December 1, 2022

Australia has doubled down on support to Pacific media – but what could this look like in practice?

Back in August, Australia’s Minister for International Development and the Pacific issued a statement on the importance of media freedom. Specifically, he said that Australia ‘encourages governments around the world, including in the Pacific, to respect the role of the media in democracies’. And this week in a speech at the Australasian Aid Conference, the Minister referenced the introduction of the Indo-Pacific Broadcasting Strategy, ‘which will boost ABC services and support the development of a resilient media sector in the region.’

But will more capacity training and expanding ABC programs in the region make for a more robust media landscape in partner countries? Or are there other initiatives we should be considering as well? To find out, we put it to the experts.

Peni Tawake
Development Practitioner

Deepening its partnership with Pacific media will require Australia to step out of its comfort zone of providing training opportunities and attachments for journalists, and step up to grappling with systemic, complex issues within Pacific media.  

Newsrooms in the Pacific are traditionally male-dominated and can be challenging workplaces for women to work in. I know, having worked in one. It’s no surprise therefore to read the documented experiences of women in the media in Fiji and the region. The Fiji Women’s Rights Movement recently released, ‘Prevalence and Impact of Sexual Harassment on Female Journalists: A Fiji Case Study’. The results are worrying: over 60% of informants experienced harassment at work and on assignment. Regionally, the PACMAS Women Leaders Media Masterclass in March learnt that women continue to face workplace discrimination. It’s clear that Pacific women in media are open to discussing the complex challenges they face.

Australia should capitalise on this openness and shift to a more robust and contestable engagement beyond technical support. Pacific media partners need to know that Australia is serious about strengthening its engagement by building greater equity and ownership in design processes, resource management and shared decision making, including women in particular. It is these local partners who best know their contexts and how to navigate systems and structures to effect systemic change. The resulting media environment that models what it reports on (for example, gender equity, governance, and human rights) can only build the confidence of Pacific Islanders in an independent, impartial and ethical media that understands their contexts and provides credible, fact-based analysis.

Peni is an impressive development practitioner and accredited partnership broker with over 15 years of development sector experience and a particular focus on Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu. Peni came highly recommended to The Lab and we love his championing of locally-led development, deep commitment to genuine partnerships, and ability to deliver impact.

Teodosia (Dhesy) Dos Reis

In any country - developed or under-developed - media plays a significant role as the people rely on them for credible information to hold their government accountable, and provide marginalised groups a platform to voice their stories and struggles.  

However, journalism in Timor-Leste has been facing significant challenges - from low salaries for media personnel to literacy in this digital era. These challenges have been around for a while - but everyone seems to keep pushing forward while waiting for the magic to happen.

So let’s go directly to some of these challenges. The most important one is the financial welfare of our journalists. Most of the media outlets pay their staff standard minimum wage (which in Timor-Leste is $115 USD per month). Because of this meagre pay, most media professionals often move to other careers after one or two years working in a media institution, especially a privately owned media outlet.

This brings me to another big challenge. This lack of income or revenue is not only felt by journalists, but also the media institutions themselves. Big media institutions in Timor-Leste such as RTTL, E.P. (the public broadcasting television and radio) and also GMN TV (a privately-owned media outlet) are operating at a loss every year. They often get funding from the government as well as non-government organisations. Critically, journalists’ salaries are often linked to the content of their articles, so the owners and funders get to dictate what needs to be reported.

So what can be done? This lack of income and revenue of the media community calls for core grant funding as well as support for business model development to enable the media outlets to generate their own income, continue their operations, and ultimately serve the needs of the people.

Dhesy is a powerhouse Timorese journalist and media producer, working as a presenter, trainer, and Executive Producer for Radio Liberdade in Dili. At the Lab, we love Dhesy’s endless enthusiasm and her passion for shedding light on social justice issues in Timor-Leste.

Jason Staines
Production Manager, Development Intelligence Lab

I know what it shouldn’t look like — Australia Network: The ABC’s erstwhile Asia-Pacific broadcasting service. While broadcasting news into the Asia-Pacific was a laudable goal, former DFAT Secretary Peter Varghese best summed up the service’s regional impact when he fronted Senate Estimates back in 2014. ‘It was very rare to meet someone in the countries that we were targeting who actually watched Australia Network’ he said. Actually, he wasn’t entirely correct — Australian diplomats made extensive use of Australia Network to watch the footy.

What it could look like is Australian Government funding for journalists on the ground to do their jobs and cover the region. This would go beyond the goals of the training-focused Pacific Media Assistance Scheme and fund the hiring of journalists and editors in the region. They already have the skills to be a journalist, the next step is offering stable work.

Rather than reinvent the wheel and set up another scheme, this could be funded through Australian Associate Press (AAP), which already receives Government funding. The Government could provide AAP with a separate bucket of funding dedicated to hiring bureau chiefs and reporters in the region. This would have several immediate benefits, the first of which is increased job opportunities for local reporters and editors. The second is increased coverage of the region by widening the pool of journalists working in the Pacific. A third is that these local journalists then become correspondents reporting back to Australia on their region. This avoids the issue of parachuting in Australian journalists when a country or region suddenly becomes 'newsworthy'.

Supporting Pacific media is a commendable aim, but we need to be careful we’re actually hearing the region's voices tell their stories, not just our own voices talking back to us. 

Jason is a writer, editor and analyst with a background in journalism, economic diplomacy and government relations. He’s had over a decade of experience as a journalist in Australia, the U.K. and India, having worked at Australian Associated Press, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Dow Jones Newswires. At the Lab, we love his witty email replies, dad jokes and uncanny ability to turn ideas into reality.

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