Tokpisin.net-"the best of Papua New Guinea." Sun News-"Rebuilding Fiji." Radio Graceland Samoa-"In the name of Our Lord we serve." In a region where media once referred to an arm of the government, mastheads and station jingles are multiplying as independent operators seize on cheap technology to set up media pulpits of their own. Their output can be amateurish and erratic. But, says William Parkinson, former president of the Pacific Islands News Association, these "small-scale, locally owned papers and radio stations play a big role in holding governments accountable."
It's happening even in Tonga, whose government has been known to jail journalists for defaming the king. With the state media jostled by commercial TV, radio, dailies, weeklies and gossipy websites, "there is very active debate," says Pesi Fonua, publisher and editor of Matangi Tonga magazine. The king may be sacrosanct, but the media regularly lambaste politicians, the government's economic reforms, and the business dealings of the Crown Prince and Princess. "There is no threat," says Fonua. "If you get a good lead, you follow it."
That's a sentiment you're less likely to hear in Kiribati. With a population the size of Tonga's (95,000), the republic has just two non-government papers-the bulletin of opposition grouping BTK, and the weekly Newstar-both run by former President Ieremia Tabai. With circulations of less than 2,000, they might seem too puny to trouble any politician's sleep. But last week the government passed a law that will let it shut down any newspaper that fails to observe "due accuracy and impartiality," offends against "good taste or decency" or is "offensive to public feeling."
To Tabai, the goal is obvious: "It's a move to muzzle the political papers." The government-which has long refused Tabai a radio license-insists it is simply trying to limit "the detrimental effects that unlimited freedom of expression can have on the stability and peace of a nation." But most i-Kiribati don't really know what free expression means, says Tabai. Educating them "is going to take a while. People's first priority is their stomach."
Until, perhaps, a newspaper disappears.
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