Aussie Journalist Reflects On Decades Of Working In PNG
MELBOURNE, Australia (Radio Australia, April 19, 2012) - I am willingly confessing that I do not think there is a more fascinating country in the world to report in, on or about than Papua New Guinea.
I spent three years there in the mid-1970s on secondment to the PNG National Broadcasting Commission reporting on the country's rapid transition from colonialism to Independence.
I married a Papua New Guinean broadcaster in 1976, undoubtedly the wisest thing I have ever done.
After a few years back in Australia, we went back to PNG where I was appointed the ABC's correspondent in 1979.
Five years later I was deported because of a blip which arose out of a dispute between the PNG Government and an ABC Four Corner's interview with an Irian Jayan rebel leader, James Nyaro, that I had helped to arrange.
Those years were full of drama: the first successful Vote of No Confidence ousting Michael Somare in 1980, the extraordinary 1982 elections where I witnessed, on the Kundiawa airstrip, the Deputy Prime Minister Iambakey Okuk handing out 96,000 bottles of beer to the voters of Simbu who then drank his beer, threw him out and replaced him with the former Liquor Licensing Commissioner, John Nilkare.
I returned to PNG in 1987 and the man who announced to parliament in 1984 that he, as Foreign Minister, was throwing me out, Rabbie Namaliu, became Prime Minister.
In 1990, Sir Rabbie awarded me an MBE. That is Papua New Guinea.
Run-ins with authority
I spent another 12 years as the ABC's Port Moresby-based PNG correspondent.
I won't go into any detail about the constantly amazing stories I had to cover. In my 20 years of living and reporting on PNG, I found myself to be in a constant state of "bewildered excitement".
I had my run-ins with those in authority in PNG. My most scary moments were in dealing with the PNG Defence Force - on Bougainville, in Port Moresby up in the West Sepik (Sandaun) Province on the border.
There a Defence Intelligence officer with a disturbing facial tick ordered me at gunpoint to get back on a plane because he refused to accept that I had government approval to be there. I flew to Vanimo, got a letter from Moresby to say I did have permission, flew to Green River, hired a mission truck to get to Amanab whereupon this intelligence officer placed me under house arrest claiming he "was in charge in Amanab not the Prime Minsister".
On Bougainville I was with an ABC Foreign Correspondent crew when we were detained by a heavily armed PNGDF contingent and put on a plane they chartered to get us out.
When the soldiers turned up that morning our cameraman Wayne Harley said, "I hope you haven't come to shoot us."
He was carrying a roll of toilet paper and it was very nearly needed when one of the troops replied, "Yes, we have."
Julius Chan once threatened to drag me before the Parliamentary Priviliges Committee and the inimitable Bill Skate got very cross when the ABC got hold of the Mujo Sefa video tapes - tapes recorded when Skate was drunk and boasting about being the Godfather of Moresby's raskal gangs.
I got mugged three times in my years in PNG but only one of the assaults was related to work. I was hit about the head by a PNGDF soldier during one of the army's marches on the Parliament over pay issues. It made great audio.
At one conference I went to, I was warned by the then Administrator of Enga to be careful next time I went to the Province. Why?
He said: "You may have heard that the Police Mobile Squad in Enga detained a European for a few nights some weeks back when they'd burnt down some squatter houses along the road near the Porgera mine. Well, I went to get him out and when they let me take him away they said, 'Oh, he's OK. It's just that he had a camera and we thought he was Sean Dorney!'"
PNG and the media
PNG is not a place that is simply or easily understood especially by monolingual Australians.
As Queensland journalist Richard Laidlaw, who spent some years at the Post Courier wrote back in 1990, PNG "is a place that exacts a telling revenge on anyone with preconceptions.
"Part of Papua New Guinea's problem is that its image in Australia has more to do with imperfect vision than with a tutored understanding made deep by prolific exposure," he said.
The Australian media generally pays scant attention to our former colony unless there is high drama like the current confrontation between the O'Neill Government and the Supreme Court and the huge question mark over when the next elections will be held.
The last full-time correspondent that an Australian newspaper had based in PNG left 31 years ago, in 1981. A few months before he shut down the bureau Michael Prain confided to me that he knew what the sub-editors at the Melbourne wanted:
"They want rascals, plane crashes and tribal fights! And that's what I'm giving them," he said. Perceptions are all.
The correspondent he replaced, Gus Smales, did understand PNG and covered its advance from the late colonial period through self-government to independence exceptionally well.
There is much more to Papua New Guinea than crime, catastrophe and exotica.
'A task for Sisyphus'
The reality is that PNG is an exceptionally diverse, challenging, dangerous, difficult and perplexing country to administer. We, as colonisers, certainly found it so.
Sir Paul Hasluck, Minister for External Territories from 1951 to 1963, is an Australian minister who put more effort into trying to shape Papua New Guinea than any other.
In his book titled A Time for Building, Sir Hasluck wrote that whereas he looked with pride upon what he had achieved in other responsibilities within his portfolio, Papua New Guinea "was a task for Sisyphus".
Sisyphus is the character in Greek mythology condemned forever to push a huge boulder to the top of a hill only to have it roll back down again.
"I think I did just as well as Sisyphus did," Sir Paul said sardonically, "and certainly got just as tired."
When it comes to coverage of Papua New Guinea in the Australian media, PNG does itself no favours by making it so difficult for Australian journalists to visit.
I know that Papua New Guineans find it extremely difficult to get visas to travel to Australia. The current measures deter most and put those who eventually succeed in a terribly negative frame of mine towards the country before they even get there.
Forgive me if I sound a little vain, but if a journalist with 20 years life experience in PNG, who has written two books about the country, produced a television documentary and who has had generally positive dealings with every PNG prime minister since Independence finds it that difficult to get a visa, there is a problem.
My advice to PNG is: let them come. As these Australian journalists try to get to know the country they will be as mesmerised as I am.
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