further $3.7 million removed through the Australian foreign aid budget over the next three years, this development work is in jeopardy.

DFAT is cutting 10 per cent from its Pacific regional aid programs over the next year. It’s yet to be said how these cuts will affect programs such as PACMAS.

“It’s the media development work in the region that’s going to suffer,” says Herman. “The Pacific islands don’t have the kind of resources to do it, but neither do the governments place a huge emphasis on media development. Media ranks right down near the gutter.”

The Australian government’s lack of regard for the development of international media was made clear last year by the cancellation of a 10-year $220 million contract to deliver the international broadcasting service, Australia Network, to the Asia-Pacific region. The most worrying effect of this cut for many was the ABC’s decision to compensate for their losses by ravaging Radio Australia.

After axing three correspondents and Pacific-focused programs, Radio Australia content was replaced by translated domestic ABC programming, restricting the interaction of Radio Australia in the region and the news Australians were getting back from it.

“If the story doesn’t fit the paradigm of paradise (swaying palm trees, blue water, sandy beaches) or paradise lost (coups, corruption, climate change), voices from the islands rarely get a run,” wrote past Radio Australia correspondent Nic Maclellan for Inside Story shortly after the cuts were announced.

Shallow international content doesn’t bode well for the development of Pacific media, with a 2013 PACMAS study showing that while Ni-Vanuatu journalists self-censor to avoid retaliation from the government, they will still run investigative pieces from other news outlets.

Clement Paligaru, head of multiplatform content for ABC International and a friend of Herman’s from childhood in Fiji, says the Radio Australia cuts were “not unique” for a government-funded organisation, but admits the restructuring was challenging. “With smaller teams, we had to really work hard at doing our best to continue providing the best content for audiences,” he tells me through a scratchy signal from Singapore Changi Airport.

Paligaru highlights the ABC’s decision to continue broadcasting Radio Australia’s flagship current events program, Pacific Beat.

Meanwhile, New Zealand, China and Japan have all increased their radio and television services to the Pacific islands.

Paligaru rejects the idea that funding cuts have influenced coverage, and says these kinds of technical issues are “not uncommon” in the Pacific. But while the potential for radio to reach Pacific audiences is high, this reach is limited by more than just technical factors.

Dr Scott MacWilliam, a visiting fellow in the state, society and governance in Melanesia program at the Australian National University, says the reach of radio is restricted by development, especially in countries such as Papua New Guinea where more than 80 per cent of the population live remotely. “There are neither the people to produce a program nor time to listen to it, even if it reaches their rural area,” he argues.

Oxfam climate change manager Shirley Laban, who hails from Nguna Island off the Efate coastline, says radio can still be incredibly helpful for remote communities. “We don’t listen to radio, unless I’m in a bus,” Laban admits to me outside Oxfam’s Port Vila office. “But here in town we’ve got internet, we have landlines, we have mobiles – we’re stuck together, [so] word of the mouth is quite effective … But out in rural areas, [people] can be quite isolated in their own villages, and if they have access to radio, it’s really going to help them.”

Paligaru, who organised the first emergency messages to be sent from Radio Australia during cyclone Pam, says shortwave radio “proved to be a really important way of getting information out to communities, especially in the outer islands of Vanuatu”.

In Port Vila, PACMAS worked with the Vanuatu government, the ABC and Radio New Zealand International (RNZI) to restore the national broadcasting service, and also liaised with emergency services to relay shortwave broadcasts in English, French and Vanuatu’s national language, Bislama, through Radio Australia and RNZI.

But now the winds have died down, the future of Radio Australia, PACMAS and media development work in the region remains uncertain. In January, Radio Australia cut its shortwave service to Asia after 75 years, despite the crucial role it played in the 1975 East Timor invasion and 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Paligaru, however, is confident the strong relationships built by the ABC in the Pacific will endure. “I come from the region; I’m really passionate about the region; I can’t stop thinking about the region,” he says. “Radio Australia is something I’ve put a lot of my time and my passion into. There will always be the challenge of the wide oceans that divide us, but [if] you’ve got the means to continue connecting, you don’t let anything get in the way.”

Even as Vanuatu swiftly rebuilds, the need for a united development effort is obvious. Efate is still a construction site: schoolchildren play next to NGO tents, plant debris is heaped by roadsides and scaffolding clings to broken buildings. Freshly opened resorts welcome back tourists with smiles, cocktails and pristine bungalows, but many lie dormant. The once-glittering pool of a five-star resort stagnates, while a single security guard patrols the area with a wooden baton.

“For us it’s more than just a job; it’s a commitment,” says Herman. “We’re hoping that [DFAT] continues to provide funding for media development work in the region. At the end of the day it’s our own people.”

The author travelled with the assistance of Mangoes Resort and Melanesian Tours.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 18, 2015 as "Radio’s active decay".

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Megan Anderson is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist and online editor of Going Down Swinging.

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