AAt the end of April, a reporter and a cameraman stood outside the national parliament in Honiara. They were trying to film Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare as he entered. But the police arrived and chased them out of the building.
This caused outrage among journalists. As they discussed it afterwards, one of them said in Pijin, “Ma tout cathedral,” which means “as if it were a cathedral” — a sacred place where filming is inappropriate. Everyone burst out laughing. It was the parliament of a democratic country, which journalists have a duty to cover.
The incident was a sign of government secrecy since China’s draft security agreement with the Solomon Islands leaked online.
In nearly 35 years of journalism, I have never experienced such a blackout.
The government has refused to release the text of the agreement. They have also refused to grant interviews, while text messages to longtime government contacts go unanswered and calls go unreturned.
Sogavare seems to believe that local media have teamed up with foreign entities to attack him personally or against his government’s decision to switch allegiance to China. He refuses to be interviewed by local media and often attacks the media on the floor of parliament.
Sources outside the Solomon Islands are afraid to say anything too strong, in case it affects their ability to travel to the Solomon Islands again, given that Covid restrictions mean the government must grant exemptions personal to travel in the country.
There are also fears of online ridicule and bullying on Facebook if anyone takes a certain position in the China debate.
Solomon Islands is experiencing the closing of doors and the controlled release of information from the Prime Minister’s office. It’s been seen for years in neighboring Fiji, but it’s new to Solomon Islands media. Since independence, the media in the Solomon Islands has enjoyed free access to our leaders.
The language on the floor of parliament is also changing, with politicians blaming the media for instigating the youth uprising. At one point, they even wanted to ban Facebook.
Ironically, this happened as the Solomon Islands remain at the center of international news day in and day out. Local journalists were overwhelmed by foreign media asking them for content.
. This has given local media a voice and greater participation in telling their story, with Australian and overseas media unable to fly due to border closures.
But it comes at a difficult time for journalism in the Solomon Islands. Over the past six months, the industry has lost nearly 10 journalists to public relations jobs. The two main dailies have also moved from A3 to A4 format since the Covid-19 hit. And many of their employees have been laid off or left for financial reasons.
It’s a sad situation. Most of our journalists are trained in Fiji and some in Australia. And there are some who come straight out of high school or higher education to work in newspapers.
As we process the attention our country has received since signing the security agreement with China, it is now more important than ever to have a free press and a government that wants to communicate its actions to its people.
Georgina Kekea, President of the Solomon Islands Media Association, writes constantly to the Prime Minister about the need to provide access to journalists, which is enshrined in our constitution.
Since the draft deal was leaked, we’ve seen diplomatic envoys arrive from overseas – the Australians, the New Zealanders, the Japanese and the big boys, the United States. The joke among us is that it took a deal with China for the US to realize we exist.
The first reaction of many Solomon Islands to the arrival of the US delegation was: please remind them to clean up the WWII bombs that are killing people.
The security treaty with China changed the political landscape and tested the Solomon Islands government’s commitment to a free press. We are now looking to see if this affects other important institutions here.